Bullying in the Workplace: Time for a Hostile Work Environments Law?

A potential development in Minnesota employment law could have implications for employees who suffer harassment in the workplace due to a hostile work environment. A bill that was introduced in the Minnesota Senate earlier this year seeks to better protect victims of workplace bullying.

Senate Bill 1352, co-authored by legislators from Minneapolis and St. Louis Park, is aimed at prohibiting abusive work environment practices and establishing legal remedies for affected employees. The proposed legislation defines "abusive conduct" as repeated incidents of verbal abuse (including insults and derogatory remarks), verbal or physical threats and intimidation, sabotage of an employee's work performance, or attempts to take advantage of a worker's physical or psychological vulnerabilities.

The proposed workplace bullying law also holds employers vicariously liable for the acts of employees who create an abusive work environment for a co-worker, including punitive damages. Employers would be able to assert as an affirmative defense that they exercised reasonable care to prevent actionable behavior with appropriate policies and intervened when it arose. They could also benefit from showing that the complaining employee failed to make use of opportunities provided by the employer to prevent or correct abusive conduct.

The Minnesota bill is based on the Healthy Workplace Bill, model legislation proposed by the Workplace Bullying Institute (WBI), a national organization dedicated to elimination of hostile work places in the U.S. While twenty other states have introduced legislation against workplace bullying based on the model act, it has yet to become law.

Workplace safety advocates argue that a targeted law is necessary because existing discrimination and harassment laws insufficiently address bullying concerns. According to the WBI, bullying in the workplace is four times more prevalent than currently illegal forms of discrimination.

This helpful addition to the protections already afforded Minnesota workers has been referred to the Senate Jobs and Economic Growth Committee, and no hearings have yet been held. One hopeful sign of emerging political will is Gov. Mark Dayton's recent executive order creating a task force to review Minnesota's law regarding bullying in schools. Opponents to bullying reform have characterized the Governor's actions as unduly aggressive and disrespectful of the legislative process.

Any individual who suffers intimidation and other forms of harassment in the workplace can explore other viable legal options by consulting with an experienced Minnesota employee attorney.