If you knew that 900,000 Connecticut residents experienced a particular problem at work, wouldn’t you want to fix that problem? That’s how many workers in our state have experienced abusive conduct on the job. There are problems great and small, global and local. But when you are the target of a bully, the problems are so personal and isolating that a wider world ceases to exist. My friend Marlene was a conservationist, a birdwatcher, a lover of literature and film, an enthusiastic cook, a traveler, a scientist—but once the bully had hold of her, a suicide.
Her death catapulted me into a movement, founded by the Workplace Bullying Institute, to try to stop workplace bullying. I discovered that workplace abuse was not illegal unless the campaign of destruction was directly related to the protected status of the person being bullied. If the bully did not harass the target because of race, religion, sex, age, and so forth, it was legal conduct. Public policy dictates that we make sure our citizens are healthy. We want people employed, and we want businesses to thrive. An unhealthy workplace, in which one person can shatter lives without remedy, makes no sense. Thirty-five percent of American workers have experienced abusive conduct at work. Fifteen percent have been affected as bystanders. Bullying causes absenteeism, lost profits, untold stress upon families and sometimes death.
Connecticut Healthy Workplace Advocates worked with (now retired) Sen. Edith Prague and Rep. Kevin Ryan when they were co-chairs of the Labor and Public Employees Committee. We proposed a Healthy Workplace Bill that would allow a private right of action for abusive conduct in the workplace. Since 2006, the Connecticut General Assembly has seen workplace bullying bills but has acted on none.
The time to enact the Healthy Workplace Bill is here. It has been introduced in 25 states. Far from being anti-business, the bill is an answer to a problem for businesses. In anti-discrimination legislation, the company is the one on the hook. In the Healthy Workplace Bill, the company is only responsible if it turns a blind eye. If it takes steps to correct the situation, the company can avoid litigation and perhaps save itself from a destructive workplace culture. Good policy is the point of the law. Workplace bullying is like domestic violence. It is daily terror, waged in the form of verbal abuse, intimidation and work sabotage. Unlike domestic violence, in which victims are mostly women, workplace bullying has a growing number of male targets. Anyone can be a target, and no one is ever prepared for it. The Healthy Workplace Bill is sound legislation. In an age where many people are skeptical of further government regulation, concerned it will discourage employers, states have been tiptoeing around “the business lobby.” In this situation, the state ignores the risks of workplace bullying at its peril, and so do businesses. The Healthy Workplace Bill takes a balanced approach. As a professor watching my students enter the workforce, as an advocate for healthy workplaces, and in memory of my friend, I want to see the HWB passed. Let’s get to work! Katherine A. Hermes, J.D., Ph.D., is a professor of history at Central Connecticut State University and volunteer co-coordinator for Connecticut Healthy Workplace Advocates, Torrington, CT.