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Bullying by a supervisor

Posted by Pattie Hunt Sinacole  June 17, 2013 07:08 AM

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Q: I joined a company in Boston in late 2013. The culture is problematic. Our supervisor regularly demeans and ridicules employee mistakes. Instead of dealing with it privately, he reprimands employees in a public manner. He picks on a few of my quieter colleagues, who he knows won’t speak up for themselves. It is horrible to watch. My supervisor is a smart guy. Are there laws against bullying and harassment?

A: It is unfortunate that you have to deal with such behavior within your workplace. The subject of workplace bullying has garnered increasing attention in recent years. Employees who are the victims of bullying in the workplace have reported having feelings of shame, humiliation, anxiety and even more severe psychological or physical reactions. Reduced employee productivity and morale, higher turnover and absenteeism rates and even increases in medical and workers’ compensation claims can be linked to workplace bullying. Many states have proposed legislation that would prohibit bullying in the workplace and impose liability on employers and bullying employees under certain circumstances. As of today though, no state has passed such a law.

I consulted Jeffrey Dretler, a partner in the Boston office of Fisher & Phillips, a national labor and employment firm. Dretler shares, “There is anti-workplace bullying legislation (House Bill No. 1766) pending in the Massachusetts state legislature, which is scheduled for a hearing before the Joint Committee on Labor and Workforce Development on June 25, 2013. The website www.healthworkplacebill.org tracks the status of workplace bullying legislation across the country and can be a useful resource. Another good source for information is the Workplace Bullying Institute, whose website is www.workplacebullying.org. On a related note, in 2010, Governor Deval Patrick signed into law landmark anti-bullying legislation which prohibits bullying in the schools, with particular focus on cyberbullying, and which requires schools to create and implement bullying prevention plans.”

Pending legislation does not help your current situation though. You could discuss the situation with your human resources department. Many companies have policies which prohibit bullying or harassment in the workplace. A company can discipline such behavior even if such behavior is not illegal. If you are a union member, contacting a union representative for counseling could also be worthwhile. Dretler adds, “If bullying behavior is motivated by membership in a protected class, this could be a violation of state or federal anti-discrimination or harassment laws.”


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Patricia Hunt Sinacole is president of First Beacon Group LLC, a human resources consulting firm in Hopkinton. She works with clients across many industries including technology, biotech and medical devices, financial services, and healthcare, and has over 20 years of human resources experience.

Elaine Varelas is managing partner at Keystone Partners, a career management firm in Boston and serves on the board of Career Partners International.

Cindy Atoji Keene is a freelance journalist with more than 25 years experience. E-mail her directly here.

Peter Post is the author of "The Etiquette Advantage in Business." Email questions about business etiquette to him directly here.

Stu Coleman, a partner and general manager at WinterWyman, manages the firm's Financial Contracting division, and provides strategic staffing services to Boston-area organizations needing Accounting and Finance workforce solutions and contract talent.

Tracy Cashman is Senior Vice President and Partner of the Information Technology search division at WinterWyman. She has 20 years of experience partnering with clients in the Boston area to conduct technology searches in a wide variety of industries and technology.

Paul Hellman is the founder of Express Potential, which specializes in executive communication skills. He consults and speaks internationally on how to capture attention & influence others. Email him directly here.

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