Bullying in the workplace recently came to the forefront of national news media when Jonathan Martin, a professional football player for the Miami Dolphins, walked away from his football career, citing unrelenting workplace bullying as the reason for his departure. While most employees do not work in a culture of aggression and physicality such as that of an NFL locker room, many employees across the country are forced to endure harassment and bullying in the workplace every day. While workplace bullying is a fairly underdeveloped area of Wisconsin law, you may be able to take legal action against bullies at work.

Few Laws Specifically Protect Workers from Workplace Bullying

A 2010 survey by the Workplace Bullying Institute reported 35% of U.S. workers have been bullied by a boss or co-worker. Workplace bullying was defined as “repeated, health harming abusive conduct committed by bosses and co-workers.” Unfortunately, formal legal remedies that specifically address workplace bullying are scant; no states have enacted anti-bullying legislation despite repeated attempts by lawmakers to pass such legislation.

Workers in Protected Classes Can Fight Workplace Bullying in Wisconsin

However, the absence of anti-bulling legislation does not mean workplace bullies have a free pass to victimize and harass co-workers and subordinates. Federal, state and local civil rights laws may protect employees when the bullying is based on protected conduct or characteristics, such as gender, race, religion, and disability. In such situations, it is important for employees to utilize employers’ anti-discrimination policies and procedures. Similarly, if employers refuse to take action to remedy bullying and that refusal is motivated by protected conduct or characteristics, employees may have remedies under existing civil rights laws.

For example, imagine an employer accommodates an employee’s disability by providing a flexible work schedule, but the employee’s co-workers begin harassing the employee because of the disability and what they perceive to be preferential treatment. If the employer fails to address the harassment and bullying, it may be exposing itself to liability under local, state and federal anti-discrimination laws.

Wisconsin Law Protects School Children from Bullying

Interestingly, Wisconsin has enacted legislation requiring all State school districts to adopt policies prohibiting bullying by pupils. The policy must be annually distributed to all students enrolled to the school district and to parents and guardians. Wis. Stat. Sec. 118.46. While this statute does nothing to help or protect workers, it is a sign lawmakers dislike bullying and are at least somewhat willing to create formal legislation to prevent it.

Reporting and Documenting Workplace Bullying May Help You Prove Your Case

While, the anti-bullying message does not currently extend to the workplace, it is often necessary to take steps to bring the conduct to the employer’s attention and document continued harassment. If you need assistance with assessing your rights and potential responses, please contact one of the Wisconsin employment attorneys at Hawks Quindel, S.C.

Nicholas Fairweather

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