Jottings By An Employer's Lawyer

Friday, October 07, 2011

Giving Aid to the Enemy: The Healthy Workplace Act Explained

David Yamada who posts at Minding the Workplace is also the author of a model bill, The Healthy Workplace Act (HWB), designed to address bullying in the workplace. A recent post, The Healthy Workplace Bill: What’s it all about?, gives a bit of the procedural history but also links to what he calls an "excellent slideshow that explains the need for, and basic provisions of the HWB," that was prepared by Deb Falzoi, a professional web designer and computer graphics expert who doubles as communications director for Massachusetts Healthy Workplace Advocate.

I concur -- it is an excellent slideshow. And if you have any interest in the issue (or just want to see a very impressive presentation) I encourage you to check it out.

Recommending that you check it out, could seem strange given my repeated opposition to the passage of the HWB. And to be clear, the "enemy" referred to in my headline is not really accurate. Bullying behavior is wrong and should be addressed and with that I am in common cause with David and the other supporters of the HWB.

Our difference, and it is a substantial one, is how best to get there. I do not believe the legal system, the HWB's preferred method, is capable of making the types of nuanced distinctions required to enforce the HWB.

As Exhibit A, I offer the presentation. When you check it out, pay careful attention to the types of behavior that can be called "bullying":
  • false accusations
  • yelling, shouting, screaming
  • exclusion and "the silent treatment"
  • withholding resources necessary to do their jobs
  • behind-the-back sabotage and defamation
  • put-downs, insults, and excessively harsh criticism
  • unreasonably heavy work demands
and please explain how a legal system that is stressed deciding whether an employment decision was based on race or gender, is going to distinguish between what is a reasonable and and unreasonable work demand, or appropriate, constructive criticism versus excessively harsh criticism, just to cite two of the categories.

I know that the HWB attempts to put in procedural protections to ensure that a suit can't be based on "just a bad day at the office," but as someone who is in the trenches where those battles are fought, I know it will not work. (Let me rephrase that, it could work, but at a tremendously prohibitive cost in both judicial and employer resouces. Lawyers, however, would benefit tremendously.)

Relying on trial courts to be effective gatekeepers on this issue is simply a flawed strategy. First, it ignores the basic principle that when an employer is sued they have lost.  See my earlier post, Bullying As a Cause of Action: One Large Step Closer.  Given the HWB to work with, any lawyer who could not craft a viable complaint on what he or she is told by any employee who is unhappy with their workplace, should turn in their bar card. Remember the standard for chucking it out at that stage, which would still cost the employer the cost of retaining counsel and making an initial pleading, generally requires the court to accept as true anything that is alleged in the complaint.

Secondly, it has not worked even when there was a much higher bar. In Texas, the Supreme Court has repeatedly lamented the failure of lower courts to serve in the gatekeeper function in cases of intentional infliction of emotional distress, where the standard is:
only where the conduct has been so outrageous in character, and so extreme in degree, so as to go beyond all possible bounds of decency, and to be regarded as atrocious, and utterly intolerable in a civilized community. Restatement (Second) of Torts, Section 46 cmt. d (1965).
If the trial courts can't screen out cases where the test is "outrageous conduct" we can't possibly expect them to do so where they are being asked to make subtle distinctions involving the kinds of conduct listed above. In fact, it would require  what courts from the Supreme Court on down have frequently insisted they are not interested (or capable) of being,  "super personnel departments" as the 1st Circuit described it.

The key to regulating inappropriate conduct lies in employer action. And in the presentation, there is a section on how such conduct is harmful to business. That is the case that needs to be made.

Let's just make it in the C-Suite, not the courthouse.


If workplace bullying is not made illegal, how do you give incentive to employers to change their rules? Your argument isn't clear as to how the bill would be impractical. Or perhaps it simply needs to be communicated in laymen's terms instead of legal. Either way, it's more productive to complain about something when you offer a better alternative.
I think its daunting, impractical and improbable of working.
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