Workzone: Erasing harassment makes fiscal sense


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Ridding the workplace of harassment is not only a good idea for office morale, but also a good idea financially.

Juries do not look kindly on businesses that permit cultures of harassment to go unchecked, and last year, jury judgments and out-of-court settlements stemming from harassment, discrimination and retaliation complaints cost employers more than $356 million, according to eBossWatch, an online boss-rating and career resources service that seeks to help people who have experienced "first-hand the nightmare of working in a hostile work environment."

"Nobody benefits from a hostile work environment -- not the employees, not the harassers and certainly not the employers," said Asher Adelman, founder of Las Vegas-based eBossWatch, in a press release. "This report makes it very clear that employers and managers should be doing everything in their power to cultivate and ensure a healthy work environment."

The judgments and settlements cut across industries -- a hospital system in California was ordered to pay $168 million in a sexual harassment lawsuit judgment; a steel manufacturer in Buffalo, N.Y., has been hit for $25 million in a race discrimination suit; the Dr Pepper Snapple Group lost $18.3 million in an age discrimination judgment; Rite Aid was tagged for $3.5 million in a disability discrimination penalty; and the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs is liable for a $1.8 million in a retaliation lawsuit, among others big awards from 2011 and 2012.

Harassment and discrimination laws -- which generally protect a particular "class" of individual -- have been on the books for decades. Bullying laws aren't a reality yet, though some states and advocacy groups are trying to change that. New Jersey legislators introduced an anti-workplace bullying bill Sept. 24, the most recent state to do so.

More than 20 states have seen workplace bullying bills introduced; none has yet passed, and they are usually opposed by business groups fearing exposure to big lawsuit damages and frivolous complaints. The bills tend to define bullying as actions taken by one employee against another "that a reasonable person would find hostile," including verbal abuse, insults and any other type of conduct that is intimidating or humiliating.

Even without guiding legislation, some plaintiffs have tried to craft bullying lawsuits by piggybacking the bullying on top of other forms of assault or discrimination.

"It's a new area of law," said Minnesota attorney and employment law expert Philip Villaume. "It's becoming more and more actionable across the country. The courts are saying that employers have a responsibility" to maintain a civil workplace.

In 2008, the Indiana Supreme Court upheld a $325,000 verdict against a cardiovascular surgeon, who, the lawsuit claimed, charged at a medical technician "with clenched fists, screaming and swearing." While the suit was seeking damages for intentional infliction of emotional distress and assault, the plaintiff, Time magazine said, argued it as a bullying case and called an expert on workplace bullying to testify.

Mr. Villaume said all companies, large or small, need to train employees regularly -- annually for existing employees and within a few weeks on the job for new hires -- on diversity, harassment violence and bullying.

Between training seminars, ownership and management must impose a zero-tolerance policy, set up a mechanism by which employees can easily report policy violations to human resources or management, and must be prepared -- when necessary -- to discipline employees who violate company harassment, bullying and discrimination policies.

For more information on workplace harassment and bullying issues, contact the Workplace Bullying Institute at www.workplacebullying.org.

datelinepittsburgh - yourbiz - employment

Bill Toland: btoland@post-gazette.com or 412-263-2625. First Published October 21, 2012 4:00 AM


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