Should Workplace Bullying Be Illegal?

A great quote from a practicing lawyer is, “It is not illegal to be an unlikeable jerk.” In Australia, newly crafted workplace bullying laws might just limit some jerkiness. The United State of America does not currently address workplace bullying, determine whether the behavior itself is illegal, or provide any sanctions or penalties. Should we?

sad worker

(Photo Credit: David Castillo Dominici/

New Laws in Australia

Australia’s new laws include seemingly general definitions of what constitutes workplace bullying. Legally, bullying in Australia includes, but is not limited to:

  • Aggressive or intimidating conduct;
  • Belittling or humiliating comments;
  • Spreading malicious rumors;
  • Exclusion from work-related events; and 
  • Unreasonable work expectations, including work below a worker’s skill level.

In order for these (and other) behaviors to be considered bullying, they must be repeated behaviors. One instance of inappropriate conduct would not be considered bullying. The behavior must also constitute a risk to health and safety. The Australian guidelines seem to acknowledge that intimidation and other forms of bullying may effect a worker’s mental health. This is considered a risk to health and safety.

Discrimination in the US

Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 spells out protections from discrimination in the workplace. The act protects individuals from being discriminated against “because of his race, color, religion, sex, or national origin.” Types of discrimination specifically mentioned in the document include being denied employment, being fired or demoted, and being segregated or “classified.” For example, if black employees were paid less than white employees doing comparable work, the black workers would have a discrimination claim which they may file with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC.)

Workplace harassment is illegal. The Federal Communication Commission (FCC) defines workplace harassment for their staff as a form of discrimination that is in violation of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. However, the FCC writes that workplace harassment is happening when the conduct is

…based on race, color, religion, sex (whether or not of a sexual nature and including same-gender harassment and gender identity harassment), national origin, age (40 and over), disability (mental or physical), sexual orientation, or retaliation (sometimes collectively referred to as “legally protected characteristics”)


The conduct is sufficiently severe or pervasive to create a hostile work environment; or a supervisor’s harassing conduct results in a tangible change in an employee’s employment status or benefits (for example, demotion, termination, failure to promote, etc.).

Careful reading of the language in the laws seem to indicate that Australia’s laws are more all-encompassing of bullying-type behaviors in the workplace.

Employer Responsibilities

Outside of offering protections against discrimination, the United States of America tends to leave definitions of appropriate behavior up to employers. Many places of business have employee manuals spelling out, for example, the need to show up on time, dress requirements, and the number of warnings an employee gets for infractions before being fired. Specifics such as polite behavior are left up to the employer.

If an employee is not being targeted for belonging to a protected group, such as a religion, then she may not have a legal claim if coworkers are repeatedly and maliciously rude to her simply because they do not like her. An employer may choose to tell his workers to stop being rude in a malicious fashion to one employee, or he may ignore it as beneath his concern.

The Healthy Workplace Bill seeks to address lack of power of at-will employees to demand respectful treatment and to be free of intimidation and humiliation at the hands of workplace bullies. If we make workplace bullying illegal, then employers will have to address the behavior in their manuals and policies. If the Healthy Workplace Bill gets passed, we will have something in common with Australia.

Tell Us What You Think

Do you think workplace bullying should be illegal? We want to hear from you! Leave a comment or join the discussion on Twitter.