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International laws addressing workplace bullying

An analysis

Much of the industrialized world has adopted measures to assure dignity in the workplace and/or to take measures to prevent, detect, remedy, and eliminate workplace bullying. A growing number of countries have adopted legislation to address workplace bullying, while others rely on common law or even existing workplace safety laws.

While none of these approaches can eliminate all forms of bullying, they provide a protection for workers that does not exist in the United States. They also offer lessons about how we should draft and adopt legislation as we move forward in the US: 

  • Sweden. The first of piece of legislation passed to address workplace bullying was Sweden’s 1993 Ordinance Concerning Victimisation at Work. The Swedish law is comprehensive, addresses a wide variety of forms of workplace bullying, and places an affirmative, preventative duty on employers. The law recognizes both interpersonal forms of bullying as well as employment practices or “shortcomings in the organization of work” including “excessive or insufficient workloads” and “employer’s attitude or response to employees.” Employers are obligated to assure that work is organized in such a way as to prevent bullying behaviors from occurring. There have been no indicators that this law has limited Swedish companies ability to engage in business. In fact, according to The World Bank, Sweden is the 10th easiest country to do business in, and Sweden citizens rank as the 7th happiest in the world according to the World Happiness Index. 
  • France. In 2002, France passed the Social Modernization law that prohibits moral harassment in the workplace under both their labor and criminal laws. Like the Dignity At Work Act, this law stresses the protection of workers’ dignity in the workplace. The law recognizes that such harassment can cause harm to a target psychologically, physically, and/or professionally. Under this law, employers have been found strictly liable for harassment that occurs in their workplaces. Employers are required to take “all necessary steps” to prevent moral harassment in their workplaces unde the French law.
  • Belgium. Belgium has likewise passed a statute to address workplace bullying. This law also focuses on the protection of worker dignity, a common thread to both statutory and common law approaches to address bullying. The Belgian law is broad in terms of coverage and again places the responsibility on employers to take all necessary steps to prevent, detect, remedy, and eliminate workplace bullying.
  • Canada. Laws to address workplace bullying have also been passed in North America. Under the REvised Statutes of Quebec, Section 81.19, “Every employee has a right to a work environment free from psychological harassment, and every employer must take reasonable action to prevent psychological harassment and, whenever they become aware of such behavior to put a stop to it.” Again, this law focuses on dignity and defines psychological harassment as:

Any vexatious behavior in the form of repeated and hostile or unwanted conduct, verbal comments, actions or gestures that affects an employee’s dignity or psychological or physical integrity and that results in a harmful work environment for the employee. A single serious incidence of such behavior that has a lasting harmful effect on an employee may also constitute psychological harassment.  

In a 2010 analysis of this law, Cox found that 13 percent of all claims of psychological harassment under this law were based on single incidents, and of those, 50 percent of the cases were successful.  

Just this past year, US territory Puerto Rico also passed a law to address workplace bullying. Puerto Rico’s Law to Prohibit and Prevent Workplace Harassment in Puerto Rico is the first comprehensive anti-workplace bullying law in the United States. Puerto Rico’s law “reaffirms that the dignity of the human being is inviolable” establishing that this inalienable right exists inside and outside of the workplace. The Puerto Rican law covers a broad expanse of behavior that may rise to the level of workplace bullying and adopts a level of responsibility for employers that is similar to the laws in France and Belgium: Article 5 of the LPPWH lays out the employer liability as follows:

Any employer who incurs, encourages, or permits workplace harassment will be civilly liable to the affected persons. It will be the responsibility of every employer to take the necessary measures to eliminate or minimize the occurrence of workplace harassment in the workplace.

In other countries such as the United Kingdom and Germany, common law standards have been extended to address workplace bullying. In the UK, a movement to pass their own dignity at work act led to a focus on worker dignity. While the law failed to pass, the effort led to protection for worker dignity through their labor relations processes as well as a number of common law cases. In Germany, workplace bullying has been interpreted as a violation of their general jurisprudence system and their labor code which prohibits harassment that “has the purpose of effect of violating the dignity of a person.” In Australia and in Alberta, OSH standards are used to address workplace bullying.   

The lessons from all of these approaches to workplace bullying is that we can take steps to prevent, detect, remedy, and eliminate workplace bullying through the law. The most effective of these steps focus on the positive right to dignity in the workplace. It is possible to offer a full remedy to all workers who have suffered dignity harming behaviors in the workplace. We also see that none of these methods of addressing workplace bullying has led to the explosion of litigation or harm to employers that some are suggesting would occur with the passage of the Dignity at Work Act. 

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