While there are no laws that specifically prohibit bullying in the workplace, every individual has a right to be treated with dignity and respect. The Workplace Bullying Institute defines workplace bullying as repeated, health-harming mistreatment, and unfortunately, this type of behavior happens in companies both large and small across the country.
The conduct may be threatening, humiliating, or intimidating. It could prevent work from getting done and may include physical or verbal abuse. The 2017 WBI U.S. Workplace Bullying Survey reported that 19 percent of Americans are bullied, and another 19 percent witness bullying.
If you feel like you are being bullied at work, know that you’re not alone. Depending on the circumstances of your situation, such as membership in a protected class or if the stress or anxiety of the abuse requires medical treatment and accommodations that your employer must honor, there may be legal protections for you.
The Des Moines employment lawyers of Higgins Law Firm, PLLC are ready to sit down with you and discuss the treatment you’ve experienced and provide you honest feedback on whether or not your situation warrants legal action. While not every instance of mistreatment in the workplace will justify a lawsuit, it is crucial to discuss your rights. Call us to schedule a confidential consultation at (515) 619-9148 today.
The Iowa Civil Rights Act and Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 are the two laws that most commonly apply to workplace bullying cases. The existence of a hostile working environment must be established by the totality of the circumstances to rise to a violation of the Iowa Civil Rights Act. Importantly, for workplace bullying to be illegal, the employee must show that she was the target of bullying because of her protected characteristic (the employee’s age, race, color, sex, gender, sexual orientation, gender identity, pregnancy, national origin, religion) or because the employee had complained about or opposed illegal discrimination.
In Vaughn v. Ag Processing, Inc., 459 N.W.2d 627, 632 (Iowa 1990), the Supreme Court of Iowa held that a hostile work environment is caused by discriminatory conduct or harassment that has the purpose or effect of unreasonably interfering with an individual’s work performance or creating an intimidating, hostile, or offensive working environment.
Lynch v. City of Des Moines, 454 N.W.2d 827, 834 (Iowa 1990) was a case in which the Supreme Court of Iowa ruled that when harassment in the workplace is so pervasive or severe that it creates a hostile or abusive work environment, the harassment affects a condition of employment.
Not all hostile work environments are necessarily pervasive, but they may still be actionable when the action itself is more severe. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) has recognized that the more severe the harassment in a hostile work environment claim, the less need to show a repetitive series of incidents.
If you’ve been the victim of workplace bullying, an employment attorney could help you determine if the treatment you’ve experienced has created a hostile work environment and is subject to laws against discrimination.
Your lawyer will evaluate your situation and investigate if it appears that the bullying you experienced was due to your membership in a protected class. If you were bullied due to your race, gender, age, disability, or another reason that falls under federal discrimination laws, you could have grounds to file a discrimination lawsuit. Another type of case that your lawyer might pursue is a sexual harassment claim, if the bullying you experienced was sexual in nature and created a hostile work environment.
If you experienced bullying after taking a protected action like reporting harassment or illegal activity, then you might be eligible to pursue a retaliation claim for the treatment you’ve experienced.
Ultimately, you’ll want to discuss your situation with your lawyer and allow them to carefully evaluate what happened, how your employer responded, and if any actions violated the law.
When you file a harassment action with the EEOC or the Iowa Civil Rights Commission, it could result in the agency obtaining compensatory and punitive damages for you. Punitive damages are awarded only in cases in which an employer has engaged in malicious or reckless acts of discrimination. Punitive damages are not available in every case.
Compensatory damages are more common and may involve awards for actual out-of-pocket costs such as medical expenses and lost income, as well as more subjective awards that are commonly referred to as noneconomic damages such as mental anguish.
For claims brought pursuant to federal laws, the size of an employer also dictates the maximum amount of compensatory damages that can be awarded. Employers with 15-100 employees are limited to $50,000, 101-200 employees are limited to $100,000, 201-500 employees are limited to $200,000, and more than 500 employees are limited to $300,000.
For claim brought under the state law (the Iowa Civil Rights Act), there are no limits (commonly referred to as “caps”) on awards in court cases.
Workplace bullying involves repeated, unreasonable behavior directed towards an employee or a group of employees. It may take the form of emotional, verbal, social, physical, and/or sexual abuse. Bullying may occur face-to-face or through electronic communication mediums such as social media, chat rooms, email, text messaging, telephone calls, or videoconferencing.
Examples of bullying include, but are not limited to: abusive or offensive language, insults, ridicule, sarcasm, intimidating remarks, teasing, physical aggression, threatening, abusive, or offensive phone calls or letters, repeated attempts to discredit or devalue a person’s work, exclusion, withholding information or supplying false information, unrealistic job changes, surveillance, and denial of access.
Workplace bullying can cause a number of personal problems for a victim, including social withdrawal, stress, reduced job satisfaction, depression, reduced work performance and productivity, physical illness, and reduced self-confidence and self-esteem. Bullying can also negatively affect the workplace in general because of reduced morale, motivation, and productivity as well as more workers taking time off or simply quitting to avoid dealing with the bullying. Worse yet, the employer will gain a reputation for fostering a hostile work environment when steps are not taken to correct the offending behavior.
While Iowa has not yet adopted it, the Healthy Workplace Bill is the anti-workplace bullying legislation written by Suffolk University law professor David Yamada for the Workplace Bullying Institute. The bill has already been adopted by the legislature in 30 states and two territories. The Healthy Workplace Bill precisely defines an “abusive work environment” and plugs the gaps in current state and federal civil rights protections for employers, and it also allows people to sue bullies and hold employers accountable. Many people hope that Iowa will adopt some version of this bill to protect employees from abusive work environments.
If you or your loved one have been the victim of workplace bullying in Iowa, know that you have every right to demand respect and fair treatment. If the treatment you’ve experienced violates discrimination, harassment, or retaliation laws, you could be able to take legal action.
Higgins Law Firm, PLLC, will fight to protect your rights and hold your employer accountable if they do not provide adequate protection for employees under the law. Call our experienced employment lawyers at (515) 619-9148 or contact us online to set up a confidential consultation to review your case and discuss your rights.