WASHINGTON — Margaret Fiester is no shrinking violet, but she says working for her former boss was a nightmare.
“One day I didn’t do something right and she actually laid her hands on me and got up in my face and started yelling, ‘Why did you do that?’” said Fiester, who worked as a legal assistant for an attorney.
Fiester doesn’t have to worry about those tirades anymore, but she hearssimilar stories in her current role as operations manager at the Society for Human Resource Management, where she often fields questions about the issue of workplace bullying.
On-the-job bullying can take many forms, from a supervisor’s verbal abuse and threats to cruel comments or relentless teasing by a co-worker. And it could become the next major battleground in employment law as a states consider legislation that would let workers sue for harassment that causes physical or emotional harm.
“I believe this is the new claim that employers will deal with. This will replace sexual harassment,” said Sharon Parella, a management-side employment lawyer in New York.
Many companies already recognize workplace bullying as a problem that can sap morale, lead to increased employee turnover and even affect the bottom line.
One reason the issue has attracted more attention in recent years is that parents who deal with school bullying realize it can happen in the workplace, too.
More than a dozen states — including New York and Massachusetts — have considered anti-bullying laws in the past year that would allow litigants to pursue lost wages, benefits and medical expenses and compel employers to prevent an “abusive work environment.”
Business groups have strongly opposed the measures, arguing they would open the floodgates to frivolous lawsuits.
“We would look at a bill like this as overreaching,” said Marc Freedman, executive director of labor law policy for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. He said the bill would punish an employer for acts of its employees that it may not be able to anticipate.