Revelations about bullying behavior toward subordinates by Sen. Amy Klobuchar, surfacing from former staff members last month after she launched her presidential campaign, have raised concerns about her candidacy.

The allegations have not been denied, but have been fended off in several ways. First, that they came from a small minority of staffers, most of whom have not been happy campers; then, that the senator’s conduct reflects that she was a “tough boss” and that she sometimes “pushed people too hard” to accomplish good results for her constituents; and, finally, that the candidate will try to treat her subordinates better in the future.

Regardless of her reactions and those of others, the contretemps highlights a growing concern in the workplace, not just in political positions.

While there is no precise definition of what constitutes workplace bullying, it generally consists of supervisors hassling, even harassing, subordinates. Bullying comes in many forms. It may include verbal abuse, such as use of derogatory remarks, insults and epithets; inconsistent and contradictory directives; poor performance evaluations; and freezing out employees from participating in important workplace or social activities.

A survey, a decade ago, by an organization called the Workplace Bullying Institute found that more than one-third of workers in this country have experienced workplace bullying, and that number has probably increased exponentially as many workers have come forward with complaints, sometimes propelled by the #metoo movement.

These alarming figures come at a time when reprisal against employees, another form of bullying, is burgeoning. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), the federal agency that oversees discrimination and harassment laws, reports that retaliation has become the leading category of complaints filed by workers.

In 2017, the most recent year for which statistics are available, about 41,000, nearly half of the total of 84,000 EEOC claims under federal harassment and discrimination laws, initiated in Minnesota include a retaliation component.

The numerous federal, state and some municipal laws protect employees against such treatment only if they fall within one of about a dozen “protected” classifications, such as gender, race, age, disability or religion.

The Minnesota Supreme Court, for instance, has ruled that sexual-harassment claims do not apply to adverse treatment of one gender against the other unless there is some sexual connotation. Since most bullying is gender-neutral, it generally falls outside the scope of existing laws. However, in some cases, workplace bullying can form the basis of a gender discrimination or harassment claim.

These issues have been confronted and addressed internationally. Nearly 30 years ago, Sweden became the first nation to enact explicit antibullying legislation. Other European nations, including Great Britain and France, have similar measures.

But in Minnesota, most of the legislative attention has been directed to harassment of students. An antibullying measure passed by the Legislature nearly a decade ago was overturned by Gov. Tim Pawlenty. Legislation directed against bullying in the workplace has not advanced since then in Minnesota.

But current and prospective laws are no panacea. They also raise the potential of a torrent of meritless litigation that could be viewed as a “shakedown” of management. But bullying does not easily fit into these laws.

Most would agree that bullying is bad for business. The practice causes morale problems and leads to turmoil, turnover and lower productivity. Even without legislation, an employer should take steps to prevent workplace bullying. These could include:

• Adopting protocols that prohibit abusive conduct, even going beyond existing discrimination and harassment laws.

• Communicating the policies to all employees, particularly supervisors.

• Training managers on how to spot bullying, respond to complaints and avoid retaliation.

• Encouraging employees to report bullying and assuring them that no retaliation will occur.

Bullying is not only bad for business, it’s bad politics, too.

Employers and employees in the public, private and political sectors have a stake in preventing bullying. They need not wait for legislation to act appropriately in battling back against bullies in the workplace.

 

Marshall Tanick is an attorney with the Twin Cities law firm of Meyer Njus Tanick, P.A. He represents employers and employees in a variety of workplace-related matters. Editor’s note: Business Forum submissions of no more than 900 words can be sent via e-mail to Doug Iverson, business team leader, at doug.iverson@startribune.com.