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Workplace Bullying: Indiana Court Fights Back

While numerous federal and state laws make various employment-related behaviors illegal, no state has enacted any law dealing with “workplace bullying.” Rather, the current scheme governing workplace conduct only prohibits discrimination and harassment on the basis of specified characteristics like sex, race, gender, and age.

However, the Indiana Supreme Court recently ruled that workplace bullying, though not a form of prohibited discrimination or harassment under Title VII, could rise to the level for an employee to have a valid cause to sue an employer or other employee. In Raess v. Doescher, the employee sued a doctor at an Indianapolis hospital, for assault and intentional infliction of emotional distress after the doctor aggressively approached the employee, screaming and cursing, with clenched fists, in the hallway of the hospital. The Court concluded that this behavior, though clearly not “discriminatory,” could cause the employee serious emotional distress and thus be a valid basis for an award of damages.

The decision in Raess has opened the door to employees who have been verbally and emotionally abused in some way while on the job. Thus, an employee who is subjected to persistent teasing, aggressive conduct, or otherwise unreasonable behavior that is severe but that does not rise to the level of discrimination or harassment may have a valid case against the perpetrator in state court.

Whether a law prohibiting workplace bullying is in Indiana’s future is unclear. However, it is clear that an employee who has been bullied to the point of physical or emotional distress may have a remedy in the Indiana courts under the heading of intentional infliction of emotional distress. While the decision in the Raess case did not specifically affect the employer of the perpetrator, the negative effects that workplace bullying can have on employees and business in general should encourage employers to take an active role in preventing workplace bullying at their worksites before it begins.

Employers can take several steps that may help to curb workplace bullying including: prohibition of such conduct, company policies that emphasize cooperation and respect, and clear, publicized internal complaint procedures for such conduct. By creating an environment of non-tolerance for bullies, employers can avoid the negative energy caused within the workplace by such conduct while also helping to avoid the reputational damage caused by potential lawsuits for workplace bullying.

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