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Wednesday, July 28, 2010

What to Expect from New York’s “Workplace Bullying” Law

Unintended consequences.

Almost anyone who has been employed most likely has been bullied, and maybe some of us have bullied underlings (or even bosses) — though we never would admit it. Bullying is an unfortunate fact of life so, naturally, Progressives believe they can legislate it out of existence in order to form their More Perfect World.

Not surprisingly, Progressive New York State is leading the way with a proposed workplace anti-bullying law, and 16 other states are pushing forward with similar legislation. Time magazine reports:

The New York state senate passed a bill that would let workers sue for physical, psychological or economic harm due to abusive treatment on the job. If New York’s Healthy Workplace Bill becomes law, workers who can show that they were subjected to hostile conduct — including verbal abuse, threats or work sabotage — could be awarded lost wages, medical expenses, compensation for emotional distress and punitive damages.

The state assembly has yet to act on the bill and may do so next year. While Time notes that employers see things differently, the writer declares the bill has lots of safeguards:

Not surprisingly, many employers oppose the bill. They argue that it would lead to frivolous lawsuits and put them at risk for nothing more than running a tight ship and expecting a lot from their workers. But supporters of the law point out that it is crafted to cover only the most offensive and deliberate abuse. The bill requires that wrongful conduct be done with “malice,” and in most cases that it has to be repeated. It also provides affirmative defenses for companies that investigate promptly and address the problem in good faith.

All of this sounds just fine, especially for those of us who have survived bad bosses, but there is a larger issue: Laws like this increase the power of government to bully everyone else. Time and again we find that when government agents acquire power over others, not only do we see them regularly bullying (violently at that), but the agents usually are protected by law from the consequences of their actions.

Take an agency like Child Protective Services. Everyone wants children to be safe from abusive parents, but government has the power to take children from parents simply on the word of a CPS worker. Unsurprisingly, we hear horror stories about families being destroyed on false allegations, and legal abuses like the McMartin case (and numerous others) have come about because government claimed to be protecting children. Wrongly accused parents and others have almost no recourse because government bullies are protected from legal consequences by order of Congress and state legislatures.

There is no reason to think that anti-bullying bills will not turn into mechanisms by which unhappy or dishonest employees can destroy whole businesses. The costs of a single lawsuit, even if successfully defended, can destroy a lifetime of profits, and a loss can be disastrous.

Yes, there are workplace bullies, but at least people can walk away from most bad situations. When government does the bullying, however, there is no escape.

  • Dr. William Anderson is Professor of Economics at Frostburg State University. He holds a Ph.D in Economics from Auburn University. He is a member of the FEE Faculty Network.