We have a fundamental right to dignity at work

The Dignity At Work Act is about granting our fundamental human right to dignity at work. Workplace abuse (or workplace bullying) often involves a person in power, such as a manager or supervisor, taking advantage of a less powerful employee. 

What workplace abuse is

Abuse of power is too often a symptom of implicit bias — a problem discrimination law stopped helping since the 1980s when courts moved from focusing on impact to intent. Intent is a high threshold that makes the law mostly ineffective at addressing bias and disrupting hierarchies at work that create haves and have-nots when those in power “other” people. More than 50 years after Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, white men still occupy the vast majority of power positions in the U.S. workforce.

Abuse may take the form of:

  • Interpersonal abuse like public ridicule, disrespect, overwork, and overcontrol, including put-downs, screaming, excessive criticism, destructive gossip, false accusations, and other intimidating behavior.

  • Organizational abuse like sabotage of your work, including impossible deadlines and workloads, micromanaging, removal of responsibilities without cause, purposeful inconsistent instructions, malicious schedule changing, withholding of information needed for your job, blowing off accomplishments, exclusion, taking credit for your work, invasion of your personal belongings, and giving bogus performance reviews to convince you you're a problem.

Why workplace abuse is a problem

The abuse often leads to severe damage for targets, witnesses, families, communities, organizations, and society, including loss of esteem, anxiety, depression, heart disease, high blood pressure, psychosomatic illnesses, physical harm, PTSD, suicide ideation, economic losses, turnover, absenteeism, workplace violence, lost production, violence outside work, divorce, increased medical bills, and detachment from communities. 

It costs employers billions of dollars annually.

One of the biggest problems with workplace abuse is public health care costs. Employers externalize health care costs when they ignore employee well-being internally. When abused targets leave unhealthy work environments, they become burdens of taxpayers. They’re frequently uninsured. When they get sick, they turn to ERs for care, where delivering primary care is not cost efficient. By the time they get there, their health has already deteriorated to a point where treatment expenses are far greater than earlier intervention would have been. This bill would incentivize employers to address employee well-being internally and not make it a public problem.

Numbers back up these problems. In his book Dying For A Paycheck (2018), Stanford professor Jeffrey Pfeffer says, "...the United States experiences about fifty-nine thousand excess deaths and about $63 billion in incremental costs annually compared to what would be predicted given its per capita income level. Considering the total toll previously estimated (of about 120,000 excess deaths and $180 billion in costs), our analyses indicate that about half of the deaths and about a third of the incremental costs from workplace conditions appear to be potentially preventable if the United States were more similar to other advanced industrialized economies." (p. 59, 60).

Prevention is both less expensive and more effective than remediation.

How workplace abuse affects you

If you've never experienced abuse at work, it still affects you and your constituents.

If you're a legislator, these abuse tactics for not voting how leadership wants get in the way of you representing what your constituents want:

  • Reducing funding to your district

  • Moving your office to the basement

  • Screaming at you, even behind closed doors

  • Taking away your chairmanship

These tactics directly oppose representative democracy. They mean lack of progress and rights for the people. They affect lives directly through inability to pass legislation around the issues your constituents care about most.

What the Dignity At Work Act will do

If passed, the Dignity At Work Act would:

  • Provide a cause of action for employees who suffer from workplace bullying.

  • Hold employers accountable for abuse at work.

  • Eliminate the need for proof of intent that renders discrimination law ineffective at disrupting social hierarchies at work. (White men still retain the vast majority of power positions in the U.S. workforce more than 50 years after Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The Dignity At Work Act would strengthen protections for those who believe their mistreatment at work may be due to discrimination but can't prove it.)

  • Create an incentive for employers to actually prevent, detect, remedy, and eliminate workplace bullying rather than wait for severe damage to take action.

  • Protect low-wage workers who can't afford our pay-to-play legal system.

How this bill differs from related legislation

  • We can’t prove intent. We’ve learned from U.S. and international jurisprudence that it’s often impossible for targets to prove the bully’s intent, but the bullying still has negative impacts. Intent (general or specific) must not be one of the required elements for a claim of workplace bullying. Bullying scholars and legal practitioners both understand the difficulty of proving intent. As a result, intent is generally not included in the research definition of bullying and should not be included in the law. The Dignity At Work Act does not require targets of bullying to prove their bully’s intent.

  • Psychological and physical harm is only one aspect of damage. We’ve learned through U.S. harassment jurisprudence that targets should not have to suffer psychological or physical harm before they have a cognizable claim. As the EEOC has recently reiterated, we want to stop harassing behaviors as soon as possible. An effective bill must establish a standard of harm that mirrors the EEO laws that the hostile environment or the bullying itself is enough of a harm to have a cognizable claim. Just as the EEOC and the judicial system have recognized that a hostile environment caused by harassment based on a protected status is harmful to workers, the Dignity At Work Act recognizes the hostile environment created by bullying is also a harm that should have a legal remedy.

  • Legal action must be affordable to everyone. The majority of U.S. workers are unable to afford access to the pay-to-play legal system. An effective anti-bullying bill must account for this lack of access and provide access to remedies via a governmental agency. A governmental agency with enforcement and oversight of an anti-bullying law will be able to not only provide access to targets, but also provide regulations, enforcement guidance, and model policies for employers. Conflict resolution via a governmental agency will be more expeditious than litigation, prevent tying up already overburdened courts with additional litigation, and provide paths for mutually agreeable resolutions that will allow employers and employees to continue a productive working relationship. The Dignity At Work Act would assure targets several paths to remedies including access to a state agency with enforcement power and private litigation should targets choose that route.

Learn about other U.S. laws on workplace bullying.

If you're in Massachusetts:
Ask your state legislators to support the Dignity At Work Act »
Ask your state legislators to support the Dignity At Work Act and other workers' rights bills »

If you're in Rhode Island:
Ask your state legislators to support the Dignity At Work Act »
Ask your state legislators to support the Dignity At Work Act and other workers' rights bills »

If you're in another state:
Email the Dignity At Work Act at [email protected] to get involved in your state team or to start one.

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