By Allissa Kline  |  Buffalo Business First  |  Sep 16, 2019, 6:04am EDT

Workplace harassment and bullying: what to watch for and how to address it

Imagine going to work every day with the fear of being harassed or bullied. For some people, it’s reality and it often affects his or her mental health.

Labor and employment attorneys say it behooves employers to pay attention to such issues – for their own wellbeing and that of their employees.

Amanda Lowe is a partner in the litigation department of Phillips Lytle LLP in Buffalo. She is also part of the labor and employment practice group.

She said the impact of harassment and bullying at work not only makes the target of such treatment feel devalued; it’s also bad news for the business.

“Inclusiveness is a way to keep people with the company because they feel valued and included,” said Lowe, who works with small and mid-sized businesses. “If that person feels demeaned and bullied, then he or she is less likely to stay and you’ve already invested a lot of money in them. You may also have a difficult time keeping diverse candidates. So there are lots of reasons that you want to nip this stuff in the bud and not allow it to go on.”

Workplace harassment and bullying aren’t new problems in the workplace.

But they are getting a lot more attention in recent years in the wake of the #MeToo movement and subsequent legislation – including sweeping new protections in New York state that lower the bars for employers to be held accountable for sexual harassment.

Harassment, which is illegal, is defined as unwelcome conduct based on race, color, religion, sex, national origin, age, disability or genetic information. So what should employers should pay attention to?

According to the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, harassment in the workplace is not always physical. It can also take the form of:

  • Offensive jokes, slurs, epithets or name-calling
  • Physical threats, intimidation, ridicule or mockery, insults or put-downs
  • Offensive objects or pictures, and
  • Interference with someone’s work performance.

Bullying, which is not illegal, is described as unwanted aggressive behavior such as teasing, spreading rumors or threatening physical harm.

Attorney Scott Horton of Horton Law PLLC in Orchard Park works with businesses, government entities and nonprofit organizations. He said the lowering of standards in New York state makes it even more paramount for those in charge to pay attention to these issues at work.

“The main thing any company should do is make sure all managers understand this is a serious issues and make sure it isn’t happening,” Horton said. “They should be conducting effective training to do whatever they can to eliminate harassment or stop it from occurring in the first place.”

Annual sexual harassment training is now mandated for every business in New York state. Companies should also have policies and codes of conduct in place that clearly outline what is acceptable behavior and what’s not.

Often, employers only know there’s a problem when a complaint is made to a manager or human resources. Horton said those in charge should make note of an increase in absenteeism or a slowdown in one’s productivity.

When a harassment complaint has been filed, it is the employer’s responsibility to conduct an investigation.

Both Horton and Lowe provide training to clients on workplace harassment prevention. Among those with whom she works, more complaints are being filed and more are being handled internally.

She said she focuses her training on treating everyone within the workplace with respect.

“That’s something I harp on constantly,” Lowe said. “You can have different opinions and you don’t have to even like your co-workers, but you need to treat them with respect. (Not doing so) can affect people internally for a long time.”