On March 3, 2011, Kathie Gant testified during a legislative hearing of the Maryland General Assembly in support of a proposed workplace abuse statute. While fighting back tears, she described a shocking story that oddly enough did not involve discrimination or any other recognized form of illegal workplace conduct. Gant explained in detail how her employer, a Maryland attorney, systematically terrorized Gant for more than a year at the office. Examples of the abuse included: locking Gant in a dark closet; throwing office supplies at Gant’s head; verbally denigrating Gant on a regular basis in front of clients and peers; and physically intimidating Gant. She further explained that her complaints to human resources were ignored and that the persistent abuse ultimately forced her into psychiatric counseling.
Maryland Senate Bill 600 was drafted to combat abusive workplace environments, like the one described by Gant, and provide employees with a legal remedy against abusive employees and employers. Specifically, conduct involving verbal abuse, verbal and/or physical intimidation, or the sabotage of an employee’s work performance could subject an offending employee, and vicariously the employer, to liability resulting in injunction, compensation for emotional distress, punitive damages, and attorneys fees. Of particular importance to business owners, however, Bill 600 provides employers with an affirmative defense if the employer uses reasonable care to correct an abusive situation or if the harmed employee fails to take advantage of corrective opportunities provided by the employer.
Bill 600 reflects a growing national trend targeting workplace abuse that is not covered by current anti-discrimination laws. The Workplace Bullying Institute recently released a poll indicating that over 35% of adults in the U.S. have been bullied or abused at the workplace. The Healthy Workplace Bill, a lobbying group dedicated to eradicating workplace abuse through legislation, reports that 20 states have now introduced proposed laws similar to Bill 600 and that some will pass during the 2011 session. Further, national organizations like the American Nursing Association are currently lobbying in various states, including Maryland, in support of anti-workplace bullying legislation.
Although it is still somewhat uncertain whether the Maryland General Assembly will enact Bill 600 into law in 2011, Maryland employers should be aware of the proposed legislation and the growing national trend. Not only could an employer be subject to litigation and monetary penalties, but workplace abuse could also immediately affect a business’s overall productivity and the health and well-being of important assets – its employees. A strong human resources policy and system for addressing workplace bullying is an excellent way to proactively prevent an abusive environment and discourage detrimental employee conduct that could lead to serious future problems.