How can I get my boss to stop the general harassment and bullying of one co-worker by another?

Unfortunately, harassment and bullying at work is generally legal, unless there is illegal discrimination involved (i.e., discrimination based on a person’s race, sex. national origin, disability, or religion) or there is an employment contract that is being violated. Sexual harassment is also prohibited. If discrimination is not involved and there has been no violation of the law or contract, the employer will have to want to stop the offending behavior voluntarily, but will not be required to do so.

When illegal discrimination or sexual harassment is not involved, there is not much you can do. All employment in this country is “employment at will,” unless and only to the extent that there is a written employment contract (or union agreement) for a definite term or period of time (like a one-year, five-year, etc. contract) which has not expired. This means that except as provided by an in-effect written contract, employees have essentially no rights at work. That includes no right to not be bullied or harassed. While allowing bullying or harassment at work is, frankly, stupid for employers to do—it damages morale and productivity—the law allows employers to be stupid. An employer could take steps to stop the bullying, but is not required to do so. Rather, the employer can allow bullying and harassment, either of specific employees or of pretty much everyone (i.e., have a corporate culture of bullying and harassment).

There are exceptions—that is, exceptions beyond enforcing any rights you may have under a written contract (if there is one): assuming sexual harassment is not at issue here, certain forms of discrimination at work are prohibited by law, and since “discrimination” is considered to include being bullied or harassed, bullying or harassment which has a discriminatory basis or cause is illegal. But only those specific forms of discrimination barred by law are prohibited—no others.

Under federal law, an employee cannot be targeted for discrimination or harassment because of his or her race, color, sex, national origin, disability, religion, age 40 or over, or genetic information. If you are being bullied because of one of these factors, you may have an employment discrimination claim and should contact the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) to bring a complaint. The important thing is, the bullying must be aimed at you because of one of these characteristics. For example—using race as an example:

  • Say that you are African American and your co-worker is making (and the employer allowing him to make) racist remarks—that would almost certainly be illegal discrimination.
  • Or say that there are 12 people in the office and you are the only African American and you are the only one being bullied. That strongly suggests a racial basis, even if no racist remarks are made.
  • On the other hand, say that your bullying co-worker was also African American. Then race most likely is not a factor, and you would probably not have a claim.
  • Or even if that worker was not the same race as you, if you work in a location where 5 of 12 employees are African American and you are the only one experiencing bullying, that strongly suggests again that race is not a factor and it’s instead due to some personal dislike of you, which is legal.
  • Or say that the co-worker in question bullies or harasses everyone, regardless of race (i.e., it’s a generally hostile environment), then it’s not race, it’s just an awful co-worker and environment, which is legal.

The same sort of analysis can be made for the other protected categories. (Note: some states have protected characteristics beyond those under federal law. Contact your state’s equal/civil rights agency to advise you about the state laws.)

Thus, to potentially have a discrimination/harassment complaint, there needs to be evidence the bullying or harassment is aimed at you specifically because of a protected category. Otherwise, bullying or harassment at work is unfortunate—and unfortunately common—but legal.