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Earlier this week, New Hampshire Governor Maggie Hassan vetoed a bill aimed at protecting New Hampshire state employees from abusive work environments, saying it was well-intentioned but unworkable. New Hampshire is one of 15 states, including New York and Florida, considering legislation to prevent workplace bullying.

"It's tough, if not impossible, to legislate against somebody being a jerk," Michael Aitken, vice president of government affairs for the Society for Human Resource Management, tells NPR.

As states debate whether and how to implement workplace bullying laws, companies are stepping up to the plate to confront office intimidators.

Defining the problem

The Workplace Bullying Institute defines bullying as “repeated, health-harming mistreatment of one or more persons by one or more perpetrators. It is abusive conduct that is threatening, humiliating, or intimidating, or work interference — sabotage — which prevents work from getting done, or verbal abuse.”

survey from the institute shows that 27 percent of Americans have suffered abusive conduct at work.

Last month, Tennessee became the first state to pass anti-bullying legislation. Tennessee Governor Bill Haslam signed into law the Healthy Workplace Act, which affects the practices of state and local government agencies, but it has no impact on private employers. Gary Namie, national director of the Workplace Bullying Institute, called the bill a good first step, but said that he was disappointed in its limited scope. 

Hairy details

While it’s black and white if a worker lies or steals on the job, bullying situations are harder to define. The line between harmless teasing and abusive behavior sometimes is a blurry one. “Workman’s comp — they understand if you hurt your leg on the job. But it’s almost impossible to prove that you’re sick because of bullying,” Carol Anne Geary, a veteran librarian and victim of workplace bullying, tells The Boston Globe.

That subjectivity is what Governor Hassan struggled with when considering the New Hampshire legislation. Under the proposed bill, workers could claim abuse if they believed they had unreasonable workloads or felt co-workers weren’t answering emails in a timely manner, she said in a press release. 

Bad behavior and the bottom line 

Whether or not states adopt laws banning workplace bullying, smart companies have policies to address abusive conduct. Hostile office environments reduce employee productivity, USA Today reports. Employees stressed from bullying are more likely to miss work for health reasons. They’re also more apt to treat coworkers poorly down the line. “Those who stay at their workplace after being bullied often end up becoming bullies in turn,” psychologist Michael Mantell tells USA Today.

For companies interested in stopping bullying at the source — and preventing it from reaching the bottom line — the American Bar Association includes a model anti-bullying policy on its website. 

[Image via Can Stock]