Incivility and Bullying will soon be against the law in Rhode Island –  Mary T. O’Sullivan

By Mary T. O’Sullivan, contributing writer

“Abuse at work is the only form of abuse in America that is not yet taboo.” – Workplace Bullying Institute

The Society of Human Resource Management (SHRM) touts itself as the expert on “All Things Work”. For years, SHRM and its members have created best practices, policies, and procedures to deal with almost any workplace issue, from office romance to proper means of termination.

Now, at the top of their list is civility, harassment, and bullying, some of the most damaging types of treatment for people on the job. SHRM’S CEO, Johnny Taylor, is addressing this with all SHRM members, most of them HR managers, to ask the question, “How civil have you been today?” SHRM has instituted trainings and workshops for HR to conduct within their organizations in order to address and stamp out this noxious problem.

According to a February 2024 SHRM survey, “two thirds of American workers had experienced incivility in their workplace within the past month”. One third of workers in the same survey “believe workplace conflict will increase over the next 12 months”. In March of 2024, SHRM introduced its 1 Million Civil Conversations campaign, urging its members to teach managers and employees how to discuss differences without causing pain and grief to one another. It’s critical that the HR community tackle workplace incivility, bullying, harassment, and even workplace violence, if not for supporting employee safety and security, but to emphasize the cost to the organization, financially and reputationally.

Since the early 2000s, 32 states have introduced Healthy Workplace Bill (HWB), at the behest of a little-known lobbying group called The Workplace Bullying Institute (WBI). They are leading the charge in these states, and others, via grassroots campaigns to put local pressure on each state legislature to enact statewide legislation to punish employers who bully, harass, or otherwise abuse workers.

Bills in Rhode Island to make it so

Right now, the Rhode Island State Senate has approved an anti-bullying law, The Workplace Psychological Safety Act (H.B. 8044 and S.B. 2473) “would make it unlawful for an employer or employee to “engage in psychological abuse … that creates a toxic work environment in which a reasonable person would find it intolerable” to perform regular work duties, or that could cause injury or jeopardize future career prospects”.

First introduced in 2021, after being declared dead at least once in the process, it has now passed the Rhode Island Senate and approval from the Rhode Island General Assembly House Labor Committee is expected soon. Approval awaits additional personal testimony from individual Rhode Island workers who have been subject to abusive conditions at work. Testimonials to the Labor Committee can be submitted anonymously. The testimony must be submitted to the Committee by May 31, 2024.

Until the WBI stepped up its efforts, the recourse for suffering bullying at work was extremely limited under federal law. Few people know that Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and its associated amendments only cover protected classes, and only if the harassment relates to their class. For instance, an employee can file a claim for gender harassment only if the abuse relates directly to gender, same for color or religion. Title VII is a federal law and is becoming ever more challenging to prove a case and to actually win.

By comparison, The Healthy Workplace Bill can be tailored by each state and offers all employees, regardless of class, an opportunity to act against a toxic work environment, without retaliation. It can be a slow process, for example, many state laws have been in committee for years. However, as of October 2008, Connecticut instituted a robust Healthy Workplace Act called “An Act Concerning Bullying In The Workplace.” The purpose of the act is stated as “To provide a private right of action against bullying in the workplace.” Comforting words to a harried employee who dreads going in the door to their workplace every morning.

These state laws make creating or encouraging a toxic workplace illegal and give people recourse in an otherwise hopeless situation. Most people believe they are protected under federal law, but the restrictions are so tight, seldom is a case successful. Firm state laws are the only legal remedies that can be effective against bullying because they eliminate the “protected class” requirement of federal law. It’s up to the HR representatives in every organization no matter how large or small to introduce training throughout the organization and hold everyone accountable for their behavior.

Enacting these laws helps to quell the misconception that victims are imagining things, or they just want to avoid work. It also is a strong statement to anyone still clinging to the false belief that civil treatment is automatic, after all, these people are scout leaders, sing in the church choir, or a member of the local Elks club. They’d never act that way. With these laws in place, civil conduct is expected and enforced by law, regardless of mistakes people make or how their work gets done.

It provokes everyone on the job to answer the question, “How civil have you been today?”, and then ponder that answer. Did you sabotage someone’s work? Did you swear at the top of your lungs? Did you slam furniture around to make your point? It’s time everyone at work acted like adults, and leave the high school behavior behind.

“Abusive workplace” means a workplace where an employee is subjected to abusive conduct that is so severe that it causes physical or psychological harm to the employee…” – State of Connecticut Raised Bill No. 60, An Act Concerning Bullying In The Workplace.


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Mary T. O’Sullivan, Master of Science, Organizational Leadership, International Coaching Federation Professional Certified Coach, Society of Human Resource Management, “Senior Certified Professional. Graduate Certificate in Executive and Professional Career Coaching, University of Texas at Dallas.

Member, Beta Gamma Sigma, the International Honor Society.

Advanced Studies in Education from Montclair University, SUNY Oswego and Syracuse University.

Mary is also a certified Six Sigma Specialist, Contract Specialist, IPT Leader and holds a Certificate in Essentials of Human Resource Management from SHRM.


  1. […] I have in mind legislation in the Rhode Island General Assembly that would do as advocate Mary T. O’Sullivan summarizes: […]

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