We’ve all heard the phrases, “if you don’t have something nice to say don’t say it at all,”  “always say ‘please’ and ‘thank you,” and “treat others the way you want to be treated.” From kindergarten to grade school we’ve learned to treat each other with respect, assume each other’s best intentions, and, in disagreements, engage with the best forms of each other’s arguments. 

Instances of workplace bullying and harassment are on the rise. Grown adults are currently bullying other grown adults in their very adult workplaces. This occurs so often that one in every three workers in Massachusetts will experience some form of workplace bullying. When I first heard that statistic, I was shocked. It is deeply concerning that adults have forgotten the basic principles of interaction and human decency any kindergartener could instinctively recite if asked.  Taking a step back, I realized adults haven’t forgotten these norms. They’ve been retaught other more harmful ones.

Recently, there’s been a shift in discourse. Politicians, the people we trust to shape the laws and norms of our society, have forgotten the crucial knowledge we learned in kindergarten–– specifically, the importance of refraining from the name calling and slandering we’ve been seeing during the current election cycle. People are becoming more concerned with how politicians dress than with their policies. 

Congress, the Supreme Court and the Executive Office are all workplaces. The discourse among politicians is the government equivalent of workplace interactions. I would never expect to be shamed for dancing in college or wearing makeup in a workplace setting. My private life is of no concern to my employer because it has no impact on the way I do my job. This kind of concern with personal life happens in Congress all the time. What’s worse is that in a normal workplace I would have a  human resources department to settle bullying disputes, but when part of the expectations of your job are public harassment and humiliation, there’s no way to remedy things when they’ve  gone too far. By condoning and even praising this sort of behavior, we normalize it and shouldn’t be surprised when we see it in our workforce. 

This is why bills that target the work environment, like the Healthy Workplace Bill, are so crucial. The Healthy Workplace Bill would expand worker’s rights by providing a clear definition of workplace bullying and expanding legal protections for both employees and employers. Employees would be able to sue for instances of workplace bullying that aren’t on the basis of protected class (i.e. race, gender and religious creed). This is necessary because there’s a lexical gap in our legal system that allows people to bully others because of their socioeconomic status, their region of origin, their style choices, or any other number of silly reasons to berate another human being. Simultaneously, it assuages fears of wrongful accusations by allowing employers to defend their actions if they provide evidence they were necessary to running the company. So firing someone because they were negligent would not be considered an instance of workplace bullying. 

Most importantly, however, it creates “vicarious liability,” which means that an employer can be held liable for harm to an employee even if the harm was not directly caused by the employer. For example, if the employer creates a culture where bullying is acceptable, they can be held liable for negligence. This is crucial because the way to reshape the work environment is to reshape employer incentives. If this bill passes, employers would be incentivized to take preventative measures in order to curtail workplace bullying. This could look like making boardroom meetings more inclusive to employees, rebuking bullying immediately when it becomes apparent and expanding HR departments by making people do more comprehensive, government-regulated, discrimination training. 

It is very difficult to change the work environment on the federal level, but putting laws in place that change it on the individual level would discourage people from emulating the behavior they see normalized by politicians. The Healthy Workplace Bill is a way to directly target the norms seeping into the workplace as a result of these harmful trends. Not addressing these issues now would mean knowingly letting another year of graduating seniors like myself  enter the workforce without the legal protections they need. If you want to be a part of changing the work environment for the better, call your legislators and tell them to vote SD 1072 out favorably. If we all take the time to support the bill (and maybe email a few of our kindergarten teachers to get a refresher course), future graduating classes could enter a stronger and more accepting workforce.