The harassing workplace bully might be an employee, such as a bad boss or coworker, or even a non-employee, such as a client or independent contractor. But the workplace bully is doesn't matter as much in the legal sense, as does the fact that he or she is creating an intimidating, offensive, abusive or hostile work environment through discriminatory workplace harassment.
There are no Federal "hostile work environment laws" or "hostile workplace laws" named as such. Creating a hostile workplace is prohibited under certain Federal discrimination laws (listed below). Subsequently, to be illegal under one of the laws in the eyes of the courts, a hostile work environment typically must be caused by discriminatory workplace harassment based on race, color, religion, national origin, disability, age or sex. Additionally, the harassment typically must be severe, recurring and pervasive. Lastly, the victim or witnesses typically must reasonably believe that tolerating the hostile work environment is a condition of continued employment. In other words, the victim or witnesses typically must reasonably believe that they have no choice, but to endure a hostile workplace in order to keep their jobs.
Listed below are the specific Federal discrimination laws under which it's prohibited to create a hostile work environment through discriminatory harassment; but, other discrimination laws might come into play. Also, the state in which you work might have enacted equivalent laws with even better protections.
Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964
Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967
Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990
Whether a victim or witness, you may report a hostile work environment by filing an appropriate discrimination charge directly with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) or a state equivalent or with either though an attorney. To file a lawsuit under one of the laws listed above, you must first file a charge with the EEOC or a state equivalent. A statute of limitations applies.
So wading through all that waffle, there's this: it is illegal to be a bully, but it is illegal only under the right circumstances. You can't file a hostile work environment complaint or lawsuit for the cattiness, nastiness and backbiting that goes on in every workplace all over the world. You can't stop people from being idiots.
It is now more than a year after my stint with the horrible sales job ended, so I feel all right with sharing the following facts: that place was the most hostile, toxic, and miserable place I have ever worked. Ever.
Beyond just being obnoxious and bullying, though, that office was hostile for other reasons. Primarily that the people I worked with there were bigots. They never met a racial or ethnic group that they liked; I heard slurs of the worst kind about every ethnicity, every race, every religion (except their own brand of Christianity...walk the path much?). They also didn't like gays, bisexuals, transgendered people. Nor anyone who didn't toe the line of very conservative side of the Republican party. I eventually realized that unless the person standing in front of them looked just like what they saw in the mirror, then that person was OK. Otherwise? Not so much.
I was offended nearly every time someone opened their mouth in that office. The racial epithets, the slanders against gays, the insinuations that Jews are misers and Muslims are all violent and hell-bent on destroying the western world, the smug certainty that anyone didn't share their beliefs was both an idiot and bound for hell....yeah, it got to me. With a gay cousin, a good friend and neighbor who is African-American (and incidentally the most beautiful woman I have ever met) and my BFF being half Jewish, it was really all that I could do not to sucker-punch them. Daily.
I complained to my boss. He, appallingly, told me that I should expect such behavior and comments; he excused it by saying that racism, intolerance and class divisions are just a part of our region of the country, that the divisions created in the steel mills (which have been closed for 30 years now!!!!!!!!) will always exist, and I should not only expect it, but tolerate and ignore it. !@&$$%^#$$!@#@!#$% Oops. Sorry, that was my unprintable response to him.
My final straw came after a sales meeting where I was one of 6 people at the table, and a racial slur was uttered. I gasped at the horribleness of it, but everyone else at the table? Laughed. And added their own off-color remarks. That, right there, THAT was IT for me. I lodged a formal complaint with my boss, and his response, in a nutshell, was, "Pick your battles, kiddo." And so I did. I chose not to fight that one. I had an interview that same afternoon, and although I had to wait a few agonizing weeks, I was able to quit, and get the hell out of that toxicity.
The reason this is all stirred up and fresh in my mind is that I got a visit from a former co-worker yesterday. Not one of the offenders, per se, but he never spoke up against it, either, and that for me spells a-g-r-e-e-m-e-n-t. Or it spells c-o-m-p-l-i-c-t-y. If you aren't part of the solution, you are part of the problem.
There were one or two people there who I liked reasonably well. There was no one there that I trusted. So this visit from a former co-worked seemed fishy, and a lot like a fishing expedition. I like to talk to much, and I have to watch myself around those I don't trust, because you never know where something you said might be taken wildly out of context and repeated. It was a nice chat, the person seemed sincere, and was very pointed in noting that they've removed themselves as far as possible from the toxicity, including moving offices to another city.
What did they want? I have no idea. I was polite, although hesitant. The person will be back; they've got some business near my offices, and I expect to see them again soon, and frequently. I'll have to remind myself that although I feel no outright hostility to this person, they are not my friend. I'm not sure what I will do if they show up with a few more co-workers in tow next time. The world isn't evenly divided into "friendlies" and "hostiles".