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As the target of her boss’s critical e-mails, unrealistic assignments and veiled threats, Kathy said, going to work each day at a New England university felt like entering a war zone. “This is how bullies get to people,” said Kathy, who declined to give her last name, while addressing the nation’s first college-sponsored conference last week on workplace bullying at Suffolk University Law School in Boston, Mass. “They can make you so emotionally distraught.” Conference organizers want Massachusetts to become the first state in the nation to introduce status-blind hostile-work-environment protection. The proposed law would target abusive conduct from screaming bosses to scheming co-workers that causes physical or emotional harm. Federal and state discrimination laws protect workplace harassment victims who are targeted based on their status as protected classes such as racial or religious minorities. But Suffolk law professor David C. Yamada says that other victims cannot get the legal help they need to deal with hostile supervisors and co-workers. “We need a law that says a hostile work environment is illegal,” Yamada contends. Experts say that such a law would dramatically expand the scope of harassment at a time when legislatures seem reluctant to create new workplace rights. QUESTIONING THE WISDOM Some Boston employment lawyers question the wisdom of increasing the heavy volume of work-related litigation. “Legislation is not the way to deal with abusive conduct,” says Joseph W. Ambash, managing partner of Chicago law firm Seyfarth Shaw’s Boston office. Better employee training can most effectively combat workplace hostility, Ambash says, and tort remedies already protect against the worst offenders. Proponents argue that current laws are not enough to punish perpetrators or push employers to prevent bullying. Former Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination Chairman Charles E. Walker Jr. relied on a hostile-work-environment theory in a decision this year. The commission awarded $300,000 in punitive damages to Lule Said, a Muslim security guard who was harassed for praying at work. “We need to look at more effective ways of imposing upon employers duties to prevent discrimination,” says Walker, now an administrative judge at the Department of Industrial Accidents. TAMING A FLOOD OF LITIGATION Proponents say that the statute would prevent a flood of new litigation by requiring victims to prove they suffered substantial physical or emotional harm. Yamada plans to present a draft bill to potential legislative sponsors shortly. Gary Namie, president of Campaign Against Workplace Bullying, says that he will push for similar legislation in California. Supporters acknowledge that the proposal faces an uphill battle. One alternative that Walker suggests is to require large employers to hold employee liability insurance that would not cover liability due to negligent supervision. Employers who do not curb workplace bullying would see their premiums rise as their insurers pay out claims to harassed employees. But anti-bullying advocates say that no legal remedy can solve the problem without changes in workplace culture and policies. “We have to reform both employer systems and the legal system,” says Namie, a psychologist who founded the anti-bullying organization in 1998 with his wife, Ruth. Namie tries to show companies he advises that bullying decreases productivity and makes talented workers flee. Boston employment lawyer Rebecca G. Pontikes says that she turns away potential clients who arrive with bullying horror stories but no cause of action. “Unfortunately,” she says, “it’s perfectly legal to be an equal opportunity jerk.”

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