It looks like life may get tougher for the workplace bully in New York State. The Senate has approved a bill which has not been enacted into law – yet.

Employees would be able to sue their employer for being in an “abusive environment” and that extends to physical, psychological and economic hardship. What exactly does that mean?

The New York Labor & Employment Law report outlines the scope and intent of the bill:

New York’s legislation defines “abusive conduct” to include “verbal abuse such as the use of derogatory remarks, insults, and epithets … that a reasonable person would find threatening, intimidating or humiliating … or the gratuitous sabotage or undermining of an employee’s work performance.” The reality is that “derogatory remarks” are probably made in most workplaces. Indeed, some workplaces, like law firms, are notorious for having “yellers.” Seemingly almost any employer might have exposure under this legislation.

This legislation would be ground-breaking; no other state has passed anything similar to it.

There is debate over how loosely “abusive conduct” is defined and undoubtedly it will take a few cases to narrow how it is applied. Will this be painful for employers? Yes – for the companies who overlook their overt bullies or ones who flirt with being on the edge of abusive behavior.

If your company receives a complaint, instead of thinking that the employee is being a troublemaker, take a moment and consider why employees raise the red flag. Could it possibly be that they were mistreated or wronged?

Mistreatment is not always about the action being done to them. Conduct is behavior and about how it is done to them.

Years ago, I was responsible for orchestrating a major layoff within a company. I was sent to a newly acquired division that was being integrated into the parent company. I managed the RIF (reduction in force) and was affectionately called the terminator.

About mid way into the assignment, one of the facilities that we were closing had a problem. The HR Manager was not handing the layoff process well – there was dissension in the ranks and he was let go early. I was asked to step in and complete the plant closure in addition to coordinating the divisional activity.

After letting go 300 people in less than a year, there was not one law suit filed.

Fundamentally, it came down to having a fair process and treating people with respect, no matter what the circumstances – even being laid off.

Companies who cry wolf on this legislation should get their leadership together and ask “why does it matter to us?”

The next question is to ask is “what do we have control over?” Apply it to each answer.

The final question, “what are we going to do about it or the people who put us at risk?”

Ultimately, organization will have to make a choice between investing in their people and culture or setting aside funds to defend themselves in the court system. It sounds like an easy decision, why is it so hard?

Lynn Dessert owns Leadership Breakthrough, improving personal communication and influence one-step at a time. Post your thoughts or email me!