A Sign of the Times? Tennessee Expands Anti-Bullying Law to Private Employers

Two Male Colleagues Fighting In Office

Photo credit: iStock.com/AndreyPopov

By Jeremy Mittman and Samuel Richman

On April 23, 2019, Tennessee Governor Bill Lee signed a bill into law extending the Healthy Workplaces Act, Tennessee’s workplace bullying prevention law, to private employers. The law went into effect immediately upon signing. Tennessee’s anti-bullying law encourages employers to adopt policies to address and prevent “abusive conduct” in the workplace. The law defines “abusive conduct” as “acts or omissions that would cause a reasonable person, based on the severity, nature, and frequency of the conduct, to believe that an employee was subject to an abusive work environment.”

The law provides for the creation of a model policy for employers to adopt (see Model Abusive Conduct Prevention Policy). Although employers are not required to adopt the model policy (or any policy at all), those who do adopt it (or a policy conforming to its requirements) will receive immunity under state law for any abusive conduct committed by an employee which results in a claim for negligent or intentional infliction of mental anguish. The 2019 amendment to the law clarifies that the immunity provision of the law does not create a private cause of action against an employer who does not adopt the model policy or a policy which adheres to the same requirements.

In light of the new law, employers may want to review their existing policies and consider the benefits of adopting an anti-bullying policy or modifying existing policies to take advantage of the limited immunity the law offers. In addition, anti-bullying legislation like Tennessee’s, which seeks to discourage workplace abusive conduct that is not necessarily tied to a protected characteristic (i.e., race, ethnicity, gender, etc.), may herald the adoption of such laws by other states. California, for example, does not have a similar anti-bullying law, although California employers with 50 or more employees are required to provide training to supervisors every two years that includes training on prevention of “abusive conduct” (meaning workplace bullying).

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