Editorial: Workplace legislation earned veto
On Monday, Gov. Maggie Hassan vetoed legislation intended to protect state employees from abusive work environments.
In her veto message, Hassan said HB 591 would open the door to unwarranted litigation, disrupt workplace supervision and reduce productivity within state agencies.
On all counts, the governor is correct. It doesn’t take more than a cursory glance at the legislation to see that it deserved the rejection it received.
The bill, in defining what would constitute “abusive conduct,” listed eight specific behaviors, including: “behavior or language that frightens, degrades, or criticizes the employee alone or in public”; “ignoring or showing hostility towards an employee seeking information or assistance”; and “creating unreasonable demands, for example workload, deadlines, or duties, that set a worker up for failure.”
With such broad and subjective criteria to establish “abusive conduct,” it’s easy to see where the governor would have concerns about complaints and litigation spiraling out of control.
For example, while one employee may find a supervisor’s brusque demeanor to be the sign of a no-nonsense, confident leader, another may consider that same tone to be combative and insensitive. And what does it mean to make “unreasonable” demands? Drafting a two-page memo may be an unreasonable demand for an employee who doesn’t like to write, but would such a request create an abusive work environment?
There is no population where perceptions are uniform, and that, ultimately, is the problem with HB 591. As Hassan wrote, the legislation “attempts to legislate politeness, manners and the interpersonal relationships of co-workers.” That is a fool’s errand, and an unfunded one at that.
The legislation provided no way to pay for the new system of addressing complaints, which would shift investigations from the Division of Personnel to the Department of Labor without providing an increase in staffing. Add to this the cost and time commitment of litigation, and you have legislation that has the potential to severely reduce productivity.
Hassan said she believed the legislation was well-intentioned, and we agree. No employee should be subjected to bullying in the workplace. To that end, the governor, State Employees Association, commissioners, lawmakers and other stakeholders must continue to review existing policies and look for ways to provide employees with the clearest possible course of action should they find themselves in an abusive work environment. But more important, the state must make sure supervisors understand their responsibilities to their employees, which should include training that emphasizes the importance of assessing morale and workplace atmosphere.
What the legislation must not do, however, is invite employees to choose litigation over common-sense conflict resolution. Clear, open communication between supervisor and employee has always been the best defense against an abusive work environment. Fear and threat of reprisal may create the illusion of mutual respect, but underneath the facade they are the seeds of toxicity in the workplace.