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Is the employer obligated to intervene in cases of workplace harassment?

Published in: Employment law
by Antonella Marmo
Home > Is the employer obligated to intervene in cases of workplace harassment?

A recent decision by the Labor Court of Bari (Jan. 17, 2023, No. 97) confirmed the importance of protecting the physical and moral integrity of workers. So what happens if the harassment is carried out by coworkers? Can the employer stay out of this situation?

In this article:

The judgment cited above highlights precisely the responsibility of the employer and the need to address the consequences of oppressive behavior among employees.

The Case: harassment of worker by coworkers

An employee of a thermal power plant filed a lawsuit against his employer in the Court of Bari. The employee complained that he had been suffering harassing and illegitimate behavior from his colleagues, and, although the employer had been informed of the situation, no action was taken at all to repair the damage. The employee’s claim was for compensation for biological and moral damages, as well as payment of a sum for temporary disability, reimbursement of medical expenses, and restitution of unpaid work hours.

The importance of evidence in the process and the role of the employer

During the trial, testimony was collected, documentation analyzed, and technical expertise conducted. These investigations verified the veracity of fourteen incidents in which the employee had been targeted with personal attacks, criticism, and taunts by his/her co-workers: one example among many is leaving the employee locked out of the front door for an extended time.

Despite being informed of such actions, the employer had merely sanctioned all employees almost two years later, including the employee targeted by colleagues.

The Impact of Harassing Colleagues on Worker Health

The court found that the harassment suffered by the worker had led to depressive and anxiety disorders, which required pharmacological treatment. The finding consequently carried considerable weight in the final judgment.

Indeed, the court emphasized the fundamental role of the employer in protecting the worker’s psychological and physical integrity, as provided for in Article 2087 of the Italian Civil Code. Although it was not possible to prove a case of bullying, the employer was held liable for failing to remove the consequences of the offensive conduct or attempt to prevent future ones.

This ruling follows a well-established line of jurisprudence that punishes the employer’s inaction in removing harmful conduct in the workplace. A similar example is found in a 2021 order of the Court of Vicenza, which found legitimate the dismissal of an employee who had acted in an oppressive and obsessive manner toward her subordinates.

The Protection of Workers' Health in the Work Environment.

The measure of the Court of Bari offers an opportunity to reflect on the real scope of a fundamental principle of the employment system: the protection of the worker’s health.

As the ruling indeed states, “It is the employer’s duty to protect the physical integrity and moral personality of the worker pursuant to Article 2087 of the Civil Code, by removing the harmful consequences of harassing conduct implemented between colleagues or, at the very least, by preventing similar situations from occurring again in the future, even when there is no mobbing.

This protection includes both physical health and personal dignity, social life and mental and physical balance.

It follows that the fairness and good faith of workers should prevail not only toward the employer but also toward other employees, and the employer’s role is critical in preventing and/or intervening in cases like this.

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Publication date: 29 August 2023
Last update: 16 September 2023

Antonella Marmo

A Lawyer at the Canella Camaiora Law Firm, a member of the Milan Bar, she focuses on Commercial and Employment Law.
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