For nearly 20 years, Suffolk Law professor David Yamada has researched and documented workplace bullying and its corrosive effects on work life, the psychological state of workers, and productivity. On September 16, in recognition of his life’s work in the area of workplace bullying, he received the Winn Newman Equality Award from Americans for Democratic Action (ADA). Fellow award recipients were U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) and U.S Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.). The ADA was founded in 1947 by such liberal lions as Eleanor Roosevelt and Arthur Schlesinger.

A national leader in the field of labor law, Yamada is the founding director of Suffolk’s New Workplace Institute and hosts the institute’s informative blog “Minding the Workplace.” Recognizing the narrow avenues of legal recourse for those who suffer bullying on the job, he has also drafted the Healthy Workplace Bill, which is currently pending in the Massachusetts Legislature and in several other states.

During the past year, bills drawing upon Yamada’s model legislation have been enacted in California, Tennessee, and Utah. “It defines an abusive work environment as one that is intended to cause harm or distress and causes either physical or psychological impairment,” Yamada says. “The bill is modeled somewhat around the way the Supreme Court has defined a hostile work environment for sexual harassment, except it says anyone, regardless of their status, should have a right to be free from an abusive work environment.”

Yamada “is a classic example of how engaged legal scholars can make a real, practical difference in people’s lives,” says Suffolk Law Dean Andrew Perlman. “David is a gifted scholar and teacher, and he constantly pushes all of us to see issues in a different light. He is a valued colleague, and we couldn’t be prouder of the work that he has done on a national stage.”

For Yamada, a professor of labor and employment, his epiphany about workplace bullying came through an article he read in the late ‘90s. At the time, it was topic barely recognized, let alone widely discussed. “I said, ‘Holy smokes, this is all over the place. This defines what so many work experiences are like for American workers,’” Yamada says. “It just resonated.”

Yamada soon contacted the article’s interview subjects, Gary and Ruth Namie, psychologists who founded the Workplace Bullying Institute. He was especially interested in what legal protections were available to workers who felt they had been targeted. “I was stunned to see how few protections people had. Unless it fit into discriminatory harassment like sexual or racial harassment, or retaliation for whistle-blowing behavior, basically people fell through the legal cracks and there was very little they could do,” Yamada says.

“The experience was, if they were trying to sue for emotional distress, the courts were dismissing those claims. Also they’d go to employment lawyers; the lawyers would say it was wrong and terrible, but ‘there’s not much I can do for you.’ That’s when I decided to draft what we’re calling the Healthy Workplace Bill.”

Two objectives, Yamada explains, anchor the bill. “One would create a civil claim for damages – a lawsuit – but also the legislation builds in these incentives for employers to reduce their potential liability by showing that they acted preventively and responsively toward bullying behavior,” he says. “The real goal is to prevent this stuff from happening. Without liability, unfortunately in our society, a lot of employers just aren’t taking it seriously.” Without those legal protections, workers feel “very vulnerable,” Yamada says, making workplace bullying comparable to school bullying, which has received far more attention and compassion.

He also has found parallels between workplace bullying and domestic violence. “There’s an ugly abusive relationship between two people, and one clearly not only has the power in the relationship, but is also being driven by some mean instincts to control someone,” Yamada says. “It’s why at times I’ve seen people remain in jobs much longer than is healthy. It can be one of dependence if you really need that job or there are certain benefits. At times I see people staying in those jobs, and sometimes they don’t realize what’s happening until it’s too late.”

In his research, Yamada has seen “public opinion polling generally sympathetic to legal protections.” It’s a vast improvement from 15 years ago when he says, “I had to give people a five-minute speech about what it was. Now that point of recognition is more instinctive, and we’re seeing it have more currency in various fields related to employment, like human resource folks, and people in organizational psychology are very cognizant of it.”

Still, Yamada says, there’s still work to be done in educating people, especially therapists and counselors, about the severity of workplace bullying. Passage of the Healthy Workplace Bill would greatly increase attention and action, he says. “If someone is being bullied and they decide to seek therapy, oftentimes the therapist just doesn’t understand that dynamic,” he says. “If that person said, I’m being sexually harassed or I’m in an abusive relationship – that they would understand. But sometimes when they seek counseling for what’s going on at work, the response can be: ‘Well, buck up. Grow a thicker skin.’ There’s something to be said for all of us having some resilience, but [for] people who find themselves targeted, it would be great for them to know that there are legal options available to them.”