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    workplace bullying

July 27, 2013

Workplace Bullies, Corporate Psychopaths

The Workplace Bullying Institute (WBI) defines workplace bullying as “repeated mistreatment: sabotage by others that prevents work from getting done, verbal abuse, threatening conduct, intimidation, and humiliation.”  Results from surveys conducted by the WBI and Zogby International in 2007 and 2010 demonstrate the nature and extent of the problem.

  • 35% of workers have experienced bullying firsthand
  • Most bullies are bosses (72%)
  • 62% of bullies are men; 58% of targets are women
  • Women bullies target women in 80% of cases
  • Bullying is 4 times more prevalent than illegal harassment
  • The majority (68%) of bullying is same-gender harassment
  • 62% of employers ignore the problem
  • 45% of bullying targets suffer stress-related health problems
  • 40% of bullied individuals never tell their employers
  • Only 3% of bullied people file lawsuits

In the world of bullying, there is an elephant in the room. Some bullies, successful in their younger years, have wrapped bullying into the “skill set” they bring with them into the workplace, and there is precious little anyone can do about it.   Human Resources (HR) departments are loath to use the term “bullying,” preferring instead to insist that the employee is describing “harassment.” Unfortunately for the bullied employee, the experience does not rise to the level of qualifying for action under the laws protecting us against illegal discrimination.  The reason HR managers give for failing to assist the targeted employee is most often that if the employee is being bullied by someone who is the same gender as themselves, or of the same race, the behavior cannot be called “illegal discrimination.” 

As the studies cited above show, in the workplace the act of bullying is four times more common than illegal discrimination.  There is an important clue here—if we as a society make the damaging behavior of bullying in the workplace illegal, with harsh penalties for the bully who breaks these laws, there is every reason to believe the problem could be significantly diminished.  The culpability of the employer is, of course, a necessary ingredient, just as it is in handling cases of illegal discrimination.

It is of note that at the June 2013 annual conference of the Society for Human Resource Management, there were some sessions on moving beyond this barrier and making workplace bullying illegal.  Attorneys specializing in labor law urged human resource managers to begin serious discussions within their organizations about recognizing the  crushing consequences of workplace bullying and ending the culture of denial.

Slow Progress on Legal Remedies

In February 2013, West Virginia legislators introduced House Bill 2054, The Healthy Workplace Act. With their proposed legislation, West Virginian Delegates Longstreth, Caputo, and Fleischauer offer other state legislatures a model to remedy this very costly, growing problem.  The introductory summary of the bill is directed at making workplace bullying a violation of the law for both perpetrator and employer, if the employer does not intervene:

“The bill creates The Healthy and Safe Workplace Act. The bill provides for healthy workplaces by provides remedies for hostile work environments. The bill makes legislative findings. The bill defines terms. The bill establishes unlawful employment practices. The bill provides liabilities and affirmative defenses for employers and employees. The bill bans retaliation in certain circumstances. The bill provides an employer duty to respond to third-party acts of malice. The bill restricts applicability to employment practices not covered by existing state laws on human rights or wrongful discharge. The bill provides remedies and procedure. The bill limits the amount recoverable for emotional distress. The bill and establishes time limitations for commencing actions.” 

In the body of the bill, the text describes the need for this amendment to workplace law as follows:  “(f) Legal protection from abusive work environments should not be limited to behavior grounded in protected class status as that provided for under employment discrimination statuses; …”

The process of adopting these laws has been slow.  For example, Washington State was the fourth state to address workplace bullying with the introduction of their Healthy Workplace Bill in 2005-06, but by 2008, it did not survive the legislative process and died in the Appropriations Committee.  HB 1928 and a companion bill SB 5789 were introduced in 2011, yet no further legislative action has moved them forward since April 2012–over a year ago.

The Consequences of Workplace Bullying

Workplace bullying is an issue that needs urgent attention.  It is an international issue, and it is at the heart of creating environments where people can flourish as individuals.  Everyone benefits from that.  Workplace bullying is not violence in the workplace that you see on the evening news.  Those tragedies do happen, but from the studies done so far, the damage a workplace bully does goes far deeper and extends more widely.  It is a systematic, tortuous dismantling of the targeted employee’s mind, body, and spirit.

The physical and mental consequences are dramatic.  The intense stress resulting from deliberate and constant abuse can lead to hypertension, strokes, heart attacks, neurological disorders, immunological impairment, fibromyalgia, chronic fatigue, and diabetes.  The psychological consequences are equally debilitating, including anxiety, panic attacks, clinical depression, and post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Relationships with family, friends, and workplace colleagues often suffer as well, creating a greater sense of alienation and hopelessness in bullying victims.

Organizations are damaged as well by employee turnover, missed time at work, and impaired productivity of affected employees. When the overall extent of workplace bullying is considered (as many as 1 in 3 employees), the toll on the global economy is staggering, and unnecessary.

Making Our Workplaces Safer

There are some actions employees who are victims of bullying can pursue.  Depending on the situation and the extent of the bullying, these include coaching, working with a therapist, and seeking legal counsel.  Ultimately, though, workplace bullying needs to be addressed in the same manner that racial and other forms of workplace discrimination were tackled, resulting in legal protections.   The problem of workplace bullying has many causes and won’t be easily solved.  A good starting place, however, is greater awareness of the problem and making sure that its victims are heard.