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Workplace Bullying: U.S. Employers' Progress on This Epidemic Problem

“Bullying wasn't okay in elementary school and it isn't okay now.” ~ John Doolittle

The statistics are staggering: according to the 2010 U.S. Workforce Bullying Institute Survey,1 over 53 million Americans, 35 percent of the U.S. workforce, report having been bullied at some point in their career. An additional 15 percent report witnessing bullying at work. Today, workplace bullying is estimated as four times more prevalent than illegal harassment. Is bullying the “silent epidemic”2 of today’s U.S. workforce?

What is being done to help employers and employees free the environment from toxic behavior? Do the current anti-harassment and discrimination laws help or are they not enough? What efforts, if any, have employers made, if any, to address this egregious behavior that may or may not rise to the level of attention, via policy, law, or simply leadership, to strip it and its damage to the workforce? This article defines bullying as compared to other unwelcome workplace behavior and discusses the current courses of action employers institute to eradicate bullying in the workplace.

Bullying Defined: Who is the Bully and How did this Behavior Evolve?

At the core of bullying are behaviors intended to isolate and humiliate the victim; repeated and unreasonable actions directed towards an employee (or group of employees) intended to intimidate, offend or degrade. Behaviors often described as “little things,” so carefully carried out, that it is not easy to say who or what is behind it.

Bullying behavior creates feelings of defenselessness and undermines the individual’s right to dignity at work. Different from outright aggression, bullying involves repeated attacks creating an on-going pattern of behavior.

Bullies are characterized by a pervasive pattern of grandiosity and self importance, as having a great need for admiration while lacking empathy.

The possible evolution of bullying…

Imagine this... Two small boys and a girl are playing in the yard when suddenly one of the boys notices a bird’s nest with fledglings in the tree. He motions to the other boy, a silent communication between them. Simultaneously, they pick up small rocks and begin to stone the baby birds. The girl is horrified.

A few years later... Self-elected as the welcoming committee, the bully encourages insults and tortures toward a transfer student with an accent and a small physique. His intentions are clear but the bully resists any behavior that could potentially leave marks -- Chinese rubs are allowed but pinching is out. Classmates join in so as not to become the subject of the bullying. The behavior continues without school interference until the transfer student suddenly relocates.

Add a few more years... The bully has now entered the work environment and has successfully progressed to a Team Lead position. Gradually and strategically, the bully controls the work environment through intimidation, public ridicule, and belittling behaviors. Culturally, the organization has never intervened and given the bully's success, employees can only conclude that the organization’s executives condone this leadership style. He singles out certain colleagues, has a certain fraternal camaraderie with certain colleague but significantly changes his tone with others, talks over certain employees in meetings, interrupts others’ conversations and presentations, publicly ridicules ideas and work product of certain team members, criticizes contribution and reassigns assignments without notification or proper justification.

Who Are the Perpetrators?

Nearly two-thirds of the reported workplace bullies are male, and the majority of targets are female. Female bullies target other females 80 percent of the time. But bullying is not a gender issue, nor is it a socio-economic or political, or position-based issue. It crosses all boundaries of employment and status within the employment hierarchy. Note, however, that according to the recent survey data, over 70 percent of the bullies outrank their targets and less than 10 percent of bullying occurs from a subordinate to a superior.3 Approximately 18 percent of bullies are peers.4

While bullying may feel like harassment, workplace harassment has a legal definition supported by state and federal civil rights laws designed to protect workers from discriminatory mistreatment as a member of a protected group. Statistics indicate that only 20 percent of workplace bullying cases involve illegal discriminatory harassment.5 Bullying cuts across boundaries of status-group membership. It has been said that bullying is status-blind harassment.6

What’s Being Done About Workplace Bullying In the U.S. and Abroad?

The United States can be criticized for being one of the “last of the western democracies”7 to create laws prohibiting bullying in the workplace; however, is legislation the proper answer to a systemic workplace problem? Proactive employers have addressed behavioral issues through Code of Conduct policies intended to eradicate outrageous, disrespectful, and bullish behavior toward coworkers. Nonetheless, evidence indicates that these efforts have failed to produce the employer reaction and intervention expected by the affected workforce. Based on a Zogby International scientific poll, those personally affected by workplace bullying believe 81 percent of employers are either doing nothing to address bullying or are actually resisting action when requested to do something.8 Compare those results to the general non-affected public, the near majority of whom believe the employer would be engaged and reactive to a bullying situation at work.

So, is policy enough? Courts are quickly entering the debate over appropriate workplace conduct. Cases presenting tort claims, or personal harm to individuals, can be brought in state or local courts. Employers can be held accountable for negligent hiring for employing someone they knew or should have known would incur harm in the work environment, or for negligent referral if they fail to warn other prospective employers of a past violent or illegal work history. Finally, a claim of negligent supervision or retention could result from an employer who opts to retain an employee who poses a threat or demonstrates violent tendencies. Further, under the federal Occupational Safety and Health Act (OSHA), which requires that employers to provide a safe and healthy workplace,” employers can be challenged when harm interferes with an employee’s ability to work. These current legal challenges suggest that employers should be duly prepared to deal with bullying in the work setting.

In circumstances where performance, distress, illness, or other trauma and job interference can be shown, courts might be willing to penalize employers for bullish behavior. For example, in 2008 the Indiana Supreme Court ruled in favor of a nurse on her claims of intentional infliction of emotional distress and assault, and awarded her $325,000, for being screamed at by the surgeon during an operation.9 This and other non-harassment cases highlight the importance for employers to be proactive in addressing non-comporting behavior at work.

If the path is legislation, the U.S. is certainly behind other western democracies who have implemented laws forbidding bullying-like conduct in the workplace. Since 1994, Scandinavian nations approve explicit anti-bullying laws. Canada, Great Britain and many of the EU nations have substantially more legal employee protections compelling employers to prevent or correct bullying, and Ireland issued a forceful health and safety code in 2005 that addressed workplace bullying.10

Currently no U.S. federal or state laws exist that afford employees protections against bullying, although a strong grass-roots campaign has formed under the Healthy Workplace Campaign and seventeen states have initiated or introduced legislation entitled the “Healthy Workplace bill.” 11 While no state successfully passed legislation, several states have introduced various forms of legislative initiatives since 2003. In many cases though, these bills are killed early in the process. New York, however, was the first state to come close to passage in 2010, where the bill passed both House and Senate, but was vetoed by the Governor.12

The Healthy Workforce Bill, originally authored by Suffolk University Professor of Law David Yamada, defines its basic cause of action in this statement:

“It shall be an unlawful employment practice to subject an employee to an abusive work environment which exists when the defendant, acting with malice, subjects the complainant to abusive conduct so severe that it causes tangible harm to the complainant.”13

Significant terms defined:

  • Abusive conduct is that which a reasonable person would find hostile, offensive and unrelated to an employer’s legitimate business interests. It may include but not limited to repeated infliction of verbal abuse, physical conduct that a reasonable person would find threatening, intimidating or humiliating, or the gratuitous sabotage or undermining of a person’s work performance.
  • Conduct is defined as all forms of behavior, including acts and omissions of acts.
  • Malice is defined for these purposes as the desire to see another person suffer psychological, physical, or economical harm, without legitimate cause of justification.
  • Tangible harm is defined as psychological harm or physical harm.
  • Psychological harm is material impairment of a person’s mental health, as documented by a competent psychologist, psychiatrist, or psychotherapist.
  • Physical harm is the material impairment of a person’s physical health or bodily integrity, as documented by a competent physician.
  • Negative employment decision is a termination, demotion, unfavorable reassignment, refusal to promote or disciplinary action.14

The Healthy Workplace bill initiative is intended to plug the gaps in current state and federal civil rights protections by defining an abusive work environment and providing avenues for legal redress of health harming cruelty at work. It holds employers accountable and compels employers to prevent and correct future occurrences of bullying behavior.15 If legislative action is the next move to address workplace bullying, then it will be interesting to follow the momentum of this campaign.

Absent specific legislation, businesses and organizations must work to ensure that conduct of a bullying nature is not condoned. Policies should be strictly enforced, investigations conducted for workplace misconduct accusations, and appropriate discipline implemented for every employee and executive not setting proper behavioral standards. Training on required topics such as anti-harassment can easily be expanded to include conversation regarding code of conduct, expectations of civility, respect, and tolerance. Social responsibility in this epidemic behavior of bullying will prevail in identifying employers of choice.

In short, bullying at work NEVER leads to good business. Setting the tone at the top, continually modeling the right kind of behavior and getting serious about rooting out abusive employees before serious damage is done is the best practice!

Bullying looks like...

  • Spreading malicious rumors
  • Undermining a person's work
  • Threatening physical abuse
  • Constantly changing work guidelines
  • Withholding necessary information or purposefully giving wrong information
  • Pestering, spying or intruding on one’s privacy
  • Assigning unreasonable duties or workload which are unfavorable to one person
  • Underutilizing - creating a feeling of uselessness
  • Yelling or using profanity
  • Criticizing a person persistently or constantly
  • Belittling a person's opinions
  • Unwarranted (or undeserved) punishment
  • Blocking applications for training, leave or promotion
  • Tampering with a person’s personal belongings or work equipment

What Can be done?16


  • Educate all staff on the subtleties of bullying.
  • Ensure anti-bullying policy is current
  • Inform HR professionals how to deal with complaints of bullying
  • Tutor managers how to recognize bullying
  • Provide information on support groups, web sites, forums, etc.
  • Accept responsibility to act once alerted to bullying


  • Regain Control! Offset what is happening to you by legitimizing the experience. Criticisms and allegations are a form of control. Recognize it as such.
  • Get Help! Realize you are not alone. 53 Million U.S. workers have similar experiences. Seek out professional help, support groups, networks, or start your own.
  • Take Action! Keep a log of everything. It is not the incident that counts; it’s the number, regularity and the patterns that reveal bullying. Contact HR. Follow the grievance procedure.


2 Workplace bullying: Silent epidemic. by G. Namie & R. Namie, Employee Rights Quarterly, Autumn, 2000.


4 Id.

5 Id.

6 Term “status-blind harassment” coined by Suffolk University Professor of Law David Yamada.



9 The trial court heard the case and awarded the verdict in 2005. On appeal, however, the Court overturned this verdict due to a legal error of allowing the expert witness to label the defendant as a “workplace bully.” (Raess v. Doescher, 858 N.E.2d 119, Ind. Ct. App., 2006). The Supreme Court of Indiana restored the jury verdict in 2008 clearly “incredulous that the defense attorney tried to undermine the existence and role workplace bullying played in that toxic health clinic.” (


11 According to the Healthy Workplace Bill campaign website, the states with past or active legislative efforts include: California, Connecticut, Hawaii, Illinois, Kansas, Massachusetts, Missouri, Montana, Nevada, New York, New Jersey, Oklahoma, Oregon, Utah, Vermont, Washington, Wisconsin.


13 (Employee Rights and Employment Policy Journal (Vol. 8:475)

14 Employee Rights and Employment Policy Journal (Vol. 8:475)


16 Sharpe Health and Safety Assessment & Prevention April 2008 Report # 87-2-2008.