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What is Workplace Bullying?

July 14, 2008

Workplace bullying often involves the abuse of power. The 2007 Zogby International survey concluded that 72% of workplace bullies are “bosses”” (i.e., the harasser is “ranked” higher than the person being harassed in the “corporate ladder.”) Oftentimes, such cases involve a manager/supervisor who intimidates, degrades, offends, or humiliates a subordinate, frequently in front of other employees.

Workplace bullying can be so engrained in an organization that it becomes accepted as a part of the corporate culture. This concept is often referred to as “corporate/institutional bullying.” An organization can bully employees by placing unreasonable expectations on them and punishing those who either oppose these expectations or fail to meet them.

Other examples of workplace bullying include, but are not limited, to:

  • verbal abuse
  • humiliation through sarcasm or devaluing someone’s opinion
  • pranks or practical jokes
  • isolating and/or excluding certain employees
  • spreading false information or malicious rumors
  • glaring
  • failing to return calls
  • foregoing praise to an employee when praise is deserved
  • giving impossible tasks and setting unreasonable deadlines
  • unwarranted or invalid criticism.

Is Workplace Bullying Illegal?

Technically speaking — no, or at least, not yet. There has been a recent increase in the introduction of state anti-bullying legislation (often referred to as “healthy workplace” legislation).

Such legislation has been introduced in 13 states, including California, Connecticut, Hawaii, Kansas, Massachusetts, Missouri, Montana, New York, New Jersey, Oklahoma, Oregon, Vermont and Washington. This proposed legislation would allow employees to sue their employers for bullying or offensive behavior, even when such behavior fails to rise to the level of illegal harassment or discrimination.

The language of the majority of these proposed laws is similar to that of New Jersey’s pending Healthy Workplace Act, which defines abusive conduct as, “repeated infliction of verbal abuse such as the use of derogatory remarks, insults and epithets; verbal or physical conduct that a reasonable person would find threatening, intimidating or humiliating; or the gratuitous sabotage or undermining of a person’s work performance.”

In addition, although there is currently no specific federal or state anti-bullying legislation in effect in the United States, employers may still be found liable under a cause of action for “intentional infliction of emotional distress.”

How Does Bullying Affect Employees and Employers?

Workplace bullying can cause employees high levels of distress, anxiety, panic attacks, depression, ill health, insomnia, reduced work performance, deteriorating relationships with family and friends, and a loss of self-esteem.

These negative effects, in turn, harm employers in the following ways:

    • High level of absenteeism and staff turnover
    • Poor public image/reputation (i.e., your business becomes labeled “a difficult or unpleasant place to work”)
    • Reduction in productivity, profitability, efficiency, and overall success
    • An increase in turnover costs (i.e., costs associated with counseling, recruitment and training newly-hired staff)
    • Stress-related employee payments for workers’ compensation awards and disability benefits
    • Litigation costs (i.e., attorney fees, settlement costs, jury awards)
    • An increase in accidents as a result of employees being fatigued due to stress and anxiety-induced loss of sleep.

What Can Be Done About Workplace Bullying?

The following are steps that employers can take to help reduce workplace bullying and the harm that results:

  • Improve the quality of performance feedback for employees
  • Implement an effective “open-door policy” which demonstrates that your company values employee input and stresses that employees should feel free to raise issues of concern, in good faith, without fear of retaliation
  • Maintain and distribute a policy/procedure prohibiting bullying in the workplace, including an effective complaint handling procedure with multiple contact persons
  • Ensure that all employees adhere to your anti- workplace bullying policy, beginning with management
  • Respond to a complaint of workplace bullying in the same way you would respond to a complaint of illegal harassment or discrimination
  • Provide your employees with training on important company policies and procedures, including the prohibition against workplace bullying, harassment and discrimination.

Bullying is prevalent in the modern workplace, and the costs are high. Even without a specific law in place prohibiting workplace bullying, the “star salesperson” mentioned in the introduction of this issue cost his employer an additional $160,000 per year. And with the legal landscape changing, the toll for employers who tolerate workplace bullying is sure to rise should states begin passing the proposed “healthy workplace” legislation.

Employers should address these concerns as soon as possible by maintaining a corporate culture that is respectful of its employees and free of bullying behavior. Your employees (and your wallet) will thank you.

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