Bullying is not exclusive to the schoolyard. Bullying in the workplace is a real problem and, if allowed, can destroy a company’s culture and employee morale.
Workplace bullying can be defined as mistreatment severe enough to compromise a targeted worker’s health, jeopardize his or her job and career, and strain relationships with friends and family, among other things. Some common verbal characteristics of bullying may include: flaunting status, shouting, swearing or using foul language, spreading harmful gossip, blaming an employee inappropriately, threatening job loss, leveling unwarranted criticism, “chilling opinions,” and putting employees down in front of others. Common non-verbal, bullying behaviors can include: ignoring contributions, consistently failing to follow-up, excluding employees from meetings and social gatherings, giving an employee the silent treatment, playing mean pranks, treating employees rudely, and making unreasonable work demands.
Recent statistics suggest that workplace bullying is widespread and even more prevalent when unreported conduct is considered. According to a 2010 WBI U.S. Workplace Bullying Survey:
- 35% of American workers report being bullied now or at some time in their careers;
- 15% of American workers reported observing bullying;
- 40% of targets never tell their employers;
- 62% of bullies are men;
- 58% of targets are women;
- 68% of bullying cases involve the same gender bully and target (indeed, women account for 80% of bullying against other women); and
- 43% of bullying comes from co-workers (36% supervisors, 12% customers, 5% subordinates and 4% others make up the rest).
The direct costs associated with workplace bullying include medical and workers’ compensation claims. In addition, there are numerous negative effects from employers ignoring bullying. Included are decreased productivity and efficiency, high turnover, excessive absenteeism, financial problems caused by absences, poor customer/client relations, low morale, increases in resignations/transfer requests, hotline calls and complaints, work schedule changes, reduced self-esteem, and family tension. See, e.g., “Workplace Bullying and Disruptive Behavior: What Everyone Needs to Know,” Washington State Department of Labor & Industries, Report #87-2-2011, April 2011.
Around the world, lawmakers have taken notice of the problem. France, Germany, the U.K., Canada, Sweden, and part of Australia, among other places, have enacted laws directed specifically at workplace bullying. To date, there is no such federal or state anti-bullying legislation in the United States.
In the absence of a specific law, plaintiffs have sued their employers under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, or under the theory of intentional infliction of emotional distress or another tort. Title VII prohibits discrimination or harassment only on the basis of protected categories, such as race, color, disability, age, religion, gender, or sexual orientation. Federal courts have invoked Title VII as grounds for liability against employers in what amounts to bullying cases under theories of gender stereotyping, hostile work environment, discrimination, and retaliation. However, bullying often can be “status blind” and, therefore, the victim also must fall into a protected category for relief under a law such as Title VII. Alternatively, the bullying behavior must be so severe or pervasive to fall under the state law definitions of intentional infliction of emotional distress or some other tort.
Despite the absence of anti-bullying legislation, employers should consider implementing and distributing policies, and training employees and managers, with respect to effective and comprehensive anti-bullying measures. Policies should describe appropriate business conduct, define abusive conduct and articulate that it will not be tolerated. They should provide a reasonable reporting procedure, require employees to report problems promptly, promise prompt and thorough investigation of complaints, prohibit retaliation and, and warn that policy violations may lead to discipline, including termination, if warranted.