Although it comes as news to many employers, the elimination of “legal” workplace bullying has become the focus of a national grassroots movement to persuade every state to make it illegal for a boss to bully an employee. Coordinated by the Workplace Bullying Institute - Legislative Campaign (BullyBusters.org), at least 13 states have proposed bills to prohibit “unlawful” workplace bullying. In some of these states, the proposal is in the form of an amendment to existing harassment laws. These 13 states are New Jersey, New York, Vermont, Washington, Montana, Connecticut, Oregon, Hawaii, Oklahoma, Kansas, Missouri, Massachusetts and California.

Much like childhood bullying, workplace bullying is the tendency of an individual or a group to persistently display aggressive or unreasonable behavior against a co-worker. It can include verbal, nonverbal and even physical abuse. This type of aggression is particularly difficult to counter because, unlike typical schoolyard bullies, workplace bullies often operate within the established rules and policies of their organizations and society. Bullying in the workplace, therefore, takes a variety of forms, which include rudeness, belligerence, screaming, cursing, destruction of property or work product, social ostracism and even physical assault. #

Workplace bullying is reported directly to affect 37 percent of American workers, estimated at 54 million individuals. In a recent survey of 1000 adults, 44 percent said that they had worked for abusive individuals, 59 percent had witnessed or experienced bosses criticizing workers in front of co-workers, and 50 percent had been personally insulted by bosses or had witnessed such insults in the workplace. Women appear to be most at risk of becoming a bully’s target, and race may also play a role in workplace bullying.

In its proposed “Healthy Workplace” bill, the Workplace Bullying Institute defines workplace bullying as “abusive conduct” that is “repeated, health-harming mistreatment expressed as one or more of the following: (1) verbal abuse; (2) conduct (including nonverbal behavior) which is threatening, intimidating, or humiliating; or (3) interference with work, preventing work from getting done, sabotage.” In most cases, the conduct must be repeated, and the bill prohibits only severe, health-harming mistreatment. Workplace bullying impacts health by causing stress-related problems ranging from depression and post-traumatic stress disorder to cardiovascular diseases and neurological compromises. Harm generally results from prolonged exposure to abuse.

The proposed bills are said to be necessary to protect public health and would allow employees to sue their employers for creating an “abusive work environment.” In the absence of legislation, however, there are a number of good reasons for employers to pay attention to workplace bullying:

  • It is four times more prevalent than sexual harassment. Employers are already familiar with their obligations under harassment laws, but often don’t know how to handle bullies. The problem is especially difficult to remedy when the bully is a senior manager.
  • An estimated 21 million workers quit every year because of workplace bullying. The loss of this many workers is costly and preventable.
  • It affects employee’s health. Of those individuals who have reported being bullied, 45 percent say they have stress-related health complications.
  • Witnesses see bullying happening. Fear-driven workplaces are fraught with poor morale and low productivity.
  • Employee recruitment and retention are made more difficult.

In short, maintaining bullies on the payroll can be very expensive.