Bullying is most often associated with the school playground or the Internet but has become a big problem in the workplace as well. Workplace bullying is an act of verbal abuse, aggression or intimidation against a coworker (most often a subordinate) without regard to the victim's protected class. In other words, bullying is separate from sexual harassment or discrimination (although members of a protected class still may be victims of bullying).
Bullying is not illegal, per se, but it still poses risks to your organization in the form of diminished productivity, lowered workplace morale and employee's mental and physical health issues. Severe bullying has been linked to stress-related illnesses such as high blood pressure, depression, anxiety and sleep disorders. Bullied employees often times leave their jobs to escape abusive behaviors from co-workers or supervisors. Below is a discussion of the definition of workplace bullying and what you can do to help prevent it in your organization.
What is Workplace Bullying?
More than one-third of U.S. workers have been bullied, according to a 2014 workplace bullying survey conducted by Zogby International. The survey also found that 68 percent of women have experienced bullying from the same gender (i.e. women bullying women). For men bullying men, the statistic is 43 percent. A similar survey conducted in 2007 found that bullying is four times more prevalent than illegal forms of workplace harassment.
The survey defined workplace bullying as follows:
Repeated mistreatment: sabotage by others that prevented work from getting done, verbal abuse, threatening conduct, intimidation and humiliation.
Not surprisingly, the majority of workplace bullies are supervisors or those in positions of authority over other employees, i.e. top-down bullying. Employees reported experiencing this type of bullying at 56 percent.
Workplace Bullying and the Law
While there are no state or federal laws prohibiting workplace bullying, workers who are members of a protected class (i.e. women, racial minorities) may have recourse under state and local anti-discrimination or sexual harassment laws. That is not to say that acts of bullying are inherently acts of harassment or discrimination but they often overlap.
Since 2003, 29 states and two U.S. territories have introduced legislation to prohibit bullying in the workplace but none have been signed into law.
A Massachusetts workplace bullying bill introduced in 2009 and making its way through the legislature, cited statistics claiming that between 37 and 59 percent of employees in the state experience workplace bullying. The Massachusetts bill and similar legislation in other states are written in a way that the states themselves would not be involved in such cases. In other words, claimants would be responsible for hiring private attorneys to bring suit against their alleged bullies.
Find a Lawyer to Help your Company with Workplace Bullying Issues
Bullying doesn't just happen on the playground anymore. It can and does happen in the workplace. If your business is experiencing issues with claims of workplace bullying, harrassment or otherwise, you should seek the help of a qualified employment law attorney today.
See FindLaw's Discrimination and Harassment section in the Small Business Center for information about related workplace issues.