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Workplace bullying has reached “epidemic level,” according to a new study, and legal analysts are advising companies to take heed.
The San Francisco-based Workplace Bullying Institute’s 2017 U.S. Workplace Bullying Survey, released earlier this month, estimated that 30 million American workers have been, or are now being, bullied at work, while another 30 million have witnessed it.
“These proportions are epidemic-level,” the report said. “The number of U.S. workers who are affected by bullying — summing over those with direct bullying and witnessing experiences — is 60.3 million, the combined population of six Western states.”
Unchecked, the repercussions of workplace bullying can result in absenteeism, low morale, high turnover, reputational damage and lawsuits, experts say.
Defining workplace bullying can be challenging, but Gary Namie, the institute’s director, described it as “a form of workplace violence.”
“It is, by our definition, repeated health-harming mistreatment of an employee by one or more employees,” Mr. Namie said. “It’s abusive conduct that takes the form of verbal abuse, threats, intimidation, humiliation or workplace sabotage or work interference.”
Peter Dean, president of Leaders By Design at executive consultancy Leaders Edge in Philadelphia and co-author of “The Bully-Proof Workplace: Essential Strategies, Tips and Scripts for Dealing with the Office Sociopath,” said workplace bullying goes beyond someone “just losing their temper or their impulse control for a time.”
“It’s not a one-off,” Mr. Dean said. “It is a targeted attention to one person that is very negative and meant to demean and belittle and degrade that person’s self-esteem.”
And bullying begets more bullying, Mr. Dean added.
“You have one bully getting away with being a bully and it starts to spread in an organization,” he said. “People start to think two things: No. 1, it’s OK to bully here; and No. 2, there’s no way to fight it because it’s accepted.”
The 2017 study said antidiscrimination laws apply in only 20% of bullying cases do. In order to claim sexual harassment, racial discrimination or hostile work environment, the report said, the victim must be a member of a protected status group. Mr. Namie said the Healthy Workplace Bill — which among other things, precisely defines an "abusive work environment" and requires proof of health harm by licensed health or mental health professionals — has been introduced in 30 states and two territories, but has yet to be enacted.
“The first thing that a company needs to do in any circumstance is to understand the state of the law, not only laws that are specific to bullying, but also laws that could implicate bullying,” said Michael Willemin, a senior associate with law firm Wigdor L.L.P. in New York. “And without understanding the laws, it would be very difficult to generate a plan for attempting to limit any workplace bullying that occurs in the workplace.”
To combat workplace bullying, experts advise companies to create a policy dealing with the issue and stick to it.
“If the company wants to avoid certain behavior,” Mr. Willemin said, “the policy should be clear and well-defined, so when that behavior occurs, or when someone alleges that it occurs, an investigation should take place. It’s not something that should be just kind of heard and brushed aside, because that’s going to lead to a culture where people feel like they can’t complain, and that in turn, over time, is going to create a higher risk of liability for a company.”
However, Robin Shea, a partner with Constangy, Brooks, Smith & Prophete L.L.P. in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, raised concerns about anti-bullying laws “because the definition of bullying is so vague right now.”
“It could include true criminal conduct, like assaults or batteries, and illegal harassment,” she said, “but I have seen it defined to include things like ‘the boss is mean to me, the boss doesn’t respect me,’ and that type of thing. I think it’s very poorly defined right now, and the worst types of bullying are illegal anyway under other laws.”
Ms. Shea added that she has been practicing law for almost 30 years and she has never had a case that she considered true bullying.
“I think being held to expectations on the job is going to be stressful for certain people anyway,” she said, “especially if they’re have trouble meeting the standards or they’re just not a good fit with their supervisor. I would hate to see a law that would let every one of those situations turn into a lawsuit.”
Still, Mr. Dean believes that “we’ll probably see more and more cases about bullying.”
“Right now we don’t have real strong legislation about it,” he said, “but we have direct knowledge that law firms are looking into bullying as the next era of something like sexual harassment. They didn’t have laws on the books, and then because so many complained, they had to put something on the books.”
Workplace bullying is a growing, and often complicated, problem for employers.