For all but the wealthiest Americans, working isn’t a matter of choice. It’s a necessity. In fact, more than 128 million Americans held full time jobs (or worked at least 35 hours per week) in January 2019. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) data for 2017 also indicates that the average full-time employee working Monday through Friday typically put in more than 8.5 hours per day. However, anecdotal evidence suggests that some Americans work as much as 50 to 60 hours per week.
With so many people working so hard, it is easy to see why so many Americans complain of stress. What is impossible to understand is why so many American workers are also subjected to workplace bullying and personal injury.
The definition of workplace bullying
The Workplace Bullying Institute (WBI), generally defines workplace bullying as ongoing mistreatment of one employee by at least one co-worker (in a supervisory, equivalent or subordinate role); or as abusive conduct that is: threatening, humiliating, or intimidating. As such, it can also include overt or passive work sabotage, or verbal abuse. This can lead to personal injury. In fact, personal injury is a form of negligence.
- Actions designed to make the victim feel alone.
- Leaving the victim out of group activities and directly or indirectly encouraging other employees to do the same.
- Repeatedly singling the same individual out for alleged lateness, absence or other workplace “infractions.”
- Yelling at the victim, especially in front of other co-workers.
- Engaging in harsh and unwarranted criticism.
- Threatening to give or giving poor work evaluations without cause.
- Ganging up on one person, or “mobbing.”
- Causing personal injury to an employee.
- Engaging in or encouraging gossip.
- Blaming the person for making mistakes without cause.
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The difference between workplace bullying and harassment
Within this context, it is important to know the difference between bullying and harassment. Both are characterized by unacceptable conduct directed towards a specific person and both happen in the workplace and can cause personal injury. However, unlike bullying, harassment is a pattern of behavior based only on the victim’s race, ethnicity, gender, gender identity/expression, or sexual preference. As such, it is against both state and federal law.
Is personal injury from bullying common?
The WBI’s national 2017 Workplace Bullying Survey indicated more than six in 10 participants know about abusive conduct in the workplace. Alarmingly, the survey conducted in April 2017 also found that:
- More than 14.5 million American workers said they were being bullied at the time or had experienced workplace bullying within the last year.
- Approximately 15.4 million American workers said they had been the victims of workplace bullying before, but not in the last year.
- Nearly 23 million American workers witnessed workplace bullying and nearly 7.5 million American workers know it has happened to others.
Based on those findings, the WBI classified workplace bullying in America as an “epidemic.”
Characteristics of perpetrators and victims
The recent WBI survey also yielded interesting information about both perpetrators and victims. In general, the survey found that the majority (70 percent) of workplace bullies were men, while only 30 percent were women. Furthermore, while male bullies tended to target women in the workplace, female bullies targeted other women.
In most cases, (63 percent), there was only one bully, and most of the bullies held senior positions. Approximately one third of the bullies were co-workers with similar job titles and duties; and only a small percentage of workplace bullies were subordinates who targeted their superiors.
In terms of race and ethnicity, the survey found that Hispanics were most often bullied in the workplace, followed by African American and White workers.
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The effects of workplace bullying on victims
The effects of workplace bullying vary depending on the severity of the activity, how long the victim has been targeted, and his or her resiliency. In many cases victims can experience post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety and depression, which can be manifested in physical symptoms. These may include:
- Upset stomach
- Aches and pains
- The inability to concentrate
In an effort to avoid a hostile work environment, victims may have higher absenteeism than their peers. Away from the job, they may also have difficulty maintaining healthy relationships with their families and friends.
Most victims keep quiet
Most victims also keep quiet. According to the WBI survey, 29 percent of victims didn’t say a word to anyone at work or outside of work. Slightly more than half (53 percent) of victims shared their experiences with co-workers or mentioned them to the employer.
Hardly anyone pursued formal recourse. As the survey indicates, only 13 percent of participants that identified themselves as victims said they filed formal complaints with their employers. Only 3 percent filed complaints with government agencies, and only 2 percent filed lawsuits.
Of the survey participants who filed complaints, 26 percent said their employer didn’t take any action whatsoever. Nearly half (46 percent) said their employer conducted shoddy investigations and nothing changed. Twenty-three percent reported positive changes for themselves after the investigation, but only 6 percent reported negative repercussions for the bully.
Is bullying in the workplace illegal?
So far, 30 states have introduced various iterations of the Healthy Workplace Bill, which does not use the term, “workplace bullying,” but specifically defines and addresses an “”abusive work environment.”
It also includes provisions that allow affected employees to:
- Pursue legal recourse for health harming cruelty at work.
- Sue the bully as an individual.
- Hold the employer accountable for the bully’s behavior.
- Seek reparations for lost wages and benefits.
- Compel employers to prevent and correct future instances.
Its provisions also protect employers from frivolous complaints and litigations by:
- Requiring proof of health harm by licensed health or mental health professionals.
- Giving employers the ability to discipline offenders.
- Mandating that plaintiffs use private attorneys.
- Filling loopholes in current state and federal civil rights protections.
Finally, the Healthy Workplace Bill does not:
- Require state agencies to enforce any provisions of the law
- Incur costs for adopting states
- Mandate that plaintiffs are members of protected status groups.
The WBI survey also found that the vast majority (more than three-quarters) of survey participants “strongly” or “somewhat” supported the enactment of a new law that would “protect all workers from repeated health-harming abusive mistreatment in addition to protections against illegal discrimination and harassment.”
What else can be done?
In the absence of or in addition to, existing laws, workplace education and the creation of zero tolerance policies, backed by strong leadership are touted as effective ways to address workplace bullying. Encouraging all employees to treat each other with a healthy dose of compassion and empathy and leading by example can’t hurt, either.