Posted by: Professionals In Human Resources Association (PIHRA) | October 23, 2009

Why Should You Care About Workplace Bullying?

Why Should You Care About Workplace Bullying?

 Why should you care about workplace bullying?  Because workplace bullying is so pervasive that state legislatures are doing something about it.  You should also care because workplace bullying can have substantial impacts on the health, morale and productivity of your workforce.    

A 2007 study conducted by the U.S. Workplace Bullying Institute (WBI), partnering with Zogby International, reported staggering results:

  • 37% of workers have been bullied at work, an estimated 54 million Americans;
  • 72% of bullies are bosses; so 28% are subordinates and/or co-workers;
  • 60% of bullies are men, but 40% are women;
  • 57% of targets are women, and women bullies target other women 71% of the time;
  • Male bullies target other men 54% of the time;
  • Women bullies are slightly more likely to enlist the help of others to gang up on their targets than male bullies;
  • 45% of targets suffer stress-related health problems, including debilitating anxiety, panic attacks, clinical depression and post-traumatic stress disorder;
  • Bullying is 4 times more common than harassment based on illegal discrimination.   

 Other surveys find even higher percentages of workers reporting abusive supervisors or employers.  Below, we discuss recent laws addressing workplace bullying, how to identify it and what you can do about it. 

Legislatures And Courts Across The Country Are Addressing The Problem Of Workplace “Bullying”

This year, the Illinois House Of Representatives and New York’s State Assembly passed far-reaching bills making it unlawful for employers to allow employees to be subjected to “bullying” conduct by other employees.  Both state bills have commissioned state-wide studies of the problem.  New York’s “Healthy Workplace Bill” protects all employees against an “abusive work environment,” and makes “malicious conduct which sabotages or undermines” work performance unlawful.  It also makes individual bullies personally liable, which means their victims can sue them directly, with the employer bearing possible vicarious liability.    

Eight other states introduced similar legislation this year.  Since 2003, sixteen states have introduced anti-bullying legislation, including California, which was the first to do so.  Grass-roots organizations dedicated to this cause continue to push for passage of such legislation.   

Significantly, even the Courts have begun to affirm rulings and verdicts against employers and individual employees based on bullying conduct.  A recent Ninth Circuit Court essentially negated the “equal opportunity harasser” argument when it held that seemingly gender-neutral bullying conduct (such as shouting, screaming, foul language, invading employee personal space and threatening gestures) directed at both men and women, can create a hostile work environment violating Title VII if the conduct “affected women more adversely than it affected men.” This ruling is especially significant in light of statistics above regarding gender based bullying.

Additionally, a state supreme court recently upheld a jury’s finding that a surgeon was liable for assault for screaming and swearing at a co-worker while advancing towards him in the operating room.  Evidence of the surgeon’s prior bullying was also admissible to prove assault and emotional distress. To protect your company from possible lawsuits resulting from workplace bullying, the key is to identify it, prevent it, and address it if it happens.     

What Is Workplace Bullying And What Can You Do About It? Workplace bullying is generally amorphously defined as repeated conduct which could reasonably be considered humiliating, intimidating, threatening or demeaning.  This can include yelling; screaming; loud, unwarranted, invalid or public criticism; behavior/language that frightens, belittles or degrades; excessive and unreasonable monitoring; unreasonably blocking promotion, training, development or other work opportunities; unreasonable deadlines or tasks; and taking credit for another’s work.  Additionally, conduct by subordinates who block access to information or sabotage or undermine their supervisors can be considered bullying. 

The solution to this problem involves express and enforced policies fostering a respectful and cooperative work environment.  This may involve policy changes, management training, institutional revisions concerning the factors which are used to compensate, reward or evaluate employees, mechanisms for reporting and investigating bullying, or all of the above.  Accordingly, employers would be wise to review their work environments and take appropriate measures with the assistance of their legal counsel.

Yvonne Arvanitis Fossati is a partner and Sangeeta Sharma and Veenita Raj are associates in the Los Angeles Office of Jackson Lewis LLP and can be reached at (213) 689-0404 or fossatiy@jacksonlewis.com, sharmas@jacksonlewis.com, and rajv@jacksonlewis.com.  Founded in 1958, Jackson Lewis is dedicated to representing management exclusively in workplace law with 600 attorneys practicing in 42 cities nationwide.  To learn more, please visit us at http://www.jacksonlewis.com.

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