Focus On ...Workplace Bullying --BNA

Reproduced with permission from Labor Relations Reporter-Individual Employment Rights Newsletter,  Vol. 15, No. 18, p. 72 (Feb. 8, 2000).  Copyright 2000 by The Bureau of National Affairs, Inc.

Bureau of National Affairs' Individual Employee Rights Newsletter Herald

(February 8, 2000)

SAN FRANCISCO--Bullying in the workplace is pervasive and damaging but the laws are not so clear as with other forms of harassment, panelists said at a two-day conference on work trauma.

Bullying is the "silent epidemic" in the workplace, where abusive behavior, threats, intimidation, and other acts do not get reported while they drain energy, productivity, and profits, attorneys, researchers, and workers said Jan. 27-28 at what was billed as the first U.S. national conference on the issue. It was sponsored by the Benicia, Calif.-based Campaign Against Workplace Bullying.

Researchers at Wayne State University in Detroit said bullying is verbal and nonverbal behavior that is persistent, unwelcome, and directed at a person such that the target's sense of self as a competent worker is negatively affected.

Bullies' tactics include glaring; flaunting status; ignoring the worker or his/her contributions; interrupting and preventing expression; failing to respond to calls or memos; the silent treatment; verbal attacks; shouting; spreading gossip; blaming the target for others' errors; swearing at the worker; excluding the worker from important activities and meetings; making obscene or offensive gestures; and playing mean pranks.

A survey of 227 health care workers in Ontario, Canada, found workers viewed the physically and emotionally abusive incidents as "more meaningful, more salient, than the sexual incidents and that emotionally abusive incidents were perceived to be the most difficult to control," said Loraleigh Keashly, director of the dispute resolution program at Wayne State University's College of Urban, Labor, and Metropolitan Affairs.

For more information on the Campaign Against Workplace Bullying, see

Ninety percent of people surveyed say bullies get away with it and workers are too scared to report the incidents, said Charlotte Rayner, senior lecturer with Staffordshire University Business School in England.

Abusive behavior creates a hostile work environment, David Yamada, associate professor at Suffolk University Law School in Boston, told the conference.

Typical workplace bullying seldom results in liability for intentional infliction of emotional distress, Yamada said. The most frequent reason courts give for rejecting workplace-related intentional infliction of emotional distress claims, Yamada said, is that the bully's behavior was not sufficiently extreme and outrageous to meet legal requirements.

Courts can figure out a hostile work environment as it relates to sex, race, age, or other public policies, said Janet Cooper, a plaintiff's lawyer and president of the Federally Employed Women, Legal & Education Fund in Washington, D.C. "But if I tell everybody else not to talk to you, including people you need information from in order to do your job ... and this goes on for two years on a regular, almost daily basis, the courts don't see that as hostile work environment. The jury understood it. The jury is made up of people who go to work everyday. They've been in these situations. They know what it's like," Cooper said.

Bullying research is completely different than aggression research, said Rayner. Physical violence is about violence between strangers who do not have a past, Rayner said. "Bullying is about people who have a past and a future together, and that's essential to what's going on," she said.

A new survey of 1,110 Michigan residents who worked in the last year found 38.4 percent had been mistreated in the past 12 months, Keashley said. A total of 1,837 Michigan residents age 18-94 were surveyed in the random telephone sample. Of that total, 43.5 percent reported mistreatment during their careers. And most of the time--50.8 percent for workers in the last 12 months and 65.5 percent over their careers--it was the boss mistreating the worker. A co-worker was the bully 34.8 percent of the time for those who worked in the last 12 months and 23.8 percent of time over the respondents' career, Keashly and Wayne State psychologist Karen Jagatic reported.

Over the last 12 months, 76.1 percent of workers reported that such mistreatment bothered them somewhat or a lot while 79 percent of those who had been harassed during their careers said it bothered them somewhat or a lot, the researchers said. In the last 12 months, 71.1 percent of the time the bully was the same race and half of the time it was the same gender. Over their careers, workers reported the bully was the same race 69 percent of the time and male 65.9 percent of the time, the stratified random sample of Michigan residents said.

While research into workplace abuse has centered on workplace violence, bullies typically do not physically assault workers, Keashly said. "Generalized workplace harassment" not associated with race or sex included 412 incidents that workers reported to the researchers, she said. Workers selecting the event that most bothered them chose emotional incidents 55 percent of the time, physical events 26 percent, and sexual events 19 percent.

During the five days workers tracked their experiences, 53 percent of the health care workers reported being glared at while 39 percent reported being yelled or shouted at and another 37 percent were attacked verbally with insulting or harsh statements. Thirty-five percent reported being sworn at and another 35 percent reported being ignored or given the silent treatment. Researchers gave the health care workers five checklists for each consecutive work day, "so we got them at the end of every working day that they had. Not much chance for memory to interfere on those ones," Keashly said. Thirty-four percent of the workers reported being gestured at in a threatening manner while 20 percent reported being threatened with physical harm or death.