A Comprehensive Guide To Bullying In the Workplace: Laws, Definitions and Action Steps

John Krautzel
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Bullying may occur at any level in society, even at work. A survey conducted by corporate consultants VitalSmart in 2014 reveals some surprising statistics regarding workplace bullying. As many as 96 percent of the 2,283 respondents said they experienced workplace bullying, and 89 percent of bullies admitted to engaging in that behavior for more than one year. American law does not have many protections for people bullied at the office, but there are steps workers can take to protect themselves.

What the Law Says

Federal law only protects certain classes of people from a "hostile work environment." A hostile work environment occurs when a person's conduct causes negative effects to a co-worker's health and well-being. An employee may feel threatened, intimidated or humiliated in the work place. A hostile work environment makes it impossible for someone to work there. Even if an employee proves and documents the behavior that leads to a hostile environment, federal laws only go so far.

For a workplace bullying claim to occur at the federal level, the hostile work environment must occur only to a protected class of workers. If a supervisor, manager, co-worker or executive bullies everyone, then a lawsuit cannot go forward under current federal law. Protected classes include race, religion, national origin and gender. If a workplace bully creates a hostile work environment for people only in a protected class, then federal and state laws come into play.

In terms of state laws, very few states offer protections for workplace bullies. As many as 25 states have introduced legislation to protect employees from bullying, but most of those bills failed to become actual laws. Part of the reason is that legislators fear workers could sue employers for simply being mean, and state lawmakers may want to avoid legislating civil behavior. However, there are some guidelines that can help employees recognize bullying at the workplace.

Defining Workplace Bullying

The Workplace Bullying Institute uses several behaviors that define workplace bullying. This type of abuse occurs repeatedly, and it may come from one or more different people at work. A bully in this situation conducts himself in a manner that is intimidating, threatening or humiliating toward someone else, and this may include verbal abuse. Bullying also entails sabotage or interference that prevents work from being done.

Workplace bullying involves several types of behaviors, none of which are initiated by the victims. A perpetrator may feel the need to control another person, and this behavior may involve others who side with the bully or the victim. The bully generally chooses his own timing, methods, location and targets. The perpetrator either does things to others or withholds resources from another person.

There is a wide range of tactics bullies use to try to get their way. A co-worker may falsely accuse a colleague of mistakes that the person did not actually make. A manager could make up rules for specific people that do not exist for anyone else. A supervisor might single out one person socially or physically. A workplace bully may throw a tantrum to humiliate someone in front of others.

In general, this type of workplace abuser is on the payroll of the company. This person's behavior undermines the purpose of the business because the bully's concerns come before the day-to-day operations of the company. Bullies can cause real revenue and profit loss if their behavior causes discord that leads to a hostile work environment. Victims in these situations can take steps even if there are limited legal options.

Action Steps

People subjected to bullying can take several steps to try to solve the problem. A victim should examine what is going on without putting any personal feelings into the situation. Does this person pick on everyone or just one person? Does the bully engage in this behavior all of the time?

A victim needs to remain professional while standing up for himself. An employee can set limits with the bully. Instead of someone stooping to the bully's level, a victim stays calm and strong in the face of adverse behavior. If the perpetrator gets the message, he changes his demeanor and does not bully again.

Unfortunately, not all bullies get the message. Anyone who feels abused at work should try to document the behavior by taking notes as to when the person acts up and how the person behaves. This gives the individual a case when he seeks assistance.

A victim can talk to a trusted supervisor or the head of human resources to ask for help. Talking to the bully's immediate supervisor may not be the right choice since that person could represent part of the problem instead of the solution.

Sometimes, the situation does not resolve itself properly. If this is the case, it could be best for the victim to move on to another position. There are always job openings for someone with the right skills, talents, experiences and accomplishments.

Workplace bullying is a very real problem in America, whether laws support this assertion or not. Other countries, especially in Europe, have laws that specifically address this issue for workers. The United States lags behind in laws that support victims of workplace bullying. Even without laws, employees can still take action after recognizing this type of detrimental behavior.

Photo Courtesy of Ken Whytock at Flickr.com


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  • Erica  T.
    Erica T.

    I have a friend who was bullied by her supervisor for over a year before she found another job. This supervisor would call out her mistakes in front of team members and schedule meetings but 'forget' to include my friend on the invite list (even though she was the account manager for several company clients and expected to be in those meetings). This supervisor would also set project deadlines and then move them up without any reason. At first, my friend just thought she was being 'thin-skinned', or that she really had made some work-related mistakes, but then she found out her supervisor was bullying others using the same shameful tactics. Thanks for this article, I hope people realize what a serious problem workplace bullying can be.

  • Nancy Anderson
    Nancy Anderson

    Thanks for the comments. @Jay it would be a shame if it got so bad that you had to resort to filing a civil anti-harassment order against a coworker or supervisor. Most people wouldn't stay around long enough to get to that point. @Erin even bullies can change - although not very often. Getting a bully fired can be a tough road to go down. Many times the reason the bully acts the way he/she does is because they have been bullied in the past or they are being bullied by their superior. Sometimes it's good to get to the root of the issue without going to drastic measures such as getting them fired.

  • Erin H.
    Erin H.

    "If the perpetrator gets the message, he changes his demeanor and does not bully again." Has anyone ever experienced this with a bully? I have extensive experience with bullying, and I have never known one to just "not bully again". In fact, in the real world, the only thing I've ever been able to do with a bully (in the workplace) is to aggressively lobby to have them fired. Stooping to the same level doesn't work, obviously. Threats, shaming, ignoring.... these tactics rarely work. The answer is to just have them fired.

  • Jay Bowyer
    Jay Bowyer

    If you feel you're being bullied and workplace laws don't apply specifically to you, that doesn't mean the bullying behavior falls within the greater scope of law. You can still apply anti-harassment laws to workplace situations and if the behavior gets really bad, you can file for a civil anti-harassment order. Naturally it'd be best if it didn't get to that stage, but if you've exhausted all your at-work anti-bullying resources, you might consider exploring the alternate route.

  • Nancy Anderson
    Nancy Anderson

    Thanks for the comments. @Kellen that could very well be true in a small town. If you live in a small town, you may have to consider traveling to the nearest town that has job openings. You will need to factor that in when applying for a position. @Katharine so sorry that you had to go through that. I, too, have been in such a situation and the only option I had was to walk and I did. I would rather take a lesser position than have to live in a world where you dread going to work in the morning. So true that you have to be careful if you decide to report a bully because you never know! All you can hope for is that the day will come when that bully supervisor gets to work for an even bigger bully!

  • Katharine M.
    Katharine M.

    I agree that you have to be careful who you go to with this problem, because the bully's supervisor could be a part of the problem. I worked for a company once with a truly horrible woman supervising 10 people, and it was alarming to see the ripple effect of her behavior- her employees were miserable and gradually began to behave as badly as she did. We affect each other profoundly- that's why it's so important to stop a bully in his tracks.

  • Kellen P.
    Kellen P.

    I have to disagree that "there are always job openings" for skilled workers. In smaller towns, getting bullied out of a good job may require you to not only quit but also uproot yourself and your family to seek employment elsewhere. It's an unfortunate situation, and I've seen it happen to good people.

  • Nancy Anderson
    Nancy Anderson

    @Abbey I am not sure of the answer to your questions but hopefully someone reading this will be able to help. @Erin if a bully knows that you are recording the session or the phone call, they are not going to be a bully during that time. Bullies, for the most part, are not stupid. Especially in the context of the work environment. They know when to schmooze and be the nice guy and they know when they can get away with berating you and getting away with it. Unless someone actually hears or sees the bully in action, it will always remain a he said he said which is a no win for either side. Do you think that a company would compensate you because of a bullying situation? Probably not as it's hard to prove. More than likely, in order to save a long term, expensive lawsuit, the company will drop both you and the bully. Just my opinions here. Has anyone been in a position to try this?

  • Abbey Boyd
    Abbey Boyd

    The article states that legislators are hesitant to enact any law that may create the potential for employees to sue their employers for simply being "mean." What about the employers that truly are bullies and really do cause immense suffering to their employees? Is there a way for an employee to seek financial compensation when the working conditions were so unbearable that they were forced to resign? Is there something in the law that helps in this kind of situation?

  • Erin Jean
    Erin Jean

    It helps to find out if you live in a one-party recording state. I do, which means I can (and have) recorded bullying behavior on my phone without the knowledge of the bully. As long as one person in the room knows they're being recorded, you can do this and save yourself he-said-she-said dismissals of your problem.

  • Nancy Anderson
    Nancy Anderson

    Thanks for the comments. Of course @William there are those who will find a way around the laws. This has always been the case. But, for the most part, most bullies could care less about the laws. How do you document? I have been in these situations and have found that the best way is to keep a logbook and annotate it with the date, time and the incident. If there was a witness, you could ask if they would sign the logbook as proof that the incident happened and/or come forward should you need their help. The biggest problem I have seen is that people are afraid of that bully and aren't willing to stick their necks out. Unfortunately that will come down to he said he said - not a good scenario. @Lorri I totally agree that the laws should cover everyone - not just the protected class. We should all be the protected class if we are having to deal with a bullying boss or coworker.

  • William Browning
    William Browning

    How do people document bullying well enough to hold up in court? State laws vary with respect to video and audio recording. Some states only allow audio recordings if all parties consent to the recording. It seems to me that the "smart" bullies would somehow get around the law before earning a supervisory position.

  • Lorri Cotton
    Lorri Cotton

    The laws about workplace bullying must be changed. How is it, that only "protected classes" are protected by the law? It should be applied evenly to everyone. Until this is addressed, workplace bullying will only increase. Bullies never stop themselves. I know many, including myself, who have been the victim of workplace bullying and it can drive you from your career. Some are strong enough to stand up to a bully, but most are not.

  • Lydia K.
    Lydia K.

    I'm surprised that the bullying statistics are so high. Was this survey industry specific? I am not sure that states need to legislate bullying beyond anti-discrimination laws already in place. I think companies should have policies about civil behavior and respect for coworkers in their employee manuals. People who violate the company policy can be sanctioned or disciplined without getting the legal system involved.

  • Nancy Anderson
    Nancy Anderson

    @Shannon thanks for the comment. Maybe we can find out. Any teachers out there who know about the laws regarding bullying in the schools?

  • Shannon Philpott
    Shannon Philpott

    It is so sad that this type of behavior exists in professional environments and even worse that the U.S. is lagging behind with laws to prevent it or address it more effectively. I'm curious about any laws that exist for staff/teachers working in schools. The Department of Education is very detailed about how to handle bullying among students, but has legislation addressed bullying that occurs among staff members in educational institutions?

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