Workplace Bullying

By Rachel Walden — March 26, 2008

Workplace bullying has been receiving a fair bit of attention recently, mainly thanks to recent headlines proclaiming “workplace bullying worse than sexual harassment.” This news coverage was generated by a review presented at a bullying conference (sponsored in part by the American Psychological Association and National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health) at which Canadian researchers looked at studies on the two issues and concluded that workplace aggression had greater adverse effects on “work stress and physical, psychological and emotional well-being” than did sexual harassment.

The discussion seems to have struck a chord with many people; after posting on the topic at the New York Times’s Well Blog and receiving more than 300 comments, blogger Tara Parker-Pope posted a second entry on Monday to specifically ask readers if they had experienced bullying, and nearly 250 comments and many harrowing tales have already been shared, including some commenters who report physical and psychological problems they attribute to their work environments.

It may seem odd initially to consider bullying as equal to or worse than sexual harassment, but gains over the last decades have resulted in legal protections and clear workplace policies that allow workers to confront and address physical and verbal abuse of a sexual nature, while non-sexual verbal abuse has been left unaddressed. As this piece notes, “Business groups often argue that existing laws are adequate to protect workers. But bullying generally does not involve race, age or sex, which have protected status in the courts. Instead, most workplace hostility occurs just because someone doesn’t like someone else.”

Indeed, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, in defining harassment in general, states that “To be unlawful, the conduct must create a work environment that would be intimidating, hostile, or offensive to reasonable people.” The “persistent criticism, yelling, spreading gossip, and insults” mentioned in one of the Well blog posts certainly seems to fit this criteria, but federal law indicates that the offensive conduct must be “conduct that is based on race, color, sex, religion, national origin, disability, and/or age.” Despite this distinction, both forms of abuse seem like affronts to basic human dignity, and both are likely bad for productivity, morale and employee retention and recruitment.

To address this loophole, laws have been proposed in various states, but have not succeeded to date. A bill has been proposed in New York State that proclaims “The social and economic well-being of the state is dependent upon healthy and productive employees” and would make subjecting an employee to an abuse work environment illegal while allowing for civil action by the worker, with damages up to $25,000 even when a negative employment outcome (such as firing the worker) did not occur.

7 responses to “Workplace Bullying”

  1. Although, too, I think it’s important to see how sexual harassment is often a type of bullying.

    Still, I’m glad to see more folks addressing this stuff.

  2. Aunt B, you’re absolutely right that sexual harassment can be a kind of bullying, although in that case the worker has legal protections that people being non-sexually harassed don’t presently have. Thanks for your comment.

  3. I’m glad this is being brought to attention. I’ve worked in places where, while I wasn’t being sexually harassed, I was just absolutely being treated like crap- and there was nothing I could do other than find another job.

    While this was fine when I was 25 and could find another $8 an hour gig anywhere, things have changed and I would hate to only have the choice to find another job, if I was being bullied.

  4. I am a victim of workplace bullying and something has to be done to protect us. I am a good worker and have worked my way to the position I have now. The abuse takes place behind closed doors. You feel like an abuse victim because you feel like you have physical bruises and want to hide. Fortunately, I just started working harder and focusing, so that my good work will perhaps make my boss look like the unstable person it is. It is hard to be relaxed because you live in fear that any minute another attack will take place. My boss has even told people to not associate with me but I have a couple loyal co-workers who have supported me. I have writted my senator in my state and asked him to either initiate or support a bill to make workplace bullying against the law.

  5. Hi, I am so glad to see New York take initiative here. This problem brings on added stress, anxiety, depression and other problems. Plus, the workplace looses money with all of this occuring. Who can be productive in this enviornment? Without productivity, money and the strength of employees are lost. Something to think about….

    Take Care,
    Elizabeth Bennett

  6. I have been a victim of bullying in the workplace for 5 years – it is about to send me over the edge. The bullies call me at home – come to my home – hound and pound me at work. I am so depressed and anxious I can’t sleep or think. I am looking for other work – small town – where everyone knows everyone – so if I don’t use them as a reference – then I will be found out – and if I do use them as a reference – they won’t give me a good one. Given the state of our economy I feel stuck. I keep hoping the business will just fail – so I can then collect unemployment.

  7. “Workplace violence is any act against an employee that creates a hostile work environment and negatively affects the employee either physically or psychologically. Bullying is a non-homicidal form of violence and a systematic campaign that jeopardizes your health, your career, your family and the job you once loved. And because it is violent , emotional and physical harm results. Bullies are not psychopaths. They are normal people who get very aggressive at work. And it is not about you”.(

    To date there are ten employees including myself who have been subjected to some form of repeated harassing, malicious, cruel and humiliating attempts to undermine us by the same manager, in the same department, in the same facility in southern New Hampshire. Four employees have been terminated while the others have left because of the emotional toll it was taking on their health. Having worked with eight of these wonderful people I can attest to their character, professionalism, skill, loyalty and genuine care for the people in the community. One employee was tormented and terminated after 38 years of service excellence. She was constantly ordered into meetings without any warning or support and subjected to being yell at, intimidated, belittled and routinely threatened with termination. She was humiliated and tormented by words, intonations and attacks on her character even though her work performance and yearly reviews were very good. Another employee from the same department was terminated last week. I was terminated from this department after 28 years of continuous, loyal service to this facility. Like the other employees my evaluations were great, coworkers enjoyed working with me and my patients appreciated all that I did for them. I had received a substantial pay raise 5 months before the torment and bullying began because the management said they ” appreciated the years of dedication, professionalism and ability to be a team player.

    What we all have in common is the fact we were subjected to emotional distress and psychological harassment over a period of time resulting in mental and physical distress. By this managers words, intonations and actions he created an environment that was hostile and offensive. And the documentation about each encounter we had with this bully was twisted, inaccurate and crafted to be so hurtful we were doubting our sanity. .

    Sadly the administration including Human Resources were aware of the hostile work environment within this department and did nothing to prevent or abate the problem. We begged them for help but were just sent back to the bully for ‘conflict resolution” . Stopping workplace violence requires more than mere “conflict resolution”. We were offered counseling but only at the hands of this abuser.

    Workplace violence is an occupational and safety health hazard and addressed by OSHA in their guidelines for preventing workplace violence for healthcare and social service workers. (OSHA 3148-01R2004). I would be interested in knowing the cost of mental and physical ill health that this stress has caused on not only the abused employee but to all the others that witnessed the abuse and were too afraid for their jobs to say anything. I know I ended up in the emergency room with chest pains after a particularly cruel meeting, sought out psychological counseling and took two weeks of short term disability to try and process what was happening to me.

    Eleven years ago I battled breast cancer with a poor prognosis. I would rather fight that battle again then endure what I did at the hands of this evil man and an administration that turned a deaf ear to my pleas for help. At least when I was fighting breast cancer I knew who the enemy was.

    There are no states that have laws that safeguard employees from the abuse. On January 7, 2010 a legislature from Hinsdale, New Hampshire proposed legislation (House Bill 1403) designed to provide legal protection for workers subjected to an abusive and hostile work environment. Several of us who were negatively impacted by this cruel and evil manager shared our experiences before the House Labor, Industrial and Rehabilitative Services Committee in Concord, NH. Sadly the proposed bill went no farther. Hopefully with public awareness, a new administration and claims of abuse causing medical malpractice to soar due to bullying employees and patient injury we can say that bullying in the workplace is wrong financially and morally. It shouldn’t hurt to go to work.

    I found a wonderful website that is designed for employees that have been bullied. This site is designed for bullied individuals to help educate in hopes of making a difference in your health ,and, in return, your life.

    Thank you for listening.


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