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Those who say it cannot be done, should not interrupt those doing it.
— Chinese Proverb

American Horror Story: Workplace Bullying

Have you ever been bullied?  Be honest.  If so, was it in school?  Do you recall that shiver of dread during recess, or on the bus, or walking home? The horror writer, Stephen King, masterfully describes the childhood experiences of being bullied in many of his novels.  Pig’s blood at prom, anyone?  How about a group of bullied teenagers who form a group called The Losers Club to confront a scary clown?

Another form of bullying is creating a similar level of anxiety across America.  But instead of a small town in Maine or a high school gym, the bullying occurs in a place that is often fused to one’s livelihood, self-respect, and health.  In short, the workplace.  

Per the Workplace Bullying Institute (WBI), workplace bullying is defined as:

“repeated, health-harming mistreatment of one or more persons (the targets) by one or more perpetrators: abusive conduct that takes one or more of the following forms:

  • Verbal abuse, or
  • Threatening, intimidating or humiliating behaviors (including nonverbal), or
  • Work interference – sabotage – which prevents work from getting done, or
  • Some combination of one or more.”

Given this broad definition, you have probably witnessed one or more examples of abusive treatment at your employer.  According to the 2014 Workplace Bullying Survey conducted by WBI, 27% of respondents had current or past direct experience with bullying at work.  Respondents identified bosses as the most typical bullies.

Bullying can happen to anyone. For example, over the course of Workplace FactFinders’ Co-founder Stephanie Woodhead’s career she had two managers who repeatedly engaged in verbally abusing, humiliating, or intimidating her and her colleagues.  One of her former supervisors publicly engaged in an angry tirade about her failings on a project, while pointing her finger in the middle of Stephanie’s chest.  Another screamed at her so loudly and viciously on a conference call that two of her colleagues could hear the commotion from across the floor while working in their own offices. Although these two incidents were separated by many years and different employers, the common thread is that neither supervisor apologized, neither were held accountable, neither of these incidents were isolated, and both managers reacted by ignoring Stephanie for several weeks afterward. 

Despite reporting the conduct to the appropriate company representative, Stephanie’s former employers failed to take any action, which is not surprising considering that the Workplace Bullying Survey also reported that 72% of the respondents stated that their employers deny, discount, encourage, rationalize, or defend the bullying.  Not exactly a work environment that enhances morale or stimulates productivity.

Is this the point in the article where we list various statutes designed to protect employees from bullying?  Sadly, no.  There is no standalone Federal statute that makes bullying legally actionable unless the abusive conduct is connected to a protected class under anti-discrimination laws such as Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, the Americans with Disabilities Act, or the Age Discrimination in Employment Act.  Anti-bullying advocates have introduced the Healthy Workplace Bill in 30 state legislatures.  This proposed legislation would create a separate cause of action for workplace bullying, but, to date, no state has passed the measure in its entirety. 

Some states, such as California, have passed legislation that include limited expansion of their existing anti-discrimination laws to include mandatory training on preventing bullying or ban bullying in public agencies.  For example, California requires employers of 50 or more employees to include “abusive conduct” subject matter in the two-hour mandatory sexual harassment training for supervisors. 

The adverse effects of workplace bullying can be extensive and expensive for employers.  Health problems, including possible PTSD, absenteeism, loss of morale, loss of productivity, turnover, poor quality deliverables, lost opportunity, and even legal action in some cases are a few examples of the costs extracted by workplace bullying.  The good news is that with a little effort, employers can identify their areas of vulnerability and implement proactive measures to keep bullying from seeping into their culture. Conversely, if an employer is concerned that bullying exists, swift, decisive action to excise it is necessary. 

Workplace bullying is one horror story no one wants to read.

Workplace FactFinders can help you get this right. For more information about our services, including internal investigations, policy and procedure consulting and auditing, and our Informed Resolutions™ process, please contact Cynthia Fenton or Stephanie Woodhead at (844) 321-9733 or email us at

The information contained in this article is not legal advice and should not be relied upon as such.  Employers should consult their attorneys for legal advice.

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