"I am being bullied in my workplace. Is there a federal law against bullying that can protect me?”
Short answer? No. Bullying is legal in every U.S. state. That means most employers are not forced to take any action against workplace bullies.
How prevalent is workplace bullying? According to a 2017 WBI U.S. Workforce Bullying survey, on average, 60.3 million U.S. workers have been affected by workplace bullying in some form. More than 14.5 million workers are experiencing workplace bullying at this moment, and more than 15 million have experienced it in the past.
Only a few states have introduced legislation against bullying. Thirty U.S. states and two territories have filed variations of The Healthy Workplace Bill (HWB), but have not enacted into law in its complete anatomy.
The HWB, drafted in 2001 by University Professor of Law David Yamada and lobbied by Drs. Gary and Ruth Namie, directors of the Workplace Bullying Institute, seeks to make it unlawful for any employer to subject an employee to abusive work environments. The bill would allow employees to sue perpetrators, force employers to prevent and correct future instances of bullying, seek restoration of lost wages and benefits, but it does not involve state agencies to enforce any provisions of the law, or uses the term “workplace bullying.”
How does workplace bullying affect enterprise security, and what do you need to know about it?
Understanding Workplace Bullying
One of the major problems with bullying is that it isn’t well understood, says Catherine Mattice-Zundel, MA, SPHR, SHRM-SCP. Mattice-Zundel is a workplace bullying expert who specializes on the impact that bullying has on victims and enterprises, and the proper steps that are needed to effectively mitigate bullying.
According to Mattice-Zundel, there are many psychological traumas that bullying victims can experience. “Victims feel lost and confused, they feel lonely because they are often isolated at work and at home because their families don’t really understand what they are going through. There are several academic studies that support that victims can get PTSD from being bullied at work,” says Mattice-Zundel.
The psychological traumas do not stop there. “There is evidence that people who are bullied consider suicide,” she says. Bullying can also have physical damage and often “the stress translates to many medical issues, such as not sleeping, stomach issues, heart disease and many other visible diseases.”
Identifying the Behavior
Mattice-Zundel sees bullying as three categories that often operate simultaneously:
- Aggressive communication, which can encompass yelling, sending angry, humiliating and “nasty” emails and getting in someone’s personal space.
- Humiliation: pointing out mistakes in public, isolating people (in meeting or other events) and playing jokes on them.
- Manipulation: giving someone an extensive amount of workload that is impossible to achieve in the time frame given, punitively punishing employees and claiming that they have poor job performance.
Mattice-Zundel recalls an instance where she witnessed someone yelling at a colleague, causing them to experience a physical reaction (a panic attack), despite a lack of physical abuse. “If you start to experience those kinds of behavior, and it feels wrong to you and you start to feel anxious, unsure or afraid, then that’s a sign you are being bullied,” she says.
Mattice-Zundel mentions all three categories as the common types of bullying, but sees manipulation as the most “traditional” type of abusive conduct because it can be easily hidden, misunderstood and hard to argue against.
She notes instances where both parties (the accused and the target) feel and claim they are being bullied and it is unclear which party is guilty. The only way to solve the confusion, she says, is to conduct interviews and start an investigation, similar to how harassment incidents are treated in the workplace.
Solving the Problem
Targets can endure bullying for extended periods of time and rarely share their experiences with coworkers. The WBI report notes that a large majority do not formally report abusive conduct to their employer: 29 percent remain silent and 53 percent informally report the bullying. Only 18 percent formally report experiences to their employers. In the rare occasion that abusive conduct is reported, 71 percent of U.S. employers react in ways that harm targets and only 29 percent result in positive reactions.
“Many employers do not address bullying in the ways that they should, whether they have the resources or not,” Mattice-Zundel says. “And there are many instances where it results in violence, either from the person bullied or the bully. If you see bullying as something that might easily result in violence, you have to step in. Don’t wait around for it to escalate to violence.”
Early intervention is key, says Mattice-Zundel. In small businesses, particularly, “You can use your performance management system. Every company has the ability to review their employees, their behaviors and performances. Have that conversation. Say, ‘Your behavior is violating teamwork, it’s hurting our organization and it needs to stop.’ Put them through the disciplinary procedure just like you would any problem.”
Proactive measures that can be taken to diminish workplace bullying include:
- Implement a written workplace bullying prevention program and reporting requirement, including strict and outlined procedures.
- Offer resources where employees can obtain emotional support following workplace bullying incidents.
- Train all employees on effective and appropriate methods on how to respond to workplace bullying and how to recognize bullying behavior.
- Hold educative sessions on the physical and emotional damages that occur with workplace bullying.
If an employee reports workplace bullying to enterprise security, the response should be to treat it as if someone reported incidents of domestic violence or abuse, suggests Mattice-Zundel. “I see this as a problem that develops long before any violence occurs, so take preemptive steps to be proactive as soon as complaints of bullying are received. Understanding that there are physical and psychological damages is a necessity. Being psychologically safe at work is a must and something that we all deserve.”