What workplace bullying teaches us about the integrity of American employers

Ståle Einarsen, University of Bergen psychology professor and a leading authority on workplace bullying, once gave a conference keynote address in which he said, in effect, that rather than using our knowledge of employment relations to help us understand workplace bullying, perhaps we should use our knowledge of workplace bullying to help us understand employment relations.

I had his remarks in mind when I realized that if you want an ultimate test of an American employer’s integrity, examine how it responds to risks and claims of workplace bullying. Here’s why:

1. Limited liability exposure — Until the Healthy Workplace Bill or something like it becomes law, most American workers will not have a direct legal claim against their employers for workplace bullying, no matter how abusive the conduct and its effects. Accordingly, employers that choose to tackle workplace bullying pro-actively are doing so out of a commitment to their workers and to the resulting benefits in terms of productivity and morale.

2. Adopting and enforcing a strong policy — Currently employers are under no legal obligation to develop a policy concerning workplace bullying. An employer that adopts and enforces a policy is making a statement about its institutional culture, while potentially exposing itself to liability in the event of a violation. This is a big step to take.

3. Power differentials — Workplace bullying in the U.S. tends to be a top-down phenomenon, with supervisor-to-subordinate mistreatment being the most common combination. This is why workplace bullying is such a threatening topic to organizations and to individuals in charge: It often implicates the very power structure of a workplace. Thus, preventing and stopping workplace bullying requires a sincere, full-blown organizational commitment.

4. Investigation challenges — Although workplace bullying is frequent and destructive, conducting a fair and thorough investigation can be a difficult and challenging task. This is especially the case when the allegations involve behaviors of a more indirect nature.

In other words, workplace bullying challenges employers to do right by everyone, even if the liability risks are comparatively low, senior managers are among those whose actions will be reviewed, and investigating claims of bullying are difficult and time consuming. Employers that embrace these priorities and practices are special indeed.

11 responses

  1. David
    Good topic! What i have found in my life altering bullyng experience is that most employers do not believe that bullying is real or is damaging, probably because they themselves have not experienced the horrific effects of it. They write it off as, get over it, get back to work, quit being a wimp etc. In reality the truth is bullying in any form in any place in society is not ok. No form of abuse is ok. When we are small children we are told generally that this is a safe world to live in and we should feel safe about going to school and work. The road to a good career is often long and tedious and requires tremendous commitment from those of us that get to a job that is meaningful and has good pay and benefits. Having said that when an employer allows someone to jeopordize and sabotage all of that hard work it is criminal to say the least! Unfortunately it is not criminal in reality as we speak, because there are no laws right now to prevent it. Employers that allow or condone bullying do not care about the employee that is being injured, often they do not believe it or cannot imagine the concept becuase until you guys have come forward there has been little exposure about this. That is why i feel it is so important to continue this effort to drive home to legislators how real this is! Take me for example and you have heard me say this before, i worked for a non for profit in Upstate N.Y. a large community center and i went to board members and even the president of the board at times and asked for help and they aknkowledged the abuse and even stated many times that they themselves could not work for the person i worked for, but yet they also stated that they could do nothing to stop it,that they were not about to replace that person and i had to lern to live with it. They probably at those times when i came forward did not see the internal damage that was taking place in me. I ended up with post traumatic stress disorder and it has been a year and i may never return to work, i dont know. I think it is key that employees get the word out and expose the truth about how damaging this is. In some ways it is like a lot of things, lets say medical illness for example, there are thousands of rare disorders we wil never hear about until it happens to us or someone we are close too, or ( care about) There is one of the keys, (care about) Employers need to care about their employees!! Getting back on topic, unless we experience it or someone we know suffers the effects we are likely to never hear about some of these diseases. That is why people need to come forward that have suffered ill effects from bullying and expose the harm to law makers etc. Osha does this all of the time, they put policies and inspections and regulations in place for the workplace all of the time to protect workers. This is no different, it is something that causes an injury, and it is equally important for physicians to get on board with this and open their eyes to the effects as well, because this will help open the eyes of lawmakers if they can see that it is real!! I have an exceptional psychologist and i won my workers comp case for post traumatic stress in the workplace, the evidence and damage is real and could be proven. Abuse hurts, Abuse hurts, Abuse hurts, i will say it again Abuse hurts. we see millions of abuse cases in children and spouses all of the time and we see the damage it does and medical personell see the dmage it does daily and they acknwoledge it. It is time to acknwoldedge the real damage that bullying does to employees, there is no difference except where i do not condone any form of abuse or bullying i feel it is even more of a crime in the workplace, because in most states employers have an obligation to create a safe and healthy workplace as Osha well knows and when severe bullying takes place and injury occurs it is no different than any other injury in the workplace and i will take that stand until the day i die, because i experienced it first hand and i can prove it!!! I said it before and i will say it again, EMPLOYERS LOOK OUT, WERE COMING AFTER YOU WHERE BULLYING IS CONCERNED AND YOUR DAYS OF ABUSING WORKERS ARE NUMBERED!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! To everyone and all employees in the new year ahead, STAND UP, SPEAK OUT, AND TELL YOUR STORY!!!! But do it legally, within the law and do it right, sites like this one and the workplace bully institute offer excellent guidance to a healthy path of resolution and thank you David and everyone else at WBI and the healthy workplace advocates for the hard work that has brought us this far.

  2. Great topic! Thanks so much. This will be my #1 priority when I get my next job. It’s completely insane that organizations turn a blind eye to this phenomenon. But I spare you the comments I’m feeling right now….. This was a great article. Thank God for people that stand up and have the moxie to come after the business world now!!

  3. Paul
    You are welcome, and while i am disabled and cannot work i am going to spend as much time as is healthy for me to do so in getting the word out and contacting every lawmaker i can. I have contacted the governor of new york and i am forging ahead with as much exposure about this topic as i can legally do. We will win this battle.

  4. MyDear Mel,

    I empathise with you. I too was severly bullied by a malicious monster and her 12 minions. It is devastating to say the least. I was diagnosied with reative depression and had some symptomology of PTSD, hypervigilance, extreme startle response, avoidance etc…my reputation was slayed 20 years of excellent service destroyted and I was humliated on top of it all. I still work for the same toxic employeer who let it all happen ( I was constantly trying to get the upper echelons to intervine to no avail) I took a sizable demotion to get away from the bullies only to have 1/3 of them transfered to my my new office 2 years later. What a rotten joke. I am holding on as I have 5 1/2 years then I can retire. We have a no tolerance anti harrassment policy at work but no one enforced it and I had to sign a document saying I would not sue, apparently they knew I had a case. However no attorny would touch it. EEOC took the case but I could not afford to lose my job and a transfer seemd like the best way out. What bullies do is akin to rape only it is a rape of the mind and the soul. Trust is a big deal for me now more than ever, but what is worse people do not understand what you went through or what you are going through in recovery. I have never been treated so badly in my entire life and these thugs get away with it over and over especially if the workplace is toxic and sides with the bully. At least I have a supportive family to offer a shoulder in the storm. God speed Mel, and hang tough!

    • Thank you, i am sorry for what you have experienced and perhaps currently are, if you can hang until retirement without causing irreversible damage that is good. At least you can see an end. It is near impossible to get an attorney to take a stress at work case. I had to fight mine alone. What i was told by several atorney is that they fear they cannot make enough money on them, because there is not enough teeth in the law. Shame on them!!!!! Attorneys some times can be like bullys all they care about is money,instead of how they can help the client. I have met some good ones though that do care, so they are not all bad, never the less in work related stress cases it is very difficult if not impossible to get an attorney to take the case. Another reason why we need the law. Keep your chin up and keep looking towards that light at the end of the tunnel.

  5. You are absolutely right that responsible companies should adopt and enforce a strong policy concerning workplace bullying regardless of any legal obligation. It is very disturbing to think about all of the victims of bullying and how it impacts their lives. Corporations and individuals need to identify and stand up to the bullies and not allow their actions to continue.

    • That is correct Rick! From the time we enter Kindergarden until we graduate from high school we are taught that this is a safe world to live in and to work in and we are taught that there is something wrong with us if we do not work ,were lazy or were not motivated, or we think the world owes us a liveing etc. Then what happens when we have been in a career for 30 some years as i was and bullied to the point that i got really sick, well it is a form of psychological violence, and when we become unemployed because of it, it makes us feel broken. Until one has experienced the fall out of something like this it is very hard to understand. My point is simple, we put our trust in society from 5 years old until we get a job and then we are violated and employers use our wages and our means of survival to threaten us and it gives them the power to treat us how ever they want. Until there is a law to stop them,a nd that is what the healthy workplaace bill is designed to do. One could argue, well leave and get another job. It is not always that easy, when we have invested a major part of ourselves in something and time and effort, it is hard to just walk away, especially in difficult economic times. Although i wish i had, because i would still be employed had i left, now i have to deal with ptsd and i do not know how long it will take to recover!!!

      • Dave
        I had another thought regardng my recent post and i am going to the library to pick up the book shattered assumptions however i was wondering what you thought about this: In my bullying situation i was in the same line of work for 30 years and very good at it and very successful, until my former boss took over 6 years into my 16 year term.During those last 10 years as you have heard before,i was severely bullied and put on the defensive all of the time and i spent a good majority of my working day worrying and protecting myself from the bully. I was under constant threat. Like most wars the troops are put in that situaton for limited amounts of time, maybe a year, 2 years, and then they get a brealk and might go back or might go onto something else, but they are away from the threat. For me i was exposed to it for 10 years until i broke down and now the problem is that i feel broken and instead of having been in an environment where the employer assisted me with m y skills and nurtured me to a better place, i feel 10 years behind at 54 and feel no good to an employer. If we think about that for a moment, just that one component of bullying and the damage it has done, i think lawmakers need to know the individual effects of bullying, because it probably effects everyone differently and everyone the same in some ways. I would like to know if you have any input on that one dilemma and also i would like to say to all targets, to speak out and talk about your own individual experiences and how they have effected you, or how they are preventing you from moving forward. Thanks Dave. I look forward to your reply!

      • Mel, yes, the longer-term effects of workplace bullying are among the points we make to lawmakers in advocating for the Healthy Workplace Bill, and the impact you have attested to is, unfortunately, quite common. From my years of being involved in this work, re-entry into the workforce is one of the most emotionally difficult challenges for many people who have experienced severe mistreatment at work.

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