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Being bullied at work can be a miserable experience. The ongoing pattern of intimidation can be degrading and humiliating, and can even cause health problems, according to the Washington State Department of Labor and Industries. Bullying is not illegal unless it targets protected characteristics such as your race or sex, which can make it very difficult to stop the bully. If the bullying includes sexual harassment, however, your job could be protected even if you file a bullying claim.
Bullies can be bosses, co-workers, or even subordinates. Bosses, however, are the most likely candidates to bully in the workplace, possibly because they have power. The Workplace Bullying Institute reports that nationally, 72 percent of bullies are bosses. Sixty-two percent of the bullies were men and 79 percent of the targets were women. Although it is in the best interests of the organization to eliminate bullies because they cause increased staff turnover and sick leave, few organizations or government agencies have an anti-bullying policy. the Occupational Health and Safety Administration, OSHA, is one exception -- its May 2011 “OSHA Field Health and Safety Manual” includes an anti-bullying policy.
In the absence of a policy, filing a bully complaint can be difficult. Dave Foley, a lawyer who specializes in labor and employment law, writes of one case in which an outside specialist was brought into an organization to resolve financial problems. The specialist routinely swore, yelled, made physical threats and threw objects. The affected employees complained to managers about this behavior and ultimately went to court. Although the specialist was eventually let go, so were five of the six complainants. The court in this case noted that there is no legal protection for workers who complain about a bullying at work.
Strategies and Effectiveness
The WBI has completed surveys on the effectiveness of employees’ strategies to stop bullying. The most common of these strategies include confronting the bully, telling the bully’s boss, telling senior managers or taking the problem to the human resources department. Other strategies included involving a union organization, filing a complaint with a federal or state agency and filing a lawsuit. Of these, the WBI’s April 2012 survey noted the most effective strategy was to file a lawsuit, which was still effective only 16 percent of the time. Filing a complaint with a state or federal agency was effective almost 12 percent of the time. Other strategies had an effectiveness rate of approximately 3 to 4 percent.
Not only did the strategies to stop the bullying fail in most cases, 78 percent of bullied employees had negative employment consequences. Most bullied employees -- 28 percent, according to WBI -- voluntarily quit their jobs. Another 25 percent were forced out through a mechanism called "constructive discharge," in which the employee quits because the employer makes working conditions so unbearable. An additional 25 percent of employees who complained were fired. Eleven percent transferred to another position within the organization. Perpetrators of bullying were terminated 5 percent of the time and 6 percent were punished for bullying.
Tactics to Report a Bully
Keep a diary of the bullying: note dates, times, places and the specific behavior, as well as who else was present. Document bullying behavior you witness, even if it's not directed at you. Your documentation should be factual: “He told me I was stupid and incompetent.” Obtain and keep copies of documents that corroborate the bully’s behavior or dispute his accusations about your behavior or performance, such as emails, performance reviews, attendance records or memos. If possible, have a witness with you any time you must interact with the bully. When you meet with a senior manager or human resources staff, stay calm and focus on the facts rather than your feelings.
- Washington State Department of Labor & Industries: Workplace Bullying and Disruptive Behavior - What Everyone Needs to Know
- When the Abuser Goes to Work: OSHA Adopts Workplace Anti-Bullying Policy
- David Foley's Labor and Employment Law Blog: The Right to Complain about a Bully
- Workplace Bullying Institute: WBI Study - Attempts to Stop Bullying At Work By Targeted Workers Are Ineffective
- Workplace Bullying Institute: WBI Study - Timing & Results of Targets Confronting Bullies at Work
Beth Greenwood is an RN and has been a writer since 2010. She specializes in medical and health topics, as well as career articles about health care professions. Greenwood holds an Associate of Science in nursing from Shasta College.