Workplace bullying: A scourge that’s hard to define, harder to root out

Ever since the National Football League acknowledged that a 312-pound offensive lineman could be emotionally upended by teammate harassment, workplace bullying has been getting a slo-mo review.

A national suvey says 1 in 4 workers have been bullied at work. Three out of four workers say they’re aware it’s a workplace problem.

Employment law attorneys and human resource consultants are spending countless hours at conferences and conventions, advising on how to prevent bullying behavior. Essentially, employers are told to create a workplace culture from the top down in which everyone is treated with respect.

Easier said than done.

Despite heartfelt efforts by anti-bullying advocates, there are no national or state laws that specifically ban private-sector workplace bullying. About half the states have suggested statutes. None has passed.

“From a legal perspective, one of the problems is how to define it,” said Jim Holland, a Kansas City attorney who represents employers in workplace litigation.

Employers’ lawyers such as Holland make it clear that bullying is bad, but they don’t want employees to have another cause of action to bring against their employers, who already fight discrimination claims based on the protected classes of race, color, sex, religion, age, national origin, disability, pregnancy and veterans’ status.

“If you have a statute that says ‘thou shalt not bully,’ you’re creating a new category of people who can sue you,” Holland said. “That’s not suggesting you condone bullying, but it would be bad for my company clients.”

That legal reality pains Nancy Fry, a Sprint employee for 20 years before she earned a PhD in counseling psychology with an expertise in workplace bullying.

“There’s no legislation partly because there’s no universal agreement on what bullying is,” Fry agreed with Holland. “But the sad thing about it is that too many people are being told they’re too sensitive, or they need to get a thicker skin, when the truth is that bullying creates an emotional pain that hits the same brain centers as physical pain.”

Kansas Citian “Kay” knows that pain. She recently resigned from a job she’d held for eight years rather than continue to suffer co-workers’ ostracism, gossip and belittling.

In a job search now, Kay asked that her name be withheld but she shared her experience, hoping it convinces other bullying targets to take action before their mental or physical health is harmed by the stress.

She recommends a book, Overcoming Mobbing: A Recovery Guide for Workplace Aggression and Bullying, by Maureen Duffy, a leader in bullying research, and Len Sperry. From the book, Kay said, she learned that many workers who leave jobs because of bullying are afraid to re-enter the workplace, often trying out entrepreneurship instead.

In fact, Kay was in the running for a job, but she called the employer to remove her name from consideration because “basically, the memory of what I had just endured made me run scared.… Fight, flight, freeze. These are the three choices. I chose flight.”

Identifying behaviors

Fry, the counselor, said the NFL harassment case last year involving the Miami Dolphins vaulted workplace bullying from a place of private angst to more universal understanding. But Kay’s choice — to leave the place that caused her pain — remains common.

“Companies can be reluctant to get rid of rainmakers, of moneymakers, or bosses who get results, who are bullies,” Fry said. “Some people think it’s easier to make the victim miserable so they’ll leave rather than go through proper channels to stop the bully. Sometimes (the bully’s) behavior is rewarded.”

Fry endorses written workplace policies that say bullying isn’t permitted. But Holland, the employment law attorney, returns to the problem of defining what is or isn’t bullying.

“Let’s say there’s a group of people at work who always go out to lunch and never ask the other person to go,” Holland suggested. “Under some proposed rules, that conduct could be considered bullying. Does the boss have to monitor that situation? Does the boss have to say, ‘Hey, you guys can’t do that’? That’s a horrible situation for any boss to be in.”

And what happens if the bully is the boss or a couple of layers of bosses? If a boss exhibits or turns a blind eye to bully behaviors, it usually spreads throughout the ranks.

“It’s not worth having policies or values statements if the words on the wall aren’t followed,” said Cindy Olson, a former human resource officer at Enron who now is a corporate culture consultant. “Jeffrey Skilling’s business unit at Enron was full of traders who did not live by Ken Lay’s values, but the unit was the company’s largest contributor of revenue, so the company’s core values were allowed to be suppressed.”

In her current consulting role, Olson said, “I’m consistently hearing about behavior that management allows to happen, about behavior inconsistent with stated values.”

Olson said she’s also trying to raise awareness about the damage bullying can do — weakened morale, high turnover, increased absenteeism and lower productivity — as an entrepreneur in residence at the Bloch School of Business at the University of Missouri-Kansas City.

“I tell people that you need 360-degree feedback as part of performance reviews,” Olson said of evaluations in which peers and subordinates are able to rate managers and executives. “That will minimize bullying by bosses, you bet.”

Studied indicate that nearly three-fourths of workplace bullies are bosses who have some management authority. Often, experts find, bullying bosses haven’t been trained adequately or don’t recognize that their yelling or management-clique, circle-the-wagons behavior counts as bullying.

And, when mid-level managers are allowed to persist in demeaning their employees or taking credit for others’ work, employees who work for those bosses are led to assume that the bad behavior is sanctioned by the organization. Fry said such employees don’t see a way to report the bullying because they assume they won’t be believed or will be chalked up as whiners.

Heather Shore, a construction law attorney, said she fears that too many organizations haven’t recognized that “if you treat people with respect, they’ll stay longer, you’ll have less turnover and lower expenses…The way to win the war is to show people you can make a profit without being a jerk.”

Shore said she was attracted to her current law firm partly because it has a “no jerk rule.”

Helping targets

In 1997, Ruth and Gary Namie founded a precursor organization to the Workplace Bullying Institute, a prime resource for workers who want help understanding and fighting bullying.

They and other researchers have made it clear that workplace bullying rarely involves physical aggression. It’s not like a school yard thug stealing the weakling’s lunch money. Rather, it’s usually psychological harassment.

Part of the Namies’ campaign is to discourage the use of “euphemisms” such as “incivility, disrespect, difficult people, personality conflict, negative conduct, or ill treatment,” which they say trivializes the “psychological violence” inflicted on targets.

Research also discounts the notion of bullying victims as the weird nerds or social outcasts. More often, targets are veteran employees, skilled workers, and others who are perceived as threats to co-workers or bosses. That’s especially true for people like Kay who felt ganged up on by a group of co-workers.

According to the Namies’ surveys and interviews, targets also tend to be “guileless,” to not be good at playing office politics, to be non-confrontational, and to not respond to aggression with aggression. They also tend to fail to report bullying, internalizing the problem until it makes them sick or causes them to leave jobs they otherwise like.

Leaving may be the best solution.

“The justice you seek to reverse the unfairness experienced in your bullying workplace can rarely be achieved in a courtroom,” the Namies advise, noting that it’s exceedingly difficult to win harassment lawsuits based on emotional distress.

An improved job market may be emboldening some employees to leave unhappy workplaces, but researchers say it’s still not easy.

“There’s a correlation between workplace bullying and domestic violence,” Fry said. “Employees, like abused spouses, sometimes feel held captive to their situation.”

Shore said her own workplace observations lead her to suggest that it’s not a good idea for workers who have left a bullying workplace to talk about it.

“People may look on you as sour grapes, or they may not believe you,” Shore said. “It’s better to be positive, to go above and beyond to show other people what you’re capable of doing…

“And remember, it’s not you. It’s the bully who was the problem.”

To reach Diane Stafford, call 816-234-4359 or send email to

What constitutes bullying at work?

▪ Repeated, health-harming mistreatment of one or more persons by one or more perpetrators.

▪ Abusive conduct that is threatening, humiliating, or intimidating.

▪ Work interference — sabotage — which prevents work from getting done.

▪ Verbal abuse.

Source: Workplace Bullying Institute

Who are the workplace bullies?

As reported in surveys by the Workplace Bullying Institute, analyzing individual perpetrators and group perpetrators:

▪ 69 percent are men; 31 percent are women.

▪ 40.1 percent are a boss who’s higher in rank than the target.

▪ 19 percent are a peer of the same rank as the target.

▪ 7.1 percent are a subordinate to the target.

▪ 8.1 percent are multiple bosses.

▪ 9 percent are multiple peers.

▪ 2.7 percent are multiple subordinates.

▪ 7.3 percent are a combination of bosses and peers.

▪ 6.7 percent are a combination of bosses, peers and subordinates.

Who are the targets of workplace bullying?

▪ Women represent 60 percent of targets.

▪ Workers between 40 and 55 years old are the age group targeted most often.

▪ 44 percent of whites said they’d been targeted or witnessed workplace bullying, as did 53 percent of Asians, 54 percent of African-Americans, and 57 percent of Hispanics.

Who targets whom in workplace bullying?

▪ Men who bully target women 57 percent of the time.

▪ Women who bully target other women 68 percent of the time.

How do reported cases of workplace bullying end?


Target leaves or is fired

Bully leaves or is fired job

Male bully-Male target

80 %

20 %

Male bully-Female target

83 %

17 %

Female bully-Male target

70 %

30 %

Female bully-Female target

89 %

11 %


82 %


Source: Workplace Bullying Institute survey