Workplace Bullying: An Issue Not To Be Ignored

You don’t need a law to create an organizational culture of respect.

“I didn’t know that was a thing,” my friend responded when I told her I was publishing a book on international workplace bullying laws. Her comment voiced a common misconception that bullying is a schoolyard issue, not something that happens to adults in the workplace. 

Workplace Bullying Is a Thing – And Very Much So

In 2017, 30 million American workers were targets of bullying. In fact, a University of Illinois at Chicago study showed that workplace bullying is 2.5 to 3.5 times more common in workplaces than sexual harassment, its close counterpart.  The mental health impact from bullying has been found to be worse as well.

So, what is workplace bullying and what isn’t? Workplace bullying is cumulative and repeated conduct which may include:

  • accusing falsely for mistakes
  • screaming
  • excluding
  • intimidating non-verbal behaviors
  • sabotaging and defaming (often behind the back)
  • using put-downs
  • insulting and criticizing harshly
  • withholding resources and information necessary to the job
  • demanding an unreasonably heavy workload

Workplace bullying is not everyday disagreements and ‘dust-ups’ in the office, someone having a bad day and losing his/her temper, reasonable instructions, or a tough performance review.

It is not discrimination: it is not based on being in a protected class such as race, gender, sexual orientation, age, religion, or disability. 

Bullying Damages The Working Environment

Workplaces where bullying is allowed to occur undermine and harm the organization and those who work for it. Employer and organization costs may include those from litigation, increased staff absenteeism, turnover, loss of morale, reduced productivity, increases in health care and disability costs, early retirement and counseling program costs, and harm to the company’s reputation.

Exposure to bullying may have severe health consequences for those involved, manifesting as somatic symptoms, anxiety, and depression. A targeted employee may experience a wide range of physical and psychological symptoms. In the most severe cases, workplace bullying may even result in suicide.

Damage can be even more far reaching. Research has shown that an employee who witnesses the bullying of others can have a stronger urge to quit their job than those who experience it firsthand.

It should be no surprise that workplace bullying is increasingly a concern for management, ethics and compliance professionals, human resources personnel, attorneys, occupational health and safety representatives, as well as employees and employee groups. 

Workplace Bullying Is Not Legally Actionable

Surprisingly, workplace bullying is generally not illegal in the United States. If an employee is being repeatedly and severely harassed at work, and not because of race, age, gender, religion, or disability, there is no law to protect him/her or to deter a supervisor or co-worker’s abusive conduct.

Governments, employers, and employees around the world are often surprised and perplexed by the lack of United States bullying prohibitions. Numerous countries view the employer’s duty of care to ensure persons in the workplace are both psychologically and physically safe at work. This requirement has been interpreted to include a workplace free of bullying by countries such as Sweden, France, The Netherlands, Belgium, Denmark, Australia, Canada, and Colombia. Provisions are often included as part of occupational health and safety laws and regulations, requiring an employer to protect a worker’s psychological health and safety as well as his/her physical circumstances. Global laws may use different terms, such as victimization, moral harassment, or psychological harassment. Regardless, their message is the same: severe abusive conduct in the workplace is not acceptable.

There is some movement in the United States to prohibit bullying in the workplace. The Healthy Workplace Bill, to legislate against bullying, has been introduced in 30 states and 2 territories and moves closer to passage each year.   

What Can You Do, Then?  

You don’t need a law to create an organizational culture of respect. A company policy against workplace bullying can go a long way to temper abusive conduct. The policy should have clear definitions and examples, training of employees and management, a confidential complaint procedure, impartial investigation process, and resolution protocol. Importantly, buy-in at the top has been shown to be key to changing workplace culture, and prohibiting bullying is no exception.


October is National Bullying Prevention Month. For more about workplace bullying in the United States and around the world, and steps to prevent it, tune in to our upcoming workplace bullying webinar on October 18, 2018 at 1:00 PM EDT. To try a free demo of E&C learning content focused on bullying preventing and awareness from SAI Global, complete the form on this page.


Ellen Pinkos Cobb is author of Workplace Bullying and Harassment: New Developments in International Law (Routledge 2017) and a Senior Regulatory & Legal Analyst, and The Isosceles Group in Boston, MA. She is a Founding Fellow of the Workplace Bullying Academy and a chapter contributor to the recently published Workplace Bullying and Mobbing in the United States.