Workplace Bullying: A Problem That Just Won’t Seem to Go Away

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May 16, 2014

With all of the news about bullying in schools, it’s not surprising that it remains a problem for grown-ups in the workplace.

Bullying at work can be toxic, affecting productivity, morale and employee engagement. Currently, 48 percent of American adults report experiencing abusive behavior at work. What does this mean for employers?

Bullying is expensive for employers to ignore, exposes them to legal risks and jeopardizes losing great talent. Yet, an astonishing 70 percent of firms have done nothing about workplace bullying.

Yes, 70 percent. What may seem like harmless workplace conflicts are bigger than mere disputes and they are your problem. Here’s why:

Look at the numbers

  • 61 percent of bullying cases resulted in turnover. These victims either quit or were asked to leave. The loss of the employee is a loss of talent, yes. But what is the company really losing? When a company perpetuates bullying behavior, it risks the loss of great talent, money, resources, and a good reputation.
  • 25 percent of cases were not investigated. Employers are either too busy or the cases seem frivolous. This is a recipe for disaster in workplace bullying. Why? If an employee loses faith in their boss to fix the problem, they will lose faith in the organization. This directly affects performance levels and commitment to the organization.
  • 31 percent of cases considered not serious. “Unless someone is being bullied because they are a member of a protected class — which is race, sex, disability and those other categories covered by discrimination law — or being bullied in retaliation for whistle-blowing or complaining about ethics violations, they probably fall between the cracks of existing employment protections,” David Yamada, professor of law and director of the New Workplace Institute at Suffolk University Law School, said. Employers dismiss one-third of workplace bullying cases because they are not as legally and socially polarizing.
  • 16 percent of employers defended or encouraged bullying. A few employers are blind to the problem. They are not only blind, but they promote the abusive behavior. Why would an employer promote bullying at work? Some employers have an “only the strong survive” mentality that indirectly supports bullying behavior in the workplace. Employers who think it necessary to be competitive in today’s workforce sometimes erroneously equate bullying with strength or ambition rather than with intimidation or cruelty.

It’s expensive

Even if you are not the bully, workplace bullying is an expensive habit. Ignoring the problem will only cost the organization more money in the long run.

Bullying costs an estimated $250 million annually in the United States alone. The money accrued is from health care, litigation, staff turnover, and training new employees.

Employees who begin to feel the physical stress of bullying take time off, costing the company time and money.


Bullies who target the weak or different are obvious cases for legal action. These cases are often traced to discrimination of age, sex, religion, national origin, or race.

Although the United States does not have laws against workplace bullying, the criminal nature of cases has roots in bias behavior. What about stalking? This is a form of bullying and can happen in the work place.

Some states even have anti-stalking laws. Following company policies can protect the organization from litigation if it is discriminatory.

How do you know?

Here’s the worst part: it’s frequently not a lateral offense. The majority of workplace bullies are bosses — 56 percent to be exact. And even if it is a lateral attack, it is rarely noticed.

There is a difference between constructive criticism in private and public humiliation. Unfortunately, many employers don’t recognize the difference. It can be a hard problem to see or understand the impact it has on the person involved.

Think you have a bully in your organization? There are subtle signs to look for:

  • The teasing isn’t reciprocated;
  • It’s targeted to one individual;
  • It’s personal in nature.

Create policies before it starts

Companies who perpetuate bullying and don’t take action (or the few who encourage it) lose money, talent, and risk the chances of serious legal problems. Protect your organization. Create policies before any bullying occurs.

More importantly, follow the policies for every case. Don’t let bullies fall through the cracks.

Does your company handle workplace bullying appropriately?