When a person leaves school, they expect that others have matured and that bullying will no longer be an issue. But bullying does occur in the “real world” and many are unfortunate enough to find this out once they enter the workforce. For people who are targeted by a workplace bully, so much is at stake in terms of their careers and their health.
According to the Workplace Bullying Institute (WBI), workplace bullying refers to any kind of unwelcome, malicious and health-harming conduct for the purpose of sabotaging the targeted person’s job. While similar to other forms of workplace harassment, bullying is different in that it is directed at an employee who does not fall into a protected classification under current civil rights laws. Workplace bullying is also referred to as status-blind harassment, psychological harassment and/or psychological abuse.
Actions of a workplace bully
Approximately 35% of the American workforce has reported that they have been affected by some kind of status-blind harassment in their workplace. It can take on many forms. Some of the behaviors displayed by bullies include:
- Deliberate and “physical” intimidation;
- Making impossible demands;
- Sabotaging target’s work or “forgetting” to tell target needed information;
- Ostracizing target from work or social functions;
- Singling out target in front of others;
- Falsely accusing target of wrongdoing.
Health problems associated with workplace bullying
Workplace bullies are ruthless and the havoc they create spawns the prospect of job loss and career destruction for people they target. These prospects are more than some people can bear. People can invest so much in their careers that they begin to identify themselves based on what they do instead of who they are. The loss or prospect of loss can lead to devastating effects on a physical and mental level. The problem is too real to ignore.
Targets spend on average 10 to 52% of their work time defending themselves from the bully’s attacks or seeking support from others. They feel “on guard” at all times, even after leaving the workplace. Over time, the target’s health may deteriorate due to the stress caused by the bully. Health issues such as cardiovascular disease, gastrointestinal problems, depression, pain disorders, panic attacks and sleep disorders may occur. Many targets display the symptoms of post traumatic stress disorder due to the bully’s threatening actions. For some, suicide becomes the only way they can find peace from the seemingly endless abuse.
Questionable employer reactions to reports of bullying
Since it is not covered by current civil rights laws, workplace bullying is not illegal in the United States. Because of this, many employers fail to stand in the way of this type of harassment, either because they condone the conduct, encourage it or feel powerless to stop it. Likewise, the most common form of workplace bullying in the United States is boss-to-subordinate, lessening the likelihood of any employer initiative to quell bullying.
Many employers dismiss reports of bullying, often blaming the victim for the abuse instead of holding bullies accountable. They also fail to recognize that bullying creates tension in the workplace that distracts workers from their maximum level of productivity. Typical red flags that the bottom line is in jeopardy go unnoticed or are attributed to the misguided notion that the victim is incompetent and to blame for the company’s shortfalls. Instead, the employer should take a hard look at indicators such as increased levels of absenteeism, employee turnover and poor time usage to see if they are related to bullying within the organization.
Legislative efforts to address workplace bullying
One proposed solution is legislation called the Healthy Workplace Bill (HWB). This legislation was authored by David Yamada, a law professor at Suffolk University in Boston, Massachusetts. The bill that Yamada authored is a blueprint for states to follow in addressing workplace bullying. The national campaign promoting the Healthy Workplace Bill is led by WBI director Gary Namie, PhD. Legislatures in over 20 states have considered some form of the HWB and the bill is currently on the agenda in about 13 states.
According to the HWB website, the bill addresses the following issues:
What the HWB Does for Employers
- Precisely defines an “abusive work environment” — it is a high standard for misconduct;
- Requires proof of health harm by licensed health or mental health professionals;
- Protects conscientious employers from vicarious liability risk when internal;
- correction and prevention mechanisms are in effect;
- Gives employers the reason to terminate or sanction offenders;
- Requires plaintiffs to use private attorneys;
- Plugs the gaps in current state and federal civil rights protections;
What the HWB Does for Workers
- Provides an avenue for legal redress for health harming cruelty at work;
- Allows you to sue the bully as an individual;
- Holds the employer accountable;
- Seeks restoration of lost wages and benefits;
- Compels employers to prevent and correct future instances;
What the HWB Does Not Do
- Involve state agencies to enforce any provisions of the law;
- Incur costs for adopting states;
- Require plaintiffs to be members of protected status groups (it is “status-blind”);
- Use the term “workplace bullying.”
Illinois and the Healthy Workplace Bill
Illinois was the fifteenth state to introduce the Healthy Workplace Bill. The bill passed the Illinois Senate on March 18, 2010. The bill’s future now rests with the Illinois House. It is sponsored by Representative Constance Howard for the 2011-2012 House session. A public hearing for the bill was held on March 16, 2011, but it is stuck in the Rules Committee indefinitely. There has been no activity on the legislation so far in 2012.
Rockford area residents interested in voicing their concerns about this issue are invited to contact their state legislators. Telephone numbers, websites, email addresses and postal addresses for Rockford area legislators can be found at this link. Correspondence should be in reference to House bill 942. Illinois residents outside of the Rockford metro area are encouraged to contact their representatives by using this link.
Another way to get involved would be to volunteer with HWB legislative campaign. Citizen lobbyists are ordinary people interested in advocating for passage of the HWB. Information on becoming a citizen lobbyist can be found at the “Take Action” section of the HWB website.
Interested residents can also follow the workplace bullying issue and find articles about the subject at the Illinois Healthy Workplace Advocates Facebook page.