Since 2003, 24 states have introduced bills to protect against workplace bullying, but none of these bills have passed into law.
An estimated one in seven employees are bullied at work, usually by their bosses. Women are more likely to be victims than men.
And since there aren't really any laws to protect them, workers have almost no legal recourse when a bully boss embarrasses, harasses, humiliates and/or mistreats them.
“Workplace bullying is like domestic abuse without the physical violence.”
- Garie Namie, founder of the Workplace Bullying Institute
The consequences can be emotionally and physically devastating. Victims of workplace bullies can suffer from anxiety, post-traumatic stress syndrome, depression and physical ailments associated with chronic stress like high blood pressure, migraines, stomach troubles and heart disease.
Studies also show that when under constant stress, people are less able to regulate their emotions, to concentrate, and to make decisions, which may make people perform their job poorly; thus perpetuate more bullying.
Bullying is not just being an aggressive manager. According to Garie Namie, founder of the Workplace Bullying Institute in Bellingham, Wash., a bully systematically mistreats his or her victims, sabotages their work, speaks abusively to them and intimidates and humiliates them, often in front of their co-workers.
Other examples of bullying include ignoring a co-worker (or simply treating him or her differently), taking credit for someone else's work and/or using obscene language.
“Workplace bullying is like domestic abuse without the physical violence,” Namie said.
It’s often the company’s or organization’s culture–or simply the field of business – that breeds bullying behavior. High-stress professions like health care, law and commissioned sales work are more susceptible to bullying.
“A lot of bullies are mid-level managers (who) are feeling the squeeze from their higher ups to do more with less,” said David Yamada, director of the New Workplace Institute at Suffolk University Law School in Boston.
At some point, they cross the line from having an aggressive management style to launching a personal campaign to destroy their victim. Targets of bullying can be either super competent—posing a perceived threat to their boss—or in some way weak or vulnerable, because of social, intellectual or physical issues.
Tips to stop the bully
Whether a victim of bullying has any power to do anything about the abuse depends on the situation and the workplace culture, but it’s not particularly promising. An estimated 64 percent of bullying targets leave their job, either voluntarily or because they were fired, according to Namie.
If there’s a known bully in your workplace, try to avoid giving him or her any ammunition against you. Don’t share any personal information with him (or her) about yourself or your family (same goes for happy events as well), because bullies look for vulnerabilities. This is a good rule of thumb with all co-workers, until you know them well.
Try not to be too passive or emotional or you may become an easy target.
“If you’re feeling upset or anxious, it will show up in your body language,” said Catherine Mattice, president of Civility Partners, an anti-workplace bullying consulting firm in San Diego. “I’ve talked to a lot of people who feel they were getting bullied, but they nipped it in the bud immediately by being assertive."
However, with some bullies, being assertive won’t deter them—it could inflame them more.
If you sense a co-worker or boss has begun to target you, listen to your gut. Don’t dismiss it or think it will go away. If you try to placate the bully and roll over, you will lose, Namie added.
The earlier you try to stop the bullying, the more successful you may be. Be clear with the bully that you refuse to take it, but keep the conversation focused on the company’s bottom line. Tell the bully that his (or her) behavior makes you less productive, rather than revealing that it makes you upset.
Try to be assertive, but not emotionally defensive, Mattice said.
Going to your human resources office (HR) is often ineffective. HR reps often have their hands tied if bullies are in upper management. More than 85 percent of people who report bullying to HR find that employers ignore the complaint or make the situation worse, according to one survey from the Workplace Bullying Institute.
But, if your company has an anti-bullying policy, HR may be helpful. You could try to go one or two rungs over the bully’s head, but if the bully brings a lot to the company financially, the powers that be may not be willing to confront him.
The goal is to try to convince the employer that the bully is too expensive to keep, because he reduces productivity of his victims and causes high turnover.
You may want to consult with a lawyer to talk through your options – whether you decide to stay or leave. You can also contact the Workplace Bullying Institute, which offers personal coaching and professional guidance over the phone.
See your doctor as well. You may be suffering from anxiety or depression, and may need help coping with the mental health consequences of being a victim of workplace bullying.
Laurie Tarkan is an award-winning health journalist whose work appears in the New York Times, among other national magazines and websites. She blogs about the Affordable Care Act for the WellBeeFile. Follow her on Twitter and Facebook.