The workplace Bully: Affects 35 Percent of the U.S. Workforce

By: Randi Barenholtz

Excerpted from:

“Bullying wasn’t okay in elementary school and it isn’t okay now” – John Doolittle

Over 53 million Americans, 35 percent of the U.S. workforce, report having been bullied at some point in their career. An additional 15 percent report witnessing bullying. Half of all Americans state they have directly experienced bullying in some form while the other half report no direct experience with it. Could bullying be the “silent epidemic” of today’s U.S. workforce?

According to the 2010 U.S. Workforce Bullying Institute Survey, reported cases of firsthand bullying have decreased only slightly since 2007. Today, bullying is four times more prevalent than illegal harassment. The majority of bullying is reported as same-gender attacks. Surprisingly, 80 percent of all cases are female bullies targeting females.

The evolution of bullying
Bullies are characterized by a pervasive pattern of grandiosity and self importance, the need of admiration and a lack of empathy.

Imagine this…Two small boys and a girl are playing in the barnyard when suddenly one of the boys notices a bird’s nest in the rafters. He motions to the other boy, something silently being communicated between them. Simultaneously, they pick up small rocks and begin to stone the baby birds. The girl is mesmerized.

A few years later…A new boy at school is ostracized because his accent is different and is smaller than the others in his class. Self-elected as the welcoming committee, a bully encourages insults and tortures, but rules out anything that leaves bruises. Chinese rubs are allowed, but pinching is out.

Add a few more years…Shannon, a teacher with exemplary references, accepts a transfer to a new school district. She is excited about the new assignment, but quickly notices that during morning coffee and lunches the staff doesn’t sit with her. Her name is omitted from birthday announcements and when asked to bring food for special occasions, her contributionis leftuntouched. The bully, now the team lead, lists staff names on the white board in black while her name is written in red.

Add another year or two…Joseph is a staff accountant on a cross functional team. Team members arrive late for meetings, but when Joseph arrives late, he is singled out. He notices that introductions are made with a fraternity camaraderie, but when he is introduced the tone changes significantly. Joseph is repeatedly talked over in meetings, constantly interrupted during presentations and assignments taken away without notification or justification.

Bullying defined
At the core of bullying are isolation and humiliation. Little things, so carefully carried out, that it is not easy to say who or what is behind it. Repeated and unreasonable actions directed towards an employee (or group of employees) intended to intimidate, offend or degrade.

Bullying behavior creates feelings of defenselessness and undermines the individual’s right to dignity at work. Different from aggression, bullying involves repeated attacks creating an on-going pattern of behavior.  While bullying may feel like harassment, workplace harassment has a legal definition supported by state and federal civil rights laws designed to protect workers from discriminatory mistreatment as a member of a protected group.

Only 20 percent of bullying cases involve illegal discriminatory harassment. Bullying cuts across boundaries of status- group membership. It has been said that bullying is status-blind harassment. While there is currently no federal law protecting the American worker from bullying, 18 states: New Jersey, New York, Illinois, Wisconsin, Massachusetts, Utah, Connecticut, Oklahoma, Vermont, Kansas, New Hampshire, Oregon, Nevada, Montana, Washington, Hawaii, Missouri and California have instituted various forms of the Healthy Workplace Bill.

The Healthy Workforce Bill defines its basic cause of action in this statement:
“It shall be an unlawful employment practice to subject an employee to an abusive work environment which exists when the defendant, acting with malice, subjects the complainant to abusive conduct so severe that it causes tangible harm to the complainant.”

Significant terms defined:

Abusive conduct is that which a reasonable person would find hostile, offensive and unrelated to an employer’s legitimate business interests. It may include but not limited to repeated infliction of verbal abuse, physical conduct that a reasonable person would find threatening, intimidating or humiliating, or the gratuitous sabotage or undermining of a person’s work performance.

Conduct is defined as all forms of behavior, including acts and omissions of acts.

Malice is defined for these purposes as the desire to see another person suffer psychological, physical, or economical harm, without legitimate cause of justification.

Tangible harm is defined as psychological harm or physical harm.

  • Psychological harm is material impairment of a person’s mental health, as documented by a competent psychologist, psychiatrist, or psychotherapist.
  • Physical harm is the material impairment of a person’s physical health or bodily integrity, as documented by a competent physician.

Negative employment decision is a termination, demotion, unfavorable reassignment, refusal to promote or disciplinary action.

Employee Rights and Employment Policy Journal (Vol. 8:475)

In short, bullying at work never leads to good business. Setting the tone at the top, continually modeling the right kind of behavior and getting serious about rooting out abusive employees before serious damage is done is the best first step!

Bullying looks like…

  • Spreading malicious rumors
  • Undermining a person’s work
  • Threatening physical abuse
  • Constantly changing work guidelines
  • Withholding necessary information or purposefully giving wrong information
  • Pestering, spying or intruding on one’s privacy
  • Assigning unreasonable duties or workload which are unfavorable to one person
  • Underutilizing – creating a feeling of uselessness
  • Yelling or using profanity
  • Criticizing a person persistently or constantly
  • Belittling a person’s opinions
  • Unwarranted (or undeserved) punishment
  • Blocking applications for training, leave or promotion
  • Tampering with a person’s personal belongings or work equipment

What can be done?

  • Educate all staff on the subtleties of bullying.
  • Ensure anti-bullying policy is current.
  • Inform HR professionals how to deal with complaints of bullying.
  • Tutor managers how to recognize bullying.
  • Provide information on support groups, websites, forums, etc.
  • Accept responsibility to act once alerted to bullying.


  • Regain Control! Offset what is happening to you by legitimizing the experience. Criticisms and allegations are a form of control. Recognize it as such.
  • Get Help! Realize you are not alone. 53 Million U.S. workers have similar experiences. Seek out professional help, support groups, networks, or start your own.
  • Take Action! Keep a log of everything. It is not the incident that counts; it’s the number, regularity and the patterns that reveal bullying.
  • Contact HR.
  • Follow the grievance procedure.

For more information on protecting yourself from bullies, go to:

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