Workplace Bullying: Beyond The Playground

Our Careers + Culture campaign partner, The National Workplace Bullying Coalition, took a deep dive into the realities of workplace bullying.




Workplace bullying is a severe and pervasive phenomenon in the US involving a violation of the basic human right to dignity. Bullying tactics include false accusations, exclusion, withholding necessary resources, sabotage, verbal abuse, put-downs, and unreasonable demands — resulting in a host of stress-related symptoms including anxiety, depression, PTSD, and suicide ideation.


Simply put, workplace bullying is killing people. A study published in the American Journal of Public Health in September 2015 revealed that bullied targets are "twice as likely to have suicidal thoughts than those who were never bullied" — and it can happen to any of us. We abandon hope over time when bullies ruin our image. Abandonment by coworkers who don't want to become the next target can lead to loneliness and despair. This response from abuse that won't let up is part of the natural human stress response. Luckily, stopping it can lead to recovery and healing of the brain.

Here's who workplace bullying impacts:

  • Anywhere from 30-90% of US workers as either targets or bystanders. Targets suffer mental, emotional, and physical health harm. There's also a ripple effect on witnesses and families. But here's what's worse: targets of workplace bullying are often women, Black workers, Latinx workers, workers over 40, workers in the LGBTQ community, and workers with disabilities. When discrimination law moved from a focus on the impact to intent in the 1980s, the law became much less effective in dismantling the social hierarchies at work that keep white men in the vast majority of power positions in the US workforce, according to researchers in a 2017 study. Right now, we simply don't have adequate protections from bias that manifests itself in abuse of power that prevents women, Black workers, Latinx workers, workers over 40, workers in the LGBTQ community, and workers with disabilities from getting ahead. This bill would give more protections to all workers, especially those who suffer from legal discrimination but the kind they can't prove.


  • Organizations. Workplace bullying costs employers billions of dollars annually in lower productivity and morale, increased absenteeism and turnover, training costs, and higher employee benefits costs. To avoid liability, higher-ups most often ignore complaints or retaliate, including pushing targets out of their jobs. Yet managers who get rid of bullies benefit financially. One study shows that “companies who focus on effective internal functioning and communication enjoy a 57 percent higher total return, are more than 4.5 times more likely to have highly engaged employees, and are 20 percent more likely to report reduced turnover when compared to competitors who demonstrate ineffective communication practices” (Civility Partners LLC, 2009).


  • Society. When employers ignore employee well-being internally and push targets out, they externalize health care and basic needs costs onto taxpayers. Abused targets who leave unhealthy work environments are frequently uninsured. When they get sick, they turn to ERs for care, where delivering primary care is not cost-efficient. By the time they get there, their health has already deteriorated to a point where treatment expenses are far greater than earlier intervention would have been. This bill would incentivize employers to address employee well-being internally and not make it a public problem.



It's not a target problem


Research shows there's ZERO evidence to support targets brought on the abuse through weakness. In fact, evidence shows the opposite. Targets are often high-performing, highly ethical employees whose competence poses a threat to their low-performing, low-ethical bosses. The bully's motivation is to keep the upper hand — an ego-driven control move that's about the abuse of power. Bullies are often deceptive managers who trick others into thinking the target is the problem, setting the stage for mobbing.


Prevention is both less expensive and more effective than remediation. Stanford professor Jeffrey Pfeffer says US employers causing workplace stress may be responsible for "120,000 excess deaths per year," which would make workplaces "the fifth leading cause of death," and account for about "$180 billion in additional healthcare costs." About "half of the deaths and 1/3 of the excess costs could be prevented," meaning they resulted from not tending to well-being.


We have environmental regulations to limit environmental risks, but we don’t mention the human impact of abuse. We don’t leave environmental pollution to the discretion of CEOs. So why do we leave employee health up to CEOs — when CEOs too often lead in ways that serve neither the employees nor the public nor themselves when you include the hidden costs of turnover and absenteeism?

How the Dignity At Work Act (DAWA) will solve the problem


The DAWA will protect the inherent human right to dignity at work by prohibiting all forms of bullying in the US workplace. It provides a comprehensive definition of workplace bullying, assuring all workers are protected against infringement against their inherent dignity, and an incentive for employers to prevent, detect, remedy, and eliminate workplace bullying before targets suffer irreparable harm. It assures all targets access to a legal remedy to make targets as a whole as possible.

We as workers have an inherent human right to dignity. This bill will provide a much-needed incentive for employers to prevent, detect, remedy, and eliminate workplace bullying before targets suffer irreparable harm, organizations decline, and society pays the price. Targets deserve to be made whole after abuse.





If you'd like to find out more about The National Workplace Bullying Coalition and the work they do, visit them at https://www.workplacebullyingcoalition.org/ or at @workbully on Instagram.

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