Watch CBSN Live

Bullying at Work: A National Epidemic?

Bullies don't quit after they graduate from high school, and adults may have even less recourse than kids. That's why there is a national movement to pass laws protecting workers from bullying.

Since 2003, state legislators have been trying to change that. Twenty states have introduced workplace bills to protect workers from bullying, 13 bills are currently active, but to date, none of those bills have become law. As BNET blogger, Suzanne Lucas, notes in a post, New York may be close. Last year the Senate passed a healthy workplace bill, sending it to the state Assembly.

Workplace Bullying Incredibly Common
More than one out of three-- 35% of American adults--say they have been bullied at work, according to a 2010 Workplace Bullying Institute survey.

  • Another 15 percent have witnessed others being bullied, though often bullying is done away from the gaze (or earshot) of others.
  • The prime perpetrators are bosses
  • 62% of bullies are men; 58% of targets are women
  • Women bullies target women in 80% of cases, men bullies target men in 55% of cases.
Victims of bullies are not protected under discrimination laws, which protect workers from sexual harassment or if they are a member of a group (based on gender, race, ethnicity, etc.) and their harasser is not a member of that group. In the large majority of cases, a boss will bully a subordinate, who is powerless to do battle on equal footing for fear of losing his or her job. Often co-workers who are aware of the abuse stay silent, lest the bully turn their wrath in their direction.

Most Likely to Be Victimized: Independent, Experienced Workers
People who are targets of bullying in the workplace are different from those that are targets as children, Workplace Bullying Institute says.

Most likely you were targeted (for reasons the instigator may or may not have known) because you posed a "threat" to him or her. The perception of threat is entirely in his/her mind, but it is what he/she feels and believes.

WBI research findings from our year 2000 study and conversations with thousands of targets have confirmed that targets appear to be the veteran and most skilled person in the workgroup.

Targets are independent. They refuse to be subservient. Bullies seek to enslave targets. When targets take steps to preserve their dignity, their right to be treated with respect, bullies escalate their campaigns of hatred and intimidation to wrest control of the target's work from the target.

Most people suffer in silence. Only 4% of those bullied complained to state or federal agencies and only 3% have sued their bully or employer.

According to the Institute, "the primary reason bullying occurs so frequently in workplaces is that bullying is not yet illegal." State legislators have been using the Healthy Workplace Bill as a model. The bill empowers employees to sue bullies. Advocates say it protects employers against frivolous lawsuits (but my colleague Lucas, a former HR exec, is not thrilled with the bill). The burden is on the victim to prove that workplace bullying negatively impacted his or her health.

According to the Healthy Workplace Campaign, which drafted the bill,

The real value of a law, and the true purpose of the Healthy Workplace Bill, is to get employers to prevent bullying with policies and procedures that apply to all employees.

Do you support legislation? Have you witnessed or been victim to bullying in the workplace, and if so, how did you or others handle it? Please contact me if you have been a victim of workplace bullying and have suffered physically or psychologically from it. I am collecting stories and will keep yours confidential.
Laurie Tarkan is an award-winning health journalist who writes for the New York Times, national magazines and websites including Health, Prevention, iVillage and the Huffington Post. Follow her on twitter.
Photo courtesy flickr user Sander van der Wel
View CBS News In