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The Business Case
Workplace Bullying

David C. Yamada
Professor of Law
Suffolk University Law School

See also:
Toxic Work: How to Overcome Stress, Overload, and Burnout and Revitalize Your Career ,
marginby Barbara Bailey Reinhold, Ed.D.

marginAllegations of intimidating and angry treatment of co-workers lodged against John Bolton, the Bush Administration's newly-appointed Ambassador to the United Nations, have put a spotlight on the problem of workplace bullying. While Bolton has not quite done for bullying what Clarence Thomas and his 1991 Supreme Court confirmation hearings did for raising awareness of sexual harassment, it is clear that this story struck a responsive chord with many workers who have experienced abusive treatment at the hands of bosses and co-workers.

marginWorkplace bullying can be defined as the deliberate, hurtful, repeated mistreatment of an employee, driven by a desire to control that individual. According to researchers on abusive work environments, some of the most common bullying behaviors include yelling, shouting, and screaming; hostile glares and other intimidating gestures; behind-the-back put-downs, insults, and unfair criticism; and the deliberate sabotage and undermining of another's work performance.

marginIn recent months, many of these behaviors have been attributed to Bolton by current and former State Department co-workers and contractors. Ex-State Department intelligence chief Carl Ford, a Republican appointee, called Bolton a "serial abuser" of subordinates, adding that he showed a talent for stroking superiors while kicking down underlings.

marginThe most publicized allegations came from Melody Townsel, a woman who worked with Bolton in Moscow under a government contract in 1994. Townsel told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that Bolton chased her down the halls of a Moscow hotel, threw a tape dispenser at her, made disparaging remarks about her appearance, left threatening letters under her hotel door, and pounded on her door and yelled at her.

marginBolton is said to have pursued the removal of two intelligence analysts simply for disagreeing with him. He sought to have them fired, claiming that their work had deteriorated. Internal agency reviews of the analysts' work found no merit to the claims. Other reports indicate that Bolton has a talent for shouting down diplomats from other nations and throwing last-minute monkey wrenches into delicate treaty negotiations.

marginWhile the Bolton situation may have been particularly newsworthy, workplace bullying is commonplace, and too many businesses prefer to ignore the problem. Bullying is considered roughly four times more prevalent than sexual harassment alone. In a recent Wayne State University survey, nearly 60 percent of respondents reported experiencing emotionally abusive behavior from co-workers during their working lives. In the 1990s, Columbia University researcher Harvey Hornstein examined information about abusive supervision from 1,000 workers in a wide variety of occupations and concluded that approximately 90 percent of the workforce experiences abuse from their bosses at some point in their careers. Of course, this did not even include the many instances where peers or even subordinates engaged in bullying.

Costs of Bullying

marginThe costs of bullying can be devastating to employees and employers alike. According to Dr. Gary Namie of the Workplace Bullying & Trauma Institute, severely bullied workers may experience conditions such as clinical depression, high blood pressure, cardiovascular disease, impaired immune systems, and even symptoms consistent with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Many of these individuals are faced with life-altering decisions about whether to stay in or leave a job.

marginOn an organizational level, a 1992 study by human resources expert Emily Bassman found that abusive work environments result in "fear and mistrust, resentment, hostility, feelings of humiliation, withdrawal, play-it-safe strategies, and hiding mistakes." This quickly impacts the bottom line. In 2002, the Orlando Business Journal reported on a study of 9,000 federal workers indicating that 42 percent of female respondents and 15 percent of male respondents had experienced bullying-type behaviors over a two-year period, "resulting in a cost of more than $180 million in lost time and productivity."

marginResearch also indicates that high turnover, absenteeism, poor working relationships, and acts of retaliation may result from such environments. A 1998 study by University of North Carolina management professor Christine Pearson of 775 targets of workplace incivility and aggression found that "28 percent lost work time avoiding the instigator," "22 percent decreased their effort at work," and "12 percent actually changed jobs to avoid the instigator." Severely bullied employees sometimes must seek workers' compensation or disability benefits because they can no longer expose themselves to the stress of the abusive work environment. In some cases, bullying can prompt violent behavior. Joseph Kinney, the founder of the National Safe Workplace Institute, reported that "there have been numerous instances where abusive supervisors have baited angry and frustrated employees, pushing these individuals to unacceptable levels of violence and aggression."

Pressure Points

marginThe needs of, and pressures generated by, the service sector economy are making conditions particularly ripe for workplace bullying. In White-Collar Sweatshop, business writer Jill Andresky Fraser observed that "unpleasant working conditions, difficult job demands, and rising career insecurities have combined to make stress the constant companion of many of today's white-collar men and women." Although bullying is no stranger to the assembly line, the very nature of service sector work creates conditions in which this behavior is more likely to occur. Frequent, ongoing personal interaction between workers often becomes a basic element of a job, especially in work arrangements between supervisors and subordinates. When people interact more, the likelihood increases that personalities will clash and that individuals who are prone to bullying will have opportunities to do so.

marginIn addition, we must come to grips with the unfortunate fact that some people think nothing of treating others in manipulative and cruel ways. According to Dr. Martha Stout, a practicing psychologist and instructor at Harvard Medical School, approximately four percent of the population suffers from "antisocial personality disorder," meaning they have "little or no conscience." In her recently published book, The Sociopath Next Door, she includes chilling case studies of how these individuals abuse their co-workers.

marginAnother factor that contributes to the toleration of bullying is that there are few clear lines of legal liability. Although some bullying situations may involve illegal discrimination or retaliation, in many instances they fall into gray areas of the law. This makes it easier to write off the behavior as a mere "personality clash" or disagreement over "management style." Whereas most companies have established protocols for handling, say, sexual harassment complaints, few have set policies for bullying and generic harassment.

Pro-Active Responses

marginBusinesses that want to minimize the likelihood of bullying can take concrete steps to do so. Here are several measures that may prove helpful:

  1. Send a message that bullying is unacceptable behavior. This message must come from the top and find its way through the organization. It can include the drafting and implementation of policies related to workplace bullying, offering in-house educational programs and presentations, and using effective "360 feedback" systems to evaluate employees. Moreover, a climate of open, honest, and mutually respectful communication will have the salutary effect of reducing the likelihood of bullying situations.

  2. Empower HR to handle bullying situations fairly and forthrightly. One of the most common remarks from targets of bullying is how "HR was useless" in handling their complaints about bullying and in some cases turned out to be complicit with the bullies. Effective preventive and responsive measures by HR are key components of any anti-bullying initiative.

  3. Dismiss destructive bullies. It may be good for business! Even if an incorrigibly abusive individual happens to be a leading "rainmaker" in attracting business, the increased productivity through better morale and less time lost to the gossip mill may make this a sound decision from a purely cost-benefit standpoint.

marginHR Magazine has labeled workplace bullying "one of the most insidious and destructive problems" in the workplace. Left to fester it can wreak havoc on employees, employers, and the bottom line alike. Companies that take this problem seriously, however, may find themselves with a happier, healthier, and more productive workforce.


David Yamada is a Professor of Law at Suffolk University Law School in Boston, where he specializes in employment and labor law. He is a leading authority on workplace bullying and abusive work environments. His articles on workplace bullying have appeared in the Georgetown Law Journal , Employee Rights and Employment Policy Journal , Perspectives on Work , and other publications, and he has been an invited speaker on the topic at conferences and seminars across the country. During the upcoming year he will be launching the New Workplace Institute, an independent non-profit center that will examine challenges facing the contemporary workplace.

David C. Yamada
Suffolk University Law School
120 Tremont Street
Boston, Massachusetts 02108

Telephone: 617-573-8543


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