The American Workplace 3: Bullying

| Present

One of the uglier secrets of many American workplaces is the phenomenon of bullying. According to the Workplace Bullying Institute, workplace bullying is defined as “repeated, health-harming mistreatment of one or more persons (the targets) by one or more perpetrators. It is abusive conduct that is:

  • “Threatening, humiliating, or intimidating, or
  • “Work interference — sabotage — which prevents work from getting done, or
  • “Verbal abuse”

Workplace bullying is experienced by more than one third of the US workforce, which is not insignificant. The serious mental, physical and emotional ramifications of persistent bullying affect not only the individual who is bullied but also his/her family members, friends and colleagues. Bullying brings down morale and productivity in the workplace – so why does it persist?

Part of the reason, again, has to do with our culture and our national priorities. Unlike supervisory boards and works councils, which we saw were prevalent throughout Europe and led to shared decision-making in the workplace, our businesses and corporations, generally speaking, are top-down organizations. Obviously employers, supervisors and business owners do not want bullying or any other negative occurrences openly discussed. They expect and want their employees to be (or at least to appear to be) happy with their work and loyal to the organization. Workers may grumble among themselves about conditions but cannot easily or successfully bring problems to their leaders because of fear that they will lose their jobs or be reprimanded. (Even though many Americans are unaware of at-will employment, there is still fairly persistent fear of being fired for bad performance, disloyalty or other reasons.)

The recent exposure in a New York Times article of horrendous workplace practices at Amazon is unusual, then, but prompted some predictable reactions. Examples of the behaviors documented include:

  • Employees crying at their desks
  • Workers being monitored by sophisticated electronic systems to ensure they are packing enough boxes every hour
  • Emails sent in the middle of the night and senders chiding recipients for not immediately answering them
  • Marathon conference calls on Easter Sunday and Thanksgiving
  • Criticism from bosses for spotty Internet access on vacation
  • Hours spent working at home most nights or weekends

Responses to these revelations might be expected in our culture. On the one hand, there was outrage that workers could be treated so abominably. But on the other hand, many observers suggested that unhappy workers just quit and find another job. The lack of understanding of the impact of these behaviors and the unrealistic and callous nature of the proposed solution, in light of the dearth of good jobs in certain areas of our country, show the depth of our social dysfunction – and part of the reason that bullying persists.

Of course Amazon does not stand alone in perpetuating bad behavior, as workers know but generally do not expose to the same extent. A 2013 Gallup poll provided the sobering news that 70% of Americans either hate their jobs or are almost totally disengaged at work. Poor management and “bosses from hell” were among the reasons given for the low morale. This lack of engagement results in a huge cost to the economy, costing “the U.S. an estimated $450 billion to $550 billion per annum of lost productivity, stolen goods, and missed days of work.”

While bullying per se was not mentioned in the Amazon or Gallup articles, the behaviors described point directly to bullying behavior. Is it not high time to address this blight in our midst?

As we might expect, many of our peers in the developed world have recognized the problem for a long time and leave us in the dust as far as proposing workable solutions. As with other policies that we have seen, they legislate anti-bullying at the national level: “The U.S. is the last of the western democracies to not have a law forbidding bullying-like conduct in the workplace. Scandinavian nations have explicit anti-bullying laws (since 1994). Many of the EU nations have substantially more legal employee protections, which compel employers to prevent or correct bullying.”

There is movement in the US toward implementing anti-bullying laws, and the proposals warrant our support. The Workplace Bullying Institute “began the push to enact anti-bullying laws state-by-state for the workplace in 2001 thanks to Suffolk University Professor of Law David Yamada who drafted the text of the Healthy Workplace Bill. The original bill grew out of his seminal legal treatise on workplace bullying and the need for ‘status-blind harassment’ laws.” Check out the basics of the bill and the reasons we need it.


 Throughout the US, anti-bullying bills are making their ways through state legislatures. Thirty-one legislatures, including 29 states, have now introduced some kind of legislation. Contact your legislators and encourage passage! Don’t we owe a more humane workplace to our children and grandchildren?