Question:

I was recently transferred to a new department at my job. I like my co-workers, but I have been having problems with my new supervisor. It seems like no matter what I do, she has it in for me. I thought I was doing a good job, but she keeps telling me that I’m falling behind my co-workers, and she has even yelled at me in front of them a few times. She is a real bully! From what I can tell, I am working just as hard as everyone else. This treatment is causing me a lot of stress and anxiety. I don’t know what to do in this situation—are there any laws that protect someone like me?

Answer:

What you have described is unfortunately a fairly common scenario. In fact, you might be surprised to learn that workplace bullying is actually more prevalent in the United States than both sexual harassment and discrimination. Studies show that as many as one in every six workers in the U.S. has directly experienced destructive bullying in the workplace, making workplace bullying a common and widespread problem in today’s workforce.

Bullying in the workplace can take on many different forms. Typically, targets of bullying are made to feel that they are incompetent, and are frequently yelled at or belittled in front of co-workers. Targets are often unfairly denied promotions or other work-related benefits, and their work (and their confidence) is undeservedly undermined. Bullying targets may also be singled out or “made an example of” for behavior that is common in the workplace, but for which others are not disciplined.

According to the Workplace Bullying & Trauma Institute, more than half of all workplace bullies are women. The vast percentage of bullying targets in the workplace are also female. More than 80% of all bullies hold a position of power such as a manager, supervisor, or CEO. Workplace bullying is not limited to supervisors, however, since co-workers and subordinates are just as capable of bullying in the workplace. This often manifests itself as a co-worker who intimidates others into allowing him to get the best assignments or to take credit for others’ work, or as a difficult subordinate who bullies her supervisor into not disciplining her for inappropriate conduct. Subordinates also sometimes bully their way into raises and promotions, which is referred to as “bullying up the ladder.”

Bullying has a serious impact on an employer’s work environment. A work culture that permits bullying, either explicitly or tacitly, fails to provide a safe and supportive work environment for its employees. This can negatively affect morale, worker productivity, and also employee retention. This, in turn, can strain an employer financially, due to the costs of having to continually hire and train new employees.

In addition to the above, workplace bullying has very real consequences for its victims. Studies show that employees who are subjected to bullying are more likely to suffer from stress and depression, and are more prone to substance abuse issues such as alcoholism or drug addiction. Victims are also more inclined toward health problems such as ulcers, migraines, hypertension, and digestive disorders. Just as serious, but perhaps less tangible, symptoms experienced by bullying victims can include nightmares, inability to concentrate, fatigue, mood swings, panic attacks, and suicidal or violent thoughts. This host of emotional and physical ailments often leads to an increase in the amount of worker’s compensation claims that are filed by bullying victims.

There are several legal theories that can help victims of workplace bullying. If the conduct involved is severe and outrageous enough, a victim may be able to sue the perpetrator for intentional infliction of emotional distress. Victims may also be able to file a lawsuit for intentional interference with a contractual employment relationship if the bully wrongfully causes the employer to terminate the victim. In addition, bullying victims may be able to claim that they are being subjected to a hostile work environment if the bullying is discriminatory in nature.

The best course of action if you are experiencing workplace bullying is to report the conduct to a supervisor or to a member of your Human Resources department. Once the conduct has been reported, your employer should take steps to investigate and document the situation, and should take whatever corrective action is necessary and appropriate.
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