Workplace Bullying: Harassment Isn’t Always Sexual

Posted on January 2, 2011 by VITAL WorkLife

Do you have a direct report or colleague who makes life miserable for others? Someone who rolls their eyes at other people's suggestions? Always has a "goat" they blame for all problems and if that person leaves, finds a new victim? A perfectionist who nitpicks and constantly criticizes the works of others? If that sounds familiar, it's because bullying isn't limited to schoolyard playgrounds—it's a genuine problem in the workplace.

According to a 2010 study conducted by Zagat Research for the Workplace Bullying Institute:

  • 35% of workers have experienced bullying firsthand
  • 62% of bullies are men; 58% of targets are women
  • Women bullies target women in 80% of cases
  • Bullying is four times more prevalent than illegal harassment
  • The majority of bullying (68%) is same-gender harassment

While bullying is not illegal, 20 states have considered Healthy Workplace legislation—and 11 bills are currently active in 9 states. Even without that legislation in place, employers are being held to account for the bullying behavior of their employees. Last year, the Indiana Supreme Court reinstated a $325,000 verdict for Joseph Doescher, a former medical technician who had sued Daniel Raess, a cardiovascular surgeon, for assault in 2002.

As a result, many employers are purchasing Employment Practices Liability insurance to protect against bullying-type claims (harassment, wrongful termination, etc.) for which companies pay $5,000 to $100,000 in annual premiums, with deductibles of $10,000 to $25,000. The median compensation in wrongful termination cases topped $200,000 in 1995, up 45% from the previous year.

The High Cost of Workplace Bullying: Lawsuits are Just the Beginning

In addition to legal considerations, companies pay a high cost for bullying behavior in increased turnover, absenteeism, presenteeism (at work but not really there), stress-related medical claims, reduced productivity, use of disciplinary procedures, suspensions and dismissals.

"When we're brought in to investigate the reason for high turnover rates in a department, team or organization, more often than not, there's a bully involved," says Deb Wood, senior EAP consultant for VITAL WorkLife. "In some cases, a supervisor may not be aware of what's going on; in others, the supervisor may be as intimidated as his or her reports; in others, the supervisor or the supervisor's managers may be the bullies."

Workplace Bullying: Definition and Types

Bullying is defined as a persistent, unwelcome behavior, mostly using unwarranted or invalid criticism, nit picking, and fault-finding. Also, it involves being singled out and treated differently, being shouted at, humiliated, excessively monitored, or having verbal and written warnings imposed.

There a several types of bullying. At the corporate level, bullying may involve 60- to 70-hour work weeks, spying on employees and asking employees to spy on each other. Institutional bullying presents itself as sudden or frequent changes in employees' schedules, roles and work duties without consultation. At the interpersonal level, bullying may be so subtle that the "victim" doesn't always understand why he or she suddenly feels so inadequate or dreads coming to work.

Tough Boss or Bully? Spotting the Difference

Being a tough boss isn't the same thing as being a bully, according to research conducted by Teresa A. Daniel, JD, PhD and discussed in the June 2009 issue of HR Magazine. After extensive interviews with experienced HR professionals, she found agreement that managers who bully:

  • Frequently misuse power and authority
  • Focus on personal self-interest, as opposed to the good of the organization
  • Are prone to emotional outbursts
  • Are often inconsistent and unfair in their treatment of employees

In contrast, "tough bosses" exhibited the following characteristics:

  • Objective, fair and professional
  • Self-controlled and unemotional
  • Performance-focused—insistent upon meeting high standards and holding employees accountable for meeting those expectations
  • Organizationally oriented—consistently operating to achieve the best interests of their company

According to Daniel, the major difference in the ways bullies and tough bosses manage conflict is the presence or absence of malice—defined in Merriam-Webster's Online Dictionary (2008) as "the desire to cause pain, injury or distress to another."

Victims of Bullying: Fight or Flight?

"Many times an employee will call in complaining about job stress or burnout—but it's not their jobs they dislike, it's the behavior of a single co-worker or supervisor that's making their job unbearable," explains Wood.

In counseling such employees, Wood suggests they start by talking to their supervisor or, if the supervisor is the bully, to HR. "If the organization has a stated policy against bullying, the employee can expect some assistance," says Wood. "Unfortunately, if the CEO and management teams are bullies themselves, the employee may have to decide whether or not this organization is a good fit going forward."

In a review of 110 studies spanning two decades, two researchers from Canada's Queen's University and the University of Manitoba found that bullied employees were more likely than sexually harassed employees to quit, report physical and mental health problems, and be dissatisfied with their jobs.

Employees who have tolerated bullying for fear of losing their jobs during the recession may be sending out their resumes now. If you've been turning a blind eye to a bully in your department, it's time to start asking yourself if his or her value outweighs all the people you might lose as the economy moves into recovery.

Confronting a Workplace Bully: Your EAP Benefit Can Help

Confidential counseling, coaching and support are at no cost to you as part of your EAP benefit. If you aren't sure how to confront a workplace bully, don't hesitate to call 800.383.1908 and ask to speak to an EAP counselor.

"While bullying isn't illegal, it's a legitimate performance issue," notes Wood. "We can share our experience of what's worked in other organizations and with other employees so that when you talk to either the bully or the direct reports being bullied, you'll feel more confident in setting boundaries and expectations."

This no-cost, unlimited telephone consultation—available 24/7—is not just for you but also for every member of your family as well as your employees and their families. Your benefit also includes no-cost face-to-face counseling with master's- and doctorate-level professionals. All you have to do is ask.

Helpful Online Resources

The VITAL WorkLife website offers helpful tools and information designed to help managers and supervisors deal with problem employees, including:

  • Cost of Workplace Incivility Can Be a Rude Awakening
  • Challenging a Resistant Employee
  • Difficult Employees
  • Surviving Office Politics
  • Anticipating Conflicts Likely To Arise in the Workplace
  1. To find these articles, go to, click on member login and enter your user name and password.
  2. On the page that comes up, in the left hand column, click on the "Your Work & Life Resources" button.
  3. In the shaded area at the top of the screen, click on the pull down menu that says "Working," pull down to "Effective Manager" and explore the articles in the categories "Leadership Skills" and "Dealing with Difficult Employees."

"Harassment—It's Not Just Sexual Anymore"

A One-Hour Webinar

Join VITAL WorkLife senior consultant Deb Wood, PhD, CEAP, for a one-hour session exploring how a "bully" can upset the work environment. Designed as an introduction to bullying for professionals new to HR and a refresher for all supervisors and managers, this presentation will describe the types of bullies in the workplace, and the employees they choose to pick on.

Information and techniques will be provided to attendees related to what can be done to deter workplace bullies and minimize their influence on their targets and the workplace. You'll learn to:

  • Understand why a person bullies
  • Identify traits of the person who is the target of a bully
  • Understand how the bullying impacts the target and other employees
  • Learn what the organization can do about bullying

Date and Time: Thursday, May 19, noon to 1 pm CT

Cost: $59

To Register: Space is limited, so please register as soon as possible by clicking here.

This program has been approved for 1 (General ) recertification credit hour toward PHR, SPHR and GPHR recertification through the HR Certification Institute. Please be sure to note the program ID number on your recertification application form. We will provide these numbers to you upon request and completion of the program. For more information about certification or recertification, please visit the HR Certification Institute website at

Pathways to Well Being Call VITAL WorkLife at 800.383.1908

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