What Workplace Bullying Laws Actually Exist?

By Sarah Fader |Updated July 12, 2022
CheckedMedically Reviewed By Tanya Harell, LPC

The workplace can sometimes be a toxic environment. You often have to work with people you don't know, which can lead to some mixed results. Sometimes, you form lasting bonds with new friends or acquaintances at work. Other times, you don't have much in common with your coworkers, but you can get along well enough and learn how to get the job done.

But then there are times when a coworker just behaves terribly to you. They might mistreat you, try to get you into trouble, or even bully you. If this has happened to you, your workplace might suddenly feel like middle school all over again, full of teenage behavior and cliques. It might feel difficult, or even impossible, to work under these hostile conditions. These hostile conditions have even led to PTSD from bullying in some individuals. 

And if the bully is your boss, then you might be dealing with an even bigger problem.

How common is workplace bullying? Is there anything you can do about it without having to quit your job? Let's delve into the world of workplace bullying and what you can do about it.

Some Emotions Are Hard To Process

What Constitutes Bullying?

The general definition of workplace bullying, also sometimes called mobbing, is when someone at work harasses, offends, excludes, assaults, and repeatedly does anything else to affect the performance of a coworker, supervisor, or subordinate. Hostile communication and verbal abuse are more examples of bullying. Any and all of these behaviors are considered workplace bullying if they occur regularly over an extended period of time (more than a few weeks).

The behavior of a workplace bully usually includes five features:

  • The bully’s behaviors are repeated—not a one-time offense that is reconciled and forgiven.
  • The bully focuses only on one or a few targets.
  • The bullying increases over time.
  • The bullying is intentional—clearly not comments or behaviors that are simply misinterpreted.
  • The bully has a position of power over target/s, such as a supervisory or managerial role.

To summarize, workplace bullying is not too different from schoolyard bullying. You have grown up, but someone who bullies in the workplace has not.

A bully also tends to have a “kiss up, kick down” attitude, meaning that they will reserve their best behavior for their own supervisors or managers while directing their worst behavior toward their targets, whose positions are typically lower in the workplace’s hierarchy. A workplace bully’s goal is usually to ingratiate themselves to authority figures in order to rise to a position of greater power, and they will not stop at harming other people to achieve that goal.

Who Are The Bullies?

For the most part, bullies hold positions at work that are senior to yours. They may threaten you with disciplinary action or firing to keep you from standing up to them. They also might blame you when something negative happens, even if it's not your fault. Because a bully seeks power and control, they do not want to allow you to hold a position equal to theirs.

Individuals can become bullies for several reasons. They might struggle with insecurity or deep feelings of fear or self-doubt. They also might have endured past abuse or been bullied by others in the past. However, reasons are not excuses; there is no excuse for bullying, and you deserve to feel safe and valued in your workplace.

Are Specific Jobs More Prone To Bullying?

You may wonder what jobs are more prone to workplace bullying. Healthcare, education, and service industries show higher rates of bullying compared to other employment sectors, according to a 2013 survey, as well as law enforcement. These work environments all include potentially stressful situations, hierarchies of power in which supervisors work in close contact with subordinates, and frequent communication with patients/students/patrons. However, bullying can occur in any industry and in any workplace.

Health Effects And Other Outcomes

Experiencing ongoing bullying at work, especially a full-time job over a period of years, can have a serious impact on your health. Effects can include:

  • Excess stress. Too much stress can lead to other physical and mental health problems and can make your performance at work suffer.
  • Fear of going to work. Instead of being able to focus on doing well at your job, you wake up dreading your next shift or meeting and may be preoccupied with negative thoughts of work even after you come home.
  • Lost or lower-quality sleep. You may struggle to fall asleep as you think back on incidents and fear what might happen next.
  • Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) after leaving the workplace. Working in an environment that fosters bullying or abusive behavior can leave emotional scars; you might even look back on a previous work environment and wonder how you were able to remain as long as you did.
  • Other psychological symptoms. Panic attacks, anxiety, depression, and mood swings might result from being targeted at work. Like the other effects in this list, none of these is your fault. Your body and mind are responding to attacks. Experiencing ill effects from bullying is not a sign of weakness, but a sign that you are enduring something real and wrong.

Some Emotions Are Hard To Process

Are There Any Laws Against Workplace Bullying?

You may wonder if there's anything you can do if you or someone you know is being bullied. Proving that you have been bullied may be difficult, especially if you do not have a “paper trail” of evidence to document what has been happening. You may want to consider keeping a private log of incidents or sending a memo to a trusted supervisor or your human resources department; even a vague message like, “I have some concerns about recent incidents involving a fellow employee and would like to set up a time to talk” can provide later documentation if needed to back up your explanation of the bullying. Unfortunately, if the bully is your boss, it might be harder to find a place to take your concerns.

Workplace bullying laws are designed to allow employees to sue for compensation if an employer has created or permitted a hostile work environment. Some countries have laws in place to prevent workplace bullying, but the United States currently does not. However, if you have been wronged by a workplace bully, you may want to consult an attorney about bringing suit for a similar reason, such as intentional infliction of emotional distress or assault. Taking legal action is easier if you have maintained documentation of the offenses through a journal or series of memos.

Unfortunately, it may ultimately be easier to seek a different job than to change the conditions at your current workplace. If you decide to pursue employment elsewhere, you may want to consult with an attorney, an employment counselor, or a therapist (or all of these) to figure out how to make the transition as painless as possible.

Preventing Workplace Bullying In The Future

If you decide to leave your job due to workplace bullying, you may wonder whether a new workplace will be any better. A few key steps can help you avoid moving from one bad situation to another.

First, consult with a professional, such as a therapist, to figure out what exactly went wrong in your previous workplace environment. Was the problem excessive competition among coworkers? A cruel boss? Humiliating or demeaning behavior in meetings? Identify what traits you would like to see in a workplace instead, such as a collaborative atmosphere, a flexible and communicative boss, or a strong human resources presence. Then, look up potential workplaces on the internet for reviews that can indicate their working environments. This information will help you feel prepared for job interviews. Some pertinent topics you might address during an interview include:

  • Asking why the last person left the job, and how long the person was employed. There are many reasons why someone may quit their job, but if the employer is dodging the question, this could indicate a dysfunctional workplace.
  • Asking about what policies they take to handle workplace bullying. If they have no specific guidelines, then they might not adequately address your concerns. A lack of clear policy on its own is not necessarily a reason to turn down a dream job, but you might want to ask follow-up questions about the workplace environment first.
  • Providing a brief explanation, if you feel comfortable doing so, of your previous workplace environment and what issues led you to leave. Be careful not to give in to the urge to gossip or “bad mouth” your previous employer, as doing so may reflect poorly on your trustworthiness to a new potential employer.

Seeking Help Against Bullying

If you are being bullied at work, you are absolutely not alone. According to a recent meta-analysis of studies, an estimated 11 percent of workers have experienced workplace bullying. Furthermore, a 2015 survey of 2,000 workers showed that 58 percent of respondents had either experienced or witnessed workplace bullying. You don’t deserve to be bullied, and if you are experiencing workplace bullying, then you can take several actions to change it, including contacting human resources or a supervisor, considering a different workplace or job opportunity, or pursuing therapy. Of these options, therapy is something you can start right away, through an online service like BetterHelp.

Online therapy with BetterHelp is flexible and confidential. You can work with a therapist on your schedule, from the privacy of your own home or even your smartphone, without having to leave for a face-to-face appointment on your lunch break and answering to a bully on your return. You can even work with a therapist via text message or email to discreetly receive support for ongoing issues. A BetterHelp therapist can provide you with different approaches to dealing with workplace bullying, work with you to address related mental health concerns like anxiety or PTSD, and help you to develop higher self-esteem and self-confidence as you move forward. Here are some reviews of BetterHelp counselors from users who have sought help with difficult work environments.

I’ve been working with Alicia for about 7 months now, and I can’t recommend her enough. She is unbelievably smart and yet filled with warmth, she’s non-judgmental but still able to see negative patterns, she gives solid frameworks and solutions when I need them, and is a listening ear when I need that. Alicia doesn’t just deal with the subject matter at hand, she remembers things I’ve told her weeks prior, small names or details or passing comments, and points out patterns I hadn’t noticed, helping me re-frame my own thoughts and behaviors, all while showing how much she’s really listening and paying attention. It makes me feel like I’m talking to a friend. One personal example of her intuitive spirit is what she said to me in my very first session with her which has stuck with me since that day. I had shared how “broken” I felt after my last couple roles in rather toxic work environments. And after sharing why I had left those companies, mostly dealing with bosses/ colleagues who were bullies, dishonest and manipulative people who did a lot of damage, Alicia pointed out that I am not, in fact, broken, as the reason I left those companies was always the same – my deep rooted values of kindness and honesty would not allow me to be in that environment any longer, that my sense of self from a moral perspective had remained the same when many people bend their morals to succeed in stressful work situations. This reframing of the narrative I had been telling myself from the moment I quit changed everything for me, and she had known me for 45 minutes. For anyone on the fence about therapy and its benefits, Alicia is the empathetic soul we all need in our lives.

Pamela Heyman is outstanding. She listens extremely well, has excellent follow up, recommends constructive feedback with a positive outlook, and she challenges me to strive for my goal of better family/friend/workplace relationships. Thank you Pamela for working with me to understand myself and how my life experiences mold me. This is helping me prosper with interactinons successfully I have with personalities/people in my life. 

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