Frequently Asked Questions
It is mistreatment severe enough to compromise a targeted worker's health, jeopardize her or his job and career, and strain relationships with friends and family. It is a laser-focused, systematic campaign of interpersonal destruction. It has nothing to do with work itself. It is driven by the bully's personal agenda and actually prevents work from getting done. It begins with one person singling out the target. Before long, the bully easily and swiftly recruits others to gang up on the target, which increases the sense of isolation. Read the WBI definition used in several national surveys.
You are miserable. You are harassed. Your work is sabotaged, blocked, or stolen. Perhaps, you didn't think of calling it bullying because that's what happens to kids in school, not to adults. Wrong! Workplace Bullying is experienced by more than one third of the U.S. workforce. Read this checklist to see if it describes what you are going through.
Bullying certainly looks and feels like harassment. It is harassing, as commonly understood (defined as systematic, annoying, and continued actions which include threats and demands; creating a hostile situation by uninvited and unwelcome verbal or physical conduct). But at work, harassment is a special term. Often, workplace harassment connotes sexual misconduct and a hostile work environment. State and federal civil rights laws are designed to protect workers from discriminatory, disparate mistreatment. If, and ONLY IF, you are a member of a protected status (grounds) group -- there are 7 in the U.S. and 11 in Canada -- (e.g., gender, race, religion, ethnicity, etc.), and you have been mistreated by a person who is NOT a member of a protected group, you might be able to claim that you were harassed. (Only a legal professional can advise you on this.) HR must respond to your complaint and the entire anti-discrimination procedure begins. Illegal discriminatory harassment occurs in only 20% of bullying cases. That means that 80% of bullying is legal! 61% of bullying occurs within the same gender. Woman bullies famously target other women in 80% of cases, and it is completely legal unless race, age, or another status group membership characteristic can be claimed.
It is not good, but it is typical. By the time bullying deteriorates your physical or mental health, it has gone on for far too long. Unfortunately, most targeted people try to "tough it out." It does not stop the bullying, AND it allows the overwhelming stress to eat at you. The stress will not stop until the bullying stops, or you are separated from the source, the stressors -- the bully and his or her executive friends and sponsors. The newest neuroscience research proves that there are physiological, structural changes in the brain when stress is relentless. The physical changes cause behavioral, emotional, cognitive and perceptual changes. The feeling of being "stuck in a rut" may be due to brain changes from prolonged stress. The good news is that when the stress is eliminated or significantly reduced, you will return to normal, a new normal perhaps, but you will be able to think and feel again. The lesson is to turn off the stress. Stop thinking that time alone will make situations improve.
You deserve a counselor who won't blame you for your fate. Some exist, but you have to be a smart consumer of psychologists, psychiatrists, and counselors. Here's our advice for choosing a therapist.
You can schedule an appointment with the WBI Coach: Jessi Brown, MS, NCC, LMHC
Two important points:
1. You are not the only one to have experienced this. Not in your country, not in your state or province, not in your company, even not the only one in your work unit! Isolation -- much of it self-imposed because you feel so badly -- compounds the stress.
2. You did not invite the misery. No one in their right mind should ever believe the bully's lie that another person (you) deserve to be humiliated, intimidated, and abused. You did not ask for it. You did not wake up one morning and say that this was the day to be humiliated. You did not trigger this campaign of hatred.
One-on-one Coaching with Jessi Eden Brown, MS, LMHC, LPC Call 360-656-6630.
One of the greatest tragedies is that the best and brightest are most often selected for targethood. You posed a threat somehow to a person who is not fully developed as a moral human being. He or she may possess skills, their favorites being the ones involving manipulation and control of other people and winning at the game of political sabotage at work. The fact that bullies are threatened speaks volumes about them, not about you. But don't waste time feeling pity for them. The Workplace Bullying movement is about helping targeted individuals find relief, not rehabilitating bullies. Read more about who gets targeted.
It is a fact that we rely on co-workers to define our workplace reality. It's part of being human. Co-workers have tremendous influence on our lives. That's why it is so devastating when they begin to resent you, the targeted peer, and eventually abandon you. The longer the bullying persists, the more likely it is that co-workers will side with the bully and become your enemy. Driving this is the "F-word" -- FEAR. Co-workers are afraid of being the next person to fall in the bully's crosshairs. We conducted a study in 2008 to explore in detail exactly what coworkers did and did not do. It is a dismal account of cowardice. Read the 2008 study results.
Historically, Unions have been steadfast employee advocates. However, unions have a mixed record of dealing with bullying. They are organizations, just like employers. The people at the top often have different perspectives than those of rank-and-file members. If the union executive board doesn't have sympathy for bullied members, nothing will be done to help. Remarkably, even with sympathetic leaders, bullying presents a special problem for unions when the bullying is member-on-member. Unions have the responsibility to "represent" both parties, but they should never "defend" the aggressor, the bully. There are innovative ways to help the bully, while still defending the safety of the targeted person. Because of these misunderstandings, many unions ignore bullying. Instead, unions should see bullying as a worker health and safety problem, a traditional mandate. See what unions can do to address bullying and some of the unions we have helped.
Instead of correcting the problem you brought to their attention, your employer circled the wagons to defend the bully. You were retaliated against. You were the bearer of bad news, daring to expose truths about incompetence or illegality. You were branded the "troublemaker." Most of the time, the bully is a manager (72%). Your report made you an adversary. Bullies enjoy support from members at the top of the organization. You threatened to hold someone accountable who is beloved by senior management. He or she was hired because of aggressive tendencies (that simply looked like ambition) or the bully was following orders from above. While you were busy doing work in the job you loved, the bully, being a political animal, was busy ingratiating him- or herself up the ladder. Ingratiation is simple butt kissing. Kissing up is done to ensure that if ever they are discovered, the executive whose butt has been smooched will side with the bully and not you. You have reported that the executive's friend is a fraud. You cannot be believed or else the precious bond with the bully will have to be broken. [We have a lot to say about this in our 2011 book for employers, The Bully-Free Workplace.] You probably reported the problem to HR or personnel, thinking help was forthcoming. Unless the misconduct is illegal, HR does not have to do anything to assist you. HR is a management support function. Do not treat HR as employee advocates.
Ironic, isn't it? You are injured by the psychological assault which is bullying. The employer (HR) gives you two options: a) file a workers compensation (WC) claim; or b) take family medical leave act (FMLA) time off. You lose with either option. WC claims while you are off work do not pay and they are managed by the employer who serves as judge and jury. After a lengthy, sham "investigation," including a humiliating psychological exam by one of the employer's hack psychologists (falsely called an independent medical exam - IME), your stress claim will be denied. You will have foregone pay and lost everything. FMLA is unpaid leave. HR wants you out with no pay. Better to have your physician or counselor begin the process of putting you on short-term disability. It starts with an "off work order for job stress." The first step will buy you a couple of weeks, then the disability process can move forward. Later, if the employer fires you while off on disability (which many employers do), you may have some legal recourse. WBI actually studied the success rates of FMLA and WC.
Perhaps you had the good sense to stop the decline in your health, reclaim your personal dignity, and leave before more damage could be inflicted. You quit. This disqualifies you from receiving unemployment. If you had known, you might have negotiated to have the separation reflect a layoff (common and impersonal in this era). However, you should appeal the denial of UI benefits on the grounds that you were "constructively discharged." You, like any reasonable person, had to leave a work environment made so unsafe by the bully and supportive management. Conditions were unbearable. No one could remain there and be still be healthy and sane. The dirtiest trick employers play regarding UI is that they say if you agree to leave they will give you UI. You leave, then they deny benefits. Someday, the state unemployment folks will catch on to workplace bullying and recognize it as justification for benefits.
If your employer actually did nothing, you are luckier than others who suffered retaliation for reporting the bullying. Employers have to follow state and federal laws, or risk lawsuits that could carry punitive damages. Bullying is legal in every U.S. state! In Canada, it is becoming illegal in more provinces since Quebec's 2004 law. Provinces with health and safety regulations prohibiting some forms of bullying include Saskatchewan (2007), Ontario (2010), Manitoba (2011) and British Columbia (2014). Also federal government workers in Canada can claim violations of the HSA, Part XX Violence in the Workplace (since 2008). Laws drive employer policies. Only when policies exist do employers have to pay attention to conduct at work. Though it makes good business sense to voluntarily stop bullying, to reduce expenses, and to minimize employee health risks, U.S. employers are not that bright. They have more time and friendship invested in the bullies than in the business or agency and certainly more than any investment in the workers. Employers' respect is given to bullies; they are protected. Targets are banished. Like we say: Good Employers Purge Bullies, Bad Ones Promote 'Em.
No. Bullying is legal in every U.S. state. But we are working on it. Nearly 30 states and 2 Territories have introduced some version of our anti-bullying legislation call The Healthy Workplace Bill. Current status can be found at the Healthy Workplace Campaign website. Sign up. Get involved in your state.
Only a legal professional can advise you on this. We are not attorneys or paralegals. Call one for advice. Pay only an hourly fee for a consult. Our experience as an expert witness with attorneys does enable us to suggest that the injustice that resulted from bullying is rarely reversed by lawsuits. Lawsuits in the U.S. are bound by existing laws. U.S. labor laws provide embarrassingly few worker protections. Lawsuits are expensive. Attorneys will not remember case details; you will have to manage your own case. Depositions (intense invasive interrogations) by the employer's attorneys re-traumatized injured bullied workers. Many quit their lawsuits at that stage. Your privacy will be lost. Your health records will be available for your bully and employer to mock. But, if you do want to pursue legal action, see our answer to the related attorney question. If you are even considering a lawsuit, you face a tough road of personalized hate directed at you. Listen the account of one California woman who sued her employer, the state, and won, but has sage advice for you. Go to this page, scroll down to So You Wanna Sue by Rebecca H. And listen to the WBI Webinar on this topic.
Without current U.S. laws, there can be no legal specialists in workplace bullying. However, we do have specific advice about how to find an attorney likely to understand your plight. The biggest hurdle to overcome is the inexperience with emotional abuse cases that you and your attorney may have when fighting the corporate defense team, who will have lots of experience defending the abusive employer. The more typical bullying is of the prevailing corporate culture, the more practiced are the corporate legal eagles. They have a system that you, the newbie, will face. Ideally, you want an attorney who has fought against the same employer and knows how to humble them. Tell your attorney that Dr. Gary Namie (360.656.6603) has served as an expert witness in several bullying-related cases, including the famous Indiana case resolved by the State Supreme Court in 2008.
Two principal answers to this. First, you must restore your health and establish healthy work boundaries by making slight personal changes, as described in the book The Bully At Work. Depending on the severity of the harm suffered and the nature of your departure (in your control or involuntarily disgraced), rebound time can be quite long.
Equally important, is that you screen the next employer during the interview process. Ask why the job is open and how long the predecessor was there. If asked why you ask, answer "just curious." (Turnover is the key indicator that bullying happens in a workplace.) Ask, what is the manager's attitude toward "workaholics?" If they say it is expected, lots of unpaid overtime, abandonment of family, etc. know what you are getting into. Ask what policies or codes exist to ensure a "Respectful Workplace." If they nonchalantly allude to healthy practices and the enforcement anti-harassment rules, push further for the presence of a code/policy that makes abusive, cruel, and destructive conduct by anyone unacceptable. If they answer that they rely on "common sense," that "no one like that" works here, state that the best places to work recognize that out-of-control people are destructive and have clear guidelines and punish offenders. More important to you than the absence of a policy, is the responses they give to your questions. You decide how risky it is to work in a place that denies it happens. During the interview, you may actually have to say that you left an employer because they refused to protect workers from unsafe people. It is imperative that you take the next job with your eyes wide open. No more surprises. No deer-in-the-headlights paralysis for you!