Workplace Bullying: A Global Issue

Guest Author:
Ellen Pinkos Cobb – The Isosceles Group

[Editor’s Note:  We are pleased to feature this article on Global Workforce Bullying by guest author Ellen Pinkos Cobb.  Ellen is an attorney with many years of experience in the employment law field, and has spent the past two years extensively focusing on psychosocial workplace issues.  She is a Senior Regulatory & Legal Analyst for The Isosceles Group, a consulting firm specializing in Environmental, Health and Safety management services.  Ellen is based in the firm’s Boston office.] 

Think about sexual harassment.  It’s not done.  And yet, it was done, flagrantly, constantly, with a wink and a nod, until not that long ago.  It still happens, but less, and public perception has changed.

In the United States, workplace bullying has been found to be four times more prevalent than sexual harassment.  At the Work, Stress, and Health 2011 conference in May, bullying expert Staale Einarsen of Norway described the workplace bullying field as “exploding.”

In general terms, bullying describes a wide variety of negative workplace behaviors including verbal threats, personal attacks, humiliation, innuendo, and deliberate isolation of a colleague.  Separate incidents may be relatively innocuous but are often sustained or persistent in character, with a cumulative negative effect.

Workplace bullying is now being generally acknowledged as a global issue, affecting all countries, professions, and workers.  A recent Monster Global Poll  bears this out. The poll, conducted in early May, 2011, surveyed workers worldwide, and posed the question, “Have you ever been bullied at work?” The 16, 517 responses received indicated the following:

  • 64% answered that they had been bullied, either physically hurt, driven to tears, or had their work performance affected;
  • 36% replied that this had never happened to them; and
  • 16% answered that they had seen it happen to others.

The prevalence of bullying is a global phenomenon:

  • 83% of European respondents reported that they had been physically or emotionally bullied;
  • 65% in the Americas; and
  • 55% in Asia.

So, what should employers know about workplace bullying?

Workplace Bullying – A Global Legislative Roundup
Under workplace health and safety legislation, employers in most countries have a duty of care to provide a safe work environment for employees.  This requirement is often interpreted to require ensuring persons in the workplace are both mentally and physically safe at work and that their health is not adversely affected by work, and has been also interpreted to require a workplace free from bullying.

In some countries, new legislation has been coming into force or new provisions have been incorporated into existing legislation to protect workers from bullying. Here is a brief summary of workplace bullying legislation from around the world.

United States
In August, 2010 the Workplace Bullying Institute (WBI) commissioned Zogby International to conduct a survey of adult Americans. The results showed that 35% of Americans report personally being bullied.  This study was a follow-up to the frequently cited 2007 WBI-Zogby survey, the comparable prevalence was then 37%. The poll defined workplace bullying as “repeated mistreatment: sabotage by others that prevented work from getting done, verbal abuse, threatening conduct, intimidation or humiliation.” Of the WBI-Zogby respondents, 64% supported having laws to protect workers from “malicious, health-harming abusive conduct” committed by bosses and co-workers. 23.8% opposed laws.

Despite these findings, an employee can still be a target of bullying in the workplace in the United States and have no legal recourse, as state and federal laws generally do not cover acts of bullying.

Healthy workplace legislation appears to be gaining traction, however, with bills introduced in 21 States, and 16 bills presently active in 11 states.  States which have introduced anti-bullying legislation since 2003 include California, Connecticut, Hawaii, Illinois, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, Oklahoma, Oregon, Vermont, Washington, Wisconsin, Maryland, and Minnesota.

None of the bills have been enacted.  Yet.  However, an online insurance industry newsletter published by noted a growing trend in the number of employers requesting that insurance carriers include workplace bullying in their employment practice liability insurance policies.

Early European countries to enact workplace bullying laws were Sweden and France, and countries including Norway, Denmark, and the Netherlands, have followed suit.  Recently, a new Serbian law prohibiting workplace bullying became effective. The United Kingdom does not have a specific law against bullying in the workplace, but these claims may be brought under a variety of laws.

In 2011, the Canadian province of Manitoba imposed new obligations on employers to protect workers from psychological harassment in the workplace as well as workplace violence and harassment.

Queensland is one of two States in Australia with a Code of Practice specifically for workplace bullying.  Western Australia also has a Code of Practice focusing on the general principles applying to the prevention and management of bullying at work.  

An employer must protect all employees from psychological abuse in the workplace pursuant to an amendment to Article 417 of the Debts law passed by the Turkish parliament in January 2011.  The law makes it an offence to commit certain acts or fail to take action to prevent the commitment of acts such as verbal insults, belittling, and intentional isolation.

Management, Prevention, and Costs
Workplaces in which bullying is allowed to occur undermine the pursuit of a business’ growth and profitability and may lead to a detrimental impact on the corporate image with the public at large.

Specifically, the costs of workplace bullying include time and production lost due to factors which include employees’ preoccupation with negative circumstances, and resulting costs to the company’s overhead, loss of skill and experience when a worker leaves due to being bullied, lowered employee morale, medical and insurance costs, and harm to a company’s reputation.

Occupational health and safety laws have long dealt with physical risks, and now psychological risks are beginning to be treated similarly.  In today’s workplaces, the approach by management to should emphasize both physical and psychological health.

More About Ellen

Isosceles Group Website

Bullying, Violence, Harassment, Discrimination and Stress – Emerging Workplace Health and Safety Issues by Ellen Pinkos Cobb, J.D., provides a global overview of pertinent non-regulatory initiatives, legislative trends, and key requirements of legislation for over 50 countries in Western and Eastern Europe, the Asia Pacific Region, the Americas, the Middle East and Africa, and the United States.

Contact Ellen by email.