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.

9 responses to “Workplace Bullying: A Global Issue

  1. Pingback: Workplace Bullying: A Global Issue - International HR Forum - Member Blogs - HR Blogs - HR Space from Personnel Today and Xpert HR

  2. I completed my dissertation for my MBA in 2008 on the subject of The Power Culture in which managers hire people with similar managerial skillsets. If the manager in this case is the bully, there is no way to get around this. I was a victim in such a situation, and my manager (CEO) tried to fire me. I fought back in mediation and arbitration – in fact the CEO wouldn’t set foot in the arbitration court, but this bullying is very prevalent. I am in South Africa, and I am female.

  3. Ellenpc2@gmail

    Thank you for your comment. I am sorry your boss targeted you, and that bullying is so prevalent. This must be especially frustrating as you have extensive knowledge of management issues. If you become aware of any legal developments with regard to bullying,violence, discrimination, and harassment, please email me. Thanks again for commenting. Ellen Cobb

  4. Very interesting read, and very validating. I’ve experienced this on a personal front at a host of jobs. Workplace bullying is super prevelant, and as a woman vying for equal rights in the workplace, I don’t want to be the one to complain. I do hope this aspect of corporate culture continues to be addressed and changed so the workplace landscape can be a productive nurturing one for all employees. Thanks!

    I’m sharing this with our twitter feed at @jpatrickjobs

  5. Although I generally think I do a pretty good job with controlling my emotions, I find myself getting very angry when I read about so many instances of bullying in schools, colleges and universities, and now the workplace. I have over 30 years of HR leadership/management experience and while I have never been bullied or witnessed bullying in the workplace, it does seem to be becoming more and more prevalent everywhere. While my first reaction to this article was I don’t think the answer is more legislation since the individuals (all levels of employees but especially leaders and managers) in companies should be able to prevent this type of unacceptable behavior, it does seem like some major changes are needed to address bullying head-on and make it a practice to eliminate it from all aspects of our society. Individuals who witness bullying need to have the courage to stand up and confront the bullies at all levels. I know many people will consider this to be a vary simplistic approach but I believe we would all be pleasantly surprised with the results.

  6. Have read about Bunnings Bullying in the workplace would advise anyone going thru this to read. The victim taped the dishonest managers involved. The timber manager was a bully, when Bunnings was caught out they then got other managers involved the store manager, the hardware manager, the regional manager and a sales rep and others aswell. Bunnings got caught out as the managers tried to set the victim up by putting a false alegation onto him. But the victim had the evidence on tape. This is the best way to prove what goes on.

  7. Thanks International Hr for having this forum it is an excellent resource for helping those in need. The harm that can come from others doing this to others can be very damaging. People that go thru this often lack the ability to trust other co workers, managers, supervisors etc again. Some people will not return to the workforce to work for another boss again. Instead they will seek out self employment. The stress that can come from such an event can cause a number of health issues. Companies that have people working for them that do this to others that allow it to continue on create their own time bomb. Have read about Brodie Panlock the shocking outcome. Companies should not allow Bullying in the workplace.

  8. Please sign the petition asking President Obama and the Department of labor to create a uniform national response to workplace bullying. I think one of the most important aspects of this article is that it outlines numerous lessons we can now look at in the U.S. Current legislation that has been introduced dates back to a time when workplace bullying was under-recognized. We now have an opportunity to approach this problem in new ways that weren’t conceivable even a few short years ago.

  9. Very interesting article. We have recently launched a new community site for people that are affected by workplace bullying. Please visit and share your thoughts.