Workplace Bullying: A Form of Violence Pursued Under Title VII

Workplace bullying is something that federal employees can potentially face in their jobs. The author says the federal government must do more to protect its workforce from the harm caused by workplace bullying.

Most of us associate bullying with children and schools. Rarely do we think of adults at a professional workplace. However, approximately 27 percent of American adults have past or current experience with bullying in the workplace. The actual numbers are most likely significantly higher.

Due to its psychological nature, bullying is often difficult to detect and can easily be confused with workplace conflict. Moreover, the lack of legal protections along with lack of proper policies and procedures in organizations discourages reporting this form of abuse, particularly because consequences, if any, are uncertain. Subsequently, victims are suffering in silence and perpetrators are safely and legally continuing the abuse.

What Is Workplace Bullying?

Bullying is a new concept. Organizational scholars use this term only since the 1990’s to describe phenomena of repeated workplace aggression by individuals to harm others with whom they work.

Workplace bullying is repeated, health-harming mistreatment of one or more persons, the targets, by one or more perpetrators. Bullying in the workplace rarely appears in the form of physical abuse, but rather in less obvious, harmful behavior toward the target such as withholding of information or resources, excessive monitoring of work, glaring in a hostile manner, treating the victim in a disrespectful way, interfering with work activities, giving little or no feedback about performance, not giving praise when praise is due, delaying actions on matters of importance to the worker, lying, preventing from expressing self, and/or devaluing subject’s work. Bullying can also appear in the form of discrimination, exclusion, social isolation, and intimidation.

It is important to note that single incidents of misbehavior toward a co-worker do not constitute bullying. Bullying only occurs when the mistreatment forms a pattern of repetitive harassment toward a particular target. It is also important to note that bullying is not a workplace conflict. Bulling is about power, control, and dominance over another person. It is also a form of workplace violence that 72 percent of employers deny, discount, encourage, rationalize, or defend.

Consequences For The Target And The Organization

Bullying is a particularly hideous form of emotional assault, humiliation, and infringement on an individual’s civil rights that destroys morale, erodes trust, cripples initiative and results in dysfunction, absenteeism, resignations, guilt, negative feelings, and marginal production in the workplace. The list of health implications for the target is long. It includes depression, anxiety, sleep disturbance, gastrointestinal disorders, forgetfulness, or even change in appearance.

The majority of victims of bullying deal with the situation by minimization or conflict avoidance. Instead of turning to their supervisors or human resources managers to discuss the abuse, the victims generally turn to their social networks such as friends and peers. They rarely ever confront the perpetrator(s), and only 1-6 percent of affected employees file a complaint.

Current Status—Insufficient Protection of American Workers

Bullying is officially acknowledged as workplace violence. The federal government’s Office of Personnel Management (OPM) addressed the topic in its guide for Federal agencies in 1998. In 2013, the Interagency Security Committee, Department of Homeland Security (DHS) published an update to the OPM guide in which the Committee emphasizes that developing and implementing reporting procedures for workplace bullying are just as important as establishing procedures for reporting physical violence. Even the Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI) stresses the need for including bullying in an organization’s workplace violence policy.

Although some employers around the nation such as the National Institute of Health (NIH), Environmental Protection Agency (EAP), and Colorado State University, have done an excellent job addressing this important topic, they are the exception, not the norm, particularly because they not only address bullying in their workplace violence policies, they also do thoroughly.

However, to-date, not only many private, but also public employers have not complied with OPM, DHS, or FBI recommendations.

Such employers include the DHS’ own Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). The agency is to-date relying on an outdated workplace violence policy from November 2000, where bullying or abusive conduct is nowhere mentioned and workplace violence is defined as, and limited to, “physical harm to persons or damage to property.”

Yet, FEMA is not the only public employer with clear shortcomings in regard to addressing abusive conduct in its workplace violence policy and not having proper response processes in place. Shortcomings are also evident in other public employers’ workplace violence policies such as the New York State Department of Labor, the state of Hawaii, the state of Oregon, which refers in its policy to an outdated definition of workplace violence by The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) from 2002.

This should not come as a surprise as even the Occupational Safety and Health Agency (OSHA) that is supposed to protect American workers’ health and safety, mentions bullying as a precursor to workplace violence; however, it fails to include psychological harassment, such as bullying, in its definition of workplace violence, which it limits to physical violence.

The effects of lacking proper policies are magnified by the fact that there is no proper legislation that addresses workplace bullying.

Currently, there are no federal laws that protect employees. Some state laws and regulations were passed recently, however, only in a few states such as Tennessee, Utah, Minnesota, and California. Although none of them provide effective protection against bullies in the workplace, they at least acknowledge the existence of abusive, disrespectful, or unprofessional behavior that has no room in the workplace.

However, the Minnesota and Tennessee laws and regulations apply only to some public sector employers. Utah and California only require training on prevention of abusive workplace conduct, and California law is the only one that applies to public sector, as well as private sector, employees with 50 or more employees.

Due to the lack of proper legislation, workplace bullying is currently pursued under Title VII anti-discrimination laws. Although bullying is correlated to discrimination based on protected traits as minorities and women are more likely to be target of bullies, it goes without saying that health harming conduct must be pursued as what it is. Currently, complainants have a bullying legal case only if they have a protected class case.

Workplace Violence And Public Employers

Workplace violence is more than six times more likely to occur in the public sector than in the private industry. Public employees are more likely to be the victim of workplace violence, even when security and law enforcement officers are excluded.

According to the United States Merit System Protection Board (MSPB), workplace violence against federal employees is predominantly carried out by current or former Federal employees. Regardless, the Federal government’s OPM, responsible for keeping government running smoothly, has been urging agencies to develop written workplace violence programs in 1998, but has done little to make sure that federal agencies are, in fact, doing everything they can to protect their employees.

Edward Stern, one of the leading experts on workplace bullying, confirms this: OPM does not even know to what degree or whether agencies are following its advice since 1998. Moreover, in a recent Freedom of Information request, OPM confirmed that the agency is not aware of any data related to bullying in the federal government.

Bullying, Indication For Other Systemic Issues In An Organization

The federal government’s proper handling of workplace violence, including bullying, is critical not only from the employee health perspective, but also for organizational reasons, because bullying is generally a systemic issue rather than an interpersonal one and is grounded in and defined by the organization’s culture and climate, meaning, it is generally an indication for other deeply rooted, serious problems, such as, disorganization and lack of ethical leadership, as ethical leadership relates negatively to bullying.

Poorly organized workplaces also encourage bullying. Supervisors inclined to abuse are most likely to leash out at their subordinate victims when operating in highly chaotic and disorganized workplaces. Additionally, work environments characterized by poor morale and supervision, unfairness, and low cohesion have higher rates of bullying than organizations characterized as fair, supportive, and challenging.

Legislators Must Act To Protect American Workers

As the shortcomings in many taxpayer funded organizations show, employers must better prevent and respond to workplace violence. For this, they not only need appropriate policies in which they specifically address bullying, intimidation, and other threatening and demeaning behaviors in the workplace, but also proper enforcement channels and legislation.

Alev Dudek is a German-American researcher, analyst, and author. As an established scholar in diversity, she served on the executive board of the International Society for Diversity Management in Berlin as well as the City of Kalamazoo Community Relations Board. Alev received The National Security Education Program (NSEP) award in 2014.