Is Bullying the New Sexual Harassment?

Office ogres exact not only an emotional cost but a monetary one. They can poison productivity, stifle creativity, and force good employees out the door.

Ed Frauenheim is on assignment.

The recent brouhaha over the abusive behavior of the Rutgers University basketball coach toward his players has brought the issue of workplace bullying back into the spotlight.

While most employees have never had basketballs or homophobic slurs hurled at them, a growing number of workers have been the target of a tyrant, leading some experts to conclude that bullying is the new sexual harassment, according to a recent article by the Associated Press.

Toxic workplaces have been around as long as toxic people have been tolerated, but workplace incivility is on the rise, says social psychologist Gary Namie, director of the Workplace Bullying Institute, surpassing incidents of sexual harassment and racial discrimination. And in a tight job market, harassed employees may be reluctant to quit or to complain, leaving their abusers to do as they please.

Bullies come in a variety of flavors—the screamer, the queen bee, the backstabber—and neither gender has a lock on rude behavior, although 62 percent of bullies are men, according to the institute. And a bully’s most frequent target, whether they are male or female, is a woman. And we’re not talking shrinking violets. Many female targets are confident, competent and successful—in other words, a threat to someone who suffers from insecurity and low self-esteem, as most bullies do.

A few years ago I met a bright and ambitious young woman who was the target of such a person. She was a rising star at her company until an older co-worker nearly derailed her career. He undermined her at every turn, yelling at her in meetings, cutting her off in mid-sentence, and gossiping about her to co-workers. She documented every incident and presented her findings to the owner of the firm who sympathized, but did nothing.

The woman quit within a few months and was snapped up by a competitor.

Office ogres exact not only an emotional cost but a monetary one. They can poison productivity, stifle creativity, and force good employees out the door. And in some cases, they can trigger a costly lawsuit. A boss who refuses to rein them in sends a message that bad behavior is acceptable and another toxic workplace is born.

But there is a movement afoot to hold employers accountable and allow workers to pursue lost wages, benefits and medical expenses. It’s called the Healthy Workplace Bill and more than a dozen states, including Illinois and New York, are considering its passage. Many European countries like Sweden, Norway and Serbia—yes, Serbia—have such anti-bullying laws in place.

However, it shouldn’t take a law or a lawsuit to get supervisors and managers to do right by their workers.

As Naime writes on the Workplace Bullying Institute blog, leaders “have to subordinate their buddy relationships (and this is gender neutral, the same goes for women executives) to the good of the company and favor the vast majority of the workers. Call it populist. Call it taking care of the majority upon whom productivity relies. Call it common sense. Call it maturing.”

Or you may be calling your lawyer as more employees turn to the courts for protection from the bully in your midst.

Rita Pyrillis is Workforce’s senior writer. Comment below or email her at rpyrillis@workforce.com. Follow Pyrillis on Twitter at @RitaPyrillis.