When Eric Lander resigned as the White House’s top science adviser on Monday, he wrote to President Biden that he was “devastated” to realize how much his bullying behavior hurt his colleagues. News of a bully resigning is a rare outcome in the U.S., where workplace bullying is not illegal. Even so, the recovery has just begun for traumatized staffers.
The fallout is just one snapshot of a national problem.
Workplace bullying, a form of psychological violence, is a pervasive public health issue. A 2021 study from the non-profit Workplace Bullying Institute showed that 30% of American workers surveyed during the pandemic reported experiencing bullying at work. That’s about 50 million Americans.
These aren’t just numbers.
Remote work during the pandemic did not shield 33-year-old Bradley Daniely from bullying. As he told one of us (P.C.) in a November 2021 interview, he left his NYC job as an advertising copywriter after filing a complaint with the company’s human resources department describing managers humiliating him publicly and excluding him from meetings.
He’s still struggling to recover mentally. “You relinquish all control of your existence because someone has dictated already who you are,” said Daniely. “That’s very demeaning and it’s something that makes you feel less than who you are.”
The Department of Health and Human Services says workplace bullying includes repeated conduct that is “malicious, disparaging, derogatory, rude, disrespectful, abusive, obnoxious, demeaning, belittling.” The Department of Homeland Security goes further, categorizing workplace bullying as a form of workplace violence.
When workplace bullying is allowed to escalate unchecked, health consequences can grow more severe to include self-harm and physical violence, as in the case of 19 employee suicides among employees at France Telecom and a 2021 workplace shooting in Tennessee. Studies in Norway also show severely bullied employees were six times more likely to report suicidal thoughts than non-bullied workers.
Incivility is the starting point for bullying and even at this baseline, the health risks increase. “Incivility can deplete your immune system, causing cardiovascular disease, cancer, diabetes and ulcers,” Christine Porath, a Georgetown University professor who researches workplace behavior and is the author of “Mastering Civility: A Manifesto for the Workplace,” told us by email.
A common manifestation of bullying is “mobbing,” a sociological behavior in which a group of co-workers may consciously or unwittingly follow a bully’s lead, treating the target with hostility or ostracizing them. The wounds may be invisible, but the impact often runs deep for months or even years.
“What we’re seeing in bullying research is that people who are bullied have complex PTSD which is — instead of being one specific event like a specific battle — is little things happening over a prolonged period of time,” Dorothy Suskind, an assistant professor of education at Longwood University in Farmville, Virginia, told one of us (P.C.) in an interview. She has interviewed more than 200 workplace bullying survivors or their families.
Workplace bullying is not illegal in the United States, though there are some exceptions involving physical assault or discrimination. So what can be done to create healthier workplaces and protect employees? Here are three concrete suggestions:
Employers must be more proactive in preventing workplace bullying
Company culture is set at the top, and policies need to have teeth to be effective. The Wellcome Trust in the U.K. awards grants for health research and has a specific policy to prevent those with allegations of bullying or harassment against them from receiving grant funding. In 2016, the University of California issued specific guidance on preventing workplace bullying through policies and training within the entire college system of 227,000 employees.
In addition, employers should re-examine the role of non-disclosure agreements, which silence victims in exchange for monetary settlements. Nondisclosure agreements don’t address the root of the problem and protect organizations from accountability. Employers should instead thoughtfully invest in coaching and training to create a more inclusive work culture from the top down.
The government must provide support to targets of workplace abuse that is not conditional on employer approval
According to the Workplace Bullying Institute, 67% of bullying targets resign or get fired before the problem is resolved. Worker’s compensation should include coverage for psychological workplace trauma and common physical manifestations of workplace bullying like gastrointestinal conditions and back pain. Employees who lose their jobs due to workplace bullying should be eligible for unemployment assistance without the need for approval by their employers, which is still a requirement in some states.
Pass legislation that defines and bans workplace bullying, regardless of protected class status
Victims of workplace bullying currently do not have legal recourse unless the bullying is tied to a victim’s protected class, such as race, gender, age, or sexual orientation. Many victims are not part of these protected classes.
Puerto Rico is the first jurisdiction in the United States to pass legislation prohibiting workplace bullying. The law went into effect in August 2020 and puts the onus on employers to prevent bullying.
Several state legislatures are discussing the proposed Dignity at Work Act, or a similar bill called the Healthy Workplace Bill. The former does not require proof of intent to harm by the bully; the latter does.
When President Biden accepted Lander’s resignation, he lived up to his Inauguration Day pledge to ensure a healthy and psychologically safe work environment in his administration. He emphasized, “Everyone is entitled to be treated with decency and dignity.” If more employers could walk the walk on this same path, it would mark a turning point for the health of our workforce.
Pauline Chiou is a New York-based journalist who covers business and geopolitical news in the U.S. and Asia. Cherie Lynn Ramirez is assistant teaching professor at Simmons University in Boston, and leads the volunteer research team at the National Workplace Bullying Coalition.
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