NFL case opens window into widespread danger of workplace bullying

Not all bullies are in the schoolyard — or in the locker room.

The shocking case of the hazing of Miami Dolphins football player Jonathan Martin by teammate Richie Incognito has focused attention on the larger problem of workplace bullying — and of the difficulties for federal and state officials in trying to define and deter it.

As the Dolphins case unfolds, analysts who have studied the problem say workplace bullying may be more prevalent than many think. Bullying at the office and on the factory floor has become the focus of several proposed state laws, as well as a rallying cry for advocates, employers and employees alike.

According to a 2011 study by the Society for Human Resource Management, the leading trade group for personnel professionals, more than half of the companies surveyed reported incidents of bullying in their workplaces. More than 25 percent of human resources professionals themselves reported that they had been victimized in the workplace. But according to the association, only 43 percent of companies report having an anti-bullying section in their employee manuals.

Workplace bullying can lead to health problems such as hypertension, insomnia, depression and stress. Productivity and the corporate bottom line can suffer as a result of increased employee turnover, absenteeism and a negative reputation.

Statutes against bullying, in person and online, tend to focus on younger victims in school. The few state statutes that explicitly address workplace bullying typically focus on school employees and not the corporate world at large.

The Pew Charitable Trusts’ Stateline news service reports that the very definition of what constitutes legal bullying varies from state to state: “Some states describe it as persistent harassment, while others describe it as simply annoying behavior or teasing. Others, such as Florida, lay out specific behaviors, such as harassment, stalking and assault, which also are criminal acts.”

The confusion leads some to question whether employers are doing enough to educate and protect their employees.

David C. Yamada, a law professor and director of Suffolk University Law School’s New Workplace Institute, has drafted a model “Healthy Workplace Bill” which tries to define what constitutes an “abusive work environment.”

He wrote recently that workplace bullying tends to get overlooked because the human interest appeal typically doesn’t reach the level of bullying children.

“Although workplace bullying is one of the most common forms of interpersonal abuse at work, most people targeted for this mistreatment are unlikely to find the media interested in their stories. In this case, without the growing media attention, it’s possible that the whole thing would’ve been swept under the rug,” said Mr. Yamada. “Most bullying targets must deal with the abuse on a wildly uneven playing field, and having a legal wedge will help to level things out.”

Weighing legislation

No state has passed an anti-bullying law for the workplace, although 25 states have considered legislation since 2003 to allow workers to sue for harassment without showing discrimination. This year alone, the Healthy Workplace Bill has made the rounds in 11 states.

Australia, Britain and Sweden have laws on the books intended to protect against workplace bullying.

Catherine Mattice is president of Civility Partners, a corporate consulting firm that specializes in office bullying and “negative workplace behaviors. She said the efforts at the state level have moved slowly but mark a good step in the right direction.

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