Bullying: From the Playground to the Workplace


By: Kacie Manisco 
A bully on the playground and a bully in the office exhibit similar behavior and have similar effects on their victims, yet, only legislation preventing the former has passed. Workplace bullying, like childhood bullying, can take the form of verbal, nonverbal, psychological, or physical abuse, intimidation and humiliation. In a workplace setting, this includes behavior such as repeated name calling, hurtful remarks, shouting, belittling, constant criticism over trivial matters or even assigning an employee pointless or conversely, impossible, tasks.  Victims of workplace bullying often suffer from serious psychological trauma and even physical health problems. Although this behavior is prevalent in today’s workplace, it is not illegal – at least not yet. Since 2003, twenty five states, including California, have introduced bills into legislation that would ban workplace bullying. While sixteen of these bills are currently being considered in eleven states, none have been successful thus far.
Nonetheless, employers cannot afford to ignore workplace bullying, as it is closely tied to workplace harassment or discrimination claims. To state a valid claim for harassment, the harassing behavior must be accompanied by some form of discrimination against a member of a protected class. Federal law specifically provides protection from harassment or discrimination in employment because of gender, race, religion, national origin, age, disability, military membership or veteran status. In addition, California offers legal protection based on sexual orientation, gender identity, gender expression, genetic information, medical condition and marital status. Therefore, when a bully picks on somebody in a protected class, the employer is exposed to liability for a workplace discrimination or harassment lawsuit.
In addition to an increased risk of legal liability, bullying can have serious negative effects on a company and its organizational culture. Such negative effects can include reduced efficiency, productivity and profitability; increased absenteeism and employee turnover; increased costs associated with recruitment and training; increased workers’ compensation claims; poor morale and lack of motivation.  
Although not legally mandated (yet), employers would be well advised to implement their own anti-bullying policies and procedures. Staff and management should be educated on what constitutes bullying. Employers may wish to write a comprehensive policy covering a range of incidents – along the lines of those that may already be in place for issues such as discrimination and harassment.  Appropriate reporting and grievance systems should be established so the victim knows exactly who to turn to and so the claim can be promptly and adequately addressed. With the proper procedures in place, employers will not only minimize the risk of legal liability, but their employees will be as happy as children on the playground.