As an employer, how would you like to reduce health costs, absenteeism and employee turnover,  improve morale, encourage innovation, and protect your company against needless and costly litigation?

Patricia G. Barnes is an attorney and consultant to corporations for workplace abuse awareness, training, remediation, policies and procedures, and litigation avoidance  (see “About” tab above). After practicing both  domestic violence and employment law, Ms. Barnes observed that workplace abuse is on the same spectrum of power and control as other types of abuse that are recognized by society as unacceptable and/or illegal. This blog  focuses on the legal aspects of workplace abuse, with particular attention to bullying.

Recent polls show that at least one in four workers are bullied on the job, most  by a supervisor.  Workplace abuse is like a  cancer in an organization. The victim is broken down,  humiliated, emotionally battered, isolated, or, in extreme cases, left feeling suicidal or homicidal. The harm emanates from the victim to co-workers who witness the abuse, and, ultimately, to the company’s bottom line.

Workplace abuse costs employers billions each year – some experts estimate as much as $300 billion -  and contributes to  physical violence in the workplace. According to the International Labour Organization, workplace violence often stems from a combination of causes, including individual behaviors, the work environment, the way co-workers interact, and the interaction between managers and workers.

The problem has spurred a grassroots movement  in the U.S. to pass legislation to give targets a right to sue in civil court for damages. Currently, unless a target falls under the umbrella of state and federal discrimination laws, he/she has little or no recourse. 

The U.S. is behind the curve on this issue.  The Charter of the Fundamental Rights of the European Union (EU) declares that “every worker has the right to working conditions which respect his or her health, safety and dignity.”  The EU reports that 19 countries in 2011 had legislation or binding collective agreements to address stress or other psychological risks at work.  Several Canadian provinces  (Quebec,  Manitoba, Saskatchewan, Ontario)  have passed legislation or regulations  to combat workplace bullying, which is alternately known as” mobbing” or “emotional harassment.”

So far attempts to pass workplace abuse legislation in more than a dozen U.S. states have failed. However, the New York State Senate passed a workplace abuse bill in 2010 that subsequently died in committee.

Employers already have a duty under the General Duty clause of the Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970 to provide employees with a workplace “free from recognized hazards that are causing or are likely to cause death or serious physical harm to his employees.”  This duty is particularly relevant since the term “bullycide” has entered the American lexicon. Bullycide refers to a suicide caused by depression over bullying.

Workplace bullying exists because  society does not yet recognize it as  abuse, just as society failed to recognize domestic violence as abuse until the 1970s. A bully boss uses many of the same power and control tactics as batterers in an intimate relationship. Abuse  is part of a continuum. It is not  surprising that a person who emotionally or physically abuses his/her loved ones  also abuses subordinates in the workplace. Of course, not all bully bosses are batterers. Some learned abusive behaviors from their supervisors and will  in turn teach these misguided “management tactics” to subordinates, perpetuating a vicious cycle of workplace abuse.  Some employers use abuse as a strategic tactic to, for example, downsize without paying unemployment compensation or to get rid of employees who may file a workers’ compensation claim or seek to unionize.

Abuse is not acceptable in other spheres of society and it should not be tolerated in the workplace. Every worker has a right to be treated with dignity and respect.  It is the right thing to do  for employers  and  just good business to insure that management provides a healthy bully-free environment for all workers.

Ms. Barnes can be reached at: [email protected].



Your feedback and suggestions are welcomed to improve this site Please share your experience or how you handled the problem of workplace abuse. Thanks for visiting!


© Patricia G. Barnes and "When the Abuser Goes to Work" (2011).

10 Responses to HOME

  1. CS says:

    I have been subjected to this for several years but most prominently for the past three years since a male VP became my boss. Together with the Senior VP, they have targeted me (and at least one other individual) for mobbing, and I’m at my wits end. I’ve been reduced to coming home crying to my husband, or taking a break at work and calling him to vent. I’ve always been a strong woman but they have been unrelenting in breaking me down. I do believe they are trying to either force me out or put me in such a way as to justify terminating me. They took away my staff but increased my work load several fold knowing I would not be able to manage and keep up with it. I was offered a new position and threatened that if I did not take it I would lose my job, only for them to turn around and offer it to someone else. I’ve been passed over time and again for promotions, only to be made to train those who are promoted over me so that they can do their jobs. My manager ignores most of my emails when I need direction and guidance in making business decisions, he refuses to look me in the eye, he constantly criticizes and demeans me, ignores me, lies to me, defends others over me, and the list goes on and on and on and on and on. It has affected my marriage, my family, my health. When applying for or offered other positions in the company, the VP and SVP always prevent me from moving forward by making sure I do not get the positions.

  2. Susan von Struensee says:

    This might give you a boost:

    Workplace Bullying Movement Gains Traction: Prompts Changes to Employer Liability Insurance Policies
    Definitely a blog that is worth reading: Minding the Workplace, the New Workplace Institute Blog, hosted by David Yamada,the author of the Healthy Workplace Bill and the leading legal figure behind the anti-bullying movement in the United States.

    The blog recently reported that an online insurance industry newsletter published by PropertyCasualty360.com (link here) reports that some employers are requesting that insurance companies include workplace bullying in their employment practice liability insurance (EPLI) policies.

    According to writer Susanne Sclafane, driving this trend is growing employer recognition that enactment of workplace bullying legislation (i.e., the Healthy Workplace Bill) is a real possibility. Susanne Sclafane writes for PropertyCasualty360.com. She is also the Managing Editor of National Underwriter, P&C magazine.

    While proposed statutes may fuel an increase in lawsuits against employers who allow bullies to work for them, right now it’s not illegal to be a jerk at work, according to employment practices liability experts.

    “As far as I know, there as yet is no legal cause of action for workplace bullying in the United States,” says Irving Geslewitz, a principal with the firm of Much Shelist in Chicago. There are such protections in other countries (in Western Europe, for example), and bills have been proposed in state legislatures in the United States. But none of those state bills has become law, the attorney reports.

    “In other words, there is no law against being a jerk,” he says, echoing eight other insurance and legal experts who say the legal landscape could change with 10 states considering statutes that outlaw bullying in the workplace.

    “The plaintiffs’ bar is just waiting with bated breath for those laws to get passed,” says Joni Mason, senior vice president, employment practices liability insurance product manager for Chartis in New York. “Once that happens you’ll see an uptick in [bullying] claims, and I’m sure you’ll see a retaliation component paired with that as well.”

    Currently 44 states have bullying statutes that apply to schools, says Michael Kaufman, a partner with Kaufman Dolowich Voluck & Gonzo in Woodbury, N.Y. “States are going to be addressing this” in the workplace also, he predicts. “It does look like there’s going to be a trend.”

    Chartis expanded its Employment Edge EPLI policy to include workplace bullying because insureds were asking about it. With states continuing to introduce legislation, “it’s a concern for our clients.” “If states start passing any of the proposals, or if a federal law gets passed, you are going to see a flood of claims. It’s going to be a huge concern both for employers and carriers, and we will have to address that separately…. “It’s the type of thing EPLI was designed to cover, although you’d probably see some exclusions or some policy definitions that would be crafted to address particular statutes.” …

  3. Susan von Struensee says:

    There is hope, people need to keep telling their stories and do what they can to get the legislation against workplace bullying and mobbing passed. According to Professor Yamada’s “Minding the Workplace” blog, the year 2010 was a significantly good one for the emerging American movement to stop workplace bullying. The anti-bullying movement had another win with the legislative successes and media coverage surrounding the Healthy Workplace Bill during 2010 which signaled a breakthrough in terms of wider public support for legal protections against bullying at work … .

  4. Laurie says:

    I am currently a victim of workplace bullying and have had to take FMLA because it is affecting my health. These bullies should not be allowed to get away with what they get away with and legislation needs to be put into place to stop them.

    • pgbarnes says:

      HI Laurie – Many states RIGHT NOW are considering workplace anti-bullying legislation. See if your state is, and weigh in. Personal stories are powerful. Thanks for contributing to this blog! And I am interested to know that you were able to take time off to recoup under the Family and Medical Leave Act! For those who don’t know, the FMLA entitles eligible employees of covered employers to take unpaid, job-protected leave for specified family and medical reasons with continuation of group health insurance coverage under the same terms and conditions as if the employee had not taken leave. See: http://www.dol.gov/whd/fmla/

  5. Lisa says:

    I have been through this after working 11 years for the same company and being emotionally abused by a new store manager the last year I was there. I no longer work there but wonder how he keeps his job. I wish these people that write these articles on bullying would leave email or phone numbers who to contact when bulleying happens at the work place! Thank you.

    • pgbarnes says:

      Hi Lisa -Sorry about what you’ve endured. Here’s some general (non-legal) advice for people who are going through this. If you a dealing with a workplace bully look to see if your workplace has some of policy that would cover abuse – look in the employee manual (which is often on a web site). See how your employer instructs employees to proceed – who to complain to, etc. Follow the instructions to the letter so the employer cannot come back at a future date and say it was not properly notified of the problem . ( Be aware that the sad reality is that most human resource officers are completely clueless about this problem and often make it worse. ) Then look at the advice offered in the Self-Help drop down menu above. Document, document … document. Meanwhile, take care of yourself. There is overwhelming research that bullying can exact a terrible toll on the target’s emotional and physical well-being. And it wouldn’t hurt to start looking for other employment.

  6. Jordan says:

    Very insightful commentary on what is going on in many workplaces. I find this very useful.

  7. Anonymous says:

    Well written. As a victim of bullying, I know that I also bring those tendencies to the work place. I am not saying that I am at fault for abuse, as much as I accept it more readily. As I age, I become stronger and more sure of my position. KBV, ct

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