High Cost of Workplace Abuse

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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?

Polls show that at least one in four workers are bullied on the job, most often by a manager or supervisor.  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.

Patricia Barnes is an attorney who has experience in both  domestic violence and employment law. She is a consultant on workplace abuse awareness, training, remediation, policies and procedures, and litigation avoidance. This blog explores the legal aspects of workplace abuse, with particular attention to bullying.

The U.S. lags far behind other industrialized countries 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 reported that 19 countries in 2011 had legislation or binding collective agreements to address stress or other psychological risks at work.  In North America, several Canadian provinces  (Quebec,  Manitoba, Saskatchewan, Ontario)  have adopted legislation or regulations  to combat workplace bullying, which is alternately known as” mobbing” or “emotional harassment.”

This blog is a member of the coalition Protect-US-Workers that has launched a petition drive asking U.S. President Barack H. Obama to formulate a national response to the problem of workplace bullying.

In addition to its appalling human toll, workplace abuse costs employers and society billions each year – as much as $300 billion –  and contributes to actual  physical violence in the workplace.

The problem spurred a grassroots movement  in the U.S. in 2002 to pass legislation on a state-by-state basis to give targets a right to sue in civil court for damages.  But no state has passed workplace anti-bully legislation. Unless a target falls under the umbrella of state and federal discrimination laws, he/she has little, if any, legal recourse. Courts are either appallingly ignorant or ambivalent about this problem and routinely dismiss these cases in the very earliest stage, before they can even get to a jury.

Some advocates say the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health  Administration should address workplace bullying as a serious health and safety issue under the Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970.  The OSH Act requires all employers to provide workers with a workplace “free from recognized hazards that are causing or are likely to cause death or serious physical harm to his employees.”  Overwhelming research shows that workplace bullying causes targets to suffer potentially serious mental and physical damage, from anxiety and depression to cardiovascular disease and musculoskeletal disorders.

Bullies use many of the same power and control tactics as a batterer in an intimate relationship.  Some learned abusive behaviors from their supervisors and will  in turn teach these misguided “management tactics” to subordinates, perpetuating a vicious cycle. Some bullies are actual psychopaths or have psychopathic tendencies. Sometimes the bully is not an individual but an employer using “strategic harassment” to drive out good employees to avoid a legal obligation, such as downsizing without paying unemployment benefits, or to rid the workplace of a “troublemaker” who demands legal rights.

Workplace bullying  exists because employers allow it to exist.  It exists because state and federal governments  have turned a blind eye to the suffering of literally millions of American workers each year.  It  exists because courts are biased toward employers and perpetuate the outdated concept that abuse is acceptable in the workplace.

Abuse is not acceptable in other spheres of society and it should not be tolerated n the workplace. American workers, like workers in Europe, Canada, Australia and other parts of the world, have the right to be treated with dignity and respect.

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



Your feedback and suggestions are welcome Please share your opinions and your experience dealing with the problem of workplace abuse. Thanks for visiting! 

Patricia Barnes and “When the Abuser Goes to Work” (2012)