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Bullies in the workplace

Bully

TEXT OF STORY

TESS VIGELAND: For some unfortunate souls out there, the formative years were plagued with fears of being trapped inside a gym locker, or getting swirleys in the bathroom? Of course, I'm talking about being bullied ...

BART SIMPSON: I'm dead meat on a stick.

Nelson Muntz: How much money you got?

BART SIMPSON: A dollar and 3 cents, Mr. Bully, sir.

Nelson Muntz: Keep the change.

BART SIMPSON: Thanks, man.

Nelson Muntz: Ha! Ha!

Oh, Nelson. ... Well, luckily, most of us have put goons like him behind us ... or have we? As Andrea Gardner found out, there's a disturbing new trend in office harassment claims: Workplace bullying.


Andrea Gardner: It's why we watched shows like The Apprentice.

Donald Trump: You did a bad job. I have to say ... you're fired. Sorry. Thank you. Go. Thank you.

Americans have long loved shows with bullish bosses because they can relate. Some workers are lucky. They can stand up for themselves.

Flo from TV Show 'Alice': Mel, kiss my grits!

Others aren't so lucky. They take so much abuse at work, they develop health problems.

Oscar: Hello?

Michael Scott: Hi, Oscar. It's Michael. Heard you're under the weather. What are your symptoms?

In a number of cases, it's stomach problems, ulcers and depression. And many are feeling the pain. Studies show 1 in 6 Americans will be bullied at work at some point in their lives. But, the law doesn't define workplace bullying in clear terms. Here's labor law professor and worker's advocate David Yamada.

David Yamada: Right now, if a bullied employee is looking for a legal theory under which to sue, they're not going to find a lot of promising avenues. In many bullying cases it's hard to identify the specific reason or reasons why somebody is being mistreated, and oftentimes those reasons may be very personal and somewhat subjective.

Yamada is pushing for states to enact anti-bullying legislation based on a bill he wrote. It requires workers to prove they've been physically or psychologically harmed by a bully. It also includes definitions of workplace bullying. For example, derogatory remarks and insults are defined as abusive conduct. So is speaking to someone in a way that a reasonable person finds to be intimidating. So far, 13 states have introduced versions of this law, though none have yet passed.

If laws are enacted, companies will likely scramble to implement new policies. They'll turn to workplace consultants -- people like Gary Namie. He stresses clearly written rules and follow-through. That means all office bullies are dealt with, from the cubicle to the corner office.

Gary Namie: The key is faithful enforcement of bullies at all ranks within an organization. And that's where we get tripped up. There is a reluctance to hold people accountable at all levels.

Many employers form a committee of workers to evaluate bullying claims from their peers and resolve the problems. Typical disclipinary measures are written warnings, management training, and in extreme situations, getting fired.
But Namie says few cases go to the enforcement stage because most office bullies are actually sheep in wolf's clothing.

Namie: The people who bully are soccer moms, and great community volunteers, and all the rest. But at work they slip into a role that they think requires them to be hyper-aggressive. When the rules are switched, they'll quickly abandon it because it's not who they are.

The nonprofit organization Goodwill Los Angeles hired Namie after CEO Doug Barr noticed some workplace conflicts. Barr says he took a proactive approach, which many employers are hesitant to do.

Doug Barr: Some administrators or managers might be loathe to implement something like this because it seems like it's admitting that your organization is falling apart, and I don't think that's the way to approach it. I see it as a real asset in terms of recruitment and retention of staff.

Barr says his organization is now viewed as an employer of choice and has seen strong job applicants and happy long-time employees since instituting the anti-bullying policy.

A lesson for the Lou Grants, Miranda Preistlys and Michael Scotts of the world.

I'm Andrea Gardner for Marketplace Money.

About the author

Andrea Gardner is a journalism professor and writer in Pasadena, Calif.
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