Employers Can’t Ignore Workplace Bullies

It’s been over 30 years ago since I first stepped foot in an operating room. (Well, that’s not completely true.  It was just the first time I walked in wearing scrubs and not lying prone on a table being wheeled in!) What I witnessed that day always stuck in my mind. It wasn’t the surgical procedure that created this lasting impression but the attitude of the surgeon toward his residents and particularly the nurses.  And when I say attitude, I mean ATTITUDE. 

The scrub nurse was ridiculed, berated, defamed, and nearly injured as her quick reflexes saved her from being the bulls-eye for a flying forceps.  Over the course of the next few months, I saw this scene repeated time and time again. The only thing that changed was the surgeon who played the bully and the recipient of his/her tirades.

I later discovered that bullying was not an art practiced only by surgeons, nor were hospitals the exclusive stadium in which these events were staged.  Bullying in the workplace for many salespeople, managers and executives and even executive assistants became a sport with bragging rights going to the individual who put down and ran off the most employees.

Despite all the warnings and legal rhetoric (hostile work environment) to protect workers from bullying and jerk bosses, not much has improved in 30 years. In a recent survey, workers reported that in 62% of the cases employers worsened the problem or simply did nothing when made aware of bullying, despite losing an estimated 21-28 million workers as a direct result. There seems to be an ample supply of excuses to give the bully another chance especially if he/she is the surgeon bringing in millions of dollars to the hospital, the salesperson who accounts for 50 percent of company sales, or the executive whose company stock is reaching new highs every day.

The survey sponsored by Workplace Bullying Institute also revealed that Workplace Bullying is an Epidemic:

  • 37% of American workers, an estimated 54 million people, have been bullied at work. It affects half (49%) of American workers, 71.5 million workers, when witnesses are included.

  • 72% of bullies are bosses. 55% of those bullied are rank-and-file workers.

  • Bullying is 4 times more prevalent than illegal forms of "harassment."

  • For 45% of bullied targets, stress affects their health. 33% suffer for more than one year.

  • Only 3% of bullied targets file lawsuits. 40% never complain.

  • Targets have to stop the vast majority of bullying (77%) by losing their jobs despite being the ones harmed.

All that however may be about to change. In a ruling this past Spring, the Indiana Supreme Court ruled in favor of a hospital employee who sued a surgeon for emotional distress and assault based on his treatment of the person at work. That’s good news for the victims of bullying and an overdue wake-up call for employers of bullies. 

What implications does the Indiana ruling have for small-business owners nationwide?

It suggests that there could be a trend of these kinds of decisions and small business should adopt a policy on proper conduct in the workplace. Model policies are available online and even very small employers would benefit from adopting one. Click here to read more recommendations.

Related articles: Snakes in Suits: The High Cost of Workplace Jerks


Ira S Wolfe


  1. Amy July 3, 2008 at 8:05 pm -

    Great article, thank you for posting it. Feel free to visit and/or link to my blog to read updates on workplace bullying. I too have an interest in workplace issues. Workplace bullying is unique because it is prevalent but ignored, and there is no law legislating against it. The legal issues surrounding this issue are fascinating, which spurred me to create my blog. For example, evidentiary standards and other standards of review, etc.