This Workplace Offense is More Common than Sexual Harassment

NEW YORK (MainStreet)—Bullies exert control in schools, playgrounds, cyber space—and in the workplace, too. But adults typically don't expect as much empathy as kids do. Many suffer in silence.

"Ideally, coworkers should intervene," says Gary Namie, who co-founded the Workplace Bullying Institute with his wife, Ruth, in Bellingham, Wash. in 1997. "However, research shows that this happens in less than 1% of incidents." Compounding a bullied worker's misery, "employers seem reluctant to act."

[Read: Do Cool Sh*t]

Bullying on the job occurs four times more often than sexual harassment or racial discrimination, according to the institute, which is leading a national campaign to enact the anti-bullying Healthy Workplace Bill in all 50 states.

Between one-third and 60% of U.S. workers experience bullying behaviors at some point during their careers, estimates the bill's author, David Yamada, a professor and director of the New Workplace Institute at Suffolk University Law School in Boston. "A much smaller percentage—very likely in the single digits, but still a lot of people—will be targeted with repeated, malicious, health-impairing abuse," Yamada says.

While there aren't any reliable cross-occupational comparative studies, he adds that these stress-inducing and anxiety-provoking acts of intimidation appear to be particularly common in health care, education (both K-12 and post-secondary) and the legal and financial sectors.

Also, "there is some evidence that incivility and bullying behaviors increase during a bad economy, especially top-down bullying where bad bosses are cracking the whip on subordinates," says Yamada, who co-directs the law school's labor and employment law concentration. "In the cases of aggressors—usually bosses—who demonstrate psychopathic traits, bullying behaviors are not logical or rational."

Because bullying situations and work environments vary, so do the strategies for self-defense. Employees who feel targeted "should read up on workplace bullying, try to understand what's happening to them, avoid making rash decisions or engaging in reckless responses that may backfire, and instead attempt to assess their options carefully after doing their homework," Yamada says.