When Workplace Bullying Goes Too Far


Johnson has plenty of support from her department manager and colleagues, but has decided not to pursue any course of action that might cause her direct supervisor to lose her job, especially because she is due to retire soon.

"I don't know if I could live with the guilt of her losing her job ... a year and a half before her retirement," Johnson said. "If I can live through it and just be rid of her, that's a pretty good alternative, too."

Fighting the Good Fight

There are other reasons someone in Johnson's position might want to keep mum.

In general, companies still rely on reporting bullying behavior up a chain of hierarchy. Data from Hershcovis' study showed that bullies get angry when their targets attempt to report the problem and tend to step up their behavior, making the situation even worse for the target.

And despite reported increases in defining bullying behavior within standard company protocol, according to the National Human Resources Association, it is hard to punish perpetrators.

"The tactics are not illegal, per se, as far as the EEOC is concerned," said James Ryan, a spokesman for the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunities Commission.

Unless the target can prove that the bully is behaving in a discriminatory manner, based on race, color, national origin, religious beliefs, sex, disability or age, "I don't know that there is anybody, federally, that could help them," Ryan said.

But in addition to the strain of frequent bullying, a target's stress levels are compounded when they feel they lack the power to do something about the mistreatment. Bullying evokes the sexual harassment problems of yesteryear, when women in the late 1970s and early 1980s fought for such behavior to be recognized and penalized.

"It is much like the rape and domestic violence myths," Namie said. "You say, 'If it's so bad, why didn't you just get up and leave?' Well, because! We're much more constrained by circumstance."

But while the workplace is far from free of sexual harassment, for both men and women, people who experience these problems have more opportunities and clearer resources for reporting wrong behavior than someone who is bullied, because sexual harassment is legally punishable.

In fiscal year 2007, the EEOC received 12,510 charges of sexual harassment and resolved 11,592 of them. No such data exist for bullying, and it would not be easy to try to collect figures.

"Knowing that the behavior is wrong and having the ability to voice it... you can attribute the blame to the perpetrator," Hershcovis said. "In terms of aggression, you wonder is it something you've done that makes you deserving of the aggression."

State or local laws may be the best avenue when seeking sanctions for a bully. Namie said 13 states have introduced laws against bullying, but that it will be many years before there is a federal law against it.

Lepowsky, lacking such laws, continued to fight against his bully for almost three years with meticulous documentation, persistence and luck.

He suffered intense stress that affected his health and took away from his job, but eventually, Lepowsky wrangled apologies from the administration. He is now a resource for others in similar situations.

"It was a wrenching upheaval in what I did and how I did it and what was important in my life," Lepowsky said. "She went after a lot of people, but I was certainly the one who suffered the most, and I was the one that fought back the most -- and was victorious."

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