The technical response to the above question is “no,” because bullying in this country (for the most part) is not illegal. “White collar crime refers to a planned and illegal act committed during the performance of an occupational role.” Workplace bullying may not be a crime in the eyes of the court, but it’s most certainly a wrongdoing in the memories of the recipients.

In The Cost of Bad Behavior, Pearson and Porath estimate that a single bullying incident experienced by 50 percent of personnel can cost a firm with 10,000 employees upwards of 70M/year. Coworkers that undermine others’ best efforts (whether intentionally or unintentionally) are thus stealing from their employers. Sufferers of PTSD (and those who experience stress related physical ailments) cost the organization money. Similarly, those who are unable to concentrate on their work (or who end up looking for work elsewhere) sap company resources.

The slow drip of incivility wears down the target to where they are in some instances either unwilling or unable to contribute. Bullies pilfer organizational product in two ways – through direct target impact, and through the phenomenon of fringe bullying, or mobbing. In gang bullying half of the individuals who side with the mobber are grateful for protection, whereas the other half is delighted to join in the taunting. Last week my Principles of Management students presented on this topic.

They explained that mobbing occurs through cascading acts of disrespect that culminate in target blame. In other words, after years of needling, verbal jabs, being singled out, and working “on edge,” individuals so targeted eventually behave out of character (and thus confirm the bully’s characterization). Bad behavior come full circle lands in the lap of the isolated party, thus making them the problem. In this way mobbing ends exactly as the bully intended.

Why have some countries made abusing peers at work illegal? No doubt the devastating individual, organizational, and financial costs played a part in the decision to criminalize this act. Several European countries (including Sweden) have enacted anti-bullying legislation. Not surprisingly, Sweden is rated as one of the happiest countries, perhaps because it places a premium on human dignity at work.

October is National Bullying Prevention Month. Speaking out, writing about this phenomenon, and becoming an activist in your community are ways to promote civic engagement on an issue of critical importance.

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All viewpoints expressed by Jackie Gilbert are her own, and not of her employer.

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