Bullying and Disability Harassment in the Workplace

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Bullying and Disability Harassment in the Workplace 

This article was adapted from an information brief, “Bullying and Disability Harassment in the Workplace: What Youth Should Know” designed to help recognize signs of bullying in the workplace. Permission provided by the National Collaborative on Workforce and Disability for Youth, funded by the U.S. Department of Labor, Office of Disability Employment Policy. 

Bullying affects many youth and adults and has gained national attention due to highly publicized instances of school violence and teen suicides.  Most youth have experienced bullying firsthand, either by being bullied themselves, or by witnessing a peer being bullied.  Statistics shared by the National Collaborative on Workforce and Disability for Youth suggest that the impact of bullying is widespread:

  • 1 out of 3 teens are bullied;
  • Youth with disabilities are 10 times more likely to be bullied than a typical student;
  • 1 out of 5 youth admit to being a bully or doing some type of bullying;
  • 85% of gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgender youth experience harassment at school or online;
  • 88% of teens reported seeing people being mean or cruel on a social networking site;
  • 25% of teens age 11-18 report having been cyberbullied at some point in their lifetime; and
  • 17% of teens admit having cyberbullied others. 

What is Bullying? 

The word bully brings images of tough teenagers clad in leather jackets, threatening to settle the score behind the stadium bleachers, or stuffing helpless kids into school lockers.  Even today, many television shows and movies aimed at youth feature a bully as a cartoonish main character.  But real bullying is far from innocent. Bullies come in all genders, shapes, sizes and even can be well dressed.

Bullying is carried out by males and females, and can cause harm that lasts a lifetime.  But what is bullying?  If you get into a disagreement with a friend that results in a shouting match, is that bullying?  No. Those types of situations usually involve persons of equal social power, and the conflicts can be resolved with apologies.  In fact, disagreements among friends, families, or co-workers are a normal part of social functioning and can help develop needed interpersonal skills.

Although definitions of bullying vary, most agree that bullying involves the following characteristics:

  • Bullying is intentional. The target does not knowingly provoke the bully and may have made it clear that the behavior is not welcome.
  • Bullying behavior is often repetitive. Although it can take place in a single incident, bullying is generally carried out repeatedly over time.
  • Bullying involves hurtful acts, words, or other behavior. Bullying is an oppressive or negative act intended to hurt somebody else.
  • Bullying involves a real or perceived imbalance of power. A youth without power cannot bully.  Power in this instance can be defined as physical strength, social status, or intimidating behavior.

It may be common to hear the person being bullied referred to as the “target” rather than “victim.”  There is a reason for this.  The word victim implies that a person is powerless to change their circumstances, or then even they are somehow to blame for what is happening.  Bullying advocates prefer the term target because it suggests that a person who is bullied, and those around that person, have the power to change the situation.

Still, targets of bullying tend to share certain traits.  In general, targets of bullying tend to be different in some way.  This may mean that they belong to a non-majority culture such as being on the autism spectrum, have unique physical characteristics, practice a different religion than others, or have a different form of disability.  Differences do not automatically lead to bullying, but do tend to be noticed by youth who are seeking targets.  While anyone can be bullied, targets of bullying tend to have one or more of these common traits:

  • They might give a vulnerable response to being bullied;
  • They have few or no friends;
  • They might not assert themselves in a bullying situation; and,
  • They can have diminished self-esteem and need to build self-confidence.

Often bullying is portrayed as an act of intimidation of physical violence, but there are several types of bullying:

Physical Bullying:  Involves actions like hitting, kicking, pushing, throwing objects or damaging property.  It can also involve pretending or threatening to inflict harm, making the target terribly uneasy.

Verbal Bullying: The most common form of bullying, it can include mean spirited teasing, gossiping about another, name calling, embarrassing jokes, and actual threats.

Emotional/Social Bullying:  This form is harder to define, but generally involves the assertion of social power to cause pain or exclude the target from the social crowd.  Often done in a group, social/emotional bullying can be done through gossip, insults, making fun of the target in public, or intentional exclusion from social events.

Cyber Bullying: Bullying actions that are carried out through electronic means, such as instant messaging, texting, e-mails, or social media postings.

Workplace Bullying:  Just as youth can experience bullying in school, youth and adults can also find bullying in their place of employment. Youth who bully grow up and can become bosses or co-workers who bully. According to Tom Witt of New York Healthy Workplace Advocates, 37% of workers have experienced bullying in the workplace.  This adds up to approximately 54 million people nationwide.  One might assume that workplace bullying takes place mainly in jobs where the pay is low and the work is difficult.  The fact is that workplace bullying is found in all professions.

Workplace bullying does tend to show some differences from traditional bullying that might take place between youth.  In workplace bullying the targets often, but not always, are people who are good at their jobs, and who pose a professional threat to the bully.  For example, a person may be new to a job and doing an excellent job.  A workplace bully may resent the attention that person is getting and begin a campaign to smear the new worker’s reputation.  This is not to say that targets may not be chosen due to more traditional traits, such as having a disability or belonging to a different religious group.  Though physical violence and intimidation can be found in the workplace, bullying at work tends to be more psychological or social in nature, making it difficult to prove.

The Washington State Department of Labor and Industries define workplace bullying as “repeated, unreasonable actions of individuals (or a group) directed towards an employee (or group of employees), which are intended to intimidate, degrade, humiliate, or undermine; or which create a risk to the health and safety of the employee(s).  The following are some examples of workplace bullying:

  • Abusive, insulting, or offensive language;
  • Intentional exclusion from critical work meetings;
  • Intentional exclusion from work social circles or functions;
  • Unrealistic work demands, such as size of workload, unreasonable deadlines, or inconsistent work hours;
  • Public criticism or being yelled at when co-workers are present;
  • Physical violence or intimidation;
  • Displaying of materials in the workplace that are offensive;
  • Unfair denial of personal leave or training opportunities; and,
  • Regular threats of being reprimanded or fired from job.

It is important for youth to recognize that being an employee means that you will have to work with all types of people, and being given work direction is part of a job.  Being asked to do a task that you don’t like does not constitute bullying.  Nor does having to work side by side with a person you may not get along with.  A helpful way for youth and adults to recognize that something is not right is that bullying often feels disrespectful, is out of place with what co-workers seem to be going through, and appears to be targeted specifically towards an individual.  Workplace bullying can be hard to recognize, so youth should be encouraged to talk about their situation with somebody they trust, such as a parent, a friendly co-worker, or another trusted adult.

The impact of workplace bullying can be felt by the target, co-workers, and the business itself.  People who have been bullied at work report physical symptoms such as problems with sleeping, headaches, and stomach issues.  Mental health concerns such as reduced self-esteem, increased family tension and stress, are also common, along with the expected financial problems, chronic absences and job loss.  Organizations should recognize bullying as a major contributor to productivity loss, low-morale among employees and high staff turnover.

Workplace Bullying: What Can You Do?

Dealing with a workplace bully can be uncomfortable, and requires solid self-advocacy skills and self-confidence.  Remember, that the bullying behavior is not likely to stop unless intervention is sought.  The first step toward addressing bullying behavior is not to react to it.  Don’t give the bully the reaction he/she is looking for.  Instead, consider following these helpful tips:

  • Don’t blame yourself. Bullying is about controlling another person, and is not about an individual’s worth as a person or how one performs on the job.  The blame lies on the bully; it’s that simple.
  • Notify your supervisor right away after the bullying incident. If the supervisor is the bully, then go to his or her supervisor, or higher up the administrative chain until you find somebody willing to address the issue.
  • The impact of bullying is lessened when there are bystanders willing to step into the situation. Seek an ally at work, such as a co-worker that is trusted or another supervisor you respect.  Tell them what is happening as ask their opinion about your options to address the issue.
  • Check to see if your employer has a policy against bullying behavior.
  • Document all bullying incidents, including dates, times, places, what was said or done, and who witnessed.
  • Keep copies of all documents that help you counter claims the bully may make. These may include time sheets, performance reports, work samples, and e-mails that support your work performance.
  • Consider contacting your company’s Employee Assistance Program, union representative, or, if necessary, an attorney who specializes in labor law or your state’s Department of Human Rights.
  • Do your job to the best of your ability. Don’t let the bullying affect your job performance, therefore giving the bully justification for his/her claims.
  • Most people want to do a good job for their employer and maintain a certain amount of loyalty. And people work because they need the money, and finding jobs can be difficult. That being said, if the bullying gets too bad, or if addressing the issue hasn’t seemed to work, targets should consider leaving the job.  Some situations you can’t salvage.  Some workplaces, however, are too toxic.  There is no shame in cutting your losses and finding a better place to work.  You may find you are much happier and healthier for making that decision.

Disability Harassment:

Disability harassment is a form of discrimination based on disability. Discrimination examples include being denied a job, not making the same wages or being denied a promotion based solely on the fact that you have a disability. 

The American’s with Disabilities Act (ADA) and individual state human rights laws all offer protection against disability harassment and discrimination. The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission is charged with enforcing federal nondiscrimination laws. Be aware that being denied what other workers are given because a disability is present is illegal.  Teasing, social exclusion, or violence of a person because that person has a disability may not reach the level of discrimination but certainly is harassment. 

If you feel you have been discriminated against on the job due to a disability, contact your local Equal Employment Opportunity Commission office at www.eeoc.gov. Those living in Washington or Oregon may also find resources at www.disabilityrightswa.org or Disability Rights Oregon – www.droregon.org

In conclusion:

Bullying is being recognized as a significant problem in schools, but youth and adults should also be aware that it is also an issue in the world of work.  Workplace bullies target those who they see as a threat, which means you can work hard and do a good job and still be a target. 

There are several strategies outlined in this article to address workplace bullying. Readers should also be aware that when bullying turns into harassment and discrimination based on disability, it is clearly illegal.  Youth and adults are encouraged to talk their families, a trusted co-worker or a friend if they run into situations at work that they think might be bullying or harassment.  The impact of workplace bullying can be very harmful, and knowing the steps to take to address the issue will help youth find a positive and fulfilling job experience. 


PACER’s National Bullying Prevention Center was founded in 2006. PACER’s bullying prevention resources are designed to benefit all students, including students with disabilities. PACER offers digital-based resources for parents, schools, teens and youth. – www.pacer.org/bullying

National Collaborative on Workforce and Disability for Youth (NCWD/Youth) – NCWD/Youth is a source for information about employment and youth with disabilities. – www.ncwd-youth.info 

StopBullying.gov provides information from government agencies on how children, youth, parents, educators, and others in the community can prevent or stop bullying. – www.stopbullying.gov

Bullying and Disability Harassment in the Workplace: What Youth Should Know (entire article)


This article was originally published in the Fall 2016 print and online edition of Spectrums Magazine.

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