Workplace Bullying, Harassment, and Disability
April 26, 2020
LaWanda Cook and Sarah von Schrader
“I had a particularly bad experience with a supervisor who was attempting to force me to quit the company… making various disparaging statements … that I was a ‘cripple’, broken person, dysfunctional, useless, etc., while making unreasonable demands/work assignments, and various attempts to get me in trouble with others”
(Participant Cornell/AAPD Emerging Issues survey (von Schrader, Malzer, & Bruyere, 2013)
While there is research on disability discrimination in hiring and in the workplace, there is very little known about the workplace bullying encountered by employees with disabilities. October 16–22 has been designated as Freedom from Workplace Bullies Week, making this an opportune time to highlight this important, emerging issue.
Workplace bullying refers to repeated, health-harming mistreatment of a person (target) by another (perpetrator). It may be manifested through humiliation, intimidation, defamation, isolation, and sabotage (Mattice & Shorago, 2015), and typically occurs at least once a week for a minimum of 6 months. An important feature of workplace bullying is a psychological power imbalance (Mattice & Shorago, 2015) in that the perpetrator’s behavior affects the emotional well-being of the target.
For many, the mention of workplace bullying conjures up images of a belittling and demanding supervisor – as illustrated by the quote at the beginning of this article; and some studies do suggest that managers and supervisors are the most likely perpetrators (Namie, 2014). However, anyone can be a perpetrator or a target.
According to the Workplace Bullying Institute (WBI), approximately 7% of U.S. workers reportedly experienced bullying in 2014, and racial and ethnic minority group members reported higher rates of being bullied than their white colleagues (Namie, 2014). The WBI Survey did not include information about whether or not respondents had disabilities; however, these findings suggest that, similar to other marginalized groups, workers with disabilities may be bullied more often than their colleagues without disabilities.
When Is Workplace Bullying Actually Harassment?
In the Yang-Tan Institute’s NIDILRR-funded Work-Life Balance and Disability study, 23% of participants indicated that they had experienced harassment or discrimination in the past year. They described these situations as “bullying” or “harassment” (Cook, 2016):
• Being yelled at by supervisors and coworkers, often in front of other employees;
• Being denied professional development and promotional opportunities;
• Being excluded from information sharing at work;
• Being excluded from workplace and after-work socializing;
• Being excluded from employee recognition;
• Being forced to publicly disclose their disability; and
• Being pushed toward taking an early retirement or constructive discharge by the perpetrators’ making the work environment so intolerable that a reasonable person would not be able to stay.
Not all of these situations were related to disability. Participants also reported harassment due to gender, age, and sexual orientation, and other personal characteristics.
Currently, there is no federal law against workplace bullying in the United States; however, when the bullying target is a member of a legally protected group, bullying behaviors may meet the legal definition of harassment. Harassment is a form of discrimination which involves unwelcome conduct based on membership in a protected category: race, color, gender, age (40 and older), national origin, genetic information, or disability—creating a “hostile work environment” (Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC, n.d.). Thus, workplace bullying targeting individuals with disabilities may be illegal harassment.
To file a disability harassment claim, the individual must meet the same standards as other protected group members They must establish that: (1) they have a disability as defined by Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA); (2) they have been subjected to unwelcome harassment (3) the harassment was based on disability; (4) the harassment was severe and pervasive enough to alter a term, condition, or privilege of employment; and (5) the employer knew or should have known of the harassment and failed to take prompt, action to address it (Taylor, 2008).
Despite possible legal recourse, only a small percentage of all workplace bullying instances are reported. Roughly three out of four individuals who experience harassment never talk to a supervisor, manager, or union representative about the harassing conduct. Employees who experience harassment do not report the harassing behavior or file a complaint because they fear disbelief of their claim, inaction on their claim, blame, or social or professional retaliation (Feldblum & Lipnic, 2016).
Nevertheless, ADA charges that cite harassment as an issue have increased since the early years of the ADA, with around 18% citing harassment in 2014 (See figure below). Charges filed by workers with mental health, learning, and developmental disabilities have higher rates of citing harassment than do charges filed by individuals with other types if disabilities (Shaw, Chan, & McMahon, 2012). Related research has shown that individuals who are members of more than one marginalized group (e.g., older women with a disability) may also be more likely to cite harassment on a charge (Shaw, Chan, & McMahon, 2012; von Schrader & Nazarov, 2015). To access national and state-level data on ADA harassment charges, interested readers are encouraged to visit Disability Statistics.org.
Combating Workplace Bullying
Failure to adequately address bullying impacts not only the target, but also other employees, and results in considerable costs for organizations including: higher employee turnover, missed work time, increased health insurance costs, diminished workplace morale, and possible legal fees. One of the biggest challenges to addressing bullying is the tendency to think of it as conflict between individuals, rather than considering the role of workplace culture (Namie & Lutgen-Sandvik, 2010). However workplace culture may encourage bullying and most certainly helps to sustain it. When employers view bullying as a problem within the workplace community, rather than as an issue between individual employees, workers may be more apt to report bullying, allowing the situation to be addressed sooner.
The findings of the EEOC’s recently convened Task Force on the Study of Harassment in the Workplace (Feldblum & Lipnic, 2016), suggest steps employers can take to address this issue. Top organizational leadership should model and hold employees at all levels accountable for creating a climate that does not tolerate bullying or other forms of harassment. Middle and front line managers, on-the-ground implementers in creating a positive climate, need harassment prevention training in order to effectively respond to situations. Such training should not focus on legal compliance; rather, it should be tailored to the context of the organization and support managers to create a workplace climate that is respectful and values diversity.
Cook, L. (2016). Workplace Bullying, Harassment, and Disability [Video webinar]. Cornell University's Yang- Tan Institute on Employment and Disability (Producer).
Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). (n.d.) Harassment.
Feldblum, C.R. & Lipnic, V.A. (2016). Select Task Force on the Study of Harassment in the Workplace: Report of the Co-Chairs of the Select Task Force.
Mattice, C. M., & Shorago, A. A. (2015). Bullying versus harassment: understanding the difference and the legal significance for employers [Video webinar]. HRWebAdvisor; EducationAdminAdvisor; DKG Media, LP. (Producers).
Namie, G. (2012). The WBI Website 2012 – H instant poll workplace bullying perpetrators’ rank and numbers. Workplace Bullying Institute.
Namie, G. (2014). WBI U.S. Workplace Bullying Survey. Workplace Bullying Institute.
Namie, G. & Lutgen-Sandvik, P. (2010). Active and passive accomplices: the communal character of workplace bullying. International Journal of Communication, 4(19).
National Institute on Occupational Safety and Health. (2004). Most Workplace Bullying is Worker to Worker, Early Findings from NIOSH Study Suggest.
Shaw, L. R., Chan, F., & McMahon, B. T. (2011). Intersectionality and Disability Harassment: The Interactive Effects of Disability, Race, Age, and Gender. Rehabilitation Counseling Bulletin, 55(2), 82–91.
Taylor, B. C. (2008). Disability Harassment, Retaliation and Discipline: Three Emerging Issues. Legal Briefings for Great Lakes ADA Center, April, (4).
von Schrader, S., Malzer, V., & Bruyère, S. (2013). Perspectives on Disability Disclosure: The Importance of Employer Practices and Workplace Climate. Employee Responsibilities and Rights Journal, 26(4).
von Schrader, S., & Nazarov, Z. E. (2015). Trends and Patterns in Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA) Charges. Research on Aging, 38(5), 580–601.
LaWanda Cook is an Extension Faculty Associate with Cornell University’s Yang-Tan Institute on Employment and Disability. Her research focuses on the wellness, work/life management, and inclusion of individuals with disabilities in work and leisure settings.
Sarah von Schrader serves as the Assistant Director of Research at the Cornell University’s Yang-Tan Institute. Her research focuses on employer practices related to employer success in recruiting, hiring, and advancing individuals with disabilities.