Harassment in the Workplace: Why the US and the EU Must Act

11/25/2014 09:01 pm ET Updated Jan 25, 2015

As we celebrate the International Day for the elimination of Violence against Women, it should not be forgotten that violence can happen in different forms: psychological violence -- whether it is in the family or in the workplace -- can be as dangerous as the physical one, in extreme cases leading to suicide or death, though in this case there will be hardly someone prosecuted for the crime.

Workplace harassment is a particularly serious and growing phenomenon. Yet, in most countries, there is little awareness and even less so legal protection against it. There is not even a single definition of what is meant by workplace violence or harassment. Violence is a generic term that covers all kind of abuse: behavior that humiliates degrades or damages a person's well-being, value or dignity. A variety of behaviors fit into the definition of harassment or bullying; cultural differences also contribute to different understandings as to what constitutes violence.

Workplace harassment is different from sexual harassment. Workplace harassment -- also known as bullying on the workplace or as moral harassment in French-speaking countries -- is sneaky, dangerous, difficult to detect and to prove. It often takes time for the victims to understand what is happening and by the time they finally do, it is often already too late. More likely, the victims will blame themselves for not being good enough. Harassment progressively erodes the victims' sense of self-confidence and slowly isolates them from co-workers, friends and even family. Victims are often not even believed.

Exposure to harassment results in different kinds of symptoms of ill-health and stress: irritability; chronic fatigue syndrome, gastritis, anxiety, sleeping problems, vision and respiratory problems, cardiovascular problems such as tachycardia, hypertension, strokes or even heart attacks; immune-deficiency diseases, depression, eventually leading to suicide or death.

Workplace harassment can happen in any kind of workplace. In the European Union, 18 percent of the workers are exposed to work-related violence or non-sexual related harassment; the sectors most affected being health, education and public administration . In the US, 27 percent of the workers are reported to have been subject to workplace harassment .

While harassment on the workplace affects both sexes, women appear to be the most affected; men are instead the most common perpetrators. In the US, the vast majority of bullies are men (69 percent of the total) targeting more women (57 percent) than other men (43 percent). Even women rather bully fellow women (68 percent) then men . In Hungary, at least 50 percent of women are estimated to have suffered from some form of bullying, mobbing, harassment or violence at work. Women in their 40s to 50s, holding positions of responsibility, are the worst affected by harassment on the workplace. Harassment on the workplace thus seems to be the ultimate glass-ceiling.

Yet, nor in the EU or the US, are there specific standards for workplace violence, nor specific legislation.

At the European level, the legal framework relating to workplace bullying derives from a set of different legal provisions including: Article 19 of the EU Charter on Social Fundamental Rights of Workers ("Any employee must benefit, in his working environment, from satisfactory conditions in order to protect his health and safety"); Article 31 of the EU Charter on Fundamental Rights ("Any worker has the right to benefit from working conditions respective of his health, security and dignity"); the EU Health and Safety Framework Directive (89/391/EEC) (employers must "ensure the safety and health of workers in every aspect related to work"); Directives 2000/43 and 2000/78 on Equality of Treatment which treat harassment as a form of discrimination when it has the "purpose or effect of violating the dignity of a person and of creating an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment" and is relates to the victim's age, disability, gender, sexual orientation, marriage or civil partnership, pregnancy or maternity, race, religion or belief. In April 2007, EU employers and trade union representatives also signed a Framework agreement on harassment and violence at work aiming to combat the problem.

Similarly, in the US, under the General Duty Clause , Section 5(a)(1) of the Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970, employers are required to provide their employees with a place of employment that "is free from recognizable hazards that are causing or likely to cause death or serious harm to employees." The Civil Act of 1964 and subsequent specifications protects from discrimination on the ground of ace, colour, religion, sex or national origin, while the Violence against Women Act of 1994, initiated by Vice President Joe Biden is focused on domestic violence, sexual assault and stalking. In Zimmerman v. Direct Federal Credit Union, an employee could collect $730,000 from her company for workplace "bullying" and retaliation -- even though her earlier claim for gender-bias was ultimately rejected by a jury.

Just few states have specific legislation protecting from harassment in the workplace. In 1993, Sweden was the first EU country to enact legislation against moral harassment with its Ordinance on Victimization at Work. Through the 2002 Social Modernization Law, France added both civil and criminal provisions for what in French is generally know as moral harassment (harcèlement moral). Quebec and Belgium also have specific legislation against moral harassment. In some countries, jurisprudence is ahead of legislation. For instance, in Italy the offender can be brought to Court in case the victim has suffered a (certified) physical damage from being exposed to mobbing -- a mostly European word indicating a concerted effort by a group harassing the victim with the goal of leading her/him to resignation.

Harassment on the workplace comes at a high price for both society and economics. Health costs, marriages breakups, reduced school performance of the children are among the most frequent social costs. Among the negative business consequences of workplace bullying are: high turnover -- not only the victims but also those who witness it; lost productivity -- as bullied employees often lose their motivation to perform and tend to take more sick days due to stress-related illnesses; damage to the company's reputation; potential legal costs . In 2012, in the US companies paid $365 million to settle harassment and discrimination cases, respectively for: retaliation ($177 million), sex/gender ($139 million), disability ($103 million), race ($101 million) and age ($92 million) . OSHA-EU estimated that in the UK alone a total of 18 million days and GPB 380 million are lost annually due to bullying on the workplace.

Both in the US and the EU, it is therefore well time for a comprehensive legislation against harassment in the workplace. Wellbeing in the workplace should be a fundamental right. Should this be not motivating enough, paraphrasing President Clinton one could say: "it is [for] the economy, stupid!"