There are some very important things they don't tell you on career day. Chief among them is that there is a good chance that at some point during your working adult life you will have an abusive boss the kind who uses his or her authority to torment subordinates. Bullying bosses scream, often with the goal of humiliating. They write up false evaluations to put good workers' jobs at risk. Some are serial bullies, targeting one worker and, when he or she is gone, moving on to their next victim.
Bosses may abuse because they have impossibly high standards, are insecure or have not been properly socialized. But some simply enjoy it. Recent brain-scan research has shown that bullies are wired differently. When they see a victim in pain, it triggers parts of their brain associated with pleasure.
Worker abuse is a widespread problem in a 2007 Zogby poll, 37% of American adults said they had been bullied at work and most of it is perfectly legal. Workers who are abused based on their membership in a protected class race, nationality or religion, among others can sue under civil rights laws. But the law generally does not protect against plain old viciousness.
That may be about to change. Workers' rights advocates have been campaigning for years to get states to enact laws against workplace bullying, and in May they scored their biggest victory. The New York state senate passed a bill that would let workers sue for physical, psychological or economic harm due to abusive treatment on the job. If New York's Healthy Workplace Bill becomes law, workers who can show that they were subjected to hostile conduct including verbal abuse, threats or work sabotage could be awarded lost wages, medical expenses, compensation for emotional distress and punitive damages.
Not surprisingly, many employers oppose the bill. They argue that it would lead to frivolous lawsuits and put them at risk for nothing more than running a tight ship and expecting a lot from their workers. But supporters of the law point out that it is crafted to cover only the most offensive and deliberate abuse. The bill requires that wrongful conduct be done with "malice," and in most cases that it has to be repeated. It also provides affirmative defenses for companies that investigate promptly and address the problem in good faith.
The New York state assembly is expected to take up the bill next year. At least 16 other states are considering similar bills, and some employment-law experts think antibullying legislation may have real momentum now.
Legislatures are not the only ones standing up to bullies. In 2008, the Indiana supreme court struck a blow against workplace bullying when it upheld a $325,000 verdict against a cardiovascular surgeon. A medical technician who operated a heart and lung machine during surgery accused the surgeon of charging at him with clenched fists, screaming and swearing. The formal legal claims were intentional infliction of emotional distress and assault, but the plaintiff argued it as a bullying case, and had an expert on workplace bullying testify at trial.
Ideally, employers should rein in abusive bosses on their own, but that rarely happens. Many bullies are close to powerful people in the organization and carefully target less powerful ones. When John Bolton was nominated to be ambassador to the U.N. by President George W. Bush, a former subordinate told the Senate that Bolton was a "serial abuser" and in a phrase that has since entered the bullying lexicon a "kiss-up, kick-down sort of guy."
There are reasons workplace bullying may be getting worse now, including the bad economy. In good times, abused workers can simply walk out on a job if they are being mistreated. But with unemployment at around 9.5%, and five job seekers for every available job, many employees feel they have no choice but to stay put.
Another factor is the decline of organized labor. Unions were once a worker's front-line defense against an abusive boss. If a supervisor was out of line, the shop steward would talk to him on behalf of all of the workers. But union membership has fallen from 35% of the workforce in the 1950s to under 13% today, and some unions are less aggressive than they once were.
That leaves litigation. There seems to be a strong constituency for laws allowing workers to sue over workplace abuse. The vote on the Healthy Workplace Bill was bipartisan and not close: New York state senators favored it 45 to 16.
If states enact laws of this kind and lawsuits begin to be filed, juries are far more likely to sympathize with the bullied worker than the bullying boss and damages awards could be large. There is one easy way for employers to head all of this off: get more serious about rooting out abusive bosses before serious damage is done.
Cohen, a lawyer, is a former TIME writer and a former member of the New York Times editorial board