As if they did not already have enough to worry about, from finding jobs to keeping the ones they have, employees are confronting a new phenomenon lately: bullying in the workplace.

While there is no precise definition of what constitutes workplace bullying, it generally consists of supervisors hassling, even harassing, subordinates. Bullying comes in many forms. It may include verbal abuse, such as use of derogatory remarks, insults and epithets; inconsistent and contradictory directives; poor performance evaluations, and freezing out employees from participating in important workplace or social activities.

A 2010 survey by an organization called the Workplace Bully Institute found that more than one-third of workers in this country have experienced workplace bullying. The majority of the reported bullying was same-gender harassment, with a large, and growing, portion citing female managers bullying subordinate females and, occasionally, male underlings.

These findings come at a time when retaliation against employees, another form of bullying, is reaching record heights. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), the federal agency that oversees discrimination and harassment laws, reports that retaliation has become the leading category of complaints filed by workers.

Last year, more than 36,000 of about 100,000 complaints filed with the EEOC alleged retaliation against employees who had raised issues about perceived improprieties in the workplace. The increase in retaliation claims has been spurred by favorable court rulings making it easier for employees to pursue these allegations.

Numerous federal, state and some municipal laws protect employees against such treatment only if they fall within one of about a dozen "protected" classifications, such as gender, race, age, disability or religion.

The Minnesota Supreme Court, for instance, earlier this year ruled that sexual harassment claims do not apply to adverse treatment of one gender against the other unless there is some sexual connotation. Since most bullying is gender-neutral, it generally falls outside the scope of existing laws.

In Minnesota, most of the legislative attention has been directed to the harassment of students. An anti-bullying measure was passed by the Legislature during the waning days of the administration of Gov. Tim Pawlenty, who vetoed the measure, claiming erroneously that it was redundant with existing harassment laws.

Legislation directed against bullying in the workplace has not advanced in Minnesota. Given the current complexion of the Legislature; it is unlikely to surface soon.

But these issues have been confronted and addressed internationally. Nearly 20 years ago, Sweden became the first nation to enact explicit anti-bullying legislation. The measure, known as the Ordinance on Victimization at Work, bars bullying and levies fines and even imprisonment upon abusive employers. But the law does not allow civil lawsuits by abused employees.

Other European nations, including Great Britain and France, have similar measures, but permit civil suits. The British law, for example, recently yielded a $1 million award of damages to an abused employee.

Bad business

These laws are no panacea. They also raise the potential of a torrent of merit-less litigation that could be viewed as a "shakedown" of management. But bullying does not easily fit into these laws.

Most would agree that bullying is bad for business. The practice causes morale problems and leads to turmoil, turnover and lower productivity. Even without legislation, an employer should take steps to prevent workplace bullying. These could include:

Adopting protocols that prohibit abusive conduct, even going beyond existing discrimination and harassment laws.

Communicating the policies to all employees, particularly supervisors.

Training managers on how to spot bullying, respond to complaints and avoid retaliation.

Encouraging employees to report bullying and assure them that no retaliation will not be taken against them if they do so.

Employers and employees have a stake in preventing bullying. They need not wait for legislation to act appropriately in battling back against bullies in the workplace.