Everyone knows what bullying looks like in a school setting: bullies steal lunch money, pull girls’ hair, and shove band geeks into their own lockers. But what exactly does it mean for adults to be bullied in the workplace?

No state has yet to pass legislation defining a cause of action, but 21 states have proposed laws on workplace bullying since 2003. The Workplace Bullying Institute advocates states’ passage of the Healthy Workplace Bill, drafted by Suffolk University Law School professor David Yamada.

The bill defines workplace bullying as the “repeated, health-harming mistreatment of one or more persons (the targets) by one or more perpetrators that takes one or more of the following forms: verbal abuse; offensive conduct/behaviors (including nonverbal) which are threatening, humiliating, or intimidating; work interference — sabotage — which prevents work from getting done.”

Practitioners are using the proposed legislation to create workplace training based on what their state laws would look like if passed.

According to a 2010 study by WBI, 35 percent of U.S. workers report having been bullied at work. There has been substantial press coverage of abuse in the workplace in recent years.

Despite a dearth of legislation, employees are choosing to file claims anyway. Absent a statutory basis for bringing suit, some employees are piggybacking claims onto other discrimination complaints. Others are using employee handbooks as a hook—if an employer has a policy requiring its workers to conduct themselves professionally.

According to WBI, in its most severe forms, bullying can cause all sorts of stress-related health issues, including hypertension, autoimmune disorders, depression, anxiety, and post traumatic stress disorder.

WBI director Gary Namie, Ph.D., and his wife Ruth Namie wrote two books on the subject, The Bully-Free Workplace: Stop Jerks, Weasels, and Snakes From Killing Your Organization (Wiley, 2011) and The Bully At Work: What You Can Do to Stop the Hurt and Reclaim Your Dignity on the Job (Sourcebooks, 2000).

Namie says the goals of the proposed bill are to provide for legal redress where none currently exists and to incentivize employers to voluntarily address workplace bullying.

Namie notes that state chambers of commerce and the National Federation of Independent Business have been the groups mounting the primary opposition to the bill. Opponents contend that the law could harm job creation, and that existing discrimination and intentional infliction of emotional distress laws sufficiently address the conduct at issue.

A spokesperson for the NFIB did not respond to a request for comment. •