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Bullying is rampant in the American workplace, but it remains the human resource issue that few companies seem interested in tackling, a national expert says.

Gary Namie, director of the Workplace Bullying Institute, said a poll his group did with research firm Zogby shows that 37 percent of the U.S. work force has experienced psychological violence and 12 percent has witnessed it.

"It's very common," said Namie, a professor of management and psychology. "It reflects our current societal values of aggression first, think later."

Namie said many businesses tolerate bullies despite the fact that their behavior is expensive.

"Companies are loath to remove bullies, but at the same time senior leaders tolerate the incredible turnover that these people cause," he said. "Businesses lose their best and brightest because these are the people who are the biggest threat to the bullies."

Not all bullies are just wired that way from birth, he said. In fact, many companies "grow" bullies. "Bullies can start out being good people," he noted. "They might not ever raise their voices in church, at a retail store or in a restaurant."

A company's culture can cause significant changes as these individuals observe how others around them are rewarded for behaving aggressively and inappropriately.

"People will turn themselves into vipers because they think that's what they're supposed to do," Namie said.

The key for companies, he said, is to reverse the reward structure so good people are retained and bullies weeded out.

Namie's group is involved in state and federal legislation aimed at stopping workplace bullying. Right now, he said, bullying is "invisible legally." "The biggest myth out there is that a hostile work environment is illegal," he said.

People in a protected class, such as minorities, can make a case for a hostile environment, but only under certain circumstances, he said.

Businesses, he said, should not wait for new laws. "Employers need to have their own written policies."

Along with being the right thing to do, there's another reason. "If you're in a profit-making entity, you should do it for bottom-line considerations," Namie said.