We Must Not Tolerate Workplace Bullying

by | Oct 10, 2023 | Ethics, Human Resources Management, I-O Psychology, Workplace Safety | 0 comments

Aggressive bosses disrupt otherwise productive workers

Movies from the 1980s often had a bully character — the boss or other person in power who subjected subordinates to psychologically abusive behaviors such as taunting, screaming, name-calling, or, in some extreme cases, physical violence. One might think in today’s workplace this form of villainous management has gone the way of VHS tapes. However, as Forbes reports in a recent article (Kelly, 2023), bully bosses continue to torment workers, undermining their self worth, confidence, and psychological safety causing issues including disengagement, attrition, and even self-harm.

Some workplaces have hostile work environments. A 2015 survey conducted by RAND in conjunction with the University of California found that nearly 20% of workers have experienced hostility in the workplace. The Workplace Bullying Institute reports that as many as 30% of workers experience bullying behaviors (Namie, 2021). The Society for Human Resources Management (SHRM, 2023) describes a hostile workplace as a place where, “harassing or discriminatory conduct is so severe and pervasive it interferes with an individual’s ability to perform their job; creates an intimidating, offensive, threatening or humiliating work environment; or causes a situation where a person’s psychological well-being is adversely affected.”

Unfortunately, not all leaders have the required knowledge, skills, abilities, and other characteristics (KSAOs) required to bring about positive transformation. However, most people with a growth mindset possess the capabilities to learn leadership behaviors and build strengths in transformational leadership when supported by the right environment, training, coaching, and resources. However, some leaders and executives cannot or will not admit that continuous improvement through training and development builds those KSAOs. Those leaders may then exercise ineffective transactional leadership, which can cause a loss of employee engagement, job satisfaction, self-efficacy, and organizational commitment, leading to poor job performance or attrition.

Coercive Power Has No Place in Today’s Workplace

Some managers exercise coercive power to gain control over their subordinates. The base of coercive power stems from the perception of scarcity of resources (Robbins & Judge, 2018). Those resources can include some of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, including and in order:

  • Physiological needs
  • Safety needs
  • Love and belonging
  • Esteem
  • Self-actualization

According to conservation of resource theory (COR), people feel stress when they perceive that the resources they possess may be in danger of loss (Sun & Chen, 2017). When one is coercive, they use this fear to control others by threatening negative results with a lack of compliance. For instance, a manager may yell and shout to intimidate to reduce feelings of safety and self-esteem. In other cases, people may be held back from attaining higher positions to prevent self-actualization to maintain a level of control and power over them.

Workplace Aggression by Management

Researchers have shown a strong correlation between workplace aggression and employee performance at work. In fact, in a study of 2376 US workers, subjects showed that aggressive behaviors in a hypothesized model negatively predicted task and contextual performance and lowered job satisfaction and mental health (Schat & Frone, 2011). Aggression can lead to counterproductive work behaviors (CBWs) and workplace violence.

Forms of Violence

Workplace violence among co-workers can take several different forms. Unfortunately, homicide receives the most attention due to the severity of its nature. However, many more incidents of violence do not involve casualties, though they can cause various intense and lasting issues. According to the U.S. Department of Labor (2023). some examples of the most frequently encountered situations among co-workers include:

  • concealing or using a weapon;
  • physical assault upon oneself or another person;
  • actions which damage, destroy, or sabotage property;
  • intimidating or frightening others;
  • harassing, stalking, or showing undue focus on another person;
  • physically aggressive acts, such as shaking fists at another person, kicking, pounding on desks, punching a wall, angrily jumping up and down, screaming at others;
  • verbal abuse including offensive, profane and vulgar language; and
  • threats (direct or indirect), whether made in person or through letters, phone calls, or electronic mail.

Early Warning Signs of Violent Behavior

Executives and managers should observe the workplace to ensure the safety and well-being of all employees. According to the DOL, catching and defusing situations before they become dangerous can avoid potentially violent situations. During the first of three stages, early warning signs include:

  • intimidation/bullying;
  • discourteous/disrespectful behavior;
  • uncooperative action; and/or
  • verbal abuse.

What Can Workers Do to Protect Themselves and Others Against Bullying?

Employees must protect their safety and that of their fellow workers. When one observes the behaviors listed above, document the situation and report it immediately to a supervisor. If the supervisor is the person demonstrating the behavior, find the next supervisor available in the chain of command. If the offender does not work for the company, report the incident to the supervisor of that department. Most importantly, use good judgment; remove yourself first from any dangerous situation. Know that, due to labor laws, organizations cannot fire or otherwise punish someone who reports these actions. If an employer did take such an action, they may be viewed as retaliation which is strictly prohibited by law.

If you see something, please say something. We can all work to free our workplaces of violence and make our places of employment the productive and harmonious workplace where we all wish to pursue our purpose..


Caillier, J. G. (2021). The impact of workplace aggression on employee satisfaction with job stress, meaningfulness of work, and turnover intentions. Public Personnel Management, 50(2), 159–182. https://doi-org.libauth.purdueglobal.edu/10.1177/0091026019899976

Kelly, J. (2023). How to deal with bullies workplace bullies. Forbes. https://www.forbes.com/sites/jackkelly/2023/07/08/how-to-deal-with-workplace-bullies/?sh=5391082deefa

Maestas, N., Mullen, K.J., Powell, D., von Wachter, T., and Jeffrey B. Wenger, J.B. (2017). Working Conditions in the United States: Results of the 2015 American Working Conditions Survey. Santa Monica, CA: RAND Corporation, 2017. https://www.rand.org/pubs/research_reports/RR2014.html.

Namie, G. (2021). 2021 WBI U.S. workplace bullying survey. The Workplace Bullying Institute. https://workplacebullying.org/2021-wbi-survey/

Robbins, S. P., & Judge, T. A. (2018). Organizational Behavior (18th Edition). Pearson Education (US). https://mbsdirect.vitalsource.com/books/9780134729749

Schat, A., Frone, M.R. (2011). Exposure to psychological aggression at work and job performance: The mediating role of job attitudes and personal health. Work Stress, 1;25(1):23–40. doi: 10.1080/02678373.2011.563133. PMID: 21643471; PMCID: PMC3105890.

Sun, S., & Chen, H. (2017). Is political behavior a viable coping strategy to perceived organizational politics? Unveiling the underlying resource dynamics. Journal of Applied Psychology, 102(10), 1471–1782. https://doi.org/10.1037/apl0000239

Society for Human Resources Management (SHRM). (2023). Hostile work environment: What is a hostile work environment? https://www.shrm.org/resourcesandtools/tools-and-samples/hr-glossary/pages/hostile-work-environment.aspx

U.S. Department of Labor (DOL). (2023). DOL Workplace Violence program. https://www.dol.gov/agencies/oasam/centers-offices/human-resources-center/policies/workplace-violence-program

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