Is it Workplace Bullying or Just Plain Old Rudeness?

The dangers of using “bullying” as a catch-all phrase

Posted by Dr. Pat Pitsel in Bullying, Code of Conduct, Harassment, Human Resources on September 11th, 2012

The concern about bullies – big kids picking on smaller kids, stronger kids beating up on weaker kids, popular kids humiliating social outcasts – has moved from the school to the business world.

We don’t see exactly the same bullying  behavior in the workplace as on the playground (few management thugs corner vulnerable targets in the bathrooms these days) but if one takes the time to browse the net, the stories of bullying  behavior are numerous and varied.

Bullying by Supervisors

The following are examples of some behavior by supervisors as reported by those who have identified themselves as being bullied:

  • Physical actions – shoved me.
  • Yelled at me in front of co-workers, and used profanity.
  • Threatens me with the loss of my job.
  • “My supervisor nit-picked at everything and turned simple requests into bureaucratic nightmares. I felt like I was under constant scrutiny. On more than one occasion I received a memo from her indicating time limits for tasks down to the minute!”
  • Scowls when I come into our office and tries to sabotage any idea I come up with by making up stories about me.
  • Isolates me from others by telling them not to associate with me.
  • I’m subjected to an annual appraisal and an annual lesson observation (from a UK teacher)

There is at least one site (based out of the UK) which invites those who believe they have been targeted by bullies, to submit their stories. An article in Forbes on-line edition from 2008 stated in its lead-in: “Chances are if you work with others, you’ll be bullied at some point in your career.”

Another site advises: “It can be hard to decide whether someone is bullying you, but if something doesn’t feel right about how someone is talking to you, about you or treating you, listen to those feelings. Many bully’s (sic) work by undermining the other person to make them doubt their own judgement.”

Is it Bullying?

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There is no consensus either nationally or by industry, either in law or in practice, as to what, definitively, describes bullying behavior in the workplace.

If we look at the reports of those describing themselves as having been a target of a bully, then we see a vast discrepancy in the types of events being reported. They can be as serious as actions involving physical intimidation including assault, to things as minor as being micro-managed.

The trend toward including everything and anything unpleasant as bullying behavior is worrisome, firstly because it can lead to an overreaction to behavior that might merely be uncivil or impolite. The fear of being labelled a bully can cause managers to stop addressing inadequate performance. It’s too dangerous to give someone a poor performance appraisal if you know the individual is going to make his or her way to HR and lay a complaint about being bullied.

Secondly, if trivial events are labelled as being bullying types of behavior then there is a greater chance that those responsible for enforcing anti-bullying policies will simply see this as yet another complaint about something trivial, even when the behavior should be addressed.

Education is Key

This suggests, then, that individual organizations need to educate all their employees about what, within their work culture, constitutes acceptable and unacceptable behaviors. While the majority of bullying accusations are directed toward subordinates by managers, there are also situations in which mobbing occurs – either toward another staff member who does not “fit” with the “in” group, or toward a manager whom the group wishes removed.

In the absence of clear company policy regarding bullying and harassment, it will be exceptionally difficult for organizations to sort out claims and counter claims let alone defend themselves either in a court of law or in public opinion.


Pat Pitsel
Pat Pitsel

Psychologist, Educator and Principal of Pitsel & Associates Ltd.

Dr. Patricia Pitsel, Principal of Pitsel & Associates Ltd., is a psychologist and educator. Pat received her M.Sc.Ed. from Fordham University, New York City, and her Ph.D. from the University of Calgary.
Dr. Pitsel's enthusiasm and sense of humour have made her a frequent speaker at conferences and conventions where she has been known to keep people awake for several minutes at a time.