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Tough Boss or Workplace Bully?

Human resource professionals must clearly distinguish between the two. Here's a way to make that difficult call.

June Cover How is it that a manager can get away with treating employees terribly?

While it may be immoral and unprofessional, it is not universally illegal in the United States for managers to threaten, insult, humiliate, ignore or mock employees. Nor is it illegal to gossip and spread rumors, withhold information, or take credit for someone else’s work.

Unfortunately, these types of bullying are not rare; they take place with distressing frequency.

Workplace bullying refers to "repeated and persistent attempts by one person to torment, wear down, frustrate or get a reaction from another. It is treatment which persistently provokes, pressures, frightens, intimidates or otherwise discomforts another person," according to Dr. Carroll M. Brodsky in The Harassed Worker (Lexington Books, 1976).

Several recent studies clearly confirm the seriousness of the problem in the United States:

  • In a March 2007 survey of 1,000 U.S. employees by the Employment Law Alliance in San Francisco, nearly 45 percent of the respondents reported that they have worked for abusive bosses.
  • In September 2007, a poll sponsored by the Workplace Bullying Institute in Bellingham, Wash.—consisting of 7,740 online interviews—estimated that 37 percent of American workers, roughly 54 million people, would report being bullied at work. When organizational bystanders are included, researchers estimate that bullying affects nearly half of all full- and part-time U.S. employees.
  • In a 2008 study conducted by the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) and the Ethics Resource Center of Arlington, Va., 57 percent of the 513 participants confirmed that they had witnessed "abusive or intimidating behavior toward employees," excluding sexual harassment.

While it is already unlawful under federal law for an employer or its agents to harass any member of a protected class based on race, religion, physical or mental disability, sex, or age, federal courts have not yet extended the law to prohibit workplace bullying toward those who do not fit into a protected group.

Model state legislation known as the Healthy Workplace Bill has been proposed. Authored by professor David C. Yamada, director of the New Workplace Institute at Suffolk University Law School in Boston, and supported by the Workplace Bullying Institute, the bill has not yet passed in any state. Grassroots groups have formed in 16 states to promote the legislation.

What, then, as an HR professional, are you expected to do when faced with such unhealthy and destructive workplace conflict?

Revealing Analysis

In the spring of 2008, I began research to better understand how workplace bullying can be distinguished from situations where a manager is simply a "tough boss." The findings provide some insights about the issue from the point of view of HR professionals.

As Managers See Bullies

Representative comments from interviews with HR professionals reflect their perception of bullies’ intent and help support the view that malice is present in workplace bullying situations:

"With a bully, there’s no goal orientation. There’s nothing to do with your job. There’s nothing to do with the company. … It’s simply something that has irritated the individual. It has maddened him to the point that [he] is driven to make a person’s life miserable … either with verbal threats or actual actions against" the individual.

"It was almost like she had to have a person to pick on and, at different times in the years that I was there, she would choose one person to direct her anger at, and she would do that for a year or so. Then she would pick on somebody else."

"Attempts to make others see the target as unworthy."

Bullies "throw caution to the wind as far as feelings are concerned, and their agenda is simply ‘I’m going to get you.’ "

Interviews were conducted with 20 experienced HR practitioners, uncovering many, often emotional, examples of how HR professionals identify, experience and describe workplace bullying personally—a surprising 80 percent had personally been the target of bullies. The subjects also shared how they experience workplace bullying as observers in their HR roles. This work makes up the basis of my doctoral dissertation at Fielding Graduate University in Santa Barbara, Calif., and part of my research for Stop Bullying at Work: Strategies and Tools for HR & Legal Professionals (SHRM, 2009).

Actions of a Workplace Bully

Participants noted that workplace bullies could be identified by the following characteristics:

  • Frequent misuse of power and authority.

  • Focus on personal self-interest, as opposed to the good of the organization.

  • Prone to emotional outbursts.

  • Often inconsistent and unfair in their treatment of employees.

They observed that bullies consistently engage in actions at work that are perceived as overwhelmingly negative. These include a need for control, exploitation, intimidation, threats, humiliation and embarrassment, a failure to communicate, manipulation, engaging in a pattern of obstructive behavior over time, ostracizing and ignoring employees, and gossiping or spreading rumors about their targets. The manager who engages in these negative acts appears to be operating with intent to cause his or her target some kind of pain or personal distress.

Actions of a Tough Boss

On the other hand, participants describe tough bosses differently, suggesting characteristics almost directly opposite those they attribute to bullies:

  • Objective, fair and professional.

  • Self-controlled and unemotional.

  • Performance-focused—insistent upon meeting high standards and holding employees accountable for meeting those expectations.

  • Organizationally oriented—consistently operating to achieve the best interests of their company.

The actions of a tough boss were perceived to be overwhelmingly positive. These managers were interactive, using frequent two-way communication and really listening to their employees, as well as mentoring subordinates through coaching, counseling and frequent performance feedback.

While conflict certainly does occur in workgroups led by tough bosses, such bosses work to quickly resolve problems by engaging in honest and respectful discussions. In addition, though tough bosses’ intense focus on results may create tension and stress, employees do not take the situations personally nor do they experience diminished feelings of self-worth or adverse personal or health effects. Instead, they view such managers as "tough but fair" and keenly focused on the good of the organization.


The ‘So What?’

Workplace bullying is an unambiguous and intentional form of abusive behavior, and participants in this study describe clear distinctions between the two types of managers. The findings suggest that whether or not a conflict situation is workplace bullying can be determined by the presence or absence of malice—defined in Merriam-Webster’s Online Dictionary (2008) as "the desire to cause pain, injury or distress to another."

As Managers See Tough Bosses

Comments from interviews with HR professionals about the actions of a tough boss suggest no malice or intent to harm, but rather a focus on the achievement of organizational results:

"A tough boss is tough on everybody, not just one particular person. I think you can be tough but at the same time not be a bully. You know, underneath the tough boss’s character, I think you realize that he’s just results-oriented to the point where it becomes like an obsession to him."

"Fairness and intent differentiate a workplace bully from other conflicts. … I didn’t mind him saying ‘That’s bull’ because he respected me."

"People understand that the boss has the ‘right intent’ even when she is being tough on them."

"No intent to intimidate, threaten or embarrass."

"Good intentions geared toward making the company better."

The results of this study yield a conceptual model that can be used by HR professionals to make an initial determination as to whether the facts presented in a complaint of workplace bullying indicate the presence of malice.

If it appears from the facts that malice might be present, this would serve as a signal to HR professionals that the next set of organizational protocols should be followed—moving from the target’s subjective complaint to a more objective, fact-finding investigation by an HR professional, much like what occurs with a sexual harassment complaint. If, however, evidence of malice remains clearly absent from the complaint and initial review of the facts, then there would be no investigation.

The use of this screening tool will help HR professionals make quicker and more definitive determinations about whether an incident might constitute workplace bullying and, if so, what kind of an organizational response is required. These findings also confirm the following definition of workplace bullying in the proposed anti-bullying legislation: "Conduct of an employer or employee in the workplace, with malice, that a reasonable person would find hostile, offensive and unrelated to an employer’s legitimate business interests." 


The author is an employment lawyer, author and principal consultant at InsideOut HR Solutions PLC in Ashland, Ky.

Web Extras

SHRM book: Stop Bullying at Work: Strategies and Tools for HR and Legal Professionals

SHRM survey report: The Ethics Landscape in American Business

Research report: U.S. Workplace Bullying Survey 2007 (Workplace Bullying Institute)

Proposed legislation: Healthy Workplace Bill

SHRM video: Attorney Jathan Janove uses hand puppets to illustrate how best to deal with a workplace jerk.


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