Can the term “bullying” be overused?

Can terms such as “workplace bullying” be overused to the point of actually impeding the effective resolution of conflicts at work?  Yes, says Coreen Nugent, writing in the British-based

Using this term to describe inappropriate behaviour such as poor management, unwanted personal comments and jokes that go too far, can cause situations to rapidly escalate into a total breakdown of the workplace relationship. Once an allegation of bullying has been made, workers will immediately adopt unhelpful and defensive positions, with less room for rebuilding the relationship.

Nugent’s observations deserve our attention.  If allegations of bullying are made every time people exchange angry words or believe they are on the receiving end of bad management practices and decisions, then we run the risk of elevating tensions and disagreements in the workplace.  In addition, overuse of the term has the effect of obscuring the truly abusive, malicious, and harmful behaviors that constitute genuine workplace bullying.

It’s true that, at the margins, it can be difficult to distinguish lousy management or human relations skills from bullying, but we should be careful not to use bullying as a generic term for workplace discord and dysfunction.  Here is where terms such as workplace incivility come into play.  Of course, bad management can reveal itself in ways that exploit power relationships at work, raising scenarios that fall short of bullying while nevertheless causing stress and anxiety.  It’s also possible to have a manager who is so screwed up that s/he maliciously targets a lot of people, so here again we run into tricky situations at the border.

That said, bullying, as this blog has emphasized over and again, tends to be targeted, malicious, and health-endangering.  When it reaches this level, it should be named as such, notwithstanding Nugent’s valid concerns.

For Coreen Nugent’s “Workplace bullying: top tips for tackling the problem”:

6 responses

  1. The problem of over-exposure/over-use of the term workplace bullying may be a uniquely British concern. Some UK polls suggest that nearly 80% of Brits report being bullied. We just have to remember that the term was coined in the UK by pioneer Andrea Adams her book “Bullying At Work” published in 1992. Every citizen there by now is familiar with the term. It is no surprise that the complaint of overuse came from a personnel/HR publication. To HR, less severe forms of bullying are simply the routine exercise of managerial prerogative.

    • Gary, statistically speaking, I agree with your point. However, anecdotally speaking, I’ve noticed that even in America, once people take ownership of the term, there’s a tendency towards overuse. We have a more time-tested example with sexual harassment, where some folks interpret every off-color joke or unwelcomed sexual reference as a “hostile work environment.” That said, I’d happy if we in the U.S. “overused” the term at this juncture, as opposed to the reality that many who experience bullying have not learned what to label the horrific experience they’re enduring.

  2. David, I’m glad you have already begun to discuss this matter. I have had several complaints come my way that did not rise to the level of malicious, targeted, patterned and health endangering. Another was an actual attempt at retalliating against management for appropriate disciplinary action! Each of the claims deserved assessment. In two of the claims, other actions were suggested for intervening in the poor managerial practices used. In each of the three claims of workplace bullying there could be found a kernal of a story about discord in the workplace. We must expect that the use and abuse of the term “Workplace Bullying” by the general public will go through some sort of learning curve. Education and principled assessment is very important.

    • Greg, thanks for those observations. Yes, I fear that without proper lines being drawn, any legal or contractual protections against workplace bullying could lead to actual misuse, including the possibility of wrongful accusations in response to valid disciplinary measures or performance evaluations. Of course, at the margins it can get very sticky in making a call on a given situation, especially one with few/no witnesses to what had transpired.

      This is one reason why I drafted the legislation to require a worker to prove that the actions were malicious. If the eventual law is misused or turned into a legal refereeing of workplace relations, that will be a very undesirable result.

  3. I am concerned about the requirement for the worker to “prove” that the actions were malicious. Who is going to determine the level of proof necessary? And, who is going to determine? Will it be the organization’s internal investigators, if so that will not go very far, and it will be much like the worker comp cases that are routinely denied by Corvel in California. I would like for someone to take a look at what a target actually goes through from the time they make a complaint about psychological harassment. First, there is the retaliation, and the anguish that causes, then depending on the length of time the treatment has been going on, the employee may be psychologically damaged and seeing a therapist, which then it becomes a worker’s comp claim, the worker comp investigators are anything but reasonable in their interrogation, and then the HR investigation ends up being a fact finding mission for the organization to determine how much evidence the employee has to use against the organization. The deck is stacked already against the worker. Every step of the way it is the worker who is being harmed over and over. The organization stigmatizes the worker who complains and those who fear complaining look at the treatment received by the target and thinks, “Gee, it is not worth it. I will just try to stay out of the way.” There is no support system within nor outside of the organization for the target. If any entity is going to be in charge of investigating it must be a neutral party or no one is going to bother to even complain, because it will be useless. I do think there needs to be a clear distinction made between mean bosses, bully bosses, and the psychopathic, criminal bullies who will stop at nothing to get rid of the target, even if it means death by suicide.

    • Thank you for your question. Fortunately the answer is simple: If the Healthy Workplace Bill becomes law, the trier of fact — either a judge or jury — will determine whether or not the actions were malicious.

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