Workforce Management conflates workplace bullying and bad manners

I’m a fan of Workforce Management magazine and its jam-packed website (link here), but I disagree with the approach taken by the print edition’s January cover story on incivility at work.

Bad manners

Susan G. Hauser’s “The Degeneration of Decorum” is a major feature introduced this way:

Stress caused by rude behavior in the workplace might be costing the U.S. economy billions of dollars a year. Some employers are taking action to restore civility and improve employee morale.

The article goes on to describe the mounting problem of incivility at work, framing the problem as largely one of rudeness and lack of manners.

When it gets to management misbehavior, the idea of bullying finally enters the picture. At that point, it quotes Dr. Gary Namie and references the work of the Workplace Bullying Institute.

However, the piece never explores the fundamental differences between bad manners and targeted, abusive mistreatment.

Closing editorial

Editor Ronald J. Alsop closes the issue with a wide-ranging editorial that mentions bullying but largely echoes the themes of incivility and rudeness. While I agree with the advice he quotes from a former CEO — “You can’t have a successful business without happy employees” — I found it disconcerting that he conflated these behaviors into simple variations of bad etiquette.

Abuse vs. incivility

At times I have used terms such as bullying and incivility somewhat interchangeably, and the research on worker mistreatment sometimes mixes and matches the concepts as well.

But we need to be vigilant about reminding ourselves that workplace bullying is fundamentally different than bad manners, in the same way that domestic violence must be distinguished from acting out by an emotionally challenged spouse. When someone is singled out intentionally at work for a course of malicious, health-endangering mistreatment, the behavior has crossed into the realm of abuse.


The January issue is not yet posted to the magazine’s website; typically free online access is provided several months after the publication date. For the table of contents to the issue and trial subscription info, go here.

8 responses

  1. This is such an interesting post, David, thanks. Coming from the health care ‘industry’ I see all sorts of bullying, incivility and bad manners. We also have come up with other terms, horizontal and vertical violence, covert and overt abuse, interactive workplace trauma, poor conduct and disruptive behavior. It seems like the terms vary with who is doing what to whom, yet human beings seem to be quite creative in finding ways to be disrespectful.

    Nurses are often passive-aggressive and physicians often aggressive, (more terms!). In my opinion, any time we are using our power or perceived power to be disrespectful, we are being abusive.

    I can see your point about being hypervigilant about using the term bullying and would think that from a legal perspective it would be extremely important. The need to hold anyone accountable requires clear definition and responsible parties. (I’ve used the terms interchangeably at times, too.)

    As an organizational development consultant, communication specialist and nurse, I think it is important to ask, “What is the relationship or work culture now?’ and what do we want it to be?”. Bad manners or incivility in a culture that is for the most part respectful may be brushed off without too much harm or need to address. BUT, the very same behavior in a toxic environment or directed at one person over time is devastating. Not only to the people involved, but in healthcare the mistakes we make are often catastrophic to patients, waste huge amount of resources and damage careers. AND communication problems are the root cause of errors about 70% of the time and a factor of about 100%.

    It is complicated and discussions like this extremely important. I recently wrote an article with yet another slant about bullying behaviors vs bully that you might find interesting. (Scroll down for article).

    Beth Boynton, RN, MS, Author of “Confident Voices: The Nurses’ Guide to Improving Communication & Creating Positive Workplaces”.

    • Beth, thank you for your thoughtful response. I agree that context matters a lot, and indeed that very context may be the dividing line between what is “bullying” vs. mere bad manners.

      But I would caution against what I fear can be overuse of terms such as abuse or abusive. In this sense we may disagree that “any time we are using our power or perceived power to be disrespectful, we are being abusive.” A person fighting back against mistreatment may be disrespectful in how she is using the power at her disposal, but I wouldn’t characterize it as abusive. It goes back to context and the nature of the power relationship.

      One of the great gray areas in this discussion is when the behavior is passive-aggressive. It is harder to read as both a possible target as well a bystander. And simply sorting out what is happening in those situations can be a maddening exercise in mind games.

  2. So true, David. Sadly, I can’t help but wonder how much gender issues may come into play when passive aggressive behaviors exist. It is as if there is a totem pole of oppression and those at the ‘top’ with more power or perceived power can be overt and aggressive, yet those with less perceived or real power have to be sneaky. In a twisted way, the passive aggressive stuff is an expression of power.

    Perhaps, historically, our species needed this dynamic in order to survive, but I do hope we are evolving.

    Lots and lots of layers, I think.

    Thanks again for this interesting discussion.

    • Beth, thanks again for adding more to the conversation!

      I realize even suggesting that overt aggression is a more male trait and that passive aggression is a more female one opens potentially un-PC doors, but I think it needs to be part of the discussion. And, in fact, if such patterns exist, it can be a key to understanding inequities in power and power structures generally — in this case pointing to why female aggression may play out differently.

      After all, generically speaking, if one does not have or perceive the permission to act directly, then one finds other means.

      In this context, passive aggression becomes a form of leverage, yes? But heaven help the target of that behavior…

      And it sure does complicate the whole female-to-female bullying dynamic, which I know you confront all the time in your consulting practice with nurses!

  3. Hi, David –

    I can’t help but notice the irony of January 2011 cover story and my experiences in the discussion forums at Workplace

    In your January 14, 2011 blog entry titled “HR and Workplace Bullying: A Revealing Online Conversation” you noted that Catherine Mattice and I were “cuffed around” by the HR professionals in the online Legal forum at Workforce

    Take a look at the responses made by various HR professionals to the entries made by HRmngr at:

    The editorial staff at Workforce might be interested in the lack of civility happening in their discussion forums.

    Thanks for all your efforts on behalf of abuse targets in the workplace.


    • Debra, thank you for this and your many good comments.

      I just looked at those posts to Workforce Management, and you’re absolutely right: Some real jerky stuff going on there! At least you can rest easy (heh) knowing that you weren’t being singled out for incivility on that board…

      It’s too bad. Workforce Management hosts one of the most informative and content-rich websites for HR and employment relations folks.

  4. I had never seen bullying described in line with domestic violence and they are very serious situations. Being singled out, made to feel incompetent and continued negative behavior towards one person at a time in the workplace is a lot different that bad manners towards all employees in the same workplace. In that case you could think, “It’s not just me” and can be easier to not take person.

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