What Would Happen if we Called Workplace Bullying, 'Abuse?'

April 2, 2019

Inevitably, when the subject of workplace bullying comes up in one of my talks, audience members hang back afterwards or email to tell me about their experiences. Some of the stories are devastating. Depending on the severity and duration of abuse, victims suffer long-term emotional and physical harm. The consequences have a ripple effect to that person’s family, to their community and  they have implications on our economy. 


I have often wondered how the professional landscape would change if, rather than bullying, we called this 'practice' by its unvarnished title – workplace abuse.  


To my mind moving from the term 'bullying' to 'abuse' would help accomplish the following:




Abuse over a significant period can cause severe and permanent harm to an individual’s emotional and physical well-being.  It can take years for a victim to heal. Their careers can be stalled and irreparably damaged.  I've heard of many situations where abusers intentionally damage their former colleague's professional reputation.  Workplace abuse also has implications on one's financial well-being and reputation. The longer they are in the situation the greater risk to their outcome.




Education about other forms of abuse, like domestic abuse, has helped us identify a pattern of abusive behaviour.  History tells us this pattern is unlikely to change.  Domestic abuse victims are encouraged to leave the situation. Conversely, in many articles I’ve read about workplaces, people are encouraged NOT to leave because of a ‘bad boss' or a 'bully', and to 'stick it out.'  When that boss is an abuser, and identified as such their victims will (hopefully) be encouraged to leave, and the cycle of abusive behaviour recognized.   




If there was only one point I could make to the victims of workplace abuse it’s this…


You have done nothing wrong, and nothing that you do or change about yourself or your behaviour will change the behaviour of your abuser.


We all make mistakes and abusers (workplace or otherwise) are exceptionally skilled at identifying our insecurities and any mistakes we may make...and then shining a floodlight on them.  Abusers make a practice of withholding information that will help us succeed and holding us accountable when we get things wrong. So many victims of workplace abuse attempt to 'fix' the problem, change their behaviour, even apologize. It's heartbreaking to watch. 




You don't often hear of people being charged, arrested and convicted for 'bullying.'  We do routinely hear about people being charged, arrested, convicted and incarcerated for abuse. When justice is served to an abuser they pay a price. They face the consequence of charges, a legal battle and financial loss. The term abuse validates the suffering of victims and removes any potential for a whimsical interpretation on the part of the perpetrator.




Bullying implies a behaviour or a collection of behaviours – it’s associated with the behaviour of children who are still learning, testing and growing, and whose personalities are (slightly more) malleable. Abuse has far more weight to it – there's a permanence to the word abuser. We know abusers are difficult, if not impossible, to change.  When an adult routinely and systematically bullies their colleague or subordinate, they ARE the behaviour. While a company may invest in changing bad behaviour, they are unlikely to invest in trying to transform an employee. Many of us have learned from our personal relationships that it’s impossible to change another someone else no matter how much we try!  


I do believe if we move from the term ‘bullying’ to ‘abuse’ we change the conversation for employers as well as victims. This terminology may encourage businesses to hold management to a higher standard of accountability when this behaviour goes unchecked.  To learn more about identifying workplace bullies click here.


I sincerely hope you have not been nor will you ever be the victim of workplace abuse.  My guess is, if you’ve read this far you've been touched by workplace abuse in some way.  There is a great new app for tracking and reporting workplace discrimination and harassment.  It’s called ‘Spot.’  It’s free and can be accessed here:




My hope is we will change the language to change  conversation. What do you think?



Amy Davies is a corporate trainer, career advancement and reorg expert. She is the author of A Spark In The Dark: Illuminating Your Path To A Brilliant Career In A Reorg World.  If you need help identifying or dealing with bullies in your organization, or think your organization could benefit from a talk about workplace bullies and how to handle them, please feel free to set up a free discovery call here or send an email to:  info@reorgworld.com.

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