Tina Lewis Rowe

Insights, Information & Inspiration

Discourtesy And Contention At Work: Is It Bullying?

Bully: An Unproductive Label  

Sensational statistic: 37% of employees surveyed in a study by State University of New York, felt they had been bullied at work. Not an outrageous number, but enough that the authors were probably able to further justify their academic work that studies workplace agression. How accurately does it reflect reality?

Given the list of the behaviors that were considered bullying, I’m surprised that a full 100% did not respond that they had been bullied! Among the statements used to describe a feeling of being bullied are, “Had others fail to give you a promotion that you really needed.” And, “Not being given deserved praise.” Other behaviors certainly could be tormenting or unnerving, and some would be criminal.

Another overused label? It is easy to overuse and misuse an emotional term like bully. It dehumanizes the person being talked about. It also presents the image of a vicious thug who torments a weak, helpless victim (another label that accompanies bully) for no reason. The description might fit occasionally, but it has become a way for some employees to smear others without attempting to do anything to bring change.

Like many surveys there was no requirement to show evidence or to suggest the reasoning of the other person. We could have an equally high–or higher–percentage of affirmative answers if we did a survey that asked questions such as these:

  • Do you have a coworker who refuses to accept his or her role in problems?
  • Have you worked with someone who lied about how you or others treated them, in order to get sympathy?
  • Do you know someone at work who seems to look for reasons to be offended or hurt?
  • Do you know someone who covers up their own misdeeds by blaming others?
  • Have you heard coworkers accuse others of bullying but you could see two sides to the issue?
  • Do you know of someone who says they are being mistreated, but they have never taken strong, productive action to stop it?
  • Do you have a coworker who is disruptive in some way, but if you say something he or she denies it and say you are picking on them?
  • If you are a supervisor, have you ever been accused of bullying when you tried to correct poor performance or behavior?

I do not deny that harassing, mean-spirited, and vile behavior occurs in workplaces. I also do not want to diminish the toll such behavior can take–mentally, physically and emotionally. Whatever your organizational role, you should speak up and stop inappropriate, discourteous, demeaning behavior. (That will be covered in Part Three of this series. 

However, instead of focusing on what type of person is behaving badly–a bully, a jerk, a cruel, evil torturer, a vicious, vengeful witch, or, an inhuman, servant of Satan–we should focus on the behavior that is unacceptable and do something about it, whether is it directed at us or others. And, we must do it in a way that is direct and strong but appropriate, not in a way that only involves name-calling behind someone’s back. 

April 1st, 2008 Posted by | Life and Work, Personal and Professional Development, Supervision and Management | 7 comments


  1. Since I’ve been called a bully I guess I should comment on your story. I had an employee who was making one mistake after another, every day. The errors were so bad we were audited twice and there were even accusations of criminal behavior. It wasn’t criminal, it was just one person who kept making mistakes, in spite of training, counseling, support and work adjustments. When she realized her job was in jeopardy I suddenly became a bully for “unrelenting harassment” that was paralyzing her ability to work.

    I was completely shocked, because up until then I had done everything she wanted, to try to help her work improve, including moving her desk, getting her a new chair, etc.

    In the personnel hearing we found out that the EAP counselor told her that employees who are bullied sometimes start a cycle of errors that is not really their fault, and the EAP person even asked her, “Is your boss a bully?” That did it!

    What made it really bad was that the label of bully stuck with me a long time after she left, and even though most people used it as a joke, it really hurt my reputation and my chances for an assignment I wanted. As short a time as a few weeks ago I was helping someone work out a problem and she said she had been scared to be around me because she had heard I was a bully, but she could see it wasn’t true. Think about how many people don’t get to know me well enough to know the accusation was a lie to begin with.

    I read the articles you talked about and saw several stories about it on TV. I agreed that some situations sounded terrible and probably were true. But, all I could think was I wish they would tell the other side of some of the stories! I half way expected to see my former employee being interviewed! Mike. B.

    Comment by Mike B. | April 2, 2008

  2. Thank you for commenting, Mike! We had a similar situation in the USMS office. Chief Deputy Larry Homenick and I made a commitment to correct the behavior of a supervisor who was discourteous, rude, difficult to work with and generally ineffective. She immediately claimed Larry was bullying her. One day she liked him, the next day he was a bully!

    She brought in a note from her doctor who said her stress levels were so high she couldn’t report to Larry and needed to be in a work area where she didn’t have to be around him. The doctor said, “The bullying tone of voice he uses when he speaks to her and the unprofessional treatment she receives from him is emotionally destructive and intolerable.”

    I was so frustrated by it, I wrote to the doctor and said surely he was aware that employees will often make accusations against bosses to cover up their own problems, and that I felt he did everyone a disservice by assuming Larry was a bad manager and the employee was a victim.

    USMS Headquarters told me I shouldn’t have written to the doctor…but doggone it, I was not going to let someone label Larry in that way. I had a lot of OTHER labels for him, but I had the right! 🙂

    Comment by Tina | April 2, 2008

  3. Tina, in class you told us about someone you worked with who had authority over you (I won’t use names!) who regularly screamed at you so loudly he spit in your face. That sounds like bullying to me! What else could you call that? I agree that we shouldn’t label people falsely, but sometimes a description fits don’t you think?

    Comment by Workerbee | April 2, 2008

  4. Yes, Workerbee, I often have mentioned that story and it was worse than that sometimes! Maybe I am nit-picking about the label aspect of it, but I think of what he did was rude, obnoxious attempts to intimidate me. His behavior might be described as bullying behavior, but he was completely different on other occasions and not bullying at all–so why should I describe him using a term that paints his entire character in a negative way? My job was to be defuse the conflict, not add to it by talking about him behind his back using those kind of terms.

    I want to be clear about my thoughts about this subject…but it’s difficult to write it all in a short post!

    You indicate you have been in one of my classes (good!), so you probably know that I am adamant about trying to be factual as it relates to what people DO, rather than saying what people ARE based on only my opinion, or on many opinions. Descriptive terms like jerk, bully, a**, etc., are colorful and DO convey a quick picture. I don’t mind that in casual conversations, and use those terms myself. A lot! I should watch that, and just now realize I probably use those kind of terms too often! I have a large vocabulary for colorfully describing people I don’t like!

    But, when I am trying to solve a workplace problem I really work on changing behaviors and performance rather than on quick labels that don’t deal with the real problem. That is the essence of the point I was trying to make. I hope my Part Two next week will add to it. Or maybe I’ll make that the next post! Thanks for your comment!

    Comment by Tina | April 2, 2008

  5. I’m so glad to read your views on this topic and have emailed them to several people. Since the information came out about the survey you mentioned, two of the people in my office who do not like a third person have come to me with complaints that she is a bully and that they are suffering emotionally over it! They never used that phrase before, but suddenly it popped up in their conversation about ten time in two minutes!

    I’m like you, I don’t want to have someone in the office who pushes people around or makes fun of them. But, I am not going to buy into letting someone snipe at someone else by using a pop-psychology term. We are dealing with the complaint now, but they really only wanted me to reprimand HER, and when I said all of them have to meet with HR, they wanted to back down!

    Anyway, thanks for another viewpoint. You will probably be in the minority with it, but it needs to be said. Pat

    Comment by P.A.H. | April 2, 2008

  6. You knew I couldn’t resist commenting. The photo of the birds at the top begs a story:

    Shirley Sparrow comes to the feeder every day and pecks at all the other birds. She was asked not to do it but she is dating the boss, Ron Robin, so nothing was done about it. Finally a new feeder manager is hired, Sharon Starling. She counsels with Shirley and they do several team building meetings. One day Ms. Starling sees Shirley take a vicious peck at a tiny wren who had dropped by. Ms. Starling says she is disappointed in Shirley and wants to see a change in behavior. She used the One Minute Manager technique. Shirley shrugs and says, “Whatever.”

    The photo is taken when Ms. Starling finally has had enough.

    The rest of the story is that Ms. Starling gets sued for being a bully, but none of the other birds come to her defense.

    This was a good article. Bully for you! 🙂

    Comment by Wiseacre | April 2, 2008

  7. Wiseacre, if you write enough comments I’m going to be able to figure out which class you were in! This was very funny! Thank you!

    Thanks to all of you who wrote on the site or to me personally. Tina

    Comment by Tina | April 2, 2008

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