Tina Lewis Rowe

Insights, Information & Inspiration

Toxic, Harassing, Abusive, Evil, Micro-Manager, Slug—Workplace Labels Are Not Necessarily True and Are Almost Never Helpful.

Labels about people and work environments often take the place of accurate description and clear thinking. It’s easy and sometimes helpful to use a descriptive term to give someone an overall idea about someone without doing into great detail. Unfortunately, those terms are often over-dramatized and invariably unpleasant.

In addition, pop psychology labels or sarcastic terms often replace an effort to understand a problem and develop a solution.  It is much easier for someone to refer to a workplace as toxic than to admit he or she might be causing many of the problems, or to work for an improved workplace. It’s easier to say the boss is abusive and you are being victimized, than to analyze why so many others think he is a decent person and think you are an ineffective communicator.

Even if the accusation is true, using a label can make a conflict worse because it shuts down attempts to improve things. Once you have decided an employee is a slug, you will tend to stop treating him as though he can learn to do better and wants to do better, with your support. Once you say your boss is a micro-manager you will tend to view every request or direction as irritating and unnecessary.

Using a descriptive term can be convenient–just make sure you define your term and that you discuss the whole person not just one aspect of his or her style that you don’t care for. All of us are more than a label can accurately describe.

Negative labels often just reflect the perspective of one person. I receive many emails about workplace issues, and I understand the concerns many people have. However, I become frustrated and irritated at how quickly writers assign an unpleasant, negative label to people they don’t like and situations with which they have problems. You may recall me talking about this in my articles about abuse and harassment. My view was that abuse and harassment are much more than discourtesy and insensitivity. Yet, often when people say they have been harassed or abused, the details only indicate incivility and dislike–often from both directions.

Not long ago I received an email from someone who said her supervisor was a Dinosaur Brain (from the book of the same name.) She used jargon from the book as well as a magazine article she had read to “diagnose” the problem. I asked for specifics, and it turns out her boss has many good qualities, but doesn’t incorporate most of her suggestions for work. That may only mean her suggestions are not very good. Or, it may mean her boss wants to be in charge of everything or that he must go by another protocol. His actions may indicate many things, but calling him Mr. Dinosaur Brains behind his back and assuming his actions are solely because he is small-minded and unwilling to change, is disrespectful and as hurtful to their working relationship as if he referred to her as Ms. Ditz Brain. (And he may.)

The Bottom Line: Watch yourself when you start throwing around a term that sounds nasty enough to fit someone you don’t like or negative enough to describe your workplace–the way you perceive it. Only use the term if you can also fully describe what behavior that person is exhibiting and why you think the term is appropriate, or what preponderance of evidence you have to show that almost everything at work is harmful to people working there. Be able to say what you have done to help make the situation better, apart from popular jargon and name-calling.

For every label or description you think about using, make the conscious effort to describe specific behavior or situations to illustrate your point. Be able to define your terms so others will know what you mean and upon what you are basing your remarks. Doing that might help you realize that while you may not like a person or situation, things aren’t quite as awful as your dramatically horrible label would indicate. Or, it might reinforce your perceptions with supportive evidence.

So there, you Vile Troll, you.

February 21st, 2009 Posted by | Challenging and Problematic People, Personal and Professional Development, Supervision and Management | 9 comments


  1. Hi Tina! I’m always the first comment. LOL! You remember our long term problem. She said our supervisor was an emotional abuser and she was majoring in psychology so she was sure she was right. He didn’t treat her any differently than he treated us and we all liked him and thought he was a good supervisor. But, she called him that so much that we got interviewed by HR and asked if we thought he was an emotional abuser. It was really unfair! She had emotional problems herself and cried at least once or twice a week, but always was pyschoanalyzing other people and telling them what their problem was. We’re glad she’s gone!

    Comment by denisek | February 22, 2009

  2. Tina says: Hello to you, Denise. I’m always happy to get comments and it’s nice to know you are on an RSS feed. (Either that or you sure do check the site a lot!)

    You point out something I’ve observed–which is that it seems many people major in psychology because they hope it will make them well. And, I’m reminded of the thought by Alexander Pope: “A little learning is a dangerous thing. Drink deep or taste not….” Or, as Lord Byron said, they have…”just enough of learning to misquote.”

    Thanks for reading my post with your morning coffee!

    Comment by TLR | February 22, 2009

  3. Tina, someone in my own circle of responsibilty spoke about a person who was bipolar and who, as a result, created problems for team members. Others present were concerned about having a bipolar person in the job that person was in. I asked how she knew the man was bipolar and she said she merely meant he had mood swings and that sometimes he was easier to deal with than others. She saw nothing wrong with saying he was bipolar since, she said, everyone knew it was just a term to mean “hard to get along with.”

    I have counseled about the terrible danger of using terms out of context and without any validity. She says she now understands how harmful it could have been, but I wonder how many other people have heard her say it. Words, like arrows, once they have left the bow can never be recalled and can cause incalculable harm to reputations.

    Your well chosen thoughts are a blessing to me as well as to others, I am sure. Don

    Comment by Don R. | February 22, 2009

  4. Tina says:
    Thank you, Don! The example you gave is such a good one. I’ve written you an email to make sure you don’t mind me using it in my classes or other writing. Best wishes to you!

    Comment by TLR | February 22, 2009

  5. When you call me a dope, is that a label or just a truth?

    Seriously, this is a good post I think. I haven’t had a personal experience with it, but once or twice has been enough. Someone will take one situation and jump to the conclusion that person is such and such a type of person, which can follow them their whole career.

    Comment by Wiseacre | February 24, 2009

  6. Many victims of verbal and physical abuse by bosses and co-workers don’t complain for fear of being accused of being “horribly” over dramatic. Most complaints about workplace harassment are understated not exaggerated. Until we have laws that protect employees from emotional violence as much as physical violence we will have toxic offices. I hope you are more understanding and caring than this post sounds.

    Comment by Carmen | February 24, 2009

  7. Tina says:
    Wiseacre, in your case, it’s merely an observation for which I have ample evidence. 🙂

    Carmen, thank you for your comment. I have sent you an email to allow me to discuss this in greater depth.

    In this post I wanted to focus on a variety of labels, not just those about abuse. The point I wanted to make, and perhaps did not make as clearly as needed, is that we should define our terms and back up our accusations with evidence. Otherwise, we ourselves become the abusers, rather than factual accusers.

    I don’t think you could find proof that most complaints are understated–that is an opinion that not all would hold. I also want to note that in addition to laws related to bias and harassment, employees can take civil action regarding workplace issues. But, I don’t think developing laws with criminal punishments is a strong need, since employees can certainly quit and leave.

    I do appreciate you taking the time to comment. Best wishes!

    Comment by TLR | February 24, 2009

  8. I wanted to comment on the comment above by Carmen. All anyone has to do is read your articles to know you are one of the most caring people they’ll ever meet!

    One of the things that frist impressed me about your training was that you made people describe exactly what someone had said or done before you gave an opinion and you didn’t let them use descriptions, like “evil” or “toxic”. It made me stop and think about how I had used labels like that. So, this is a voice of support for you, Tina

    Phyllis A. Herron

    Comment by P.A.H. | March 1, 2009

  9. Tina says:

    Thank you, Phyllis! I don’t want readers to think badly of me. On the other hand, I acknowledge that I have strong opinions, and sometimes I don’t sound as thoughtful about them as I intend. I have a hard time putting my thoughts into post-sized articles! Thanks for reading and commenting.

    Comment by TLR | March 1, 2009

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