Workplace Bullying: What Is Abusive Conduct?

Workplace Bullying: What Is Abusive Conduct?


Bullying in the workplace is a form of abuse that can affect both men and women. It is essential to be aware of the signs, effects, and possible outcomes of bullying at work because it can have devastating consequences on one's physical and mental wellbeing. 

It is essential to be aware that bullying can happen in all workplaces, not just the traditional office settings. Some of the most common areas where workplace bullying occurs are schools, hospitals, or other social work settings. 

People need to understand the definition of workplace bullying to identify it before it turns into a more severe problem. However, it is also essential for everyone to realize that not all workplace bullying is the same. 

These forms of abuse vary in how they manifest themselves, the extent they affect an individual, and what impact they may have on others. This resource will attempt to define workplace bullying and explain the different types of abuse that occur in the workplace.

Table Of Contents

What Is Workplace Bullying?

Bullying refers to repeated maltreatment of an employee by other employees or managers, where the target of the abuse suffers some detriment (such as losing work time, money, self-esteem). Workplace bullying may be accompanied by verbal abuse, but it does not have to be. 

It is possible to bully others at work without using words. Workplace bullying can also include more severe types of abuse that result in severe physical or psychological harm. Workplace bullying is a form of abusive conduct that typically involves persistent aggression over an extended period. 

Bullying can happen to anyone because the bully's actions do not have to be directed at one specific individual. They often include more than one person as they usually involve an entire group. 

Workplace bullying is a severe problem for those targeted as it can interfere with their work performance. They may also experience physical or mental health problems resulting from the abuse.

Negative impacts of workplace bullying on the workplace and employees:

  • Workplace bullying can significantly affect an employee's wellbeing. The victim of workplace bullying may experience emotional problems such as anxiety, depression, and loneliness. 
  • Bullying can also hurt employees' work performance. It can negatively affect the morale of employees. 
  • It can also cause an environment of fear to exist in some workplaces. 
  • Workplace bullying can interfere with the internal relationships within a workplace as it may stop people from working effectively together. 
  • Lastly, Workplace bullying can negatively affect the organization's external relationships as it prevents others from interacting positively with it and its employees/members or clients/customers.

However, workplace bullying is often not reported to the appropriate authorities. According to recent reports, abusive conduct in the United States only receives limited attention from the media. 

For example, in 2016, about 414 million employees were working in all types of organizations across the United States; however, it is calculated that only 6 percent of them experienced some form of workplace bullying.

It is also estimated that about 10% of women and 6% of men in the country were bullied at work during that year. Moreover, about 10 million bullying victims in the country that year; however, only about 2.5% (about 250,000) reported the abuse to their organizations.

What Is Abusive Conduct?

Abusive conduct is the act of hurting someone or threatening to hurt someone's reputation through verbal or nonverbal means. Abusive conduct occurs when one individual aims to inflict mental or emotional pain on another. 

Abusive conduct may include physical and non-physical acts intended to cause pain, discomfort, or embarrassment. Superiors can carry it out towards subordinates, but it is also possible for peers to be abusive towards other peers at work. 

Abusive conduct creates many problems for the workplace as it can create a hostile environment that impairs work performance. In addition, it may cause physical and psychological harm to employees if they have a mental illness or have been diagnosed with a disability. 

Although the focus of the abusive conduct is directed at an individual, victims can blame themselves if their work performance declines due to the abuse.

Examples of Abusive Conduct:

  1. Physical abuse: It is the use of physical force to hurt someone that includes kicking, striking, punching, pushing, choking, or using a knife or gun against another person.
  2. Verbal abuse is language or behavior intended to cause emotional distress and humiliation. It can include making rude jokes, pornographic language, and sexual innuendos directed at a woman by a man who has been sexually harassed.

What Is Abusive Conduct Under California Law?

California Law provides several definitions of abusive conduct. Under California Law, abusive conduct may include violence against another person. However, it can also have actions that might not necessarily be considered physically violent but are intended to hurt someone emotionally or mentally.

Any action that results in emotional harm or damages to another person's property is considered abusive conduct. Additionally, as per this law, the workplace with more than 50 employees to include all employees must have an anti-sexual harassment policy. 

A sexual harassment policy must be created, distributed, and enforced at the workplace to prevent any sexual harassment. This policy must include a complaint procedure that allows victims of sexual harassment to report any issues without fear of reprisal from their employers.

Any workplace that includes more than five employees must have a written anti-bullying policy as state law requires. This policy ought to be communicated to all employees, and it must outline the steps that will be taken if a bullying incident is reported.

Difference Between Workplace Bullying And Abusive Conduct

In some cases, the behavior of a workplace bully may be viewed as abusive conduct, but not necessarily bullying. The defining characteristic of abusive conduct occurs when the individual engaging in the mistreatment does not have any power over their coworkers (that is, they are neither their supervisor nor do they have any authority over the mistreated person). 

For example, a coworker may make an inappropriate comment about a coworker to their supervisor or complete a critical task. Abusive conduct hurts the individual who is the target of it, affecting the entire workplace. 

In comparison, workplace bullying involves more than one person and involves significant power over another by the bully. Bullying is a form of workplace mistreatment that occurs when the person doing the injustice has some type of power over their coworkers (but it still does not qualify as abusive conduct). 

It is important to remember that abusive conduct and bullying do not always have to be directed at individuals. In some cases, abusive conduct may be passive as it occurs when a person may not have been able to stop another from harassing them. 

In other situations, bullying is not passive, as it occurs when there is a pattern of the bully's actions over a long period.

What Is Workplace Harassment?

Workplace harassment is a form of mistreatment experienced within the workplace as it occurs when a coworker acts in such a way as to hurt another person's working environment. It is a type of bullying that can occur at workplaces where the abusive conduct is directed at an employee, member of the workforce, client, or customer.

Although, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) defines workplace harassment in the following way: "Unwelcome verbal or physical conduct that is based on race, color, national origin, sex (including pregnancy), disability, genetic information, age (40 or older), or on retaliation for engaging in prior EEO activity."

However, the agency also notes that harassment does not always have to be about these protected categories. Harassment may also be based on other factors such as religion and sexual orientation.

However, harassment becomes unlawful when:

  • The person engaging in the harassment uses power over another
  • The person experiencing the harassment is unable to stop it (or does not feel like they can)
  • Harassment becomes so pervasive that it creates an environment where individuals are treated differently (i.e., coworkers who do not experience the same treatment).

Different Types Of Workplace Harassment?

Discriminatory Harassment

This type of harassment occurs when a coworker acts in a manner that shows a bias against another individual based on one of the five protected categories listed above. The more common and recognizable forms of discriminatory harassment are described in more detail below.

  • Racial Harassment: 

This type of harassment occurs when a coworker shows a bias against another individual based on race. A person facing this type of harassment may be called racially offensive names or have derogatory stereotypes directed towards them with the intent to hurt them because of their race.

  • Gender Harassment: 

This type of harassment occurs when a coworker shows a bias against another individual based on their gender.

A victim of this type of harassment may be spoken to using gender offensive language or may experience behaviors based on traditional gender roles (i.e., men having to act like "macho" figures and women being subservient).

  • Religious Harassment: 

This type of harassment occurs when a coworker shows a bias against another individual based on their religion. A victim of religious harassment may experience inappropriate comments about their religious beliefs or comments that mock the religion they practice.

  • Disability-Based Harassment

This type of harassment occurs when a coworker acts in a manner that shows that they have a bias against another individual based on their disability. 

A victim of this type of harassment might be subjected to derogatory comments about their physical appearance due to how they are perceived by their disability or experiences physical actions against them because of how their disability impairs them.

  • Sexual orientation-based harassment: 

This type of harassment occurs when a coworker acts in a manner that shows that they have a bias against another individual because of their sexual orientation. 

A victim of this type of harassment may be subjected to inappropriate comments about their sexual preferences or inappropriate advances based on the coworker's perception that the person is not heterosexual.

Physical Harassment

Physical harassment can also occur when a coworker touches another person in an unwanted or uninvited manner. It can be used to frighten someone through physical contact or to degrade someone through offensive gestures. 

This type of harassment is prevalent when the harasser is in a position of authority over the person they are harassing. Example of physical harassment behavior includes:

  • Personal Touching: It involves physical contact with another unwelcome person. It can consist of the following types of physical contact:
  • Slapping, pushing, slapping/punching, or shoving someone for no or minor reasons
  • Physical Threats: These involve verbal threats to physically harm another person, such as a coworker who, for instance, opens a doorway with the intent to hit the person.

Power Harassment

Another form of harassment is when a powerful individual clarifies that they are the one with the power in the relationship. It can create an environment where individuals do not feel comfortable or safe to make decisions based on how they want to proceed, based on what they want to achieve, or if they feel like they need to behave in a certain way simply because of who has the power. 

These employees may also feel like they do not have any recourse when another coworker is harassing them. In other words, it is a common form of workplace harassment that's characterized by a power disparity between the harasser and the harassed.


Cyberbullying involves harassing behavior that is committed through computer systems or electronic devices. While it may appear to the victim that the cyberbullying has been isolated to one instance or one person, in reality, many other people are responsible for performing these acts.

Cyberbullying can create an environment where victims feel uncomfortable at work and take time off from their job, cut back on their hours, or even quit out of fear for their safety. This behavior can also create an environment where victims are reluctant to discuss the harassment due to embarrassment or fear. 

  • A victim of cyberbullying may experience:
  • Being sent aggressive, derogatory, or demeaning text messages.
  • Having their social media accounts hacked and private information posted online.
  • Being followed around by people acting as an "online stalker."
  • Feeling out of control or being powerless to defend themselves from harmful acts from a coworker.

However, there are many ways that a victim of cyberbullying can handle the situation. Cyberbullying is about offensive behavior and the environment where this behavior takes place. If a person who is being cyberbullied feels as though they lack control of their online presence, there are many options to take action, such as:

  • Have content removed from sites or web pages.
  • Change their password to prevent unwanted posting and sharing of information.
  • Block, filter, and set boundaries for inappropriate content and behavior.
  • Make their account password-protected so that only people they choose can access it.
  • Encouraging others to report inappropriate behavior.
  • Communicate with managers about their concerns and seek help if necessary.

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"Retaliation" is another form of harassment that occurs when workers feel that they have been punished or acted upon for reporting harassment. The retaliator can be a coworker, supervisor, or even an outside party such as a client.

Retaliation can also affect people in the workplace who are not in direct contact with the victim and may even go so far as to discourage them from reporting harassers in the future. One of the most common forms of retaliation a victim might experience is a reprimand from their company after reporting harassment. 

If a person reports the issue to their company, the harassment continues afterward. Retaliation by a coworker will occur when they get in trouble or get fired for telling. Some studies have shown that over 50% of workplace harassers get away with it anyway.

To prevent retaliation from being an issue, people who suffer from harassment have cause for reporting it. If they do not, they can face disciplinary action for reporting unfounded claims.

Sexual Harassment

Sexual harassment is another form of harassment that is especially common in the workplace. When an employee is subjected to unwelcome sexual behavior or unwanted sexual advances, it occurs. Sexual harassment can come from a coworker, supervisor, and even a client.

According to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), sexual harassment occurs when one of the following activities takes place:

  • Unwelcome sexual advances/requests for sexual favors; and
  • Unwelcome verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature.

This type of harassment can be perpetrated against anyone by anyone, regardless of gender. A person of the same gender can commit it as a victim or a person of the opposite gender.

Sexual harassment takes many forms, but it all involves unwelcome behavior that makes victims feel uncomfortable, intimidated, or humiliated. This definition applies to sexual harassment between employees and people outside the company. 

In other words, it does not have to take place between managers and subordinates. At least half of reported cases involve victims who are coworkers or supervisors themselves. The EEOC explicitly defines three forms of sexual harassment. As defined by the EEOC, these are:

  • Quid Pro Quo Harassment: This occurs when someone is forced to provide other people with sexual favors because the victim has failed to perform other work tasks. Examples of verbal advances include asking for sex or commenting on someone's body or physical appearance. According to the EEOC, this type of harassment is prevalent but rarely reported because people fear being blamed.
  • Hostile Work Environment Harassment: This type of harassment occurs when unwanted sexual behavior restricts a person's ability to work. Examples include repeated requests, jokes, or comments about someone's body or physical appearance. It can also occur when sexual images are displayed in an employee's work area or the workplace.

However, some people may be subjected to sexual harassment without even realizing it, especially if they do not know what qualifies as sexual harassment or because the behavior is so subtle that they do not recognize it as such.

How To Report Harassment At The Workplace?

People who suffer from harassment at work do not always have the resources to take legal action independently. However, it is essential for people being bullied or harassed to know how to report it.

First, victims should speak with their employer or human resources to learn about their reporting options. Most laws allow victims to alert the following individuals: 

  • The CEO, president, or general manager of their company.
  • The HR department of the company. 

The victim should speak with these people to determine how the company handles harassment claims and the legal action. Victims can also seek legal counsel if they feel that their effort is being undermined by their employer or the people around them at the workplace.

If the victim chooses not to report the harassment, it is still advisable to document any relevant details of their experiences. It can help them seek legal action if they decide to do so in the future. They need to write any instances of harassment that they experience at work. 

It includes unwanted sexual advances, comments, or images that they may be subject to or witness others undergoing or witnessing. It also has anything they hear about others experiencing. 

They should also document any information they learn about the people harassing them or others at work—no matter who or how they are harassed, victims need to write everything.

Tips to Stop Workplace Harassment

Some people may be more susceptible to harassment based on their personality, personality type, race, sex, gender identity and expression, age, physical appearance. Here are some steps you can take to protect yourself from being a victim of workplace harassment.

  1. Develop a strong support system that includes family and friends who will stand by you if something happens.
  2. Know the signs of sexual harassment and how to report it.
  3. Be aware of your surroundings at all times.
  4. Be aware of your behavior and how it can affect others.
  5. Do not text or email personal information at work.
  6. Never accept gifts from those whom you do not trust.
  7. Know your company's harassment policy and what avenues for reporting are available to you.


Bullying at the workplace is a serious issue that can have an immense impact on your health, job performance, and relationships. It can be difficult to stop bullying. Therefore, it is essential to understand what it is and how to deal with it. 

Most importantly, you need to learn what your options are if someone bullies you at work. However, abusive conduct is also ordinary in the workplace. It can include bullying, harassment, or discrimination. 

Abusive conduct can affect both your performance and your health. It can cause you to become ill, depressed, or even suicidal. Therefore, it is essential to protect yourself from these behaviors in bullying and abusive workplace conduct cases.


What are the causes of workplace bullying?

Poor leadership and management skills, among others, contribute to workplace bullying in organizations. The following are some of the causes:

  1. Poor management and leadership skills among managers
  2. Poor communication among employees and employers
  3. Lack of a proper grievance mechanism in organizations.
  4. Lack of care or concern for the safety of employees, customers, and the public
  5. Poor job design and safety processes in organizations 

Are there rules and laws for workplace bullying?

Yes, there are rules and laws for workplace bullying. These include laws against discrimination, harassment, and assault as well as those related to the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA), Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), Occupational Safety & Health Administration (OSHA), etc. 

For example, harassment based on race/color/national origin or age is illegal under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. 

Abusive conduct in the workplace is becoming an increasing concern. What can you do to stop it?

In abusive conduct, the behavior is generally unpleasant and makes you feel uncomfortable. The significant recommendations include:

  1. Be proactive about building a safer culture in your workplace or business through a formal complaint process that includes your manager and legal representation if necessary. 
  2. If possible, avoid private conversations with managers regarding performance issues because these discussions can turn into negative gossip campaigns, escalating into bullying behavior.
  3. Trust your gut feeling by reflecting on the situation before responding to the behavior.
  4. Avoid impulsive reactions. Instead, use more thoughtful and objective responses that may help you better understand what is happening.

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