What is the borderline between disrespect and workplace bullying?

The borderline between disrespect and workplace bullying or harassment is when negativity becomes habitual, concentrating on one person. 

Snide, snappy, dismissive?

A manager whose snide comment dismisses that you were late because your child was sick and the babysitter cancelled, or the know-all in a group workshop who says your summarising is “too slow”: these comments are disrespectful because they are dismissive of the context. Someone’s one-off verbal aggression or throwaway putdown is hurtful, unpleasant, unwarranted; but you can choose to deflect or respond as you see fit.

Continual disrespect?

When a person keeps up disrespectful behaviour, this veers towards workplace bullying and harassment. However they might not actually be a bully, particularly if no-one’s yet called out what they’re doing, or perhaps reminded them there’s an office policy against that.  They are insensitive, lacking empathy, but still capable of rehabilitation. They are rude several times, others decide to jump on them, and generally that’s the end of it.


Bullying in many ways is akin to bullfighting.  The matadors circle and goad the poor bull with their sharp banderillas: the aim is to kill, in an orchestrated way. It is, for its fans, an elaborate dance of ancient origins – but no less bloody and cruel for that.

Resilience and assertiveness

There’s a lot of discourse about the importance of resilience in dealing with bullies, but it tends to be simplistic. What acts as a trigger for your feelings of humiliation or persecution might have little effect on me, and vice-versa.  So it’s not useful to prescribe what a person should or shouldn’t be feeling, nor is it helpful to reduce the problem to how a person ‘ought’ to handle a situation. Assertiveness and resilience are skills we all need and it should be taught at work. But we should also have places to refer those who experience bullying and harassment, if we don’t have people skilled and qualified in-house.

Characteristics of a bully

When we look at these characteristics, it is hard to accept that bullies are unaware of their actions and crushing impact on others. In fact, the opposite is most often true.

  • Derives pleasure from torment: just as bullfighting crowds cheer at the first blood, the harasser or bully gloats. It is not enough to wound: they must ‘finish’ their victim off. Remember the sadistic sensei in The Karate Kid? Such people and their followers deeply fear their own weakness; it’s always so much easier to inflict pain on someone else. It’s cowardice, but not the knee-trembler variety. Bullies feel elevated by trampling on others – theirs is an extremely limited, adversarial world view. 
  • Believe they have the power: nostrils quivering, the bully scents the minutest whiff of their advantage or another person’s disadvantage, usually because there’s more than one bully (in which case you’ve got a gang), or because the bully occupies a higher rank in the office foodchain. 
  • Relentlessly mean and nasty: whether it’s teasing, badmouthing, gaslighting (making a victim question their reality) or outright persecution, they will not stop. They find opportunities to have another go at a person. They may specialize in one or more types of persecution: written, online, physical verbal, sexual, emotional. In their crocodile brain, it’s all about destroying the opponent or at least shattering them into a million pieces in the expectation they won’t recover.

Confronting the bully is difficult for many of us

They often simply deny it, pretend that it’s ‘all in your head’ or accuse you of bullying them. They are revealed, though, in the ways they condemn, exhort others to denigrate, act as though their views are the only legitimate experience going on. Their methods (not necessarily their manner of expressing themselves) are crude, vicious; they are not interested in reasonable discussion or evaluation. The ‘victorious’ matador takes the ear of the mortally wounded bull as a souvenir.

What to do about it?

It’s quite clear that there’s a slippery slope between disrespect and the sport of stomping on others. The legal maxim “when there is no remedy, there is no right” holds true. As people rise up and speak out about wrongful attitudes and practices, workplaces and institutions (parliament, government, schools, etc) must continue the work: criminalise hazing rituals, prohibit bullying, penalise harassment and discourage disrespectful talk and behaviour. Investigate complaints, explore differences, mediate solutions, nip problems in the bud. Strengthen the grievance process; ensure that mediation is handled competently and acutely. Be sure the lines are drawn, not undermined.

The best thing organisations can do is teach people respectful communication skills. We shouldn’t just identify and outlaw the bad behaviour, we should provide clear examples of positive communication and respectful relationships.

NOW READ: Why all employers need to take cyber bullying seriously


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