Forms of Workplace Mistreatment

As workplace mistreatment has increased its profile in recent years, it has received a lot more scrutiny. People write about workplace aggression, abuse, bullying, mobbing, social undermining, and incivility. These distinctions make some sense.

Mistreatment is not simple. It does have a different quality depending on the source of the mistreatment. An abusive statement from a supervisor has a different quality than the same sort of statement from a colleague or a customer. An action or statement that is clearly intended to cause harm differs from one that reflects thoughtlessness.

It makes a difference if the event repeats and how often it repeats. Incivility is defined as having a low intensity: rude statements rather than abusive diatribes. Some mistreatment has a sexual quality; other events carry a physical threat; still other events threaten the target’s career prospects.

Considering these differences helps to deepen our understanding of the phenomenon and to recognize the various forms that mistreatment can take. However, the common qualities of mistreatment trump the differences. The research and the personal anecdotes about workplace mistreatment have a consistent theme about the adverse impact of these experiences. When people encounter any of these experiences at work, they will feel isolated, anxious, and angry. They will explore strategies to reduce their engagement with the job through withdrawing psychologically or physically. They will call in sick and pursue other jobs opportunities.

The bottom line is that the important issue is that mistreatment is occurring. Its specific form has less importance.

Whatever form mistreatment takes, it requires a strong response towards building a better workplace community.


  1. Dear Dr. Leiter
    Your descritpion of mistreatment and its consecuences is very illustrative.
    Sometimes mistreatment is something perceived and not proclaimed by people when they are part of a minority, or when their social background doesn’t aloud them to denounce. Sometimes this attitude is implicit in the workplace in order to gain a place among elder partners or authorities. The consecuence is the same, people suffering to keep the job. Mistreatment because of gender must be focused with special attention,(as Dr. Theorell concluded in a conference held in Valencia, four years ago. Sometimes, lack of knowledge about other people’s values and emotions, is also a source of mistreatment. I consider that any inicitaive to diminish mistreatment, should consider civility, gender equity, fairness and intercultural knowledge as core subjects.


  2. Heriberto–
    You make excellent points about the forms of incivility that occur. It seems that people can use any recognizable difference as the basis for discrimination. I agree that we need to focus on strengthening the positive side of the equation to address these challenges. Promoting better understanding and diffusing boundaries are good places to start.


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