Abusive Conduct in the Workplace: Definition & Prevention

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  • 0:01 Abusive Conduct at Work
  • 1:35 Examples
  • 2:38 Prevention: Employer's Role
  • 3:32 Prevention: Victim's Role
  • 4:01 Prevention: Employee's Role
  • 4:41 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Shawn Grimsley

Shawn has a masters of public administration, JD, and a BA in political science.

In this lesson, you'll learn about abusive conduct in the workplace, including the different forms it can take. You'll also find ways for employers, employees, and victims to stop and prevent it.

Abusive Conduct at Work

Bob, Martin, and John all work together at the same company as sales consultants. Martin is a newbie, while Bob and John are seasoned veterans. All three are paid strictly on commission with the top salesperson each month earning a lucrative bonus. Bob is a bully who engages in abusive conduct and his latest target is the new guy, Martin. So, what exactly is abusive conduct in the workplace?

While each state may have its own definition, under California law, abusive conduct is 'conduct of an employer or employee in the workplace, with malice, that a reasonable person would find hostile, offensive, and unrelated to an employer's legitimate business interests.' Abusive conduct can take the form of verbal or physical abuse. Some examples of verbal abuse include insults, abusive epithets (such as name-calling) or other derogatory statements. Examples of physical abuse include unwanted touching, shoving, or pushing; threatening gestures; or violation of personal space. Abusive conduct also includes sabotaging or intentionally interfering with others' work performance.

A single isolated incidence of such behaviors doesn't usually amount to abusive conduct unless it is very severe and blatantly offensive or hostile. For example, a single incident of 'trash-talking' in the spirit of friendly competition between coworkers probably doesn't rise to the level of abusive conduct, but if it's repeated and unwelcome it may. Let's see how Bob is abusive to Martin.


Bob constantly belittles Martin and his sales techniques. Bob does this to destroy Martin's confidence so his sales numbers will stay down, and Bob will have a better shot at the bonus. Bob calls Martin a 'loser' and a 'joke' as a salesperson. Bob also threatens Martin with physical violence if Martin doesn't abide by Bob's self-defined sales territory in the store even though company policy does not give salespeople exclusive territories.

Bob also interferes with Martin's sales presentations and tries to steal Bob's prospects if he has a chance. In fact, if Bob can't steal the prospect, Bob tries to kill Martin's sales to keep his numbers down. As you can see, Bob's abusive conduct not only is hurting Martin, but also his employer due to the loss of potential sales.

Although we have been talking about an employee engaging in abusive conduct, keep in mind that employers can engage in this type of behavior as well. A supervisor demeaning an employee to 'motivate' him or her is an example of abusive conduct. Now, let's take a look at how we can help prevent abusive conduct at the workplace.

Prevention: Employer's Role

Employers should create a clear anti-bullying policy at work. Abusive conduct should be clearly defined and be given zero tolerance. Supervisors or other designated personnel should have an open-door policy for reporting abusive conduct by either the victim or anyone who has witnessed abusive behavior.

Supervisors should be on the lookout for abusive conduct and be proactive in stopping it. A good policy will outline the appropriate action to be taken to remedy the abusive behavior including training, counseling and disciplining up to and including termination for egregious misconduct.

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