Tough or Toxic - A Different View On Safety In The Workplace

At the top of the Federal OSHA (the Occupational Safety and Health Act) workplace poster very clearly displays these words: “The Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970, Executive Order 12196 and 29 CFR 1960 require the heads of Federal agencies to furnish to employees places and conditions of employment that are free from job safety and health hazards.”  It continues to provide information on what to do if you have “Unsafe or Unhealthful Working Conditions.” 

Thanks to OSHA, when employees come to work, they know they are supposed to be given a safe environment in which to work.  It is true that OSHA covers physical safety, but there is no reference to an employee’s mental safety, or anti-bullying.  Bullying can come from all levels of employees, and especially from bosses.  How do you know if your boss is just a tough boss or if your boss is a toxic boss?  And what do you do if you believe you are in a mentally unsafe work environment?


A tough boss has an employee’s best interests at heart.  They may push you to excel, to force you out of your comfort zone because they believe you can go further than you might think.  The tough boss takes control to minimize chaos.  They address poor performance head on.  While they may not be someone you want to ‘hang with’ after work, they are generally empathetic and respectful toward others. 


Toxic bosses belittle their employees.  Toxic bosses perform acts that are contrary to what most may consider generally accepted behaviors.  Toxic behavior can negatively impact not just the individual recipient of the toxic behavior, but bystanders, as well.  Toxic behavior can adversely affect employee morale, productivity, employee health (mental and physical), and the company’s bottom line.  Even still, while these toxic acts may be considered inappropriate, they may not fall under the definition of bullying unless there is a consequence, or evidence of tangible harm. 


There is a fine line that is crossed when tough becomes toxic.  The Workplace Bullying Institute “WBI” defines workplace bullying as, “repeated, health-harming mistreatment of one or more persons (the targets) by one or more perpetrators that takes one or more of the following forms:

  • Verbal abuse
  • Offensive conduct/behaviors (including nonverbal) which are threatening, humiliating, or intimidating
  • Work interference — sabotage — which prevents work from getting done”


According to the WBI, there are four variations of tangible harm: 

  • Stress-related physical health harm
  • Emotional or psychological health harm
  • Harm to social status, and 
  • Economic harm. 


The Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) did a survey in 2011 that showed 51% of the organizations participating in the survey reported having incidents of bullying in their workplace.  Of those reporting bullying, 73% reported having incidents of verbal abuse, 63% reported having incidents of malicious gossiping, lies or rumors, and 52% reported incidents of threats or intimidation.  Statistically speaking, this suggests that employees have about a 50/50 chance of being subjected to a toxic work environment.  


There is presently a movement that is pushing to get what is called the Healthy Workplace Bill passed, state by state, throughout the US.  However, there is no law currently in place that specifically makes workplace bullying illegal.  Does this mean there is nothing that can be done about workplace bullying?  Absolutely not! 


Having solid policies and procedures can minimize the risk of bullying in the workplace, as well as provide consistency in the handling of incidents that may occur. Your handbook should include examples of unacceptable conduct, making sure that you note such conduct is not limited to those items on your list.  Your list might include such unacceptable conduct as:


  • Using non-verbal acts like leering, staring or displaying visible hostility
  • Openly exhibiting crude or improper behavior
  • Making false accusations or malicious gossiping
  • Taking ownership or credit for work done by others
  • Assigning objectionable work as a punishment or retaliation
  • Criticizing unfairly
  • Teasing, mocking, or offering insults or put-downs
  • Yelling, shouting or screaming
  • Using aggressive written correspondence (e-mails, text messages, notes)


By helping your employees understand the difference between tough behavior and toxic behavior, and by implementing best practices to keep toxic activities out of the workplace, you are taking a big step in minimizing the risk of workplace bullying.  A workplace should be a safe environment, both physically and mentally, for all employees. Remember, happy and engaged employees are generally better producers.  Encouraging a No Bully Zone is a win-win for everyone in the workplace. 

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