In today’s world, email has become a part of our everyday personal and professional lives. It is an easy way to communicate. It can also be efficient and effective. However, email can be a tool that everyone uses to perpetuate persistent workplace aggression.

 Email allows us to say things in written form that we might not say to someone’s face.  We are frequently less empathetic in email because we do not have to look at the person or see their reaction. We are just typing on a keyboard.

People expect immediate responses when an email is sent and with this comes the risk of inappropriate and reactive emails. It is also very difficult to decipher the mood of a person who is receiving the email. This is another way that emails can be misinterpreted and have the potential to cause problems.

In today’s world, the expectation of privacy is not what it used to be. Once we put something in an email, it is likely to be there forever. So always ask yourself, this question, “Do I want someone else to read this?” It is always better to talk face-to-face about issues that may cause conflict or that could be misconstrued.

Here is an actual email that I received at work. The email content is inappropriate for a professional and even a personal setting. The bolding and capital letters in an email denotes yelling. There are clear threats outlined in this email and the threats are not just aimed at me but also includes others. This email included at least five other email recipients.

“This my official notice to you and others TO NOT COMMUNICATE WITH
if it has to do with this circus.  I am also notifying administration
about this, and that any such communication from you and others will be viewed as HARASSMENT and trust me I will take the appropriate action.  If you think I have committed a crime please notify the police to do their job and stop policing me.  The conversation is over.”

Organizations need to develop clear guidelines for how email is used and these need to be followed. Here are some suggestions:

  • Emails should be short, clear, and concise.
  • Be careful about what is written in your emails.
  • Don’t send an email when you are upset.
    • Write it and sit on it for a bit. Have someone else read it before you send it.
  • In an email less is more.
  • Only cc those people that are absolutely needed.  
  • Do not get into email battles and always take the high ground.
  • Always be polite and respectful.
  • Follow up emails with actual conversations.
Careful use of email in an organization can make a huge difference in helping prevent and stop persistent workplace aggression.

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Many times, organizations are hesitant to develop policies that delineate and outline procedures for persistent workplace aggression. Organizations may view having a policy about workplace aggression as a limitation rather than as a tool for prevention and an organizational strength. If this is the case in your organization, there are options to address persistent workplace aggression without necessarily developing a policy specifically about it.

In the workplace, professionalism is frequently talked about but never defined. By outlining precisely what your organization means by professional behavior can help stop and prevent the mistreatment of workers. Some ideas to incorporate in the definition should include communication and email etiquette and behavioral and attitude expectations.

It is important to address how the organization wants all workers to conduct themselves, including bosses and supervisors. Organizations need to seriously consider what it means to be professional in their workplace and this should be consistent throughout.

If you include respect in your definition you should be clear about what respect is for your organization both as an attitude and as a behavior.

For example, in one academic setting I worked in, the chair required students to call faculty with a Ph.D. by the title doctor because “it is respectful.” However, faculty would then be allowed to degrade students in and out of the classroom setting clearly demonstrating exhibiting behavior that was disrespectful. So, the desired goal for respect for faculty was totally lost because leadership did demand that faculty show respect be shown as well.

No matter how your organizations opts to address the issue of persistent workplace aggression, it is vital that you develop some type of policy and procedures in an attempt to improve the overall work environment of your organization.

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I have worked in several places where there was a culture of persistent workplace aggression.  It seems I went from one bad work environment right into another.  Looking back, the signs were there, but I was so desperate to get out of the abusive work environment I was in that I failed to see them.  It is so important for a target who is opting to leave their job to be hyper vigilant about the warning signals that potential workplaces may be giving. 

  • One of the things to remember is that certain types of organizations are more susceptible to persistent workplace aggression.
For example, higher education tends to have more workplace aggression because of the overall organizational structure which encourages rigid competition and often does not have strong supervision.  As such, targets need to be mindful of the setting as they look for a new job.

Another area to be attentive to is the people at the organization. 

  • People are very telling and can be key indicators about the overall culture of the organization.

Be aware of how all the people in the organization are interacting.  Look at who is at the interview and who is not at the interview.  Do the interactions between other workers seem sincere or distant?  Are there interactions that are different based on power?  For example, is the administrative assistant treated the same or differently than others?  Are there workers who are talking poorly about others? 

  • In almost all of the places that I have applied to work that ended being problematic, during the interview, there was always a worker who was gossiping or talking poorly about others.

This may suggest a workplace where persistent aggression is likely to be happening or at the very least, one that is at-risk. 

Another indicator of problems in a workplace that becomes apparent during an interview is whether or not the organization is following the law and/or the organizational policies during an interview.  For example, are they asking you questions about your personal life?  Are they talking to you about the other people who have been interviewed?  Are you hearing things such as, “Well, the policy says that we should do A, but let’s do B instead.”  This identifies a culture that is willing to break policy which can be problematic.   

  • It is important for a target of persistent workplace aggression to take a job where policy and procedure are taken seriously and most importantly, are followed.  It is policy and procedure, when used appropriately, that prevent and protect workers from persistent workplace aggression.

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Having a persistent workplace aggressor in the work environment is extremely problematic.  However, when the aggressor is your boss, this poses even more problems for the target, witnesses, and for the overall workplace in general.

Generally, bosses have power in the workplace and when used appropriately, the workplace can be pleasant and even gratifying.  But when the boss becomes the aggressor, the work environment can be intolerable for all parties involved.

Bosses who are persistent workplace aggressors have the ability to destroy careers and workers.  They can provide poor evaluations, impact promotions, bonuses, and raises, and make the everyday work experience unbearable.

The target and witnesses need to consider several things when in this situation.

First and foremost, strategies need to be developed in an attempt to cope.  This should include documenting the aggression, finding supportive co-workers, and developing coping mechanisms to survive.  Most importantly, a decision needs to be made about whether the workers will stay or leave their place of employment.

This is, of course, a very personal decision that only the worker can make. There are several factors that may impact this decision both personal and professional, such as the chances that you can get another job with equal benefits and pay?  Are you the sole provider?  Will this damage your career trajectory? 

Other questions should also be asked about the workplace and your boss in particular.  These are some of the questions you should consider before deciding to leave or stay at your job. 

·         Is the persistent workplace aggression a recent development?

·         If not, what is the history of the mistreatment?  How long has it been going on?  How many other people have been mistreated in the past? 

·         Is your boss approachable?  How has he/she reacted to other issues that have been brought up about leadership?

·         Do they listen?

·         What is the likelihood of change? 

·         Review the past things your boss has done? 

·         Have they modified their leadership based on feedback from workers in the past?

·         What are the reasons other workers have left?  Was it for the same or different reasons?

·         How comfortable are you approaching your boss about this?

·         How fearful are you of retaliation?

·         Has your boss been approached about this issue before and if so, what happened?

·         What are you willing to do to bring about change?

·         Does your boss have a supervisor and are they approachable?

It is important for workers who believe they can improve and change the work environment to strongly consider staying in an effort to do so.  However, if you conclude that your boss will most likely continue to participate in persistent workplace aggression, than moving onto another job is probably in your best interest.  If you decide to leave, develop an exit plan and remember to screen for persistent workplace aggression before you accept your next position.

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Leadership is a key component of the overall functioning of any organization.  In an organization plagued with persistent workplace aggression, leadership is significant.  Leadership can make the organization better, can maintain the status quo, or actually make persistent workplace aggression worse. 

Being in a leadership position does not necessarily mean that one has sufficient management skills.  Leaders are often not trained in how to supervise or to deal with an issue that is so complex, complicated, and one that is as covert as persistent workplace aggression.

The ability to self-reflect on one’s behavior and role as a leader is a valuable skill in addressing persistent workplace aggression.  Being able to self-reflect allows a leader to examine their role as a leader and to adapt as needed.   Self-reflection permits the leader to objectively view the environment and to determine the best course of action in dealing with this issue.  Self-reflection includes having the ability to take in information from their workers.  This consists of listening when there are allegations of persistent workplace aggression. 

It also should incorporate hearing what others have to say about the abilities of their leader.  Self-reflection involves examining the skills and impact their leadership is having on the organization.  For example, I might think I am doing a great job, but I continue to hear that I do not actively listen or that I tend to say one thing and do another.  If, as the leader, I am perceived as not hearing what is being said, I need to change my behavior to ensure that my workers know they are being heard. 

One of the common errors that a leader may make is assuming that because they are in charge, they are immune from mistakes and that their way is the only way.  Admitting to fault, in leadership roles, is often seen as a weakness.  However, the exact opposite is true.  Being able to acknowledge, as a leader, that miscalculations may have been made provides the leader to role model good workplace behavior.  This is crucial for a leader where persistent workplace aggression is occurring.  The leader needs to show the behavior that is expected not just talk about it. 

Good leaders ask for help and guidance in situations that fall outside of their area of expertise. 

Good leaders have an understanding that their position does not mean that they are prepared or proficient to deal with every situation including persistent workplace aggression. 

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