In the movie Princess Bride, the villain character of Vizzini is continuously surprised by how the hero continues to overcome the obstacles. As each obstacle is overcome, Vizzini exclaims, “Inconceivable!”. He uses the word so much, that one of his henchmen finally confronts him by saying, “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.”.

In today’s social media culture, we are constantly introducing new words into the vernacular such as quiet quitting and ghosting. Unfortunately, we also misuse some older words. Language is powerful and certain words, when used, may not elicit the response you hope for or intend. Here are a few examples:

  • bullying
  • hostile work environment
  • harassment
  • toxic workplace
  • toxic manager

These words and phrases have clear HR and/or legal definitions that indicate serious workplace conditions that need to be addressed. Unfortunately, as many employees find themselves frustrated with their work situation, they attempt to overuse these words and phrases either because they don’t understand them or because they want the response these phrases elicit.

For example, in an employee survey we conducted with a company, an employee submitted that they observed that their manager was regularly bullying an employee. In the HR world, workplace bullying involves “repeated, health-harming mistreatment”. It is a potential safety issue that is taken extremely seriously by most HR professionals and by our team.

However, when we dug into the issue, we learned that the bullying that was being reported was really a manager who regularly addressed an employee for being late for work. The employee who reported the “bullying” was friends with the employee and thought the manager should cut the employee some slack. Regardless of your opinion on whether the manager should let the repeated tardiness go or not, this is not workplace bullying.

Another example was an employee who submitted a complaint about a manager to HR saying that the manager was creating a toxic work environment. When HR asked the employee to meet, the employee refused saying that they didn’t feel comfortable talking about it more. When HR insisted on a meeting, the employee accused HR of creating a hostile work environment. This is not a hostile work environment according to HR and past-time definitions.

There are multiple implications and / or consequences when employees misuse these types of terms. A couple of examples include:

  1. Distraction from More Serious Issues – When these terms are used, management is compelled to investigate. There are real examples of bullying and hostile work environments that need to be addressed. When terms are misused or overexaggerated, it is not unlike crying “wolf” and other, more legitimate issues might be missed or improperly ignore.
  2. Inability to Name the Real Issues – Employees who use these terms often have more serious challenges they are trying to address. Using these terms is simply not an effective way of dealing with it. There are healthier ways to address less serious personal conflicts or misalignment within a team such as having conversations with your supervisor or with management. Rather than throwing out terms trying to get a reaction, find ways to work with management to resolve the issues.

We share this trend not to minimize in any way the fact that some employers, supervisors, or employees act in inappropriate and unacceptable ways. If you are truly a victim of bullying or if you feel like your safety is compromised, you should speak up and seek out help. However, throwing around terms to try to rally others around your cause may not be the right way to deal the issue.


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