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Feeling uneasy? Here’s what workplace coercion looks like

September 27, 2021 - 17 min read


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What is coercion in the workplace?

7 forms of coercion

Is all workplace coercion illegal?

5 consequences of workplace intimidation and coercion

7 tips to prevent workplace coercion

Start the conversation on workplace coercion

As much as an organization tries to create a positive company culture, negative workplace dynamics can happen.

Differences in management styles and even personalities can lead to abuse of power. This can lead to workplace coercion.

But what is coercion? Is coercion illegal? And why is coercion bad?

Put simply, coercion is forcing someone to do something by making threats. It’s an attempt to control a person’s behavior with force or manipulation.

In the workplace, coercion can be used to force employees to behave a certain way or do certain things. It’s an unhealthy workplace dynamic that can have serious negative consequences for an individual’s well-being. And for the organization as a whole.

Let’s take a deeper look at how to prevent different forms of coercion from happening at work.


What is coercion in the workplace?

A typical workplace often has a hierarchical structure. Because of this, there are many opportunities for misuse or abuse of power.

Having employees on various levels with different power lends itself to potential problems.

Workplace coercion, also called workplace intimidation, happens when a person in a position of authority uses their power as leverage. By pulling rank, they influence the behavior of those within their power.


A workplace coercion example could be a new (or old) manager threatening an employee with suspension. The employee can avoid suspension if they carry out tasks that aren't part of their job description. These tasks could be something like running personal errands for a manager.

People in lower-status positions are unlikely to retaliate against coercion. They fear losing their job or receiving negative backlash or a negative performance review.

7 forms of coercion

Workplace coercion isn't a one-size-fits-all situation.

Coercive behavior can involve psychological, emotional, sexual, or physical manipulation. Additionally, not all of the forms are easy to recognize. They may be so subtle it’s hard to pinpoint them.

Below are the common types of workplace coercion that employees need to be able to identify.

1. Physical

Physical coercion is when a workplace authority uses their physical body to threaten or control a subordinate’s behavior.

This can happen in the form of physical harassment, such as pushing or hitting. It could also be someone invading your personal space and making you feel threatened and unsafe. Another form of physical coercion is the obstruction or removal of physical property.

2. Deceptive

Deception is the act of intentionally obscuring the truth to trick someone. This form of coercion may cause a person in power to lie to their subordinate to control their behavior.


3. Manipulative

Manipulation is a form of social coercion that can occur in any work relationship. A person of authority might manipulate others by using passive agressive, underhanded tactics.

This makes others feel compelled to do or say things against their will.

4. Sexual

As of 2020, 72% of workplace sexual assault instances went unreported.

Sexual coercion involves one person manipulating another person into engaging in sexual behavior. This type of coercion can take many forms. It can be blatant or more subtle, such as sending lewd emails or unwanted touching.

5. Isolating

Fear of isolation can be a powerful incentive. Some figures in authority might use loneliness as a weapon for maintaining control over a person’s behavior or self-esteem.

Forcefully separating an employee from other workers to make them feel isolated or lonely is a form of workplace coercion.

6. Humiliating

The social power that a manager or boss possesses can be very compelling to employees. Outwardly making fun of or humiliating someone at work is bullying and can leave victims feeling weak. This is a form of coercive behavior.

7. Gaslighting

Gaslighting is a common form of emotional abuse. It involves a person causing someone to question the validity of their concerns or even their reality in general.

If an employee feels bullied at work, the bully in question might be gaslighting them. They’ll be made to feel silly or irrational for even acknowledging the behavior. Let alone thinking it’s wrong.

This helps the bully to maintain control over the situation.

Is all workplace coercion illegal?

Many people wonder if workplace coercion is illegal. The answer is yes. Workplace coercion is a recognizable offense and requires legal action.

But there are specific requirements for what constitutes illegal coercion.

Workplace coercion can be complex and difficult to find evidence for. Because of the power that often surrounds coercers, they are usually well-protected when it comes to accusations and the law. But it can be an indicator of a hostile work environment

Let’s take a look at three ways in which coercion may be considered illegal.

1. Criminal assault

The exact definition of assault varies by state and jurisdiction. But it can be generally defined as intentionally putting someone in a state of anticipation for imminent harm. It often looks like:

  • Physical intimidation
  • Harmful physical contact
  • Threats
  • Otherwise aggressive behavior

Criminal assault can lead to prosecution. This is true regardless of whether or not the victim of the assault is physically harmed. This illegal offense can be taken just as seriously without physical violence.

2. Sexual Harassment

Sexual harassment is any sexual activity that a person has not consented to. Often people will either subject it upon others or be subjected to it without realizing how serious and illegal the offense really is.


Examples of sexual harassment include:

  • Telling sexually-oriented jokes
  • Displaying sexually degrading pictures
  • Making offensive sexual comments
  • Pressuring others to engage in sexual activity
  • Making unwelcome sexual advances of any kind

3. Illegal discrimination

Discrimination is the prejudicial treatment of a group of people. It’s most commonly on the grounds of:

  • Race
  • Sex
  • Disability
  • Sexual orientation
  • Class
  • Religion
  • Age

60% of American employees have witnessed workplace discrimination on the basis of race, age, gender, or LGBT+ identity.

Workplace discrimination can take the following forms:

5 consequences of workplace intimidation and coercion

There are many consequences that victims of workplace coercion may suffer from. The stress of being bullied by a colleague or superior can take its toll on both the body and mind.

Let’s take a look at some repercussions of coercion in a workplace environment.

1. Physical symptoms

Many people develop adverse physical effects when dealing with a lot of stress. Being threatened with coercive power is a taxing experience. Some bodies may respond by developing:

2. Depression and low self-esteem

Mental well-being is easily affected by stressful situations like workplace bullying or intimidation.

A lack of self-confidence may develop, as well as a tendency toward depression or anxiety. This makes things like focus and concentration difficult to maintain. It also prevents a sense of belonging in the workplace.


3. Harm to the victim’s workplace reputation

Speaking up about a toxic workplace dynamic can come at a very high cost for the victim. This can be especially true with the dynamic between a subordinate and a superior.

The consequence of a victim reaching out for support may be a sullied reputation or even job loss.

4. Low productivity

Victims of coercion or intimidation are likely to become distracted by their situation and feel uncomfortable in their work surroundings.

This pulls them away from their professional tasks and brings productivity levels down. They may spend more time fretting and networking for support. They’ll also look for ways to defend themselves and avoid their bully.

5. Anxiety and fear of coming to work

Nobody wants to go to work when they know a long day of manipulation and extreme stress is waiting for them.

Victims of coercion and intimidation are highly likely to develop anxiety around work. They often seek ways to avoid the workplace as much as possible for fear of mistreatment.

7 tips to prevent workplace coercion

Creating awareness around the nature and consequences of workplace coercion is one thing. But taking actionable steps to prevent it is crucial to protect employees from harm.

Prevention is better than cure. Use these tips to create a safer, cohesive working environment for your employees.

1. Perform background checks on new employees

Take the time to perform a thorough background check on all new hires.

This is standard practice for many companies to maintain a safe workplace, protect the company reputation and assets, and identify potential problems or red flags. Background checks are easily done by a third-party service and can save everyone trouble down the line.

2. Create policies against harassment

Preparing a plan for disciplinary actions against workplace harassment is essential for any business.

Ensure that all employees understand the importance of setting boundaries at work. Have a no-nonsense policy against coercion and other forms of workplace intimidation. This will make life a lot easier when an instance does occur.

3. Create an effective line of communication

Victims of workplace coercion will need an accessible way to communicate their problems to superiors. Ensure there is a functional line of communication between employees and managers.


4. Train employees, supervisors, and managers

Training everyone in the company on how to deal with workplace coercion is integral. Teach employees, supervisors, and managers how to spot coercion or bullying.

They should also know their workplace rights and how to file a formal report.

5. Encourage everyone to report any episodes of coercion

Encourage employees of all levels to report any first-hand or witnessed instances of coercion.

Companies should hold regular seminars on workplace coercion. This makes sure everyone understands how important it is to report bullying and intimidation.

6. Take all complaints and reports seriously

No victim of workplace coercion is likely to come forward with a report if they feel they won't be taken seriously. Employees should feel that they can bring their whole self to work and speak openly about any uncomfortable situations.

Make sure that every incident report, no matter how small, is seen and heard by superiors. Make self-advocacy and open communication core values of your company. This way, victims know their voices will not fall on deaf ears.

Start the conversation on workplace coercion

One of the best ways to tackle workplace coercion is to talk about it. As unpleasant as these instances may be, evading them won't solve anything. It will only teach staff members to choose avoidance rather than action.

Holding regular discussions about this common workplace issue will help normalize retaliation. In turn, it will motivate employees to seek help when it is needed.

Need help discussing sensitive topics with your employees?

Our coaches will help you develop the tools and skills you need to have courageous conversations and promote a healthy and noncoercive workplace. Plus, learn innovative ways to put in place these important policies for a safe work environment.

Request a demo with BetterUp today.

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Published September 27, 2021

Shonna Waters, PhD

Vice President of Alliance Solutions

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