What to Do About Your Abrasive and Bullying Employees

Abrasive People

Do you have employees who are abrasive or who bully others? If so, do you know what to do about it?

Workplace bullying is a major and costly problem for businesses and the people who get things done.

Understanding Your Problem

Part of the costs of workplace bullying stem from choosing the least helpful solution to the problem. This happens because everyone thinks that all bullying is the same. What people need to understand is that there are different types of behaviors that cause these problems.

Here is a simple breakdown of two common but different types of behavior.

The first is abrasive behavior

The second is “classic” bullying

Abrasive Behaviors

Abrasive behavior is harsh, strident, and verbal behavior that is hurtful and leaves people feeling annoyed more than frightened. They are words that grate on subordinates, peers and superiors.

Their actions and way of speaking is generally irritating.

As terrible as this is, what separates someone who displays abrasive behavior from classic “bullying” is surprising.

Typical Abrasive Behaviors:

  • Unable to work with others
  • Uses intimidating language or unwelcome non-verbal behaviors
  • Behaves in a condescending manner
  • Jumps to judgments and conclusions without facts
  • Is overly sensitive; takes everything personally
  • Yells, shouts, tantrums
  • Publicly humiliates other people
  • Blames others for mistakes and failures
  • Is argumentative so that others don’t want to talk with them
  • Is shocked and upset when told he or she is being abrasive or bullying others (They genuinely do not understand how their behavior is hurting others)


People are upset, concerned, or confused about their boss or colleague. They might like the abrasive person but they don’t trust him or her. They wish things were different but don’t know how to “fix” the person.

They may even call the behavior bullying.


Abrasive people have empathy and respond well to specialized coaching. Typically they want to be successful and will practice new behaviors, take feedback, and learn new ways to talk with and lead others. Sometimes they know they are abrasive and just want help.

Bullying Behaviors

Classic Bullying refers to deliberate acts of aggression and intimidation designed to hurt, even crush, another person. The behavior does not come from any competition or lack of consciousness.

This stems from a deep need to hurt another person.

Typical Classic Bullying Behaviors:

  • Targeted verbal attacks on one person
  • Group of people join together to intimidate, threaten, or frighten one person
  • Systematic gossips to harm someone’s reputation
  • Withholds critical business or project information
  • Keeps a person out of the “information loop” so that they cannot complete their work
  • Believe that their aggressive behavior is warranted and justified and that their “target” deserves to be “punished” for their failings


One person has been targeted and is very upset, frightened, confused by the aggressive behavior they are experiencing. They express a lot of confusion, self-doubt, and anger. They ask for help. They log in more sick time and are absent more often that before or more often than others.

They spend quite a bit of time at work trying to avoid conflicts with the aggressor.

They seem to be failing but you know they are good strong workers who should be succeeding. There’s a pattern of transfers and firings with the aggressor that exceed other departments. People refuse to work for or with the person who is bullying others.


Classic bullies are aggressive style of working with others to gain advantage. They believe their behaviors are appropriate and they are committed to them. They are difficult to coach but they can change their ways with a concerted effort involving the coach, management, and company policies.

If they are forced to work with a coach, there may be some changes made but don’t expect great improvements without a commitment from the person

What does not work under any circumstances is threats, demands, warning letters, or ultimatums.

Abrasive people and bullying people need specific guidance, support, structure, and accountability.

Impacting Your World

Think about the abrasive and bullying situations you have experienced. How would this information have helped you deal with the problem?

What Do You Think?

  • Can an abrasive person improve his or her behavior?
  • What about a classic bully? Can he or she be rehabilitated?
  • How would you advise a client who was dealing with abrasive behavior or bullying?
  • How would you advise a company leader to deal with an abrasive or bullying situation?


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Learn, Grow & Develop Other Leaders

Kathleen Bartle, MA
Kathleen Bartle, MA, is a Conflict Consultant to Executives Worldwide
She serves by Turning Destructive Conflict into Productive Communications
Email | LinkedIn | Twitter | Facebook | Web | Blog | Skype: kathleen.bartle1

Image Sources: retailhellunderground.com


6 responses to “What to Do About Your Abrasive and Bullying Employees

  1. Thanks for the great article Kathleen. It is very helpful to learn the difference between abrasive and bullying as it is very easy to mistake abrasive behavior as bullying. And, based on your experience, it requires different approaches to address the tendencies.

    It is very interesting that abrasive people have empathy, I would think the opposite. I think that is the key to coaching others and ourselves when we become abrasive. We need to remember how the other person feels.

    Thanks again.



  2. Thank you Kathleen for this great article. It reminds me of a young woman who worked in my area when I lived in Ohio. The loving coach in me confronted her about her bullying … and lack of performance to clear objectives. I remember repeating one of her phrases, so subtle and so hurful to the others on the team, “… your ‘little’ meeting.” I asked her if she had any idea how that one word (little) might make others feel in any given circumstance. She began to cry.
    I would like to say that this changed everything. Maybe it eventually did, but for that circumstance it did not change things enough for her to keep her job.
    Thanks again for this insightful thinking. Jeff


  3. Thanks Al and Jeff for your kudos and your stories. It’s great to be appreciated and to connect with others who care about these issues. Fight on!


  4. Great insights Kathleen and thanks! I like the way you’ve articulated the distinction between the intentional bully and the often unintentional delivery of abrasive behaviors. You’ve given me a lot to think on and in fact, as the author of Make Difficult People Disappear, I’m thinking that an appropriate sequel book might be “Make Bullies be Quiet!”. Ha!  Out of curiosity, have you also done any work that includes the extroversion versus introversion factors and whether one’s leaning toward either results in more frequent bullying or abrasiveness? Both are stress induced behaviors so often we recommend specialized coaching for reducing stress triggers as a first course of action for either.

    Thanks again for sharing and I look forward to learning more from you!


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