What Is Power Harassment?

Jim B.

Power harassment occurs when someone in a workplace environment suffers some sort of discriminatory or abusive behavior at the hands of a superior. This kind of behavior often goes well beyond the typical relationship between employer and employee into much more damaging territory. If it is indeed prevalent in a workplace environment, those suffering through it may have legal recourse if the harassment is severe enough. One specific type of harassment in the workplace is sexual harassment, which occurs when an employee is on the receiving end of unwanted comments or actions that are sexual in nature.

A boss touching an employee inappropriately is one type of power harassment.
A boss touching an employee inappropriately is one type of power harassment.

The workplace is an environment that, in an ideal situation, should be welcoming for all. Unfortunately, situations exist where employees are treated in a manner that far oversteps the bounds of what is proper between a boss and his or her workers. Someone in a position of power should never be allowed to exercise the power in a bullying or discriminatory fashion. This can create an unhappy and unsafe work environment not just for those being harassed but for the entire work force.

Employees who are subjected to power harassment often avoid speaking up about the abuse for fear of losing their jobs.
Employees who are subjected to power harassment often avoid speaking up about the abuse for fear of losing their jobs.

Obviously, any kind of physical force exerted by a boss against his or her subordinates should not be tolerated. An even subtler form of power harassment is psychological abuse, which can occur when an employer makes unwarranted verbal threats or demeaning remarks toward an employee. Such abuse can take a toll on an employee over time, especially if he or she feels like a target.

Sexism can undercut a woman in a position of authority.
Sexism can undercut a woman in a position of authority.

Sexual harassment has been a common form of power harassment for as long as both sexes have shared a common work environment, but the issue has evolved over time to include intricacies that make ferreting out such behavior more complex. The traditional office power relationship between a male boss and his female secretary has always been a problem area in terms of sexual harassment. In modern offices, homosexual employees can also be the target of harassment if their sexual orientation is a source of taunting from their superiors.

Someone in a position of power should never be allowed to exercise the power in a bullying fashion.
Someone in a position of power should never be allowed to exercise the power in a bullying fashion.

When an employee feels that power harassment has occurred, he or she must bring the problem to light for action to be taken. Employees are often scared they will lose their job in the process, so they keep silent. The employee may bring the matter to the human resources department where he or she works. Barring that, employees may have to consider legal counsel to see if they have grounds for a lawsuit if the behavior in question is particularly egregious.

Victims of severe power harassment may need to seek assistance from outside their company.
Victims of severe power harassment may need to seek assistance from outside their company.

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Discussion Comments


My supervisor is currently harassing me. I have had major family events due to sickness. She is belittling me in front of peers and telling my personal business as well. She is also threatening I'm on my last leg, when she wants me to cover extra shifts and I don't commit. I'm only required to do my shift in policy. Refusing overtime is not liable to a disciplinary act.


For the past three years I've had an abusive boss, and last year they hired another manager to work under her who is also abusive, belittles people, lies, steals credit, and none of her mistakes are ever her fault.

If you get on their bad side, they will set you up for failure and then discipline you for it. One of them decided they liked my office so they just took it and I had to move. I work in a college and the amount of backstabbing is incredible. I just hope I can hold out six more years until retirement.


My employer questioned me about a letter in my file from my doctor, as I couldn't perform as a cashier due to PTSD, depression and anorexia. Later, he verbally attacked me in the store in front of everyone and could be heard throughout the store.

I left, unable to function because he made it clear it was no longer safe for me there. I couldn't possibly endure another of his attacks, so I quit. I am considering a lawsuit as he has no right to question me in the first place, and then use it against me.


@Charred - The sad fact is that even in cases where harassment occurs, most employees will not go to human resources with the problem. This is despite the fact that companies assure their employees there is “no retaliation” against going to HR with news of a problem.

I think employees don’t really take the no retaliation clause seriously. After all, there are many ways that bosses could retaliate. It may not be immediate and direct, but it could happen down the road.

For example, if layoffs start happening six months later, the boss could target that employee for a layoff, making sure to come up with a job related excuse about why that position needs to be eliminated.

It’s a tough world out there. The best thing to do is simply to try to avoid trouble the best you can, in my opinion.


I recently started a new job and I went through new hire orientation. Of course, during this time they told us that the company has a zero tolerance policy for bullying or harassment of any kind.

When they said bullying that also included the idea of a boss yelling at his subordinates. I was glad to hear that they didn’t tolerate that because I once worked for a firm where the boss “communicated” with this employees in this manner.

His philosophy was, “The beatings will continue until morale improves.” I’m glad that the new workplace emphasizes respect for all employees.


I got a job in an office full of young men, and apparently, they hadn't had time to grow out of their fraternity phase. They basically hazed new employees, and as a man in my thirties, I found this kind of behavior childish and out of place.

The boss was a young man himself, and he completely condoned and encouraged this hazing. He would give my coworkers harassment suggestions, and they would gladly comply.

They stole my lunch out of the refrigerator. They sent me out on sales calls to businesses miles away that had closed, and they constantly made fun of me in every way they could.

After about a month of this, I had had enough. I quit, because I knew that the entire office was never going to change, since the boss himself was the main instigator.


My boss had issues with overweight people. When my coworker started packing on the pounds because of a thyroid condition, the boss constantly made comments about her appearance.

She kept making fat jokes, and she even expected the rest of us to laugh at them! I could tell that this bothered my coworker, but she put up with it out of fear of losing her job if she protested.

My boss even went so far as to exclude her from office parties and lunches. She simply didn't invite her.

Come to find out, my boss had been an obese teenager, and she suffered mental scars from this. That explained her behavior, but it didn't justify it.


@StarJo – It's crazy how people who are not even your boss will use whatever authority they have against you. Supervisors, though technically over the employees, sometimes forget that they are subject to a boss, as well. This happened with my supervisor.

He used to be just my coworker, but after he got promoted, he went on a power trip. He told everyone all the little things about them that had been bothering him for years, and he insisted that they change their ways.

He became super strict about attendance. When I really needed to miss work because my little girl was sick, he told me that I would be in danger of losing my job if I did.

I wasn't going to take that ridiculousness from him. I called the manager and told him about this, and my supervisor wound up getting demoted, because the manager was a big family man, and he held the policy that family comes first. He told him he ought to be ashamed at threatening me while my daughter was sick.


I was a victim of power harassment at my new job. The boss left me with the senior designer, who was supposed to train me. Instead, he used his power to intimidate and belittle me.

Rather than answer my questions, he would roll his eyes and say things like, “You really don't know how to do that?” Then, he would act like it was some great chore for him to explain it to me.

He also informed me that I would never move up the ladder in that office, because he had been there for years, and if anyone was getting a raise or a promotion, it would be him. I think that deep down, he viewed me as a threat, and he wanted to keep me in my place.


@nextcorrea-- I am so glad you touched on this subject. Academic harassment is much more common than people realize and I know lots of people who were harassed and threatened verbally by their professors in college.

One of my friends who was a graduate student at the time was threatened by his professor on several occasions. On one occasion, my friend was away on an internship with a company and his professor who would have to pass him in order for him to graduate threatened him. He said that if my friend didn't share the projects he was working on at the company with him, he would fail him and he wouldn't be able to graduate that year!

Unfortunately, some professors try to get their way by threatening with grades!


@fify-- You're friend definitely did the right thing and is a great example for other people who might be in the same situation.

Thankfully, in many workplaces now, there is a higher authority or alternative authorities one can go to if power harassment is going on. And there are strict laws on sexual harassment that do not tolerate any such activity no matter what that individual's position in the workplace is.

I'm sure there are exceptions and in small workplaces, this might be a bigger issue. But I think that things have definitely improved a lot in the last several decades in the US in terms of sexual harassment at work.

As for other types of power harassment, it's a bit harder to prove psychological harassment and that can be a disadvantage for many victims. But if there is any verbal or written expression of harassment, or if other people witness the harassment, it makes things a lot easier in terms of reporting it or filing a lawsuit.


My friend was a power harassment victim at the restaurant she used to work. The restaurant manager was sexually harassing her by making sexual remarks and advancements to her on a regular basis. She kept quiet for a long time because she really needed the job and didn't want others at the workplace to hear about it.

One day though, the manager called her to his office and when she went there, she found him naked in his office demanding that she sleep with him. This was the last straw for her and she immediately left the restaurant.

The next day she got in contact with upper management of the restaurant chain and told them what had been going on. After a week, the restaurant manager was fired and a new manager was hired. My friend was able to continue her job there.

My friend was so upset with herself that she hadn't talked to anyone about this before. I think many power harassment victims do the same. They're scared to admit that they've been harassed and they don't want to risk their job. My friend also thought that the other employees wouldn't believe her because the manager was known as a "nice guy" by everybody.


I was once involved in an instance of power harassment. It might better be titled academic harassment. It was when I was an undergraduate and I was helping out a biology professor with an extended research project.

He was a very well respected professor and I was eager to work with him because it could do a lot to help me get into a good grad school.

The experience ended up being horrible. The professor treated his undergraduate assistants horribly. It was like he thought we were slaves. He was the one with all the ideas and we were the ones that had to go through all the tedious steps to carry them out.

He would yell at people, smash stuff in the lab, throw away huge sections of data and walk around like he was the king of science. I was reduced to tears on one occasion. I got through the project but I have never felt so disrespected.


I have never heard of this phrase power harassment before but when I read the article the first person that came to mind was Donald Trump. He seems to use his power and privileged to be a loud, ignorant jerk to just about everyone in the world.

I have been really disturbed to see the Donald's rise as a political commentator. He now appears regularly on Fox News and other conservative talk shows. Why would anyone want to hear what Donald Trump has to say about politics. Do we really think that he understands the common man or even that much about the economy? Being rich and proud is not a credential

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