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Aggressive Management: Legal but Not Ethical or Cheap

Bully bosses may feel they are above the law, but they impact productivity and organizational value.

Aggressive Manager

At another weekly staff meeting, the general manager takes control of the Zoom meeting, clumsily shares the screen, and displays the latest performance report. The next half hour involves this executive blaming the team as a whole for failing to meet expectations, and then he begins to single out specific people, highlighting their weaknesses. “Well, if we all want to keep our jobs next week, I strongly suggest you get to work and figure out how to do better,” the GM bellows at the crew.

Dejectedly, one of the team members – a veteran salesperson and formerly a top performer in the region – raises his hand and says, “The economy and our customers’ mindset have changed drastically over the last few months. I haven’t seen something like this since 2008! Do you have any recommendations for us to make things better?”

A fire seems to burn in the eyes of the general manager. “What do you think we pay YOU guys for?” he rages. I can’t do my job and everyone else’s. You guys need to buckle down and get to work. If you don’t, I have a good idea who won’t have a job next payday.”

Workplace Bullying Is Real, But the Law Isn’t on Victims' Side Per Se

While OSHA prescribes a workplace free from hazards, the guidelines do not specifically address bullying. According to the law, when we hear the words 'harassment,’ according to the law, this only pertains to sexual harassment and unfair disparate treatment of those covered under the Civil Rights Acts (i.e., harassing behavior due to race, gender, religion, national origin, disability, age, or other protected characteristic). No law safeguards people from receiving disparaging remarks, yelling, swearing, or other negative treatment. That, however, doesn’t make it right.

The truth: some organizations claim they thrive and survive on top-down aggressive management. According to the Full-Range Leadership Model or FRLM (Robbins & Judge, 2018; Avolio, 2011), transactional leadership – in contrast with transformational leadership – typically involves leaders distributing rewards or punishments. In the hands of some, this can result in one-way downward-flowing communication and coercive behavior, allowing a despotic leader to have power over others and control them. Look at some of the old 80s and 90s movies involving a rough teacher (such as Mr. Strickland in Back to the Future), some professional sports coaches (such as Sensei John Kreese in Karate Kid), or stereotypical military officers (such as Sgt. Hartman in the movie Full Metal Jacket), and one can clearly see that, in some cases, mean treatment can deliver results.

However, such leaders force the organization to pay a heavy cost.

Why Workplace Aggression Lacks Ethics

Many codes of ethics including the Hippocratic Oath, the APA Code of Ethics, the CMC Global Code of Ethics, and more have several tenets which deem aggressive management the incorrect choice. According to Bruce Weinstein, the Ethics Guy (2023), a Forbes contributor, professor, and author, ethics codes typically have the following commonalities:

  1. Do no harm and work to make things better: The APA (2017) refers to this principle as providing beneficence and nonmaleficence. In other words, one should always seek to provide benefit to others without malice. Aggressive bosses inflict coercive and often painful harm on employees to control them.

  2. Respect others: Ethics requires one to respect the rights of others. Unethical managers and executives demean and belittle people, intrude upon their time, and discount their work.

  3. Be truthful: Managing with integrity can pose challenges to leaders. However, to develop trust and relationships, honesty and transparency win the hearts and minds of workers within an organization. Dishonesty can break the organizational contract workers have with a company, leading to trouble.

  4. Be fair: Whether managers hold legitimate power due to their position, referent power due to their knowledge and expertise, or reward power in their ability to administer positive (or negative) consequences (French & Raven, 1959), great leaders seek fairness at all times. Coercive managers often use their punitive powers to unfairly treat others.

  5. Act caring: Most of all, be human and exercise understanding and empathy wherever possible. Poor managers do not or cannot understand the feelings of the people they mistreat.

Leaders who strive to exercise the courage and self-discipline to act ethically act in the best interest of the people within the organization and the organization itself. They may not always find this easy to accomplish. Some people may attempt to take advantage of an ethical person, especially if they come across as “wishy-washy” in their leadership behaviors. While managers should strive for the ethical treatment of others, they need not become a doormat either. Sometimes managers must deliver discipline in the form of corrective actions including interventions, write-ups, and even dismissals, which ethical leaders can administer with ethics. Integrity to adhere to principles and make good, tough choices may require some grit against others’ bad behavior. More subordinates and coworkers will align to better behaviors when treated with respect, truthfulness, fairness, and caring.

Burning through money

The Cost of Bully Bosses

Aggressive managers pose several significant risks to employers. Many organizations do not realize these risks and, therefore, either ignore the behavior or, worse, laud it as some kind of “tough love.” Some of the risks do, in fact, impact the company’s bottom line. Some costs include:

  1. The loss of human capital. According to human capital theory, organizations “borrow” the knowledge, skills, abilities, and other characteristics owned by the people who work for them. As people disengage from their work, they may seek employment elsewhere or simply seek to move out of the company. The loss of people takes a significant toll on organizations – many of which already struggle with attracting and retaining high-quality workers. The loss of people means that the organization cannot draw on the contributions of those people to derive value.

  2. Lack of work quality. As organizational commitment wanes, the quality of work performed can diminish. People who do not experience care may not give care in the work they do. Worse, some employees can exhibit counterproductive work behaviors (CWBs), including sabotage, loafing, and well poisoning.

  3. Poor collaboration. Companies have increasingly adopted “flatter” organizational models, meaning that top-down hierarchies may become a concept in antiquity (Fox & O’Connor, 2015). Horizontally-oriented organizations foster increased communication and collaboration. The stodgy layers of the boss-over-boss-over-subordinate model inhibit information sharing, and slow communication, and, subsequently, make collaboration nearly impossible.

  4. Soiled reputation. Today, anyone can leave positive or negative reviews of companies on multiple platforms. The website, for instance, allows employees to publish feedback on their employers. A poor reputation can impact not only an organization’s ability to recruit and retain talent; it can also lead to distrust among customers, clients, and referral partners.

  5. Lawsuits. Unfair treatment can lead to unlawful treatment. Certain protected classes of workers can file claims with the EEOC if they experience mistreatment. Moreover, employers can receive individual lawsuits filed against them depending on the situation whereby the organization assumes the burden of proof against claims, which can cost thousands or even millions in legal fees.

If you experience bullying in the workplace, seek help from HR or executive management if you cannot resolve the conflict with the offending supervisor. If you are the bully, be mindful of your behavior and take steps toward changing poor choices by attending classes in ethical management, seeking coaching, or attending therapy. Your team will respect you, your organization will thrive, and you might experience significant career growth.


American Psychological Association. (2017). Ethical principles of psychologists and code of conduct (2002, amended effective June 1, 2010, and January 1, 2017).

Avolio, B. J. (2011). Full range leadership development (2nd ed.). Thousand Oaks, Calif.: SAGE Publications. ISBN 978-1412974752.

Fox, K. & O’Connor, J. (2015). Five ways work will change in the future. The Guardian.

French, J.R.P. & Raven, B. (1959). The bases of social power. Studies in Social Power (pp.150-167). Institute for Social Research.

Robbins, S. P., & Judge, T. A. (2018). Organizational behavior (18th Edition). Pearson Education (US).

Weinstein, B. (2023). Why smart leaders use ChatGPT ethically and how they do it. Forbes.


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