Bully Boss or Tough Boss? How to Tell the Difference

These days, the Peanuts character Lucy is a bully and they’re not going to allow it anymore.

At least, that’s the deal according to the administrators at my kids’ school system, who ditched the time-honored tradition of watching It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown in the elementary schools during their Halloween parties because “Lucy is a bully.” I confess to doing some heavy eye-rolling at this decision. After all, Lucy’s been bossing people around since 1950. It’s Lucy for crying out loud; that’s how she rolls.

But consider the larger context of this decision: it’s not only our schools where the definition of “bully” has changed. The term “workplace bullying” is becoming commonplace and this has implications for both managers and human resource professionals. Employees are paying attention to bosses who retaliate, which is considered a form of bullying. According to an EEOC press release, in 2010 for the first time ever, retaliation surpassed race as the most frequently filed discrimination charge.

The Workplace Bullying Institute website defines workplace bullying as “repeated, health-harming mistreatment of one or more persons (the targets) by one or more perpetrators that takes one or more of the following forms:

  • Verbal abuse
  • Offensive conduct/behaviors (including nonverbal) which are threatening, humiliating, or intimidating
  • Work interference — sabotage — which prevents work from getting done”

If using the definition above, most managers would absolve themselves of being a bully. They understand that blatant verbal abuse and aggressive behavior of any type is not acceptable managerial behavior. But what about those behaviors that might have been deemed OK in the past, but are now seen as inappropriate? What about the Lucys out there who are navigating a changed boss/employee landscape? They are the self-described “tough” bosses. Their reaction to claims of bullying might be: “Geez, lighten up, I was just joking!” or “Tell them to quit whining”.

As a human resources professional, how do you help managers sort out the difference between being simply “tough” and being a bully? This is how I break it down:

A tough boss has employees’ best interests in mind. The tough boss challenges employees to think beyond their current capabilities, to go beyond what they thought they could do. Tough bosses have difficult conversations. They don’t shy away from poor performance; they address it immediately. The tough boss might not be “warm and fuzzy” but they are compassionate. The one thing a tough boss will never do is belittle their employees in any way.

If a manager’s actions create a sense of feeling belittled by the employee, then the manager has crossed the line into bullying. It may not have been intentional, but there it is.

In human resources, one of the most difficult tasks you face is that of ensuring your employees’ safety— and not the kind that you report with OSHA. It’s the lack of psychological safety that takes a hard-to-measure toll on your workforce. You can help your management staff see their role in providing this type of “safety” by helping them understand the evolving use of the word “bully.” Helping them stay focused on being a tough boss rather than a bully helps create the productive, non-toxic work environment all human resources professionals should strive for.

Photo credit: peanuts.wikia.com

About the Author

Jennifer Miller

For 20+ years, Jennifer V. Miller has been helping professionals “master the people equation” to maximize their personal influence. A former HR generalist and training manager, she now advises executives on how to create positive, productive workplace environments. She is the founder and Managing Partner of SkillSource and blogs at The People Equation. You can connect with Jennifer on Twitter @JenniferVMiller.



Serial bullying is a psychological pattern of behaviour in Narcissistic people as per the bible of psychiatry the DSM. HR needs to screen for dominating and aggressive behaviour at interview as these people are now becoming senior management yet are emotionally unfit to lead instead they rule like dictators. They prey on the best performers anyone who is competition or who sees through their mask. They are charismatic and kiss up then kick down. Employers who employ them as managers are irresponsible as their tyranny causes disengagement and depression and eventually ptsd in their victims. This is well documented e.g. Bessel van der Kolk, Lanius and Checkley and Hare. Employers and HR needs to stop pretending that it is just strong management -it is bullying. Bullying can only be stopped from the top down so start managing it at source in intwrviews and using diagnostic tools like Thomas International. Leaving it to employees to raise a grievance that will put them at risk rather than the buliy is not the solution. Most employers deny bullying and participate in gaslighting the victim which is a form of psychlogical abuse. It’s time employers stop being in denial and start managing what needs to be managed which is the type of character you give the title manager to in the first place.


Hi, excellent article. Here’s something interesting what if your boss is the one that gets bullied,has anyone encountered that. My boss was promoted within the company however she has never been able to develop a tougher personia one would expect from a manager. She is an excellent boss, very knowledgeable but for me her inability at times to stand up for herself leaves her looking very week. When she got promoted, one manager who was at least 4 years younger than her intimidated her so much when a piece of work was given to my team by mistake, she was too frightened to go back to her with it but instead gave it too another person on the team to do it. I’ve seen girls on her team shout her down on meetings, when with other managers they wouldn’t dare do it. She’s had other people undermine her decisions by going to her boss for him to force her to do what they want. Sometimes she’s too afraid to make a decision so she goes to her department head and she’ll do anything to avoid conflict. There’s nothing wrong with this, however it doesn’t work both ways as other teams are more than willing to shout at her if our team makes a mistake. It’s the first time I’ve had a situation where the person that gets bullied most is the manager. My fear for her is that unless she addresses this,she could find herself manipulated and undermined even more.

Jennifer Miller


The siutation you describe is not uncommon. Anybody can be bullied. I hope that your boss finds a way to garner the courage needed to stand up for herself.

I know this is very difficult, but it’s the only way that she’ll be able to reclaim her managerial authority.



I agree. Generally, bully bosses, due to their own insecurities and fragile egos, pick on people without regard for the benefits of their team. Tough bosses, on the other hand, tend to address performance issues for the good of their team.


Mary Appleton

Hi Jennifer, great posting, thanks for sharing.

I think one key differentiator between a ‘bully’ and a ‘tough manager’ lies around feedback. A tough manager rather than a bully will be open to feedback about their behaviour and understand why and how this has been perceived by the employee in that way. As a result, the tough manager can modify their behaviour when it’s unproductive (which supports your point that yes, tough managers are compassionate).

However, employees who are being bullied may find it difficult to raise feedback. If you are a victim of bullying, chances are your confidence will be pretty low so having the courage to give feedback about your boss’ behaviour is nigh-on impossible.

Susan Salomone, leadership consultant for the Centre of High Performance Development, advises that, when determining if someone’s behaviour is tough management or bullying, there are a couple of questions to consider:

“First, how pervasive is the behaviour? A one-off verbal outburst could potentially be understood and forgiven; ongoing behaviour and physical aggression cannot. Tough managers will apply their standards, however high they are, to all staff members while bullies often target one individual at a time.

“Second, what environment is the behaviour creating? Bullying creates an environment of fear, where the victim and other individuals walk on eggshells for fear of triggering an outburst. It can also create a climate of indifference or denial, where individuals who are not targeted by the bully convince themselves that the victim deserves the treatment, pretend that it is not happening, or convince themselves that it is not that big a deal.

“Tough managers create an environment where individuals know what the standards are and work hard to achieve those standards set. Anyone who fails to meet those standards knows what to expect from the manager.”

Susan also references an article “Why Should Anyone Be Led By You” – by Harvard Business Review, which says that inspirational leaders “… selectively show their weaknesses” and individuals who bully may use this rationale as justification for bullying behaviour. However, the article goes on to say that inspirational leaders actually show their approachability and humanity by allowing others to see these weaknesses.

In my opinion, HR needs to foster a coaching and mentoring culture between manager and employee, where managers are trained up to have honest, open conversations about what kind of personal development, training and support each member of their team needs from the business. Therefore the relationship is less about hierarchy and more about tapping into the passions and motivators of the employees. By empowering managers to do this, the employees will surely feel more engaged and motivated, which in turn leads to more productivity and output for the business.

A wider question, then: Should we replace the name ‘manager’ with ‘coach’? I’d love to hear your thoughts.

Jennifer V. Miller


You ask: “should we replace the name ‘manager’ with ‘coach’?” Only if the company culture and executives will do everything in its power to support what it means to be a “coach”. Otherwise, it’s just fancy window dressing.

Paige Holden

Hi Jennifer,

Great post. Having dealt with both tough bosses and mean bullies, I think you hit the nuance nail on the head. Planning to share with some of my former colleagues, and take to heart for my own professional growth.


Trish McFarlane

Jennifer, thank you for bringing up this topic. HR pros deal with workplace bullying on a daily basis and to your point, it can be unintentional. I had not checked out the Workplace Bullying Institute but plan to do so. Thanks for the resource!


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