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Economic Bullying in the Workplace: Is it Happening To You?

Updated: Sep 22, 2023

Evelina Silveira, President Diversity at Work

Bullies often lack the soft skills or emotional regulation to manage their insecurities, so they resort to ways of exerting power and control over their victims. They may use tactics, including coercion, intimidation, threats, isolation, minimizing, denying, blaming, and emotional abuse. A less well-known and neglected topic is economic bullying in the workplace.

When you hear “economic harassment” or “economic abuse” in a workplace context, the first image that might come to mind is that of a worker in a developing country exposed to long hours, having to meet impossible quotas from a tyrannical boss. While this is an overt example of economic bullying, more subtle ones often go unnoticed and unchallenged.

Rarely is economic bullying discussed in Canadian workplaces. But, over the last month, I have been averted to heartbreaking stories of bullying and harassment and an X feed of numerous anonymous accounts exposing workplace cultures fraught with many incidents of bullying and harassment from leaders, often with an economic undertone.

Economic abuse usually does not happen independently, but it may simultaneously include threats, intimidation, denying, blaming and overlap into physical and sexual manifestations. Let’s take a look at a few examples, that have been in the news and are popping up on my feed:


You may face termination, isolation, or career stagnation if you do not buy into a philosophy, value system, framework, or theory at work. Imagine deciding between your ethics and beliefs and putting food on the table. It might sound like, “If you don’t operationalize this framework that I give you, you will be looked down on by the team. Eventually, you will lose your job if you cannot abide by our beliefs”.


Telling workers they will get a raise or a reward if they complete a task but do not follow through. They may change the criteria mid-stream or say there is no longer a budget to reward the employees. Reneging on an agreement reduces morale and induces a culture of mistrust.


Management favouritism can also lead to economic abuse and bullying. I used to witness this in the service industry when I was a teenager. An employee a manager favours may receive more hours than other team members. Sometimes, this has nothing to do with performance at all. However, it can create financial hardships for workers who must manage their budgets without ever knowing the number of hours they will receive. Hourly wage workers are particularly vulnerable, especially if their boss is erratic and uses scheduling as a punishment and reward.

Similarly, in the case of overtime hours, a boss may allow only their preferred employees to work extra time, thus restricting the opportunities for other employees to increase their wages.


With rising operational costs, businesses try to stay afloat, and occasionally, that involves restructuring jobs or informally increasing the workload without extra compensation. I recall one of my language coaching clients in Brazil, recounting his dilemma as a professional accountant. During the lockdown, his company had to let people go, and he was lucky enough to keep his job. Unfortunately, he was on the verge of a breakdown because he worked at least 14 hours a day, picking up the responsibilities of other employees and had relatively no downtime to spend with his young family. Tearfully, he acknowledged that his boss said they would have to find someone else if he could not keep up.

If you consider the main reason we go to work is to earn a living, threats and impediments to our earnings can be devastating and create a culture of fear. While it may seem that only the worker is suffering on the surface, there is usually a constellation of other parties directly affected, such as spouses, partners, children, parents, and creditors.

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