Coercion in the Workplace: Impact, Forms, and Solutions

The office is meant to be a safe space where professionalism reigns supreme. However, even in the workplace, abuse can be present. Employees abused by a colleague may see their performance compromised and even experience trauma. It’s even worse when someone high up the ranks is the abuser.

Coercion or abuse can also pose severe consequences to the company, which is why managers need to establish a safe working environment for everyone. Below, we’ll provide a specific answer to the question, “What is coercion,” examples of coercion in the workplace, and other information you need to know about it.

What is Coercion in the Workplace?

Hierarchical structures are common in workplaces. As a result, abuse or misuse of power can happen. Possibilities arise when there are people at different levels with varying degrees of authority.

Coercion at work, also known as intimidation, occurs when a person of authority uses their position as leverage. Individuals in power can start pulling rank, allowing them to control how people in their sphere of influence act. This behavior can alter an organization’s values and beliefs and foster an unfavorable work environment.

When employers allow workplace coercion to run rampant, workers lose motivation, and the company may struggle to make the best of its human resources. While employees may try to adapt or deal with adverse circumstances, ongoing unjustified discomfort can result in excessive absences and high turnover rates.

Workplace Coercion and Its Abusive Forms

These examples of coercion in the workplace better describe abusive behavior in a professional environment.

1. Sexual harassment

Sexual coercion at work is a form of sexism. It is prohibited to make any unwanted sexual advances toward an applicant or employee. Unsolicited sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other forms of physical or verbal harassment of sexual nature can all be considered harassment.

Harassment is not always of sexual nature and can involve insulting comments about a person’s sex. It’s been found that 72% of sexual assault instances in a workplace went unreported. If left unresolved, harassment can cause psychological stress and anxiety for victims, resulting in severe consequences for firms, such as decreased production, low worker morale, staff absenteeism, and turnover.

2. Use of threats

Threats are a principal element because coercive power has authoritative properties. They may be explicit or implicit. If employees don’t follow their leader’s instructions, they will suffer the repercussions.

This behavior can take many forms at work, from isolation to verbal threats. Perpetrators can physically threaten their coworkers and make them experience symptoms of anxiety, despair, terror, and post-traumatic disorder. It may also present as a person in power habitually disparaging workers or making disciplinary threats against them.

3. Denial of privileges

Employees get additional non-cash privileges or fringe benefits. Employee discounts, disability insurance, tuition, parking privileges, insurance plans, and other perks aid retention and motivate workers to do better. Abusive managers may deny employees these privileges if they do not comply with their wishes.

4. Demotion

When an employee is demoted, they go into a lower position. The individual may now have fewer duties and perhaps a lower salary. Certain contracts give employers the legal right to demote employees for failing to perform tasks as required or exhibiting disruptive behavior.

Instead of suspension, employers sometimes utilize demotion as a disciplinary tool, but abusive managers may do it for reasons other than what’s allowed. Most employees believe demotion is punishing because they cannot produce high-caliber output.

5. Loss of bonuses or commissions

Most employers reward excellent performance with money. Bonuses are excellent methods for motivating and rewarding employees’ efforts. Coercive behavior at work can result in bonuses and any supplemental compensation being withheld at the employer’s sole discretion. This form of coercive power has a financial focus.

The Impact of Coercion on Employees

As mentioned, coercion can negatively impact employees from both a productivity and well-being standpoint. Here are some of the many consequences of workplace coercion.

1. Compromised productivity

Coercion or intimidation victims will likely become distracted by their circumstances and feel uneasy at work. As a result, their productivity decreases. They spend more time worrying and connecting with others for help. Additionally, they’ll look for strategies to protect themselves from the abuser.

2. Increased absenteeism

Bullied or harassed employees call in sick more often to avoid the situation. The term absenteeism refers to a worker’s frequent absence from work, which is typically intentional and unjustified. It extends beyond absences from common illnesses, vacations, and other personal obligations.

While the occasional absence is usually not a problem, absenteeism can be detrimental when an individual often misses work due to unforeseen circumstances.

3. Loss of well-being and self-confidence

Coercive control outlines a series of actions a perpetrator takes to undermine a victim’s autonomy and self-worth to gain control and power. Threats, intimidation, and humiliation are some examples of this.

An insult lowers someone’s sense of self-worth. This could include calling names, bringing up their fears, or tearing them down. The victim could eventually believe that they deserve the insults and humiliation.

4. Lowers retention rate

People quit bosses, not jobs. With forceful leadership, keeping employees content becomes more difficult. Being subject to abuse can make them feel like they have no purpose at work or that there is a persistent sense of approaching doom.

5. Reduces employee trust

Coercive authority undermines implicit trust between employees and their leaders since there is little to no communication. Workers don’t think their managers have their best interests in mind. Leaders now have to earn people’s trust by giving them reasons to believe in them.

Long-term toxicity at work can be caused by fear. To complete tasks, leaders will now have to resort to intimidation.

Must-Know Federal Coercion Laws

Apart from labor laws that prevent abuse of power by authorities in a workplace, there are other federal laws against coercion that you must know, especially if you work in the industries specified.

1. Coercion of Political Activity

In the government, any attempt to coerce or intimidate a federal government employee into engaging in or refraining from engaging in political activity is prohibited. Such activities include voting for or against a candidate or issue during elections, making or refraining from making a political contribution, or working for or against a candidate.

Anyone who violates this provision is subject to a fine, a maximum sentence of three years in prison, or both.

2. Coercion of Employees

Employees have the right to form unions and work together to further their interests. They also have the option to refrain from engaging in such behavior. It is illegal for a labor union to impede or compel workers from exercising their legal rights. You cannot, for instance, impose penalties on an employee-member who files a decertification petition or restrict their ability to resign from the union.

3. Prohibition of Coercion

Employees are forbidden from directly or indirectly intimidating, threatening, or coercing other employees or attempting to do so to prevent them from exercising any rights they may have under this section.

5 Ways to Prevent Coercion in Your Workplace

1. Follow a zero-tolerance policy for harassment

Zero tolerance is a strategy to stop negative employee behavior and to automatically discipline those who break regulations. These policies prevent persons in managerial positions from flouting the law or exercising their judgment.

2. Have open communication lines

Open lines of communication encourage employee engagement and help them realize how important their contributions are to the company’s success. Making sure your staff members comprehend the broad picture and their role in the organization’s success will help them understand the reasons behind decisions and how those affect them individually and the company.

It’s simple for employees to feel invisible and unheard when coercion occurs at work, especially if a person carries it out in a position of authority. Better communication means better job satisfaction, less stress, loyalty, and mutual respect within the organization, which will boost productivity and foster a positive work environment.

3. Conduct training for managers and leads

A true leader inspires and motivates their team by setting an excellent example. Employees continually delivering subpar work can be detrimental to the leader’s reputation, placing the leader in a risky and demanding situation. Provide supervisors and managers with leadership training to get the knowledge and abilities needed to become a leader who respects and is fair to subordinates.

4. Code of conduct

The abuse of power can cause problems at work, and the victim to experience mental, physical, or emotional pain. By establishing a code of conduct, everyone will be aware of the expected behavior at work, which can help to decrease coercion tactics.

Define acceptable and inappropriate conduct in your policy. Be precise about the types of actions that result from power abuse. Mention that it is prohibited and that a repercussion can be termination.

5. Intervention

If you observe abuse of authority or bullying, take swift action to stop it. Have a non-formal intervention with the alleged bully in the instance of a singular incident. Clarify that professional conduct is expected of all employees, but if the behavior continues, take a forceful intervention. There may be a justification for their behavior if they have previously demonstrated strong leadership abilities.

Establish a schedule for improvement and an evaluation plan. Explain the value of embracing responsibility before outlining what will happen if they don’t achieve the plan’s goals.

Listen to Your Employees

What’s worse than perpetrators harassing employees is when they’re implicitly given the freedom to do so through lack of action. As a manager, it’s your responsibility to ensure that everyone in the organization feels important, seen, and heard. Employees perform better if they know they’re being taken care of. However, a lack thereof can result in a change in workplace dynamics and an upheaval.

If you notice any coercive behavior in your organization, such as a sexual harassment incident, consult with a sexual harassment lawyer who can provide you with answers and a strong strategy to help solve it. When you’re ready, consult with our experts at Shegerian & Associates


Manuela Varela

Relations Manager

Manuela Varela has been with Shegerian & Associates since August 2022. She is responsible for outreach and marketing on behalf of the firm and manages relationships between firms and referring attorneys. She is also responsible for developing business opportunities and affiliations. Manuela graduated from Loyola Marymount University with a degree in Economics and Political Science.