Divide and rule, generating conflict to create a more competitive environment, pushing people hard to help them fulfil their potential – there has always been a fine line between challenging, motivational management and bullying.
But according to new research, managers who step over that line do more harm than if they were sexually harassing their team.
A study by Canadian academics has concluded that a bullying culture of belittling comments, persistent criticism and withholding of resources can inflict more damage on employees than even sexual harassment.
The research looked at 110 studies conducted over 21 years and compared the consequences of employees' experience of sexual harassment and workplace aggression.
Specifically it focused on the effect on job, co-worker and supervisor satisfaction, on workers' stress, anger and anxiety levels and their mental and physical health. Job turnover and emotional ties to the job were also compared.
Bullying, it argued, included persistently criticising employees' work, yelling, repeatedly reminding employees of mistakes, spreading gossip or lies, ignoring or excluding workers and insulting employees' habits, attitudes or private life.
Other bullying behaviours included hostility, verbal aggression and angry exchanges.
While both bullying and sexual harassment clearly created negative work environments and had unhealthy consequences for employees, the researchers found workplace aggression had the more severe consequences.
Employees who experienced bullying, incivility or interpersonal conflict were more likely to quit their jobs, it found.
They also had lower well-being, were less satisfied with their jobs and had less satisfying relations with their bosses than employees who were sexually harassed.
Furthermore, bullied employees reported more job stress, lower job commitment and higher levels of anger and anxiety.
"As sexual harassment becomes less acceptable in society, organizations may be more attuned to helping victims, who may therefore find it easier to cope," said lead author M Sandy Hershcovis, of the University of Manitoba.
"In contrast, non-violent forms of workplace aggression such as incivility and bullying are not illegal, leaving victims to fend for themselves," she added.
"Bullying is often more subtle, and may include behaviours that do not appear obvious to others," said Hershcovis.
"For instance, how does an employee report to their boss that they have been excluded from lunch? Or that they are being ignored by a co-worker? The insidious nature of these behaviours makes them difficult to deal with and sanction," she continued.
The importance of managers setting the tone and style of their organisation when it came to bullying was highlighted last year by the British-based Ban Bullying at Work Campaign.
It, with the Chartered Management Institute, argued that poor management was commonly at the heart of workplace bullying, with two-thirds of managers candidly believing their own behaviour was a major factor contributing to the problem.
The poll of 500 managers identified poor management skills, authoritarian management styles and managers' personalities as key contributing factors, along with unrealistic targets and failing to address incidents of bullying.