Not too long ago, while presenting a workshop on preventing harassment and intimidation in the workplace, people seemed to be questioning why this matter was so important. They did understand harassment lawsuits were costing employers a lot of money. They simply didn’t understand how harassment and intimidation happened in the first place. “If someone would do that to me, I’d just tell them where to go—and fast,” one woman said.

Sounds easy, and perhaps there are those who can do that. But harassment can exact a terrible toll on morale and motivation in the workplace. Usually there’s a clear and tangible threat attached to the harassment, such as humiliation of the threatened person or ultimately the loss of a job—or worse. Harassment isn’t about infatuation or love or sex. It’s about power and control by one person over another. 

The misuse of power in the workplace by managers and workers is one of the most persistent ethical problems employers face. Sexual content or verbal or physical abuse are easily identified misuses of power because they induce a real and palpable fear into workers’ lives. The perpetrators of harassment use others for their own ends—control, mostly, but also personal satisfaction at seeing another person squirm.

Yet there are all kinds of abuses of power in the workplace that have nothing to do with sexual harassment or intimidation, but which still create ethical dilemmas. What should a manager do, for example, when a small group of workers in a union shop harass and intimidate a fellow worker who opts out of the union? Does the solidarity of the union override the basic right of another person to be able to live and work in safety?

Or what about the new manager who feels a need to prove he or she isn’t one of the buddies from the previous position in the plant? Perhaps he or she overreaches in giving orders and exacting discipline from the people who used to be his or her friends. Perhaps those former co-workers want to try to “press some buttons” to get the new manager to overreact. Whatever the reason, overreaching in authority and demanding compliance are not good uses of power.

From an ethical standpoint, then, what is a good use of power? Former AT&T executive Robert Greenleaf, author of Servant Leadership, put it best when he said power is best exercised in serving others and building them up. It’s best used to help others get what they need to do a good job. Interestingly, the more we seek to build up others, the greater our power and authority with others. We look for human beings when we work with others, not objects for our use. We seek to develop the dignity in others, not to damage them.

This managerial lesson is one of those that’s caught and not taught. Still, we can learn from others who manage power well and don’t use it to harass and intimidate. A wise mentor can help us learn how to step away from the brink of misuse of the power we have both in the position we hold, as well as the person we are. We can identify operating values in our company or organization that help limit the exercise of power. We can and must take seriously those employees who say managers are abusing them for a bottom line other than people.

If harassment and exploitation aren’t sexual in nature, but based in abuse of power, then it should be equally clear they aren’t specific to men or women. In other words, men don’t abuse power and intimidate only women. Women certainly aren’t exempt from abusing power over men or using sexual attractiveness to win favors. The potential misuse of power is in human nature. So, like so many natural forces and drives, we need to tame the impulse to control and intimidate and teach others a more excellent way—to share and serve others so everyone may prosper and be productive. IBI