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Coercive control begins at home, but it doesn’t stop there

Workplace psychological abuse is an epidemic that infects our workplaces at great cost to individuals, organisations, and society, writes Dr Elizabeth Crawford Spencer.

user iconDr Elizabeth Crawford Spencer 11 March 2024 Politics
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It is one of the most serious and neglected problems in employment relations across all developed economies. A 2021 Global Survey by the International Labor Organization revealed that Australia and New Zealand have the highest reported rates of workplace violence and harassment in the world, with many respondents having suffered multiple times. The rates are higher rates for women and diverse groups.

Workplace psychological abuse takes many forms. Important among these is coercive control, which involves a pattern of controlling behaviours used to dominate and manipulate. Through various tactics, such as gaslighting, isolation, threats, and intimidation, coercive control aims to instil fear, undermine self-esteem, and maintain power. Coercive control has been recognised in recent years in the domestic violence context as “a pattern of domination that includes tactics to isolate, degrade, exploit and control a person as well as to frighten or hurt them …”. Coercive control is now an established, recognised form of domestic abuse.


While the same patterns of excessive and/or unreasonable requirements or conditions appear in workplace psychological harassment, however, managers often claim that coercive control is “reasonable management behaviour”. It is important to understand the distinction. Reasonable management behaviour may include setting expectations, providing constructive feedback, and guiding employees towards meeting performance standards in a fair and respectful manner.

Reasonable management behaviour, however, should never involve tactics to manipulate, intimidate, or exert excessive control over employees’ personal lives or professional decisions. If managers consistently overload employees with unreasonable work or impose unrealistic deadlines; micromanage, constantly scrutinise, and interfere with an employee’s work; threaten, intimidate, punish, or retaliate, then what may be going on is coercive control.

It is not acceptable for anyone in a position of authority to engage in coercive control or any other abusive behaviour under the guise of “reasonable management behaviour”. Coercive control is not an appropriate or ethical way to manage employees and can have severe consequences for employees’ mental and emotional wellbeing, job satisfaction, and overall performance.

The law accepts that employers may need to act if a worker is not doing their job well. According to the Fair Work Commission, employers can take “reasonable management action” to help the employee improve their work and/or address poor performance or behaviour. It is “reasonable management action” for an employer to start performance management processes (such as a performance improvement plan), take disciplinary action for misconduct, tell a worker about work performance that is not satisfactory, tell a worker their behaviour at work is not appropriate, ask a worker to perform reasonable duties as part of their job and/or take action to maintain reasonable workplace standards. Of course, the ways in which an employer takes action must be “reasonable”.

Safe workplaces may be our right, but equally, we all share, in some way, the responsibility. The power here is with community, with bystanders and with the leaders, with families and society, power at the grassroots that flows up through and permeates every level. We need more community awareness around what is and is not reasonable behaviour in the workplace. There are many ways to build a healthy culture – together, we can make things better. We all have a key role to play in supporting dignity at work in the processes of recognition of the nature of this (or any workplace risk to safety); appropriate and effective response; and remediation of the workplace ecosystem to a safe, healthy learning organisation that is no longer susceptible to cultures in which harassment persists.

Dr Elizabeth Crawford Spencer is an adjunct professor at James Cook University. She has previously served as a professor at Charles Darwin University and head of law and acting dean of the College of Business, Law, and Governance at James Cook University.