Power harassment occurs when an employee or a group of employees with a higher position in the company uses their role and power to cause harm to another individual. Power harassment usually includes:

  • Public humiliation
  • Demands
  • Forcing an employee to do something they shouldn’t have to do
  • Unreasonable work tasks
  • False accusations
  • Demotion or dismissal
  • Refusing to give the employee(s) privacy

Power harassment could also include bullying, sexual harassment, intimidation and more. Currently, Japan is suffering from a really high percentage of power harassment, reaching 71% but the problem also exists around the world. A 2021 survey in the United States revealed that almost 1 in 10 employees were power harassed.

Power harassment: How can you detect it?

The tricky thing about power harassment is that it can be subtle. The tone of voice and demands of a manager may change in front of others, compared to if they are having a meeting alone. Their attitude might change, as a lot of the time they are aware that their behaviour is unethical. The harasser may portray their interest in an employee’s life as “caring”. They will keep asking questions, even if the employee is hesitant to give them answers. From the perspective of the employee, they might view their manager, supervisor or a higher level staff as being nice. They could be uncomfortable with sharing so much information but think it’s rude to say no to them. 

Similarly, public humiliation may not be obvious. For example, the harasser may introduce the humiliation as an appraisal. They will congratulate the employee for a hard task they are aware they didn’t do and someone else had done. The employee knows that they didn’t do the task but they might hesitate when responding because they simply don’t know how to. This is meant to put the victim in a difficult situation where they are uncomfortable and they feel bad about themselves. 

False accusations could include blaming an employee for a mistake they didn’t do. While an employee may speak up against the accusation, the manager may use a harsher tone to convince them that somehow their actions were the problem.

How to spot the difference between a good manager and power harassment

Based on the scenarios we used above, there are a few ways to spot the difference. 

Scenario 1: Bullying in private but not in public

If an employee is bullied by their supervisor, they are less likely to speak up as they feel intimidated. It is advisable to check how the employee acts around their supervisor, compared to how they act around other employees. They may feel more at ease around others and become rigid when their manager shows up. While this is not clear evidence, it can indicate to an outsider that something may be wrong. 

Checking in with the employee and ensuring that everything is alright with them and that they like working with their higher-ups is a good way of clearing up any suspicions. It is also important to state in your management policies that employees can take a support person to closed-door meetings with their managers as this can prevent private bullying.


If an employee feels unfairly treated by their manager for a long amount of time this can cause them psychological trauma and decrease their work morale. They might not look forward to coming to work and look for a different employer that will provide them a better work environment. If this is recurring, it can decrease the retention rates of the company and lead to hiring expenses.

Scenario 2: Being intrusive

Power harassment relies on the victim having respect for or fear of the harasser and feeling like denying them something can jeopardise their job. A good manager will know or at least try to understand which questions are out of bounds. They don’t ask overly personal questions and they gauge the employee reactions when they ask questions. Are they happy to explain? Do they want to share? Do they seem nervous? Those are some indicators that could show whether the employee feels overwhelmed or unable to say no.


If the personal privacy of the employee is not respected, then they might close up and be reluctant to socialise with other employees in the company. This can influence team dynamics and the overall experience of an employee in the workplace. 

power harassment

Scenario 3: Public humiliation

In this scenario, the attitude of the harasser may mean that they are confident they won’t get caught. However, a good manager is keeping up with their employees and checking the progress of their work. They are aware of what they have and haven’t done. 

If an employee hasn’t finished a task but their colleague was the one who did, they don’t congratulate them for it. If they do congratulate them for something they haven’t done by accident, then they apologise, instead of giving a passive-aggressive response. If a manager fails to do that, it may indicate that something is wrong. 


Public humiliation can have a greater impact on the wellbeing of the employee as the “conflict” between them and their manager is now exposed to other individuals. If an employee is publicly humiliated then their mental health is likely to suffer as they are undervalued in front of people they respect. Their productivity will drop as they question their work and their relationship with other colleagues is also likely to suffer.

The quality of their work may also decrease as they don’t believe in their skills anymore and they doubt their achievements. It can also lead to increased absenteeism as the employee no longer feels fulfilled by the tasks they complete. 

Scenario 4: False accusations

This type of power harassment can be minor or extreme. The harasser may accuse another employee of doing something wrong in a task or portraying them as a harasser. In situations like these it can be difficult to tell who did what so it is always advisable to talk to both parties and depending on the severity of the accusations, an investigation may be necessary. At Polonious, we help investigators deal with many types of harassment by giving them a safe space to collect their evidence and automating their workflows. This ensures that all conflict is resolved faster. 

In general, you shouldn’t be so afraid of false accusations – you should look into complaints, sometimes they don’t go anywhere and that can cause tension, but it’s not necessarily power harassment. False accusations can be the result of an employee suspecting something that turns out not to be true. Power harassment in this scenario occurs when the employee deliberately makes false accusations for something they know is not true. 


The impact of false accusations can vary based on their severity. An employee blamed for a mistake they haven’t made may cause the employee to develop resentment against the company. However, more serious accusations can lead the employee to quit and cost the company a lot of expenses in legal fees and procedures. 

The career of the employee and promotion opportunities are also likely to be affected, as the accusations can hold them back. For the company, it means that a potentially highly skilled employee is not getting the recognition they deserve and they are not promoting the right person. 

Preventing power harassment 

People may not speak up against power harassment and accept the uncomfortable situation as a normal part of working. However, that shouldn’t be the case. In the workplace, power harassment shouldn’t be tolerated under any conditions and individuals should be encouraged to report any incident. This will help the company build an environment where everyone feels welcomed, valued and fairly treated. 

Employers should train higher-level staff so they know if they are unintentionally abusing their power while all employees should receive training on how to identify power harassment. The training can focus on power harassment or present it as one type of harassment and explore it among others. This is beneficial as power harassment can also include other types of harassment which will make its impact on the workplace worse. 

As with every unethical behaviour or illegal practice, the company should have zero tolerance against power harassment. Employees who identify power harassment should report it and action needs to be taken. It is advisable that human resources reach out to the employee(s) affected and check in on them and how they are doing. They should mention that employees can share anything they want with them and approach them with a positive attitude. 

Are you looking to investigate power harassment?

As we mentioned, power harassment can be subtle and can be combined with other incidents such as bullying and sexual harassment. Especially in the event of false accusations, an investigation can be helpful in shedding light on what exactly happened.

Our customers rely on Polonious to help their investigators carry out an efficient and successful investigation. We assist investigators with automating their workflows and conducting online interviews. We are ISO 27001 and ISO 9001 certified, highlighting our commitment to providing a high-quality system that is secure. Polonious ensures that all documents uploaded to our system remain confidential and only the right people have access to them. 

Are you looking for a faster turnaround and more efficient investigation? Reach out and book a demo with us!