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Psychological Harassment in the Workplace: An Interview With Barbara Benoliel

Walden University human services faculty member shines a light on bullying behavior.

Human services professionals are dedicated to helping clients identify and tackle life challenges, wherever they find them. For some people, those challenges may emanate from the workplace and in some cases, may be so harmful they negatively affect mental and physical health.1 One such cause may be psychological harassment.


“In the #MeToo movement, people in need have been identifying their experiences with sexual harassment, and what we knew was that in addition, there were all the other different kinds of psychological harassment, like bullying, intimidation, and undermining, which are much more common,” says Dr. Barbara Benoliel, a senior core faculty member in Walden’s human services online doctoral programs, whose work includes speaking and writing about psychological harassment in the workplace. “Somebody opened the door a crack and now we have to swing it wide open.”

We recently sat down with this educator and human services professional, who earned Walden’s PhD in Human Services  with a Criminal Justice specialization, to learn more about this form of workplace harassment.

Walden: Can you give us an example of what psychological harassment in the workplace looks like?

Dr. Benoliel: It could be talking about a person in a negative way in front of other people; calling them out in public for something that they either haven't done or haven't done correctly. Undermining employees’ confidence and competency are historically strategic bullying tactics. They can cause everyone present to feel fear. I once heard of an employer who got all of his sales employees together on Friday afternoon and fired the person who had performed at the bottom of the sales rankings for that week. He thought it was a great motivator.

Walden: Can you tell us more about using competition as a motivator? It seems common, particularly in sales environments, though it certainly may be deployed in much more benign ways.

Dr. Benoliel: Using competition as a strategy for motivation in the workplace is actually the worst way for getting people to work together. Why would I work with you if you're going to get recognition and reward for doing better than I do? These are things that are so common in the workplace. They've become part of our culture. They’re part of the work ethos of many organizations, because they've been sort of socialized, so that there’s an unstated competition internally. Undermining colleagues whenever you can is used as a strategy for moving yourself ahead. It actually does poison the work environment.

Walden: How can employees identify psychological harassment?

Dr. Benoliel: When you’re feeling bad or unhappy in the workplace, you’ve got to ask yourself, is it just me? Is it really me? Or is it my communication with someone that’s making me feel this discomfort? And you know, when you’re going into a meeting, if you’re feeling stressed just walking into a meeting, there’s something wrong with the workplace. Historically, as employees, we’ve taken the blame ourselves: What are we doing wrong? And employers who are bullies are really happy to tell us about what we’re doing wrong. That’s the shift now; trusting our own responses and recognizing it for what it is is a big part of this change.

Walden: It can be hard for some people to face down a bully, particularly one who controls their paycheck. What steps can people experiencing workplace harassment take?

Dr. Benoliel: One step is to leave, and good people will move to a better work environment because why would they put up with that? But the other option is to learn how to manage in that environment so that you are not a victim. And that’s the real key: You may be targeted, but you need two people to play this game, right? If you’re not going to allow yourself to be put down, it makes it harder, not impossible, but harder for the other side. And you do that by taking a different approach in terms of how you’re going to respond. So instead of saying, “What did I do wrong?” and blaming yourself, don’t accept that.

Like narcissists, managers with these bullying personality traits may be really unaware of what they do. When you point it out to them, they may actually take notice of it and become more aware. If you say to the bully, “I will not accept you talking to me like that. I want to work here but I do not want to be spoken to in that way because it undermines my ability,” that actually does have an impact. We’ve been taught not to speak up, but speaking up in the right way can be very effective as a strategy. … You actually have more power than you think you have; you may need some guidance or support in how to use that power effectively.

Walden: What role can human resources play?

Dr. Benoliel: A lot of companies have HR policies and procedures, but they’re not always effective. … We have tended in organizations to say to complainants, “Speak to HR.” This may not be the best strategy … because I can’t tell you how many HR people have told me they are being harassed themselves. They’re responsible for taking the complaint and acting on it, but they’re feeling helpless to act. So, it’s a cultural thing. If the organization wants to take it on in terms of providing a healthy work environment, then they actually have to really take it on from the top down.

Walden: Switching gears a bit, can you talk about the impact of a doctoral degree in the human services field?

Dr. Benoliel: You see in the news everyday issues about social justice and social conditions, where people are expressing concerns about where we are in the world in terms of what’s happened in their environment. And there are opportunities for people to take their passion, their concerns, and translate that to advocacy. But they don’t know how; they don’t know what the strategies are. And there’s a step in the middle between passion and advocacy and it’s evidence. How do I find evidence that supports my passion and then, how do I use that evidence to become an advocate to make changes in the day-to-day lives of human beings? And that’s what the Doctor of Human Services is. It’s creating that leadership for presenting advocacy to support human lives.

Another thing about a doctorate degree in human services is that it identifies you as an expert and gives you a voice that you probably have not had in any other role or position. It’s like magic.

Walden: What kind of opportunities are available in the human services field today?

Dr. Benoliel: People’s struggles have really come to the forefront, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic. Whether it's housing security, food security, job security, equity, inclusion, or diversity—all of these impact your day-to-day life. That’s what human services is: helping people manage their day-to-day lives. And our services are supporting people in managing their everyday lives. We’re not therapists. We’re not counselors. But we are support. We are resources. We are links. We are connections. We are leadership. We are programs. We are helping to identify needs and creating the human services programs that fill those needs. The Doctor of Human Services is something that’s been needed, but now it’s needed more than ever.

Walden: Is there a career path people should follow if they want to earn a human services doctoral degree and work in the human services field?

Dr. Benoliel: People have come in to human services from other social services programs, including people who've been trained to work in the criminal justice system, corrections, and parole and probation. … Anybody who has trained, or really wants to work with families, whether it’s foster care, family safety, domestic violence, food insecurity, housing, homelessness, veterans affairs… Everywhere people identify as specific groups, where there are needs related to being in that group—refugees or immigrants, for example. It's really unlimited.

Become a Human Services Leader

If you’re ready to step into human services leadership or pursue a career as a researcher or educator, Walden’s Doctor of Human Services online degree program can help prepare you to meet those goals. This online Doctor of Human Services degree program offers two specializations: Leadership and Program Evaluation in Human Services Organizations and Prevention, Intervention, and Advocacy.

The practitioner-focused curriculum in this doctoral degree program is designed to help you effect positive social change through direct practice, advocacy, or policy. Working professionals who earn a doctorate in human services online often work in settings that include universities, hospitals, government agencies, and social services organizations.

Walden also offers an online PhD in Human Services featuring a General Program and 10 timely specializations to help you develop your scholarly expertise.

If you have a passion for social change and a commitment to improving people’s lives, your path to career satisfaction may point to an online Doctor of Human Services or PhD in Human Services degree program. Help meet today’s human services challenges and create brighter tomorrows.

Walden University is an accredited institution offering an online Doctor of Human Services degree. Expand your career options and earn your degree in a convenient, flexible learning platform that fits your busy life.


Walden University is accredited by The Higher Learning Commission,