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Understanding workplace hazing and bullying

  • Published
  • By Greg Chadwick
  • Air Force Material Command Health & Wellness Team

Is workplace hazing or bullying a problem in your organization?  This type of negative conduct can come from colleagues, supervisors, or management, and is a real problem for workers at all levels. Hazing and bullying behavior can affect the workplace due to the damage inflicted through lost productivity, low morale, and increased absenteeism and turnover.

Hazing and bullying are serious problems for service members in the military.  In 2018, the Air Force implemented a new harassment prevention and response policy.  This policy was directed by the Department of Defense with DoDI 1020.03, Harassment Prevention and Response in the Armed Forces.

The policy reaffirmed that the DoD does not tolerate any kind of harassment by any service member, either in person or online.

DoD defines hazing as a form of harassment that includes “conduct through which service members or DoD employees, without a proper military or other governmental purpose but with a nexus to military service, physically or psychologically injures or creates a risk of physical or psychological injury to service members for the purpose of: initiation into, admission into, affiliation with, change in status or position within, or a condition for continued membership in any military or DoD civilian organization.”

How are hazing behaviors different from other types of sanctioned activities that occur in the military, such as training activities?  Hazing activities and initiations tend to be passed down from more-senior service members to junior members of a group.  These abusive, inappropriate activities are intended to bring someone into a group and end once a person or group of people are accepted into a unit, position, or group.

Examples of hazing behaviors include, but are not limited to, the following when performed without a proper military or other governmental purpose:

  • Any form of initiation or congratulatory act that involves physically striking or threating to do the same
  • “Pinning” or “tacking on” any object into another person’s skin
  • Oral or written berating of another person with the purpose of belittling or humiliating
  • Encouraging another person to engage in illegal, harmful, demeaning, or dangerous acts
  • Playing abusive or malicious tricks
  • Branding, handcuffing, duct taping, tattooing, shaving, greasing, or painting another person
  • Excessive or abusive use of water
  • Forced consumption of food, alcohol, drugs, or another substance
  • Soliciting, coercing, or knowingly permitting another person to solicit or coerce acts of hazing

“There are rituals and ceremonies that are not considered hazing but are celebratory-authorized activities or have a government training purpose. These activities are expected to be properly supervised, and Service members are expected to be treated with dignity and respect. “As long as these traditions and ceremonies are conducted in a positive way that does not cause physical or psychological harm, they are encouraged,”said Keith Tickle, AFMC Chief of Equal Opportunity.

The difference between hazing and bullying is that hazing involves including people by having them “earn” their way into a group or unit.  Bullying, on the other hand, usually involves singling out an individual at any time and subjecting the individual to repeated attacks of intentionally hurtful behavior as a means to exclude them.

DoD defines bullying as a form of harassment that includes “acts of aggression by service members or DoD civilian employees, with a nexus to military service, with the intent of harming a service member either physically or psychologically, without a proper military or other governmental purpose.”

Bullying can be physical, verbal, psychological or any combination of these three.  Bullying can also be conducted through the use of electronic devices or communications, and by other means including social media.

Examples of bullying behavior include but are not limited to:

  • Physically striking another person or threating abuse
  • Intimidating, teasing, or taunting another person
  • Spreading malicious rumors, gossip, or innuendo
  • Belittling a person’s opinions with purpose of humiliating them
  • Playing abusive or malicious tricks
  • Criticizing a person persistently or constantly
  • Yelling or using profanity
  • Unwarranted (or undeserved) punishment
  • Blocking applications for training, leave or promotion
  • Tampering with a person’s personal belongings or work equipment

Service members who believe they may have been subjected to hazing or bullying harassment should report the incidents to those in their chain of command for lower level resolution.  However, if service members do not feel comfortable reporting an incident within their chain of command, or if they believe they are unable to obtain resolution in that capacity, Tickle advises them to contact their local Equal Opportunity office for further guidance and assistance.

Harassing behavior by a supervisor or a co-worker in the workplace may lead to a hostile work environment.  A hostile work environment is a specific form of harassment for our civilian workforce.  The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission defines harassment as unwelcome conduct that is based on the following protected categories: race, color, religion, sex (including pregnancy), national origin, age (40 or older), disability or genetic information.

A hostile work environment is created by a supervisor or coworker whose actions, communication, or behavior create a workplace environment that would be intimidating, hostile, or offensive to reasonable people, according to the EEOC.  This means that the behavior altered the terms, conditions, and/or reasonable expectations of a comfortable work environment for an employee.

For a work environment to be considered “hostile”, the harassing conduct needs to go beyond minor inconveniences, general rudeness, and isolated incidents (unless extremely serious).  Generally, to prove a hostile workplace claim you must confirm the following:

  • It’s Discriminatory: The actions or behavior must discriminate against a protected classification such as age, religion, disability, or race.
  • It’s Pervasive: The conduct that creates the hostility is pervasive and continues over time.
  • It’s Severe: The actions, behavior, or communications of a supervisor and/or coworker must seriously disrupt and negatively affect the employee’s work, and/or interferes with an employee’s career progress.
  • It’s Unwelcome: The inappropriate behavior and harassment needs to be unwelcome.
  • Employer Liability: The employer can be liable for the creation of a hostile work environment if it knew, or should have known about the harassing behavior and failed to take prompt and appropriate corrective action.

Civilian personnel who believe they are experiencing a hostile work environment should report the incidents in a timely manner through their chain of command.  “The local Equal Opportunity office can also be contacted for guidance and assistance if the employee feels that the harassment is driven by a protected category outlined by the EEOC,” states Tickle.    

Support services to address personal problems relating to workplace harassment are available for the AFMC workforce and their families through the Employee Assistance Program and Military OneSource.

Civilian employees and their families may contact the Employee Assistance Program for free, confidential counseling services at (866)-580-9078 or visit the EAP website at

Service members and their family members can contact Military OneSource by calling (800) 342-9647 or visiting