Is It Verbal Abuse To Call A Coworker Bi-Polar?

Question:

Can one coworker call another coworker “bi-polar”?

Signed,

Wondering About A Term


Answer:

Dear Wondering About A Term:

The totality of the circumstances would dictate whether telling someone they are acting as though they have bipolar disorder was done to show disrespect or ridicule or if it was said for other reasons. If it has been said repeatedly and used as a weapon against someone, then yes, I think it is verbal abuse. If it is said even once, without the intent to solve a problem, just to be mean, then certainly it’s rude and inappropriate.

If you work for a company that is large enough to have rules and policies about treating each other with respect, such a remark might come under one of those rules. If you work in a very small business, it would be up to the boss whether that remark is something he or she wants to reprimand an employee about. Hopefully if it has happened many times, he or she will see how wrong it has been. Usually when something like that is said, there are many more problems than just that one remark and those problems are what should be addressed. If someone accuses a coworker of being bipolar, they’re not talking about being late or being slow with work. They’re almost always talking about behavior that they think is disruptive, unpleasant, bizarre or worrisome. If you’re the one being told that, consider what led up to it as you consider what to do about it.

If it was just a one time thing, completely out of context, it probably was just something to say to bother you and won’t be said again. You need to be concerned about the problems that caused it, but at least you know the word meant nothing to either of you. But, if it was said in seriousness it is something to seriously consider.

One of the most common complaints we get about coworkers is that they are nice enough sometimes but terrible to work with the rest of the time. We hear terms like “moody”, “out of control”, temperamental”, “hot and control”, “impossible to get along with”, “completely out of touch with reality”, and tacked on to those is often the label, “bipolar”.

That doesn’t mean the diagnosis is accurate; it’s just an employee saying something that fits what they’ve read about bipolar disorder. But it often points to problematic behavior that has gone unchallenged for a long time. Or, it can be used to express concern that someone is getting worse in their depression or manic actions.

Talk to your manager about it and tell him what was said. Let him or her know that the term was offensive because the employee had no business making a judgment about your mental or emotional condition. At the same time, ask your manager to give you honest feedback about your behavior and performance. If there are no problems, then figure you have a coworker who doesn’t like you and just said something to be nasty and the employee should be told to not say it again. If your manager talks to you about concerns, figure your coworker might have said something others are thinking.

I’m not implying that you have bipolar disorder or even that you’re in the wrong in any way. But you can bet there is some long-standing conflict if it was said at all. You may be able to get the coworker reprimanded and rightfully so. But, that won’t fix what started it all to begin with.

Do yourself a favor and see if you can find a way to correct the conflict or at least to deal with it in a way that it doesn’t result in angry accusations. The other person was wrong to use a term that could cause hurt or that is untrue but sounds offensive. Push back to ensure that doesn’t happen again because labeling people is never a good thing. But also see if you can do something about what caused the labeling in the first place.

Best wishes to you with this. If you have the time and wish to do so, let us know what happens.

Tina Lewis Rowe