Nightmares, Demons, and Slaves: Exploring the Painful Metaphors of Workplace Bullying

Sarah Tracy, Janet Alberts

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

205 Scopus citations


Although considerable research has linked workplace bullying with psychosocial and physical costs, the stories and conceptualizations of mistreatment by those targeted are largely untold. This study uses metaphor analysis to articulate and explore the emotional pain of workplace bullying and, in doing so, helps to translate its devastation and encourage change. Based on qualitative data gathered from focus groups, narrative interviews, and target drawings, the analysis describes how bullying can feel like a battle, water torture, nightmare, or noxious substance. Abused workers frame bullies as narcissistic dictators, two-faced actors, and devil figures. Employees targeted with workplace bullying liken themselves to vulnerable children, slaves, prisoners, animals, and heartbroken lovers. These metaphors highlight and delimit possibilities for agency and action. Furthermore, they may serve as diagnostic cues, providing shorthand necessary for early intervention.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)148-185
Number of pages38
JournalManagement Communication Quarterly
Issue number2
StatePublished - Nov 2006


  • emotion
  • harassment
  • metaphor analysis
  • work feelings
  • workplace bullying

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Communication
  • Strategy and Management


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