Workplace abuse or workplace bullying

Psychological abuse creates toxic work cultures that dehumanize us and rob us of our inherent human right to dignity.

Gossip and lies. Exclusion. Job and career sabotage. Intimidating, threatening, and demeaning behaviors.

For toxic managers, co-workers, and employers, it's all about reinforcing power structures by supporting false narratives against us and then avoiding employer liability — even when our employers claim to value safe workplaces.

But abuse is never ok.

Here's the typical playbook:

  1. You're a high performer, and your boss or co-worker becomes threatened by your competence. To preserve their image, they try to dull your flame or get rid of you using abusive tactics to control the narrative. To change the narrative, they try to convince both you and your co-workers that YOU are the problem. You're left feeling confused, devalued, and depressed.
  2. When you report the problem to higher-ups or HR, they lead you to believe they'll follow a complaint process, but nothing happens. If they admit they're at fault, they take on liability. So they avoid the liability at all cost, even if it means ignoring or vilifying you. They have the power, so they call the shots. They don't remove you from the abusive environment, and the abusers receives zero consequences, so they feel emboldened and up their game. Meanwhile weeks turn into months, and there's no response from your employer.
  3. The stress mounts, and you weigh two painful choices: continuing to work in the stressful work environment while your health deteriorates or leave with no paycheck or health insurance. You are psychologically injured, making it harder to do your work, and when you leave (or get fired or even die), their threat of liability disappears. Instead of addressing employee well-being internally, they push those costs onto taxpayers when you're then on unemployment. And our healthcare costs soar when we're left to use ERs instead of regular doctor visits.
  4. You feel traumatized. In the aftermath, you feel like a shell of your old self. You realize all of the losses you've suffered from simply for being a high performer: anxiety, depression, job loss, isolation, physical stress symptoms, trust in yourself and everyone else, friend and family stress, inability to pay your bills and maintain the lifestyle you once had, PTSD, and even suicidal thoughts. It feels like your education and entire career mean nothing because one power-hungry boss abused their power — and your employer joined in.

The worst part: without a law, you feel no sense of justice. You simply want the job you deserved but in a safe environment. But it's you against an army, and you don't have the energy or funds to continue the fight or the interest in going through the re-trauma of the lies escalating to a legal battle.

While you may feel isolated, millions of others experience this abuse of power. It's an epidemic, which also makes it a public health threat. Why? Because it's often a symptom of stereotyping and implicit bias. It has a discriminatory impact on women, Black workers. Hispanic workers, workers in the LGBTQ+ community, workers over 40, and workers with disabilities. Anti-discrimination law stopped working since the ‘80s when courts moved from focusing on impact to intent, a high threshold that makes the law an epic failure when it comes to disrupting hierarchies at work around demographics.

The abuser, the employer, and even society say it's ok when they join in through more abuse or negligence in fixing the problem. When the government says this issue isn't important enough to regulate it like they do physical safety, it's yet another layer of betrayal.

We deserve to feel seen, heard, and valued. We deserve job control and a sense of belonging. But workplace abuse pushes up against our need to feel human and robs us of our personhood.

The Facts

A 2012 survey by CareerBuilder found that:

"35% of workers said they have felt bullied at work."


"Nearly half of workers don’t confront their bullies, and the majority of incidents go unreported."


"The most common way workers reported being bullied was getting blamed for mistakes they didn’t make followed by not being acknowledged and the use of double standards."


Basics of workplace abuse

Much like domestic abuse, workplace abuse is rooted in power and control. It can be obvious — in cases of screaming public humiliation, disciplining or taking away work without cause, and put-downs — or subtle — in cases of exclusion, behind-the-back sabotage, gossip, minimizing achievements, creating unreasonable workloads, going into personal belongings, and withholding resources.

The abuse often escalates: the abuser misrepresents an issue to others to get them to side with them, leaving the target isolated. 

What's worse: targets are generally competent workers whose skills and ethics pose a threat to abusers.

When employers allow workplace abuse to fester, they allow abusers' personal agendas to take priority over the needs of their organizations.

Workplace abuse isn't just a bad day at work. Employers must still manage, including toxic behavior.

When we talk about workplace abuse, we don't mean enforcing existing policies, evaluating performance fairly, giving honest feedback, and denying requests and disciplining with just cause. Employers should be allowed to address problem behavior in a fair way.

Behavior becomes abuse when it's done without just cause and instead out of love of power and control.

Abusers abuse to take away power from those whose competence and ethics pose a threat to them. They often aim to boost their own images at the expense of those who look good based on their own merit. The root of their behavior is low self-image.

When confronted, they don't take responsibility for their actions. 

  • Stress symptoms: anxiety, depression, digestive issues, heart disease, high blood pressure, eating problems, and loss of sleep
  • Grief symptoms: feelings of shock, anger, helplessness, and isolation leading to Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and suicidal thoughts
  • Abuse effects: loss of confidence and loss of faith in competence
  • Personal relationships damage: marriage strain and damage to relationships with friends and family who tire of listening to rehashing of the abuse
  • If the target leaves, income and health insurance loss, adding to stress levels

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