Workplace abuse

When a person in power (a manager or supervisor) abuses that power over a less powerful employee, we call that workplace abuse or workplace bullying. Most bullying — generally rooted in the one with power feeling threatened by a competent, ethical subordinate — involves undermining confidence and performance by isolating and putting the target down. Abuse of power generally takes the form of verbal abuse or sabotage but can involve any form of physical, mental, social, electronic, political, or financial mistreatment.

It's an epidemic that affects as much as 90 percent of the working population during their careers. (That's not a typo.)


Interpersonal or relationship behaviors

The abuse may take the form of public ridicule, disrespect, overwork, and overcontrol, including:

Teasing, sarcasm, name-calling, slandering, and ridiculing a person
Put-downs and insults
Getting in someone’s personal space
Sending nasty emails
Angry outbursts, such as screaming or swearing
Persistent abusive phone calls, voicemails, emails, or postings to or about another person
Excessive criticism, reprimands, and repeated reminders of errors or mistakes
Hints or signals from others that someone should quit his or her job without cause
Destructive gossip, rumors, or innuendo
Offensive jokes or inappropriate statements
Making up accusations against an employee
Unfairly denying personal leave or job training
Intimidating behavior such as finger-pointing, physical pushing, shoving, slamming doors, or throwing things
Non-verbal threatening gestures


Organizational or task-related behaviors

Abuse doesn’t have to be obvious. It can be quite subtle. Just as destructive as overt bullying behavior is the intentional sabotage of another’s work, including:

Assigning impossible deadlines and giving unreasonable workloads
Micromanaging and unnecessarily controlling an employee’s work
Having key areas of responsibility removed or replaced with more trivial or unpleasant tasks
Undermining an employee’s reputation behind his or her back
Unrealistic work demands
Removing tasks crucial for one’s job with no explanation
Purposely giving inconsistent instructions
Changing hours or schedules to make life more difficult
Deliberately withholding information needed to be effective at work
Blowing off accomplishments
Excluding an employee from important emails, meetings, or social functions
Pressuring others to not take advantage of benefits to which they are entitled
Taking credit for others’ work
Engaging in office politics in a manner that is hurtful, manipulative, and unethical
Going into personal belongings and supplies
Giving bogus performance reviews to convince the target he or she is a problem
Bullying can be repetitive or one-off events.

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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