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:
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.
A 2012 survey by CareerBuilder found that:
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.