Workplace Abuse: Causes and Cures


Forget that moody boss or pestering co-worker. Workplace abuse is a major issue that can do serious damage to a company and its employees& health.


Workplace Abuse: Causes and Cures

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Choose article section...Recognize abuseWhat is workplace abuse?What causes workplace abuse?ScapegoatingPoor leadershipBullyingIs there a cure for workplace abuse?

Forget that moody boss or pestering co-worker. Workplace abuse is a major issue that can do serious damage to a company and its employees' health.

By Kathy Simmons

A good place to work means different things to different people. For some it's short hours, while others just want lots of vacation days. But common themes among most definitions are that employees want to feel valued, be part of a nurturing organization and rely on ethical leadership. Too much to ask? Certainly not. Rare? Sadly, yes.

Workplaces often resemble war zones where honest, hard-working employees are abused, battle-weary and confused. When that's the case, immediate action must be taken to bring about peace. How's that done? Well, there are several ways but the first step is simply recognition.

Recognize abuse

Before we even delve into exactly what workplace abuse is, consider the following cases:

Linda's journalist job nearly destroyed her. It wasn't the long hours or deadlines — it was bullying behavior from her subordinate. Bob resented the fact that Linda had been promoted more rapidly. He kept a log of everything Linda did, including her arrival and departure times, snooped in her garbage to find "evidence" to discredit her, and constantly "tattled" to Linda's boss who routinely ignored him. Then, management changed. Linda's new boss liked Bob. They had drinks after work, accelerating Bob's smear campaign. Bob suggested to others that Linda was mentally unbalanced and that she had workplace affairs to promote herself. Slowly and methodically, he sullied her reputation and destroyed her dignity.

Linda reported Bob's antics to Human Resources for three years — to no avail. At a department meeting with the chief of staff, when Linda raised general problems in the department, she was publicly advised, "If you don't like it here, you can leave." Unable to take the torment any longer, Linda resigned after an altercation with Bob — and promptly sued her employer.

In another case, Stan required his employee, Brenda, to relocate to a building that was isolated from everyone/everything related to her job. There was one other person in the building — a man with a totally different job. Stan gave vague reasons for the move, later admitting that he "hoped the two of them would have an affair, so the woman would have less credibility." Brenda was the president's former secretary, and Stan feared she would hurt his image by sharing "certain things" about him. As a result of this cruel manipulation, Brenda was unable to sleep and (in typical victim style) agonized over what she had done wrong.

Finally, there was the Chief Operations Officer who was a classic "bully." He constantly threatened long-term employees, reminding them they were worthless, and that the only reason he didn't fire them was because no one else would employ them and he felt sorry for their families. Additionally, he viciously berated employees who came to him privately with legitimate questions about work performance and goals. Mild mannered when his peers were present in a meeting, he showed "Jekyll and Hyde" tendencies by shouting and throwing things at subordinates afterwards when the meeting didn't go as he expected. New employees catch on quickly that this is an organizational norm so no one talks about the abusive behavior openly, assuming that they even recognize it.

What is workplace abuse?

First, let's discuss what it's not. It's not the occasionally moody boss or pesky co-workers. It's not being passed over for a promotion or disagreeing with a company policy. Workplace abuse is far more evil than these annoyances. Susan Marais-Steinman, co-author of Corporate Hyenasat Work and founder/executive of The Foundation for the Study of Work Trauma defines workplace abuse as "all situations where one or more persons is subjected to prolonged, persistent psychological pressure, negative behavior or actions from another employee(s), affecting the target's dignity, health, safety, work performance and/or happiness at the workplace."

Tom E. Jones, author of If It's Broken, You Can Fix it: Overcoming Dysfunction in the Workplace, says, "An abusive workplace is a place where employees lack the confidence to work together. People fear that making a mistake will get them into serious trouble. Rather than view coworkers as collaborators, people see them as competitors. Employees see themselves as targets and are threatened by anyone connected to management."

So are you a target for abuse? Possibly. (Check our sidebar to see.) But whether you currently are or soon will be a victim, it helps to understand just where workplace abuse gets its roots.

What causes workplace abuse?

Dysfunctional work atmospheres aren't created randomly. While there are many factors that can point to workplace abuse (see sidebar), the following ingredients are among those that create a breeding ground for abuse:

  • Unrealistic performance expectations - Many companies take the "do more with less" challenge to a ridiculous level. "The pressure is on the workers to perform, work long hours or find themselves in the land of the unemployed. In the quest to be indispensable, the dignity and rights of others are ceded," Marias-Steinman suggests.
  • Cruel people - Mean people can poison the overall atmosphere. "Let's face it, some people believe the only way to lift themselves up is on the backs of others," explains Bob Rosner, author of Working Wounded: Advice That Adds Insight to Injury.

  • Competition - Organizational communication professor Bill Gordon says, "Individuals, like animals, fight for survival and territory. They are both altruistic and seeking personal advantage." Competition is often fostered by performance appraisal and rating systems that create selfishness and jealousy.
  • Unresolved anger - Jones suggests that as a culture, we do a poor job of socializing our children; we teach them that being good at home/school will lead to a good life at work. Later, they discover this isn't always the case and become disillusioned and angry. This anger eventually erupts — "usually in the presence of a person deemed to be ‘inferior.' If the target does nothing to challenge the abuse, a norm has just been established in that relationship," Jones offers.

  • Poor Management - "Corporations create abusive environments through low moral standards, lack of stimulating tasks, inadequate training, and neglecting to provide open communication," Marias-Steinman explains.

Just like a nasty virus, there are many strains of workplace abuse. Three of the most common include scapegoating, poor leadership and bullying.


Scapegoating involves the systematic attempt to brand a work group or person as the guilty party for whatever's going wrong. The scapegoat inevitably leaves — either voluntarily or involuntarily — following an emotional blood bath. Then, a new scapegoat is selected, leaving the spared employees breathing a temporary sigh of relief.

Organizations promoting a blaming environment underestimate the average person's sense of justice and fairness. Witnessing inequitable treatment inevitably precludes loyalty and pride. While employees may remain on the payroll; their hearts won't be totally committed. It's all about trust. Once violated, either directly or indirectly, it is difficult to restore. Despite the fact that scapegoating violates a core value of equity, though, co-workers tend to be silent bystanders. The reason is simple: Fear.

According to Gary Namie, president of Campaign Against Workplace Abuse, co-workers do not support the target because "they are scared that they may be in line next should they show any compassion." Interestingly, it has been found that the scapegoating cycle can be stymied when witnesses offer support. "Targets receiving support from colleagues are more enduring and able to move on with their lives afterwards," explains Namie. "But most witnesses play into the hands of the perpetrator. Even though they may be affected and demotivated by these incidents, they will not support colleagues under attack."

Poor leadership

Toxic Work author Dr. Barbara Reinhold points to these managerial behaviors as key indicators of abusive leadership:

  • Yelling, screaming, and shaming people
  • Making fun of people in front of their colleagues
  • Denying reasonable requests for time off, forcing people to choose between their lives and their livelihood
  • Coercing people to do inappropriate tasks in order to keep their jobs
  • Withholding pay, benefits, promotions and vacation time to "punish" people

Rosner describes abusive management as follows: "When it's all about ends and nothing is said about means. It's about when bosses only know how to use the stick and there is nary a carrot in sight. And finally, it's in the pain that is in the faces of all the people who work there."

An employee of a large accounting firm recalls having a devastating miscarriage. She left her boss a message explaining the situation. He phoned back, saying, "Sorry to hear what's going on, but please check your voice-mail because I wouldn't want anything to fall through the cracks." This lady's more than a little cynical about her employer's ranking as one of the top 10 companies to work for, explaining that such an honor is "the result of brilliant PR work, not how the company treats its employees."


Bullying behavior does not end in elementary school. The bully who tormented schoolmates has simply found a new playground — the workplace.

The U.S. Hostile Workplace Survey 2000 showed that through a random survey of 1,335 respondents, approximately 1 in 6 U.S. workers experienced severe disruptive mistreatment over a 12-month period. The survey also showed that:

  • While the stereotypical bully is male, women are just as guilty. In fact, the results are equal at 50 percent apiece.
  • Female bullies target women 84 percent of the time; male bullies target women in 69 percent of the cases.
  • Nearly all bullies are bosses (81 percent).
  • Being bullied is dangerous to the target's health:
  • 41 percent were diagnosed with depression
  • Over 80 percent reported effects like lost concentration that prevented them from being productive
  • PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) affects 31 percent of the women bullied, 21 percent of men
  • Bullying costs targets their jobs and livelihood: 82 percent lost their jobs (44 percent involuntary departure; 38 percent voluntary departure).
  • Recovery is slow: Some 79 percent of targets frequently think about the past bullying.

Tim Field, author of Bully in Sight, says, "A ‘serial bully' is usually at the heart of the conflict. If you have a serial bully in your midst, you must deal with this person first. It's no easy task. Once this person is dealt with, many of the other types of bullying that go on around the serial bully will diminish of their own accord. Most people just want to go to work, be allowed to get on with their work, do a good job and be valued for their contribution."

Is there a cure for workplace abuse?

With few exceptions, employees yearn for a kind, family atmosphere at work. It doesn't take a psychology degree to figure out that this environment not only brings out the best in employees — but also keeps them happily on board longer.

"Whether the organization does something about workplace abuse or not, the employees are going to do something. They retaliate by reducing the amount of work they do, bad-mouthing their employers to others and quitting," says Kevin Schmidt, president of Envisionworks, a Chicago-based consulting company that focuses on identifying and reducing workplace incivility. "What they are not doing is telling the employer about the situation."

Envisionworks has developed a tool to measure the level of bad behavior present within an organization called the Organizational Civility Index (OCI). The OCI allows employees to make their organization aware of potential problems and gives the employer a constructive way to address the situation.

University of North Carolina management professor Christine Pearson offers some suggestions to managers interested in avoiding workplace abuse among their staff:

• Heed warning signals of incivility (high turnover, poor morale), recognizing that the instigator can be cunning. • Recognize that abuse affects not only the targets, but also bystanders and those who hear about it.
• Punish the messenger who reports the incident. • Make excuses for powerful people. • Make excuses to evade a "sticky" problem. • Look the other way regarding a bully's actions. • Transfer employees who should be fired.



Management must confront workplace abuse and take steps to bring this "dirty secret" into the spotlight. Jones reminds managers that employees are afraid to bring up a sensitive issue like abusive behavior in front of management. "If you really want to manage smarter, start by acknowledging that abusive behavior is a problem in your workplace. Let people know that you'd like to work with them to identify and discipline those who abuse others," he suggests.

Naturally, it takes more than awareness. Action is critical. An enforced code of conduct and swift investigations following reports of workplace abuse are both imperative steps. Most importantly, management plays a key role in deterring and resolving workplace abuse. According to Bruce Tulgan, author of Winning the Talent Wars, managers must be fully engaged with every employee through continual coaching, thus creating a level of trust that allows employees to confide in managers when they feel they are subject to abuse. Personal involvement of this nature allows the manager to identify symptoms. Further, it gives managers insight on the actual abusers that will allow them to evaluate whether the abuse is limited or extensive, requiring remedial measures or removal.

"Anger should not be prohibited in the workplace. But healthy venues for expressing anger must exist so that it is not repressed," Tulgan explains. "A coaching style manager can provide that venue through daily coaching sessions and more inclusive solution when warranted. Overall, a corporate culture that supports the individual; managers who are respectful of others; leadership that doesn't condone or allow abuse, but does create avenues for the legitimate expression of anger... these are important steps."

Workplace abuse is no laughing matter. The potential for dysfunction is on the rise in today's competitive, high demand business world. The good news is that higher awareness, coupled with a sincere commitment on the part of corporate leaders, will stop even the most insidious forms of workplace abuse in its tracks. While the consequences of ignoring workplace abuse can be traumatic, the rewards of addressing it properly are immeasurable.

Are you already a target or could you become one?

Take a look at the following questions from Corporate Hyenas at Work by Susan Marais-Steinman and Magriet Herman. If you find yourself with even so much as one "yes," you need to step up the alertness. The more "yes" answers you have, the more you need to be on guard. In fact, you may even be targeted already.

  • Is your organization highly competitive?

  • Are there problems at work in the areas of job descriptions and organizational structure?

  • Are you experiencing personal trauma like divorce, financial difficulties, single parenting and loneliness coupled with a lack of support systems?

  • Are you a threat to the career ambitions of others?

  • Does your appearance pose a threat to others?

  • Is your boss a person without integrity?

  • Does the boss dislike you or do you have enemies close to the boss?

  • Are you over 40?

  • Has management recently filled a key position with a person who has a track record as a successful "downsizer" or "restructurer"?

  • Do you stand up for the rights of other staff members?

  • Have you had a history of victimization?

  • Do you have difficulty relating to colleagues on an interpersonal level?

  • Have you got problems asserting yourself, being either too passive or too aggressive?

  • Do you trust your boss, peers and subordinates unconditionally?


Symptoms of a Sick Workplace

The following behaviors contribute to abuse in the workplace. The more items checked, the greater the chances that abuse is a problem:

1. Communication is indirect.

People don't talk to one another face to face. A third party may be asked to deliver the message but instructed not to reveal the sender's identity.

2. Secrets are used to build alliances.

Individuals with confidential or privileged information disclose it to a chosen few. In return, confidants are expected to share any private tidbits that come their way.

3. Gossip is used to excite and titillate.

The mean-spirited passing of false accusations and malicious hearsay harms innocent people. Reputations are damaged, credibility is lost and employee morale suffers.

4. The search for the cause of a problem is personalized.

The key concern is who made the mistake rather than how do we fix what went wrong. People spend more time covering their tracks than looking for answers.

5. Friendship between professional colleagues is lacking.

Folks who work together don't seem to know much about one another. Opportunities for social interaction are rare and not well attended. Misunderstandings, mistrust and miscommunication are taken for granted.

6. Inconsistent application of procedures is not challenged.

Chaos and confusion follow the introduction of a new policy. Directives are followed by some but not by others, resulting in different outcomes. When changes are introduced, folks sit quietly without comment.

7. Perfectionism creates an atmosphere of intolerance for mistakes.

No matter how hard people work or how good they get, they're expected to do better. Criticism prevails; praise and recognition are nonexistent. Employees are disciplined or demoted for minor infractions.

If It's Broken, You Can Fix It: Overcoming Dysfunction in the Workplace by Tom E. Jones. For a complete list of behaviors, visit .


Resource Links:

The Foundation for the Study of Work Trauma

Working Wounded

The U.S. Hostile Workplace Survey 2000

Bully Online


Kathy Simmons. Workplace Abuse: Causes and Cures.

Business and Health


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