Dealing with Verbal Abuse at Work
Obvious verbal abuse at work includes threatening, yelling, cursing, insulting and mocking a victim or victims either in front of people or in private. Verbal abuse in the workplace may be elusive and what bothers one person may not bother another (i.e. spreading rumors or making insinuations, telling objectionable jokes, and teasing).
Unlike sexual harassment and racial discrimination, verbal abuse at work is not illegal, so it rarely makes its way into company policy manuals. This leaves everyone affected by verbal abuse at work to solve the problem on their own, as if it were a personality conflict.
Personality conflicts come from individual traits that have no bearing on professionalism.1 For example, a co-worker's laugh or communication style that is not abusive but nevertheless irritating. Personality conflicts cause friction, but they do not cause emotional pain.
Effects of Verbal Abuse at Work
Verbal abuse causes people to feel insulted, diminished, anxious, or afraid. Dr. Gary Namie, PhD is a workplace bullying expert. He gives several clues that you're experiencing bullying and verbal abuse in the workplace. Dr. Namie's examples of the effects of workplace bullying include:2
- Obsessing about work on days off
- Physical changes like high blood pressure that began after the verbal abuse started
- Feeling shame for being pushed around
- Loss of desire to pursue once enjoyable activities
- Feel guilty for causing the bad vibes at work (Hint: if the victim were the bully, s/he wouldn't feel guilty.)
Likely Targets of Verbal Abuse At Work
Similarly to domestic violence perpetrators, verbal abuse at work starts after it is triggered. Workplace abusers tend to focus on people who the bully feels are weakened in some way.2 In their book, The Bully-Free Workplace, Dr. Namie and his wife Ruth write,
"... bullies choose to attack the first day heart attack victims return to work, the day that maternity leave ends, the first day back after chemotherapy begins..."
What To Do About Verbal Abuse In The Workplace
First, name the problem. The problem is not the abuser; it is the abuser's effect on you. Call it bullying, emotional abuse, psychological torture, verbal abuse in the workplace...give it a name so you stop pretending it doesn't hurt you or your work performance.
The next time the abuser distracts you, stop the person and tell them that what they're doing and saying is troubling. Tell them that if they continue that behavior, you'll be forced to address the problem with a supervisor.
The bully will probably have something to say about it. (See Verbally Abusive Men and Women: Why Do They Abuse?) Right then, pull out the employee handbook and search for a policy against harassment or concerning respect and professionalism. This is partially to distract you from whatever the abuser says and partially to aid preparations for when the conversation with the supervisor takes place.2
Next, start looking for a different job because odds are your supervisor won't be able to help you get rid of the abuser.2 Your health and sanity is worth more than your company pays you, and verbal abuse in the workplace can destroy both.
Last Updated: 26 May 2016
Reviewed by Harry Croft, MD