What to do About Verbal Abuse in the Workplace

Verbal abuse in the workplace is one of the major contributors to organizational turnover. Discover what to do to minimize it.

Think verbal abuse in the workplace is no big deal? Well, it is! Because it is a prime reason people leave their organization. Below are the signs and symbols of verbal abuse and what you can do to minimize it.

Signs and Symptoms of Verbal Abuse in the Workplace

Here are some of the behaviors that stop high-performance and good working relationships in their tracks. Some are more potent and damaging than others.

Ignoring or being curt with one person, while being friendly and supportive of others. The Manager walks through the workplace, offering jovial good mornings, and high fives to many people, but walks past several others with little more than an incline of the head.

Belittling or sarcastic remarks.

Nitpicking and finding mistakes - "I see there's a typing error on page 95 of your report, not good enough is it? hmmmmm."

A person who holds a position of 'power', keeps controls tight; and feels it is their 'right' to put people in their place.

Talking about people's performance (specifically lack of it) in a public forum.

Meeting with someone, and then while they are speaking, answer emails, send text messages, do paperwork etc.

Countering any complaints made by saying things like, "Nobody else around here seems to have a problem, you're being too sensitive. Toughen up. Do what I ask, and we won't have a problem."

Someone consistently has the feeling they aren't good enough. "What's wrong with me. Why does my boss always find fault with what I do ...."

Blaming others for their behavior "Look, if you did 'xyz' as I wanted, then I wouldn't have to be like this."

Refusing to discuss issues. "Send me an email, and then I'll tell you what to do."

What To Do About Verbal Abuse In The Workplace

A recurring theme you'll find across this site is... you can't change anyone. All you can do is change you and your response to the situation. So that's where we start first ...

Be Self Aware

While it would be nice to lay the blame for verbal abuse in the workplace squarely on the other person's shoulders ... you do need to spend some time reflecting upon what got you to this place. It might well be that they are at fault. But you will never be 100% blameless either.

Ask yourself: "What am I doing that is enabling this situation?" There could be any number of reasons you find yourself in a situation such as this.  You need to use all the insight and self-honesty you can to discover the reasons why you are facing this challenge. Below are a few ideas to play around with.

  • It might be that you are lazy, or ineffective or not a team player. Attempts have been made to get you to improve, but you haven't bothered changing, and people have had enough of you.
  • Or, it might be that you are none of these. But you haven't stood up for yourself early enough. When the situation first started turning nasty, you didn't do something to stop it, and it has since escalated. Maybe you have a history of being a 'victim,' and this is something in your psyche you need to address.
  • It might be that you are a pessimist who has a belief running around in your head like, 'bad things always happen to me.' Read more about the optimism vs pessimism mindset and its impact on your life

Let me be clear ... there is no excuse for abuse regardless of whether it is verbal or physical. However, if you are the person on the receiving end of the verbal abuse, you need to take steps to take back your power. Use some of the tips below to help you get your power back.

If you are the person who is the hothead, who rants and raves at others, it is time for you to do some work on your emotional intelligence.

Be Clear On Your Desires

Set boundaries and limits. Get clear in your mind what you will and will not accept from others. (For example, Robust discussion is okay. Gut shouting is not. I will not allow people to belittle or be sarcastic toward me). Once you have that clarity be prepared to stand up for what you want.

You can't expect anyone else to respect you if you don't respect yourself enough to be clear about your own needs and to then ask for what you want. You don't have to become aggressive. Simply be a little more assertive by saying something like: "I'm sorry, but I'll no longer tolerate this way of behaving. The next time I would like you to ..."

As the other person struggles to keep the power in his/her corner, the abuse may initially escalate. But like all bullies - when confronted by someone with a strong sense of inner strength and purpose, eventually they take their hostility elsewhere. 

Speak Up

Speak to the person about their behavior. Sometimes this may be all that is needed. He/she may not have been aware that their conduct was having such an impact; or that you view it as verbal abuse in the workplace.

If the person is your Manager you may like to have a conversation with him/her (preferably at a time when things aren't heated) that goes something like:

"I want to talk about our relationship and its impact on my ability to help you and the team achieve our goals. When you ...(describe the behavior - with no labels, judgments)... I end up worrying more about what you have said, than on fixing the problem. I'm working hard to be at the level that you would like and when ...(whatever problem they are cranky about)... happens I would prefer it if you ... (describe how you want to be treated) ..."

Read more about managing your boss

Call It When You See It. Often we let inappropriate behavior slide. This is a mistake. For example, say you were in a situation in which someone has rolled their eyes. You could say something like, "Please can you explain to me how ....(e.g. rolling your eyes at me) is helping you and I to achieve our goals ...".

Another example could be to say to someone, 'Do you realize that you are starting to speak loudly at me and this is not helping us get the problem fixed? I assume you want the problem fixed?'.

Often a simple sentence like this will get them blustering. And even cause another scathing comment to come out their mouth. But calling them on their poor behavior, is often enough of an interrupt for you to be able to start to take charge in the situation. Getting them focused on getting the job done -- rather than abuse.

Be very wary of saying anything like, "I think this is verbal abuse in the workplace". Instead, focus on actual behaviors that you see -- not the labels you attach to it.

Be very mindful that the tone of voice and your posture are critical. You need to be calm and confident. Take a few deep rhythmic breaths before you start saying anything to get your own emotions under control.

Follow Your Instincts

If after a few attempts at addressing the behavior and there has been no shift in their treatment of you, you could make a formal complaint about the verbal abuse in the workplace. If the person who is doing the abusing is the owner of the business then ...

You may decide that this issue is so big that you will remove yourself from the situation. Just remember, that if you haven't cleared up your part of it, (e.g. you haven't spoken up), then you go with you. Which means the problem will re-emerge in your new situation. So, I strongly urge you to do the work on yourself first, before you take this decision.

If the verbal abuse is making it a toxic workplace, and you have taken full responsibility for your side of it, then yes, your best response is to leave.

I Highly Recommend ...

You access "Successful Feedback" (or download it for free if you are a member of the Make A Dent Club). It will help you discover the skills you need to firstly stop verbal abuse in the workplace occurring and secondly handle it with dignity and grace if it should happen.

No high-performance organization would ever tolerate verbal abuse in the workplace. Although it is unlikely that verbal abuse would happen in a high-performance workplace ... because high-performance people simply don't think or behave this way.

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