What is Workplace Abuse?

By Dr. Annette Roter

Updated Over a Week Ago

Minute Read

We previously discussed the Narcissist Leader or Employee. Many responded that they could and can relate to this issue. They could identify people in their workplace that fit the description perfectly. This month, we will focus on the abusive leader or employee.

When I think of abuse, my mind goes to domestic abuse that is physical or emotional. My mind never went to abuse in the workplace. After all, we are all adults and should all respect ourselves, right?

However, abuse in the workplace is rampant and does impact people both emotionally and physically. You will be surprised how many people have experienced this type of leadership or employee behavior. As a result of these types of behaviors, there is an increased focus on civility programs in the workplace.

What is Workplace Abuse?

First, let’s take a look at the definition of abusive leadership. Abusive behaviors in the workplace can be defined as behaviors that include public criticism, the use of derogatory names, condescending tones, intimidation, tantrums, rudeness, coercion, and blaming others for mistakes they did not make. These types of employees or leaders are using their power to mistreat and disrespect others.

One thing to keep in mind is that this type of behavior is not just limited to one single person; it can be directed at several individuals or at a team. The goal of the abusive leader or employee is to gain and maintain control through fear and intimidation. In many cases, they are quite successful.

Research has shown that employees subjected to abuse in the workplace show less commitment to their organization and end up leaving the organization eventually. Employees who have experienced this type of leadership feel that the behaviors are unjust, resulting in a negative attitude toward their work, toward the organization for allowing it to happen, and toward their overall environment.

In addition, abusive behaviors in the workplace are costly to organizations. The monetary cost of such behavior in the United States exceeds $23 billion yearly. This amount includes increased healthcare costs to the employer, absenteeism, and lost productivity.

What does it REALLY Cost?

If we put the money issue aside, there is a larger issue that needs to be looked at. Abusive behaviors are often psychological and emotional attacks against employees. Because of these behaviors, employees stated that they often had feelings of being incompetent, embarrassed, guilty, and ashamed. As a result, these emotional issues manifested themselves into physical issues for the employee.

There has been such an increase in abusive behaviors that the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) specifically forbids retaliation by employers against employees who file or threaten to file charges because of these behaviors. Although the EEOC forbids this type of behavior, employees who address this issue still experience retaliation from their leaders. The EEOC experienced a 30% increase in the number of complaints made by employees regarding retaliation and abusive leadership.


Abusive behavior shows itself mostly in the form of verbal and emotional abuse.  In some cases, there are also employees that experience physical abuse in the workplace. In a recent study, an employee reported that she was the subject of physical abuse by her manager. She experienced objects being thrown at her, including a chart that cut her forehead and necessitated minor medical attention.

In another case, an employee was often trapped by his leader’s tantrums, as he would back the employee into a wall, yell and scream at the employee, and then spit in the employee’s face. This was all done while the employee was told he was worthless, incompetent, and would eventually end up homeless and without a job. This happened for many years.  However, both employees eventually left their organizations.

Most of the employees in the study stated that they experienced verbal and emotional abuse at the hands of a co-worker or leader. This type of abuse impacted employees for several years after the experience.

One subject stated that she was often called stupid, told that she couldn’t write, and told that she didn’t have what it takes. She was also told that she skated by for most of her career, and the leader could not understand how she got to where she was. The leader threatened the employee many times, even suggesting that the employee get psychological help.

The employee went on to do great things in her career, but it took many years to build her confidence back. She shared that no matter how often she hears that she is good, talented, and outstanding, she always hears this manager’s voice in her head and questions whether she is stupid or incompetent. Even to this day, this leader still has power over this employee.

“Why doesn’t the employee just leave?”

Like the victims of domestic abuse, it is often not that easy to leave an abusive work environment. In many cases, the employee is so torn down that they believe the insults and believe they can’t leave.

One employee stated that their leader would often tell her that she was so incompetent that she would never get hired anyplace else. She believed that she would never get another job elsewhere.

All the participants in the study stated that they lived in fear of the next interaction with this leader or employee. The psychological toll, in many cases, is just too much for the employee to handle!

What types of programs does your organization have in place to address abuse in the workplace? Have you ever experienced this type of behavior? If so, please share your stories below.

Have You Experienced Workplace Abuse?

If you have ideas about workplace abuse that might be helpful to readers, share them in the comments section below. Thanks!

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Dr. Annette Roter
Dr. Annette Roter
Annette is an experienced leadership and organization development professional. Her research focus is on toxic and destructive behaviors within organizations. Her email is abroter@yahoo.com.
  • Great article! It’s sad how one bad leader can make such a huge impact on many outstanding emoployees. I have had many situations with a past leader that I find myself second guessing decisions to this day. I have to remind myself that I got hired into my role because the company sees potential in me and that I need to let myself shine. It’s important that companies not only evaluate the employees but look at the leaders and the impact they are making with their teams. Sometimes change isn’t a bad thing. One quote I reference for myself and teams I’ve coached is from an amazing woman, Eleanor Roosevlet, who said “No one can make you feel inferior without your consent.” Thank you for writing this article! I look forward to seeing the topic for next month.

  • What is saddest about this is that in more cases than not, the manager is protected by those above him/her. In a previous job my department manager psychologically abused most of the staff, and this was well-known throughout the organization. I left, as did 5 others (half the department staff.) We made it very clear to top management why we were leaving. To this day, two years later, the manager is still in the position.

  • Hi Sharon, that is usually the case. Leaders often do not know how to address these behaviors or they don’t see it. The person is one way with leaders and another way with direct reports. When employees complain leadership does not see it. How can we make leadership aware of these behaviors? Annette B Roter

  • Linda Rhodes says:

    Great points, Annette. It’s so sad to see this type of behavior from leaders. I wonder how soon it will be before employees start to sue employers for bullying, just as students are starting to use the legal system for bullying at school. Those emotional scars run deep and can be costly on many levels.

  • These people only do what they are allowed to get away with. The thing I find disheartening in reading articles like this is that the majority of them seem to point the finger at white men as the perpetrators. In my own experience, the worst abuse I have ever suffered was at the hands of women, many of whom were clearly in their roles because they are women! Organizations get brownie points for having women in leadership with little regard for their qualifications, and based on my observations, they get away with far more than men in the same roles would get away with. The bottom line is that bad is bad, a bully is a bully and gender has nothing to do with character.
    It is great to see someone writing on this topic though, as it is encouraging to realize that this problem is widespread and not isolated to a few choice targets. While HR departments are expanding their onboarding and annual training to literally badger employees with diversity and inclusion training in the name of equity and tolerance, we are living in the most hostile workplace generation since the inception of the EEOC. The laws are only for protected classes, and defined forms of discrimination. There is nothing to protect workers from superiors or coworkers who shamelessly harass and discriminate based on anything outside of those categories, or for simply disliking an individual for whatever reason. And they know it.

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