Angry frustrated woman working in the office late at night on Christmas Eve, she is shouting and breaking a pencil

We previously discussed the Narcissist Leader or Employee. Many responded that they could and can relate to this issue. They were able to 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 (Hornstein, 1996; Tepper & Duffy, 2002). 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 (Hornstein, 1996). 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 (Tepper, 2000).

In addition, abusive behaviors in the workplace are costly to organizations. The monetary cost of such behavior in the United Sates exceeds $23 billion each year. This amount includes increased health care costs to the employer, absenteeism, and lost productivity (Tepper, Duffy, Henle & Lambert, 2006).

What does it REALLY Cost?

If we put the monetary 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 (Roter, 2011).

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 (Hunter and Bandow, 2009). In 2007, the EEOC experienced a 30% increase in the number of complaints made by employees regarding retaliation and abusive leadership (Greenwald, 2007).


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.

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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, (Roter, 2011)

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 and 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 and incompetent (Roter, 2011). 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 (Roter, 2011). 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.

Greenwald, J. (2007).  Workplace retaliation aims rising.  Business Insurance, 41(28), 12-14
Hornstein, H. (1996). Brutal bosses and their prey. New York, NY: Penguin
Hunter, D., & Bandow, D. (2009). Abusive managers and variables impacting retaliation in organizations.  The Business Review, Cambridge, 12(1), 33-42.
Roter, A. (2011) The Lived Experiences of Registered Nurses Exposed to Toxic Leadership Behaviors.  Doctoral Dissertation.  ProQuest
Tepper, B., & Duffy, D. (2002). Abusive supervision and subordinates organizational citizenship behavior. Journal of Applied Psychology, 87(6), 1068-107.
Tepper, B., Duffy, D., Henle, C., & Lambert, L. (2006). Procedural injustice, victim precipitation, and abusive supervision.  Personnel Psychology, 59(1) 101-124.
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 [email protected].