What it is

Basics on workplace abuse

Workplace abuse is an attempt by one or more people to undermine and harm another person by threatening that person’s professional status, self-confidence, and ability to perform the job. It is intentionally hurtful, typically repeated, often malicious, and perceived by the target as a hostile act.

Whenever a person decides to harm another person, and the targeted person is unable to respond with equal force, it’s abuse. Abuse stems from an imbalance of power. The greater the power a person holds over another, the more devastating the abuse. 

When a person abuses another person, it’s often driven by abusers’ needs to mask their low self-esteem and to control someone they feel is a threat — usually competent, dedicated employees. Abusers often escalate the control by roping others into their power games, denying responsibility for the abuse, and making their tactics subtle and manipulative. One common tactic is gaslighting, convincing targets they’re the problem by twisting or selectively omitting information to make targets doubt their own perception.

The entire power game works like domestic abuse, with a typical recipe:

  1. The abuser initially repeatedly reprimands the better than average target for trivial matters and those that would be described completely differently by the target. The abuser repeatedly puts the target down.
  2. The abuser convinces others that the target is incompetent, so others can begin to shun the target and unwittingly participate in the emotional abuse.
  3. The abuser drives the target to go to report the problem to the bully’s boss or to Human Resources and then escalates the bully behavior.
  4. The abuser makes their tactics so outrageous that the target’s support system (family and friends) doesn’t believe the target and can’t offer advice. Then these family and friends become tired of hearing the target obsessively repeat issues that can’t be resolved.
  5. The target is now very much alone and increasingly vulnerable to suicide. Targets try everything and then give up hope. If not stopped, the prolonged abuse causes depression and often suicidal thoughts. “Targets who sense that they’re about to be fired and cannot cope with that eventuality are vulnerable to suicide,” says reporter Natasha Wallace in her article “Suicide, When Related to Workplace Bullying.”

It not only damages targets, but it also undermines the organization’s goals by putting personal agendas above the organization’s and targets’ needs.

(We’re not talking about a bad day or discipline with just cause: enforcing policies and procedures, providing helpful feedback, measuring performance fairly, privately discussing fair discipline, denying requests or other discipline with just cause.)


Workplace abuse can include any behavior that threatens, intimidates, degrades, offends, or humiliates another worker, such as:

  • Teasing, sarcasm, name-calling, slandering, and ridiculing a person
  • Put downs and insults
  • Getting in someone’s personal space
  • Sending nasty emails
  • Angry outbursts, such as screaming or swearing 
  • Persistent abusive phone calls, voicemails, emails, or postings to or about another person
  • Excessive criticism, reprimands, and repeated reminders of errors or mistakes
  • Hints or signals from others that someone should quit his or her job without cause
  • Destructive gossip, rumors, or innuendo
  • Offensive jokes or inappropriate statements
  • Making up accusations against an employee
  • Unfairly denying personal leave or job training
  • Intimidating behavior such as finger-pointing, physical pushing, shoving, slamming doors, or throwing things 
  • Non-verbal threatening gestures

Abuse doesn’t have to be obvious. In fact, it can be quite subtle. Just as destructive as overt abusive behavior is the intentional sabotage of another’s work:

  • Assigning impossible deadlines and giving unreasonable workloads
  • Micromanaging and unnecessarily controlling an employee’s work
  • Having key areas of responsibility removed or replaced with more trivial or unpleasant tasks
  • Undermining an employee’s reputation behind his or her back
  • Unrealistic work demands
  • Removing tasks crucial for one’s job with no explanation 
  • Purposely giving inconsistent instructions
  • Changing hours or schedules to make life more difficult
  • Deliberately withholding information needed to be effective at work
  • Blowing off accomplishments
  • Excluding an employee from important emails, meetings, or social functions 
  • Pressuring others to not take advantage of benefits to which they are entitled
  • Taking credit for others’ work
  • Engaging in office politics in a manner that is hurtful, manipulative, and unethical
  • Going into personal belongings and supplies
  • Stress symptoms: anxiety, depression, digestive issues, heart disease, high blood pressure, eating problems, and loss of sleep
  • Grief symptoms: feelings of shock, anger, helplessness, and isolation leading to Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and suicidal thoughts
  • Abuse effects: loss of confidence and loss of faith in competence
  • Personal relationships damage: marriage strain and damage to relationships with friends and family who tire of listening to rehashing of the abuse
  • If the target leaves, income and health insurance loss, adding to stress levels
  • Lower productivity and morale
  • Less opportunity
  • Higher absenteeism, turnover, legal costs, workers compensation costs, and costs with recruiting, interviewing, and training new employees

It’s the equivalent of burning a big pile of money. For an employee paid $50,000 annually, the costs associated with workplace abuse could end up over $150,000 — triple of what the organization would pay without workplace abuse or investigating and addressing it.


MYTH: Employees can “just leave” if they don’t like the abuse.

Some can. Others don’t have safety nets to allow them to just leave. It takes time to look for another job while targets’ health deteriorates. Targets are often left to choose between their health and a paycheck if they’re unable to find new work before they can no longer tolerate the abuse. Or they may feel demoralized after repeated abuse and start to doubt their ability to succeed at employment elsewhere. Even if a target can “just leave,” why should they have to? Why should accomplished targets have to suffer on the job and in their careers while the poor-performing manager has no accountability for abusing power?

MYTH: There are legal protections against workplace abuse in the United States.

The United States remains the last among western democracies to have no anti-abuse laws for the general workforce. If mistreated employees who’ve been subjected to abusive treatment at work cannot establish that the behavior was motivated by race, color, sex, sexual orientation, national origin, or age, they will likely have no legal protections. Even when abuse is discriminatory, targets must prove discrimination, meaning governments don’t protect anyone else from abuse — even if there’s discrimination that can’t be proven. Retaliation for whistleblowing is also illegal. Advocates are working to make severe workplace abuse illegal regardless of protected class.

Other myths about workplace abuse »

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