Workplace Abuse – Understanding the Violence

What is workplace abuse, exactly?

It’s any inappropriate behavior, mistreatment, or harassment of a fellow workplace employee, including humiliation, insults, threats, and physical, psychological, or sexual abuse. Workplace abuse is persistent, repetitive, and targeted. It is not somebody having an “off day” or making a snide comment here and there.

None of us want to think of bullying or any form of abuse in the workplace as something that reaches beyond the confines of grade school…but it does. 

If you’re experiencing workplace abuse, you may wake up fearful of what the day might bring. After all, you deserve to go to a safe workplace. In this post, we’ll discuss some important steps you can take if you’re dealing with abusive behavior or a toxic work environment.

How Many American Workers Have a Toxic Corporate Culture?

Abuse in the workplace is no laughing matter, yet it is too often shrugged off as “hazing the new guy” or “earning your place.” These are just excuses to justify the behavior. What is happening is actually serious and pervasive. 

According to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), each year an average of 2 million U.S. workers report having been victims of workplace violence. And those are just reported cases! New data from Monster reports that 90% of employees say they have been bullied by a coworker or manager.

Abuse and toxicity is usually built right into the fabric of the workplace culture, which makes it hard to fight against.

No, bullying is certainly not just a grade school issue.

What’s the Impact of a Workplace Abuse?

Being subjected to a toxic culture or dysfunctional workplace environment can have real and lasting effects on mental health and well-being.

If you’re experiencing abuse in the workplace it’s completely normal to feel stressed, anxious, or unproductive, which impacts your work performance. Over time though, these feelings can lead to more harmful, long-term effects, such as burnout, depression, and other serious mental health problems. Physical health problems are also prevalent such as high blood pressure and other stress-related disorders.

It is true that long term, stress is a huge risk factor for bad physical and mental health outcomes.

What are the Most Common Forms of Workplace Abuse?

Verbal Abuse in the Workplace

One of the most common and casual forms of abuse, verbal abuse can happen anywhere, even online. Examples of verbal abuse can include:

  • Offensive jokes
  • Name-calling
  • Insults
  • Repetitive teasing
  • Unwanted sexual advances
  • And more.

Psychological Abuse in the Workplace 

This form of emotional abuse occurs when someone uses their power to make others feel psychologically unsafe. Abuse of power in the workplace can be very emotionally damaging. Examples of this type of abuse can include:

  • Manipulation
  • Targeted and repetitive criticism 
  • Gaslighting
  • Intentional isolation
  • Threat of violence
  • Withholding needed information
  • Workplace incivility
  • Bullying
  • And more.

Physical Abuse in the Workplace

This type of abuse involves individuals physically attacking or threatening others in the workplace. It can include:

  • Sexual harassment
  • Sexual violence
  • Physical threats or physical assaults
  • And more.

Harassment in the Workplace

Harassment is a very specific form of workplace abuse, and it is based on United States law. The EEOC states:

Harassment is a form of employment discrimination that violates Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967, (ADEA), and the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, (ADA).

Harassment is unwelcome conduct that is based on race, color, religion, sex (including sexual orientation, gender identity, or pregnancy), national origin, older age (beginning at age 40), disability, or genetic information (including family medical history). Harassment becomes unlawful where 1) enduring the offensive conduct becomes a condition of continued employment, or 2) the conduct is severe or pervasive enough to create a work environment that a reasonable person would consider intimidating, hostile, or abusive.

Therefore, you technically cannot be harassed unless you fall into one of these protected classes. That doesn’t mean that you haven’t been exposed to a hostile work environment, though. These types of workplaces are unfortunately not uncommon. It just means that you are likely ineligible for recourse under anti-discrimination law.

Who’s Most at Risk for Workplace Abuse?

Both full-time and part-time workers are still spending a huge chunk of their week in their work environment, but it’s important to note that remote workers can face toxic workplaces too.

As with many other types of violence and hatred, marginalized groups are often the most targeted. Gender identity, sexual orientation, and race are all factors that may lead to individuals being targeted in the workplace.

A recent study from the Williams Institute at UCLA explored the discrimination and harassment of LGBT employees, and the numbers are staggering.

  • Nearly 50% of LGBT workers experience unfair treatment at work.
  • 34% of LGBT employees have left a job due to their treatment by their employer.
  • 36% of LGBT employees of color have experienced verbal harassment in the workplace.

When you couple these statistics with the fact that there are over 8 million U.S. workers who identify as LGBT, it means that the number of marginalized individuals experiencing workplace harassment is in the millions.

Of course, you don’t have to be from just this marginalized group to experience workplace harassment. Anyone, regardless of sex, gender, race, or religion, can find themselves a target of abuse. This is a major issue, and if you have been a victim of this type of conduct, you should make your psychological health a priority.

What’s To Be Done About Workplace Abuse?

Thankfully, the bullying epidemic is not going unnoticed in the workplace. Organizations are taking steps to combat such behavior. Implementing a strict zero-tolerance policy for abusive conduct, as well as providing anti-abuse and anti-discrimination training for employees are just some of the preventive measures companies are taking. Many businesses are stepping up to make it clear that workplace abuse will not be tolerated. 

There are two main organizations that are leading the charge against workplace harassment. The first is The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), which enforces the federal laws that prohibit workplace discrimination and harassment. Through the EEOC, people can find legal recourse if their organization violates these laws. Victims of workplace harassment can file a formal complaint with the EEOC and gain legal representation in order to right the wrongs done against them. There are, of course, strict criteria for who qualifies for this action. 

The second organization is the Workplace Bullying Institute (WBI), which for over 26 years has been focusing on preventing and correcting inappropriate workplace behavior through education, training, and evidence-based solutions. They have focused their efforts on destigmatizing workplace abuse and enforcing that it should be considered just as much a cultural taboo as any other kind of abuse, be it marital, schoolyard, or anywhere else.

What Steps Can You Take to Protect Yourself?

If you are currently in a toxic workplace environment, know that you are not alone. As we have seen, there are millions of people in a situation just like yours, searching for a way out. And while there are individuals and organizations who are fighting for you, ultimately, you are the one in control of your own situation. 

Here are some steps that you can take to address the abuse:

Speak up. If you feel comfortable and safe enough, confront your bully. Understand that if there are current threats of violence, your first priority should be your own safety. If there is any threat of physical violence at all, you should not speak up. Get to a safe environment, and look at additional resources. However, many workplace bullies, just like in grade school, are scared. Scared of being seen, scared of failing, even scared of you. You might consider telling them their behavior is unacceptable and you will not stand for it anymore. Give them specific examples of the type of behavior you find unacceptable.

Keep a record. Whenever an incident occurs, no matter how big or small, write it down. Record the date, time, location, and description of the abuse. Too often, workplace abuse can seem like unconnected instances rather than a pattern. A record can help you keep track of what’s going on and help you build a case if legal action ends up being the right option for you.

Report the abuse. Talk to your supervisor or human resources about what has been taking place. Do not attempt to downplay the behavior so as not to make a big deal. It is a big deal! If they do not take the appropriate action, then it may be time to move on to legal resources, or simply move on from the workplace. Remember, any violent act, violent situations, and physical attacks are illegal and can be reported to the police.

Take legal action. Lawyers fight so you don’t have to. When your words aren’t enough, obtaining legal counsel can be the next best step. You can also file a formal complaint with the EEOC, which can investigate your claim and take legal action on your behalf if there is clear discrimination or harassment involved. 

Find a new job. If your workplace doesn’t make you feel safe then they don’t deserve you. There are so many companies out there with strong morals and values that would be lucky to have you. Whether it’s in-person, virtual, or hybrid work, find a business that puts its employees first and doesn’t see abuse of power as a company value.

Healing From a Workplace Abuse

Workplace abuse can leave its mark. It’s important to take steps to help yourself feel better and move on. 

Seek support. It’s important to share what you have gone through, whether that’s with a friend, a family member, a mental health professional, or through a coaching group specifically designed for you. You can address your experiences and how you feel about them today. No one will judge you for what you’ve gone through. 

Practice self-care. Love yourself. Remind yourself who you truly are, not who your toxic workplace made you out to be. Incorporate things like exercise, meditation, hobbies, or intentional time off into your life in order to reset and recharge. Check out my Work Detox Bundle to help you heal and improve your self-care.  

Reflect on your values. Think about who you are and what’s most important to you. Especially if you are now seeking a new job, hold those values close and look for them in future employers. 

Set boundaries. There is nothing wrong with clear boundaries; in fact, they’re amazing! Boundaries will prevent your work from overflowing into the rest of your life. This might mean not responding to emails after work hours, or ensuring that you are being properly compensated for all of the work that you do. 

Seek closure. Sometimes, finding closure with your old employer or coworkers can help you finally move on. If you feel comfortable, have an exit interview and tell them why you’re leaving. Sometimes, employers aren’t aware of what’s been happening until they’re told. While it may be too late for you to stay there, you can help ensure it doesn’t happen to future employees. However, weigh this option with the potential of burning that bridge.

Focus on the present. Once you have left your old, toxic workplace behind, leave it there. Focus on the here and now. Recognize how you have grown and changed, look towards the future with excitement, and understand the type of workplace you want to work at next.

There are Companies Without Toxic Cultures

In today’s world, there are limitless opportunities for change. There are companies out there that are making a real effort to make workplaces a safe and validating environment, meaning that those that aren’t are being left behind in the dust. You deserve to work somewhere that values you and makes you excited to go to work.

Connect with me if you need a hand making a change!


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