What Is Abusive Behavior in The Workplace & What to Do If You’re A Victim of It
What is abusive behavior in the workplace, and why does it happen? If you understand it, you realize that doesn’t have to happen. And what can you do when it does happen? I’ll tell you about my experience.

When I ran a work stress service in a Workers Comp clinic, I had a patient named Mary. Mary was a short, round, lively woman of about forty years old. Almost as soon as I met her, she told me that she has ADHD and, with a giggle, she said that her hyperactivity had always gotten her in trouble at school. She was seeing me because it was getting her in trouble again at work.

Mary has been the receptionist/clerk in the same medical clinic for twenty years. Her cheerfulness, liveliness, and love for the patients had made her the life of the clinic. She knew all the patients by name and she spent time with every one of them not just checking their insurance and address, but getting to know them, asking about their children or grandchildren, and spending some quality time together.

If the patients were in the building, it was not uncommon for them to drop in just to say hi to Mary. They often brought her small gifts or cookies when they got discharged from the clinic. At Christmas Mary had cards for all the patients and they had cards and gifts for her.

As loved as she was by patients and staff, she was not efficient. She had done her job so long that she could get things done but she was disorganized. Her supervisor knew and appreciated what Mary brought to the clinic. And so, as a gentle mother would, her supervisor kept an eye on her work, helped her organize, and got her back on track. They had a good, mutually appreciative relationship.

Abusive behavior in the workplace can happen anywhere.
Photo by Helena Lopes: Unsplash

Mary’s trouble began

But Mary’s supervisor retired. When the new supervisor arrived, the old supervisor introduced the new supervisor to Mary and told her, with Mary present, why she appreciated Mary’s unusual approach to patients and how she kept Mary organized and on track. The new supervisor said, “Well, I’m not doing that. If she can’t do her job, she’s out of here.”

Mary was scared. With twenty years of experience, there was no question that she could do the job, but because of her ADHD, she could not get organized or stay on track without help.

Mary’s new supervisor was very quick to tell Mary what she was doing wrong and how to do her job. She would reprimand her in front of other people, employees, and patients. She wrote up Mary and threatened to fire her. At times, she would yell at Mary for being so disorganized. At one point, she yelled at her and threw a pen at her. Clearly, the supervisor’s behavior was abusive.

People stopped dropping by to see Mary and the mood in the clinic changed. Whenever people dropped in, the supervisor would yell at Mary and tell her to get back to work. Patients complained. Those complaints went to the supervisor. Her attitude was that those people would now stop distracting Mary.

Mary came to me saying that she needed to change. She did not think that her supervisor’s behavior was abusive. She thought it was her fault that things at work were so bad. But Mary has ADHD. She is very hyperactive and highly distractible. That isn’t going to change. Her supervisor had created a toxic work environment for her and the other clerks.

What behavior is abusive?

Mary is a delightful, engaging, bubbly person who loves everyone. The problem was not hers. But how do we understand the abusive behavior of her supervisor who created such a toxic environment?

When the supervisor met Mary, the first thing she said was, “Well, I’m not going to (help her). If she can’t do her job, she’s out of here.” The previous supervisor had just elevated Mary, extolling her value to the clinic. The new supervisor put Mary in an inferior position and exerted her power over her. She embarrassed and threatened May. That was abusive behavior. Yelling at her and public reprimands were abusive behaviors.

What is abusive behavior in the workplace?

From a legal perspective, every state is different. Some states are worker’s rights states and some are not. California is a workers rights state and here is what the state legislature has said that workplace abuse is:

Conduct of an employer or employee in the workplace, with malice, that a reasonable person would find hostile, offensive, and unrelated to an employer’s legitimate business interests. Abusive conduct may include repeated infliction of verbal abuse, such as the use of derogatory remarks, insults, and epithets, verbal or physical conduct that a reasonable person would find threatening, intimidating, or humiliating, or the gratuitous sabotage or undermining of a person’s work performance. A single act shall not constitute abusive conduct, unless especially severe and egregious.

Abuse is about power.

Imagine your first moments on a job. You have a dozen people to meet. You have to remember all their names and the details you are told about what they do and who they are. And you don’t know your way around the place. Where is the restroom and where can you find some coffee? This is a moment when you are the least powerful, and lacking power doesn’t feel good. Conversely, having power is pleasurable.

By asserting her power over Mary, most likely the most vulnerable person in the clinic, the new supervisor reversed her feeling of not having power and got the pleasure of being powerful. For the new supervisor, this may have been an important thing to do. Not having power is inhibiting. There is a tendency to be silent and compliant, unable to think clearly or to manage eventualities.

The greater the power, the more dangerous the abuse. Edmund Burke

Understandably, the new supervisor would want to get out of the mental state she was in so that she could more effectively do her job. Her way of doing it was abusive, unconscious, and cruel. And you notice, she was not thinking at all about how Mary would feel about what she said. She was only thinking about the clinic functioning well and her need to be in control.

The supervisor’s attention was on her goals and how meeting those goals would make her look good. For her, doing things right, being efficient, making no mistakes, pleasing her superiors is all she had in mind. This is something that happens to people who are in a power position. They tend to lose contact with how other people feel. And their behavior can become abusive.

Photo by Martha-Dominguez-de-Gouveia Unsplash

As Mary failed, so did her supervisor

Remember that Mary has ADHD. With the support of her old supervisor to get her organized and on task, she was a superlative worker and the light of the clinic. But without that support, her job fell apart. She could not stay on task so even simple things did not get done. She was so disorganized that her work was a mess. Her supervisor did not help her but instead punished her hoping that she would change her behavior.

The supervisor tried to shame Mary and it worked. Mary felt very ashamed. But she didn’t perform any better. She tried to micromanage her. But Mary knew the job well. She did not need micromanagement; she needed some particular help. The micromanagement only made her feel incompetent and small.

For Mary, her workplace was becoming very toxic. She was suffering and not doing even as well as she used to. The stress she was under was disabling her. When her supervisor yelled at her and threw a pen at her, she could not stay on the job. It was too much for her and she left.

The supervisor needed help

The supervisor found herself in a losing situation of her own making. She was failing at getting Mary to do as she ordered. But Mary couldn’t do what she was told. It was beyond her. The more the supervisor pressured Mary, the more Mary failed and so did the supervisor. At some point, the supervisor felt that she was powerless and acted out by yelling and throwing the pen in a final bid to acquire power.

This is all so tragic for Mary. She was transferred to another clinic but without the support of a compassionate supervisor, she stayed only a short while and then was fired. She was not able to find work again as long as I knew her.

My work with Mary was to restore her mental health after this prolonged period of abuse. I can tell you that in time she did recover and enjoyed her early retirement.

It was also tragic for the supervisor

It was also tragic for the supervisor. Wanting so much to do well, she quickly got a reputation for being angry and for alienating people. Several of the people in her clinic transferred to another clinic or took jobs elsewhere because they did not want to work with her. Eventually, there were enough complaints against her that she left. What if she had come to my work stress clinic instead of Mary?

It is unlikely she would have come because she wanted power. Seeking mental health care is seen by some people as a weakness instead of realizing that it is a tremendous source for gaining power.

Although no one has ever come to me saying their issue is that they wanted to be more successful at work or in business, it is not uncommon for the end results to be unforeseen accomplishments, such as coming in as a junior salesman and finishing treatment taking over management of the company. Or starting at an entry-level position and becoming the supervisor. Or sales figures quadrupling.

It could have ended differently

Instead of failing, as Mary’s supervisor did, she might have been very successful and promoted. How?

We know what happens to people when they get into a position of power. Power changes the way people think, what they are aware of, and how they behave. Their behavior often becomes abusive. It could happen to any of us, male or female. Power can cause people to lose contact not only with others but also with their inner selves. Their thinking becomes rigid and lacking in creativity.

There is hope for people in positions of power, but often they won’t engage in rehabilitation until their job is threatened. The employer may need to tell them to take some time off and get therapy or they will lose their job. This is the situation that Intensive Psychotherapy was designed for.

In a four week period, Intensive Psychotherapy restores a person’s contact with their inner life and their empathy for others. It helps them recon with the harm they have done to others. Psychotherapy will improve the accuracy of social judgment, and change the tendency to have stereotyped ideas about people and to see them as individuals. You become a much better listener and problem solver. The best predictor of success is Emotional Intelligence.


Some helpful suggestions for dealing with abusive behavior in the workplace

  • If you are being abused, get support from family, friends, and mental health services.
  • If your approach to dealing with an employee is not working, get a consultation. Persisting in what you are doing is likely to make things worse.
  • Work to have happy customers. Your employees’ customers are the people who come to your department. As the supervisor, your customers are your employees.
  • If you are the supervisor and are getting pushback from a group of people, take a look at yourself as the cause. You may need mental health services to figure it out.
  • Look for the gifts that your employees bring and nurture them, and find ways to accommodate the weaknesses.

If you have other questions about how you can deal with workplace abuse, feel free to reach out.