To abuse someone verbally is to treat him or her with cruelty, especially regularly or repeatedly. Verbal abuse in the workplace is a special case, though, because most employers have policies banning such behavior, and many even prescribe punitive or disciplinary action. So at work, verbal abusers often undertake their abusive acts at times, in settings, and with tones that afford them safety from organizational discipline. Executed in this way, verbal abuse is actually a kind of covert bullying. Abusers generally choose from three common approaches.
- Abuse conducted in private is more readily denied than abuse conducted before witnesses. Private settings are more common than one might at first believe. Beyond the closed-door office, there are otherwise-empty hallways, elevators, rest rooms, stairwells, the grounds around the building, and telephone conversations. And the privacy needed by abusers isn't the airtight one-on-one kind. All that's required is that there be no witnesses who are fellow employees. By this standard, restaurants, airline flights, and public spaces of all kinds can suffice.
- Abusers who depend on privacy for safety sometimes forget that the same privacy also affords safety to the person abused — the target — if the target chooses to respond forcefully. This safety is useful for protecting targets who choose responses that witnesses might regard as unnecessarily harsh or insubordinate, even though the target might regard the response as appropriate and necessary.
- Some abusers are content with protection against disciplinary action. That is, they feel comfortable engaging in abuse so long as they're certain that there will be no disciplinary action. A typical scenario: the supervisor abusing a subordinate in an emergency meeting called to deal with a product recall or data breach. In such situations, there is an organizational tendency to place mission over manners and legalities.
- If the abuser's perception of protection from disciplinary action is accurate, organizational policy isn't relevant, and the target is in real danger. In such circumstances, appeals to Human Resources — rarely of much use to targets in any case — are almost certainly dangerous to the target. Voluntary termination or transfer is more likely to afford protection for the target. Transferring to the domain of someone more powerful than the abuser or the abuser's protector is an especially attractive option for targets.
- If the actions Verbal abusers often undertake their
abusive acts at times, in settings,
and with tones that afford them
safety from organizational disciplineof the abuser are at all ambiguous, then if questioned, the abuser can deny that any abusive behavior took place. That is, the abuser can assert that no abuse was intended and that the target is being "overly sensitive," or that the abuser was "only joking and <the target> took it the wrong way." In espionage and politics, this ambiguity strategy is called "plausible deniability."
- Targets must examine carefully the tone and wording of the abuser's attack. If the attack can plausibly be interpreted as inoffensive by someone who's unfamiliar with the context of the relationship between the abuser and the target, the ambiguity strategy might be in effect. This is especially likely if fully grasping the intensity of the offense in the current attack requires special information about past attacks.
Knowing why the abuser considers himself or herself safe enough to engage in abuse is helpful to targets as they formulate powerful responses. We'll look at responses next time. Next in this series Top Next Issue
Is a workplace bully targeting you? Do you know what to do to end the bullying? Workplace bullying is so widespread that a 2014 survey indicated that 27% of American workers have experienced bullying firsthand, that 21% have witnessed it, and that 72% are aware that bullying happens. Yet, there are few laws to protect workers from bullies, and bullying is not a crime in most jurisdictions. 101 Tips for Targets of Workplace Bullies is filled with the insights targets of bullying need to find a way to survive, and then to finally end the bullying. Also available at Apple's iTunes store! Just . Order Now!
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More articles on Workplace Bullying:
- When the Chair Is a Bully: I
- Most meetings have chairs or "leads." Although the expression that the chair "owns"
the meeting is usually innocent shorthand, some chairs actually believe that they own the meeting. This
view is almost entirely destructive. What are the consequences of this attitude, and what can we do about it?
- When the Chair Is a Bully: II
- Assertiveness by chairs of meetings isn't a problem in itself, but it becomes problematic when the chair's
dominance deprives the meeting of contributions from some of its members. Here's Part II of our exploration
of the problem of bully chairs.
- Dealing with Rapid-Fire Attacks
- When a questioner repeatedly attacks someone within seconds of their starting to reply, complaining
to management about a pattern of abuse can work — if management understands abuse, and if management
wants deal with it. What if management is no help?
- Social Isolation and Workplace Bullying
- Social isolation is a tactic widely used by workplace bullies. What is it? How do bullies use it? Why
do bullies use it? What can targets do about it?
- Look Where You Aren't Looking
- Being blindsided by an adverse event could indicate the event's sudden, unexpected development. It can
also indicate a failure to anticipate what could have been reasonably anticipated. How can we improve
our ability to prepare for adverse events?
See also Workplace Bullying and Conflict Management for more related articles.
Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout
- Coming June 14: Pseudo-Collaborations
- Most workplace collaborations produce results of value. But some collaborations — pseudo-collaborations — are inherently incapable of producing value, due to performance management systems, or lack of authority, or lack of access to information. Available here and by RSS on June 14.
- And on June 21: Asking Burning Questions
- When we suddenly realize that an important question needs answering, directly asking that question in a meeting might not be an effective way to focus the attention of the group. There are risks. Fortunately, there are also ways to manage those risks. Available here and by RSS on June 21.
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