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How to Notice and Combat Verbal Abuse in the Workplace

When you think of the workplace or the office, the first thing that pops into your head probably isn’t “verbal abuse!” After all, there shouldn’t be any room for these seemingly personal jabs in the office anyways, right? Verbal abuse is usually associated with personal relationships or personal interactions. You may be in a bad relationship and your significant other verbally abuses you to put you down and pick away at your confidence. Your friend may verbally abuse you in a heated tiff you had. Same with a parent or child. But a boss verbally abusing you? Well, it happens and unfortunately it happens quite often. Verbal abuse in the workplace should not ever be tolerated, but noticing it and then combating it can be a difficult task. Read on for Spark New’s tips on how to pinpoint verbal abuse and how to squash it correctly and professionally.

At its core, verbal abuse is a power struggle. The person that is doing the abusing is likely lacking self-confidence or feels threatened by the person they are verbally abusing. No matter what the reason though, there should be no room for this kind of interaction or behavior in the workplace. As I said before, I view the office or corporate setting as a sterile environment where personal issues and things such as verbal abuse or harassment should never arise. Unfortunately, it’s naive to think that these things don’t exist and that just because they shouldn’t exist, they don’t.

So what exactly is verbal abuse anyways? It’s somewhat self explanatory, but in the office setting it’s easy to shadow the occurrence or make it seem as though it is something else. I’m sure we all have a strong hold on what verbal abuse is, but for clarification purposes, let’s take a look. Verbal abuse is defined as words or a pattern of negative words, comments or remarks directed towards a person to mentally or emotionally isolate them in the workplace. It can also occur when the abuser simply refuses to answer your questions or acknowledge your presence. Usually verbal abuse in the workplace happens on a one-to-one basis where witnesses are not available. That way, when the abused person tries to combat it, there is no substantial evidence against the abuser.

A small example of verbal abuse is when an abuser, usually in a superior role, walks into the office and warmly greets everyone in the room. They walk around and have open conversation with everyone else, but simply nod or give a curt “hello” to the abused. This is a subtle example, but it’s abuse nonetheless. Why is this person singling you out and making you feel as though you are less important or meaningless? Another form of verbal abuse is if this person belittles you are makes hurtful remarks about your work that are unprofessional. It’s fine to give constructive criticism and to critique you on your work. After all, we all make mistakes and there’s likely always room for improvement with our work. However, there is a professional and correct way to go about it. Saying, “I like this, but there are a couple things I need fixed right away. Let’s make sure you understand what I want,”  is constructive, good criticism. This is acceptable. On the other hand, it’s not OK to say, “This is awful work. Don’t you understand or comprehend what I said I wanted you to do? Obviously you are incompetent and can’t handle this work. How much do I even pay you?” Clearly, this is wrong, wrong, wrong.

If this is the sort of thing you are dealing with, you need to start taking actions to combat it. Now, it’s important that you know that the abuser in this case is trying to belittle you and make you feel less than what you are worth. That is their precise desired outcome. Therefore, getting visibly emotional and upset about it will likely only fuel the fire. You should also take a second and reflect on what is going on here. Why is this person singling you out? Did you do something in the past to rub this person the wrong way? Did you take some sort of action that would anger them? Granted, this behavior they are expressing is in no way tolerable, but there must be some reason they are choosing to treat you this way. Not that it’s your fault, but there must be a reason. Are they verbally abusive to others? Is it a discriminatory action? If so, it’s definitely illegal and taking action is imperative.

If there isn’t a clear reason, it may be that you simply failed to stand up for yourself when this abuse started. In this case, the abuser views you as an easy target and continues on with the abuse since it isn’t ever stopped. Either way, you need to come to terms with this with yourself. Know that you will not put up with this and know what you are willing to put up with to stay happy and sane. If they cross your boundary, you need to do what’s best for you and speak up. It’s important that you do this with a clear head and void of any emotions. As I stated earlier, getting emotional only feeds into their goal. Schedule a time to talk and tell them that when they do this or say this, it hurts you and effects your productivity. Perhaps they are unaware of what they are doing. Perhaps they just wanted you to stick up for yourself. Either way, it’s important to stand your ground.

When it comes up again after your talk, let them know what it is they said or did that is bothering you. You can say, “remember our talk the other day. This is an example of what I was talking about. I would prefer it if you did not do this anymore. Otherwise, my work productivity and happiness will suffer.” If it doesn’t stop, you need to talk to HR or consolidate with a professional. If leaving your job is an option, you need to do what is best for you and get out.

Verbal abuse should never be tolerated, but you need to know when it’s time to stick up for yourself. Know your boundaries and limits, and stick to them.

SOURCE: Leadership and Motivation Training
IMAGE: Courtesy of Chron

Nicole Nicholson

Nicole is the Content Editor for Spark Hire and mainly writes for and edits the work for the Spark News blog. She graduated in 2010 with a BA in Journalism from DePaul University in Chicago, Illinois. She has a passion for writing, editing, and pretty much anything to do with content. In her free time she frequents the Chicago music scene and writes reviews on shows for her own personal blog. Connect with Nicole and Spark Hire on Facebook and Twitter