How to Handle Verbal Abuse at Work

An Actual Comment from an Employee Who Left: “I felt bullied all the time. My manager told me how she thought it was funny that she made a girl cry and quit. She started yelling at me on my second day because she said I was not moving fast enough in the line. She would cuss all the time. Another co-worker cussed me out in front of the patients on my first day. I felt like nice people finish last in this department. They don’t like you to ask questions. They seem to have a lot of turnover. I would cover for people as often as possible. But when I needed someone to cover for me it was not an option.”

The Solution It’s clear this employee’s discomfort with how he or she was treated, both by a supervisor and by co-workers, drove him or her to leave. So, we’re taking a closer look. How should employees handle verbal abuse at work? The answer? They shouldn’t have to. It is essential that Human Resources professionals root out this problem in the workplace.

Workplace bullying (also referred to as office bullying) is defined as repeated, health-harming mistreatment of one or more persons (the targets) by one or more perpetrators. It may take the form of offensive conduct or behavior (including non-verbal) that is threatening, humiliating and intimidating. Or, it may be behavior that interferes with or sabotages work.

Office bullying has increasingly become a highlighted HR issue in the United States and beyond. It has attracted increased attention due to extensive media coverage of children bullying each other in schools over recent years. Men and women in the workforce have begun to realize that bullying isn’t just happening among teenagers at school. It’s also impacting morale in the workplace. The Workplace Bullying Institute reports that more than a third of U.S. workers have experienced threats, intimidation, harassment, social exclusion or verbal abuse at work, by either a boss or co-worker. Unfortunately, most victims never even report these incidents.

Because these incidents so often go unreported, HR professionals must take the responsibility of proactively monitoring for bullying problems and aggressively addressing them when they do surface. Why is this such an important issue for today’s HR professionals? Because this behavior can have repercussions both financial and legal for your company.

Quite often, supervisors, managers and senior managers don’t realize the impact that shouting, swearing, and name-calling have on employees. Managers should be expected to act in a professional manner, setting an example for others. Belittling, swearing, and intimidating employees does nothing positive for the organization, and when this behavior is seen by customers or clients, it makes the entire organization look bad. The damage to the company’s image, and the costs of employee turnover and low morale, are one reason why HR managers must take workplace bullying seriously.

Second, legal penalties for workplace bullying are likely to grow. Bullying in the workplace is now being seen along the same lines as sexual harassment. In 2001, The Healthy Workplace Bill (HWB) was introduced by David Yamada, a Professor of Law at Suffolk University. It is a model legislation that provides severely bullied employees with a legal claim for their damages. The bill also creates legal incentives for employers to act responsively with regard to bullying behaviors and prevent them from happening. Since then, the Healthy Workplace Bill has been introduced in 23 states, and the likelihood is that once it becomes law in one state, it will begin sweeping our nation, just like the school bullying laws.

HR departments should have procedures in place that employees can follow when they feel bullied. Employees should be made to feel empowered, not helpless, in these situations. As part of their orientation about company procedures and policies, employees should be instructed to take the following steps, if a bullying situation arises in the workplace.

Address the situation. First, whether the bully is a fellow coworker or a manager, attempt to discuss the problem in a professional way. This does not mean launching a war of words or escalating the confrontation. Employees should explain that the situation is having a negative effect and they will notify a supervisor if it continues.

Document the situation. When people are distressed, it can be easy to inflate a situation or just forget what exactly was said. Employees should document what has occurred and who has witnessed it.

Reference the employee handbook. If the company handbook includes an internal grievance system, harassment policy, anti-violence policy, code of conduct or ethics hotline, employees should follow the procedures outlined in these policies.

Talk with Human Resources. Employees should be encouraged to bring the problem to HR if the attempt to talk over the situation with the bully doesn’t help.

At that point, the responsibility falls on HR professionals to take decisive action before the problem leads to unnecessary employee turnover or, even worse, legal action. There are a couple of ways HSD Metrics can help companies with the problem of bullying. The first, and most obvious, is identifying the problem through exit interviews, which is how the example cited above came to light. HSD’s ExitRight exit interview process gives your company valuable insight into why employees are leaving, which lets you identify and address problems before they do more damage to productivity and morale and drive up your costs associated with employee turnover.

A recent enhancement on ExitRight’s reporting portals allows users to quickly access Red Flag words that are highlighted and categorized.  By clicking the Red Flag word desired, the entire interview contents may also be reviewed.

The other is HSD Metric’s 360-Degree Feedback tool, which captures a more complete picture of how an employee functions in your company by including input from a variety of sources, including supervisors, direct reports and peers. This more comprehensive evaluation helps you uncover problems before they reach the breaking point and increase turnover. Contact us today to get started.

About Deb Dwyer

Deborah Dwyer is the founder and president of HSD Metrics. With over 30 years of combined experience in human resource management and survey research, Deborah’s extensive knowledge reaches beyond organizational research to include significant expertise in work climate improvement, retention, hiring and selection, employee orientation, performance management systems, recognition programs, and career development systems.

7 responses to “How to Handle Verbal Abuse at Work

  1. I recently felt I have been the victim of work place harrasment by a co worker, it got to the point where I dreaded going into work each day knowing my coworker was going to find any and every reason to put me down verbally. I have developed depression and anxiety because of this verbal abuse. I was afraid to go to management because this co-worker has been employed there longer then I was, and he had developed close personal relationships with all of the management. Due to me taking my “sick” days because I could no longer deal with the down talking toward me, I have lost this job. There was no reason, I was not terminated, I was told that I quit when I did no such thing due to me having a 9 month old daughter, a fiancé to support and bills to pay on my own. I can’t even get prescriptions for the depression and anxiety developed in the work place, because now i am unemployed for being a victim. I am not sure what to do at this point. Because of this co worker I have lost ambition to work because of the constant depression. If there is anything I can do legally to help me financially, I need to discover and take advantage of whatever it may be, because I should not have been changed emotionally at my place of employment. I really need help.

  2. Did you ever get this problem resolved? And If so how? Please contact me because i too have been and continue to bare witness to workplace bullying .

  3. Wow, I don’t feel alone now. I’ve also experienced this. It wasn’t as extreme as what Brandon described from his experience — my coworker merely yelled and cursed — he felt I was taking too long to learn my job. Other than that the guy is, in my opinion, a good person, and a hardworker. He just lacks professional communication skills. My issue is how do I get that across to my coworker without bringing it to management; or offending someone who could be a great person to work with?

  4. i wok at a high volume independent small business that has about 15 employees..im trained under a boh floor manager that has been there for years longer than myself.hes a perfectionist and pushes this onto other employees ..however this individual has cursed at me ..and verbally abused me on more than one occasion and indeed makes me feel very uncomfortable around him .ive notified the actual owner of the business when it happened as he was sitting in hs office at the time of this incident. now this individual is using passive aggressive behavior towards me ..do i file a report and give my 2 week notice? or what?? where do i need to go to file such a report.?

  5. ive been subjected to verbal abuse and passive aggressive behavior more than on one occasion by the same individual ive reported it to the owner and manager already im ready to file a formal complaint against this individual and quit the job. what should i do?

  6. I have been experiencing lately verbal abuse at work, I work at Safe Way groceries store in Idaho springs Colorado. without been unkind of aggressive from my part I have experienced this treat from more than one co-worker. I am into trying to fix some inmigration problems, and I believe that I have no rights to stop inrespect from certain people. There is also a constant conspiracy tricks in the work area to make me stumble, fall or make mistake while driving heavy duty machine. I just had this morning a lady that works in produce scream to me with all unrespect for not placing a wet sign in a very small area in custumer service. There is always a sign in there and it was taken away which I didn’t realized. I asked the lady to not talk to me in such manners. There was another worker that found it strange. She was out of control, I have been always so sweet to her. It really shocked me. This is the second time, the first time was not as violent. What do you recommend for me to do since seems that the Main manager who is new managing doesn’t seem to have any kind of care of authority to handle this. Actually it seems that he is scared of all those women that work there for several years. The prior Manager was an older man. He left his position in there telling me, that he was tired of what was going on in there, that he felt sorry for the customers, but he could not handle this anymore, his second help still in there and is careless and rud to custumers and me. The women in there are used to manipulate any man that has authority in the place. I have one year and a half working and have seen this. Actually I have more of a funny personality and try all my co workers with kindness. Would you please tell me what to do about this morning abuse? should I put a police report about her aggression. I feel like it can get worst. I am not made out or iron. and fear to react like her.

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