Dealing With Verbal Abuse in the Workplace

Experiencing verbal abuse in the workplace is a highly unpleasant experience, as well as a particularly difficult one to navigate effectively. Out in the ‘real world’ we can respond to verbal abuse by responding in kind, or simply avoiding the situation.

However, if you have an abusive colleague, boss or client, you need to maintain a certain level of professionalism. Furthermore, you can’t simply avoid the situation and will be forced to continue interacting with them on a daily basis.

The key thing to recognize though is that this is not ‘normal’ and it is not okay. You should not have to live with verbal abuse and there is no circumstance where you should consider acceptable. If you find yourself being yelled at, embarrassed, sworn at or otherwise on the receiving end of any behavior you find unpleasant, then you need to stand up for yourself and do something about it. And note that this includes being shouted at by a boss.

The Correct Social Dynamic for Employer/Employee Relationships

Many people seem to think that it’s ‘okay’ for a boss to raise their voice at us, because they are ‘in charge’. If you went straight from being a school child where you were told off by teachers, to working in an office where you are told off by your boss, then you may simply accept this as normal. If you do something wrong, or if you are performing under par, then you can expect to be ‘reprimanded’.

In reality though, this is the wrong way to think about an employer/employee relationship. Your employer is not a parent and you are not a child – they never have a right to raise their voice at you and they have no authority over you.

Rather, you should think of your working relationship as an ‘agreement’. You have agreed to do what they ask in exchange for getting regular payment and a pleasant environment to work in. Both you then must hold up your sides of the bargain and you are both equals in every sense. They can express their dissatisfaction and they can terminate the agreement – but so too can you. And they have no more right to raise their voice than you do.

How to Take a Stand

So how do you take a stand against someone who is being verbally abusive at work?

The answer is to make it clear that you do not find the behaviour acceptable and that you will not tolerate it but to do this in a manner that is firm, fair and controlled.

If someone is being verbally abusive, this suggests they have lost control of their emotions. Your job is to remain calm while at the same time suppressing any anxiety or fear you might be feeling.

This means challenging the behavior but a good tip can be to approach the abuser at a time when they are calm and tensions are flared. If they shouted at you in front of colleagues, your job is then to approach them at a subsequent point when they’re alone and to let them know that you didn’t find their approach acceptable. Tell them that you would appreciate it in future if they would raise their concerns with you in a quiet manner and in a more private setting. Don’t start out accusing them of abuse – explain that you understand that tensions are running high and they must be very stressed but that you also don’t expect them to repeat the behavior because it interferes with your ability to work. Choose a specific aspect of their conduct that you don’t like: raising their voice, swearing, shouting in front of colleagues, and then ask that they don’t repeat that again.

Another tip is not to leave until they have agreed with you. Look them in the eye and ask them to promise you that they won’t do it again. This will be a highly tense situation, so following that, you can dilute that nervous energy by cracking a joke, laughing, or patting them on the shoulder in a friendly manner.

Taking it Further

In most cases, a face-to-face chat like this will be enough to win the respect of the person in question. You’ll have drawn attention to the problem and if they have given their word, then in most cases you should find that they won’t go back on it.

But if the problem continues, your next recourse is to take the problem higher up. Normally it’s a good idea to mention this possibility before acting on it. Don’t use it at first (no one likes being threatened) but if the problem continues tell the person that you’ll have to contact their superiors if they continue to act in the way they’re acting.

If they still continue, then you should feel perfectly within your rights to report them to their superiors. If they don’t have any superiors, then you can instead speak with some of your colleagues to see if they feel the same way and perhaps come back and approach them as a group. It can also help in any case to document cases of the abuse. Make a note of each incident and save any abusive emails. This way, you’ll be able to approach your superiors with some actual evidence, as well as a lot more facts about the precise nature of the problem. You can also get multiple people to speak with your superiors to further backup your side of the story.

Another option is simply to ask to be moved to another department. Or if you can prove that a specific individual is the one causing the problems, ask that they be moved instead. Often there can be solutions that don’t involve anyone being reprimanded or losing their jobs.

Advice and Caveats

The most important thing when following this advice is to sit down with the abuser and talk to them directly, firmly and face-to-face. This creates a very awkward situation for them and makes them face up to their behavior. This will earn you respect, force them to treat you more like a human being and encourage them to promise they’re going to change the way they act around you. This talk also then gives you the license to take issues further if they don’t improve right away. If you go straight to your superior, then you might find that they don’t take you as seriously because you failed to raise the problem first. This can blindside the abuser and it can actually even make matters worse in some cases.

But with all that said, it’s also true that this all might seem a little ‘easier said than done’. After all, if someone is being abusive and you’re not someone who enjoys confrontation, the thought of approaching them in person might seem unbearable. In this case, you may decide to raise your concern via an email instead. Alternatively, you can speak with a manager or even with HR and express that you’re not happy without right away naming names. This might be enough to get them to speak with your superiors quietly and without naming names – a good HR team should always be confidential and respect your privacy.

It’s also important to be realistic about the outcome. You may find in some cases that there is a culture of abusive language, or that your management is somewhat unable to do anything about the actions of certain individuals.

In either of these cases, it might become apparent that you aren’t going to get the resolution you’re looking for. And in this case, you should seek to leave your job for a new role as soon as possible. While this might sound extreme, being in a job that makes you unhappy and where you are constantly being shouted at can take a very serious toll on your happiness and on your emotional wellbeing. Chronic stress is actually incredibly bad for your health and can lead to depression or other serious conditions if you let it continue. Whatever you do, don’t accept this behavior and don’t allow yourself to be subjected to it.

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