Samstag, 24. Oktober 2020

Abusive Supervision And Other Health-Harming Behavior In The Workplace

Developed societies have been slow to acknowledge abuse, let alone educate the public and implement measures to prevent it. Domestic violence, for example, started to gain widespread public attention only in the 1970ies. It took another approximately 20 years for the passing of the  Violence Against Women Act (VAWA, 1994) which finally changed the way we view and deal with domestic violence. Similarly, mandatory reporting laws in case of suspected child abuse are phenomena of the 1960ies. The Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act (CAPTA) was only passed in 1974.

The shortcomings in dealing with domestic abuse are not specific to the United States. Other developed countries, Germany and the United Kingdom, to name a few, have a relatively similar history. 

The purpose of this article is to draw attention to another area where abuse occurs regularly, however, has to-date escaped the public attention, as reflected in the shortage of literature and education: employee abuse.

One Of Five People Gets Abused By A Boss On Any Given Day

According to Harvey Hornstein, a Columbia University Professor,”90% of the U.S. workforce has at some point been subjected to abusive behavior” and “on any given day, one of five people gets abused by a boss.”

One of the most challenging aspects of employee abuse is that—at least in developed societies—it predominantly occurs in psychological form. Meaning, even though the behavior can have a severe impact, there are hardly any bruises or cuts that can help identify the damages done to an employee. Not only that, employee abuse, particularly in the white-collar workplace, often happens very subtly which makes it additionally difficult to identify the behavior and respond properly.

Domestic And Employee Abuse—Similarities

There are key similarities between domestic and employee abuse. Firstly, they both occur in connection to a place where affected individuals spend a significant amount of time. Therefore, the abuse can have a severe impact on an individual’s health and well-being. Secondly, affected individuals tend to be (or perceive themselves to be) economically dependent on the perpetrator(s). However, the dependency is generally not limited to economics. In the case of employees, they usually build their identities around their jobs. When they fear losing their jobs, they fear more than the loss of their economic well-being. Which brings us to the third similarity, abuse is about power and control operating in an environment of fear. The more fearful an individual, the more power a perpetrator is likely to have, and, subsequently, the more s/he can control the individual.

Current Legal Situation

There are no laws that protect employees from general abuse. Employees in the USA are protected from abuse under the law only if the abuse occurs in connection with protected traits such as race, national origin, gender, age, and other similar factors. Outside of this scope, employees may have protection under organizational policies.  

What Is Employee Abuse?

Employee abuse is the health-harming treatment of employees in the workplace which includes but is not limited to abusive supervision. Single incidents of misbehavior toward an employee generally do not constitute abuse.

The abuser can be anyone. However, due to the power imbalance created by the hierarchies in organizations, supervisors and managers are more likely to be the perpetrators. Health consequences can vary from depression, anxiety, sleep disturbance, gastrointestinal disorders, hair loss, self-doubt, forgetfulness to post-traumatic stress disorder. Abusive conduct can be overt or covert. Overt abuse includes behavior such as yelling, cursing, or throwing objects at an employee.

The rather covert forms of abuse include behavior such as talking down, belittling, lying, excessive criticism, gaslighting, bullying, excessive monitoring of work, lack of transparency and accountability, withholding of information or resources, devaluing employee’s credentials or work, interfering with work activities, delaying actions on matters of importance, preventing from expressing one’s self or a combination of these behaviors.

Employee abuse can also be a(n indirect) consequence of being expected to perform in a chaotic work environment; created, for example, by management inability to communicate properly or to establish logical processes, for which management does not take responsibility. Hierarchies in organizations provide certain individuals with notable power over others. The proper utilization of this power requires accountability. When individuals with power fail to hold themselves accountable, they can create havoc for subordinates.

We are now going to discuss more in detail two common abusive practices in the workplace.


Micromanagement is the excessive monitoring of an employee’s work. It is not the same as a superior being detail-oriented. Micromanagement is also not an acceptable form of management; it is the result of an absence of proper management. Micromanagers lack the appropriate ability to delegate; a primary skillset required for the role of a supervisor or manager.

Micromanagement is a way to exert control. The perpetrator acts on his/her pathologies such as anxiety, deeply-rooted insecurities, or arrogance. It is one of the most dreaded and wide-spread challenges in the workplace. It can have serious health consequences. It destroys morale, confidence, and creativity. It not only hurts employees but also the organization. Depending on the severity of their behavior, micromanagers, in effect, prevent workers and themselves from doing their jobs because they require constant, superfluous interactions. However, micromanagers do not hold themselves accountable for the disruptions they cause. Lower productivity tends to be the outcome of micromanagement in the long-run.  

Fear And Coercive Power

Employers have coercive power to fire or otherwise punish employees if they don’t comply with the directions of management. They can use this tool in legitimate ways to ensure that workers are doing what they are supposed to and to keep the organization moving in the direction they desire. However, they can also use this tool to exploit and otherwise harm workers.  

One of the common ways coercive power is misused today is by pressuring employees to work at a health-harming speed by setting unrealistic expectations. The tool is highly effective because it maximizes output by exploiting the existential fears of employees. In fact, employers don’t even have to explicitly threaten employees with sanctions to coerce employees. In the USA, employees have such an immense fear of losing their jobs, they are relatively compliant, even in the absence of any threats. The US workforce is, in fact, astonishingly well-conformed, for a society that values liberty as much as we do. Employers can capitalize on these fears relatively easily if they desire to do so.  

Lack Of Public Education And Authority

There is an overall understanding that domestic abuse is not acceptable in our society today. There are countless non-profit organizations and government agencies that offer expert advice, education, and other resources to assist affected individuals. However, the same does not apply to employees who experience abuse in the workplace. Workplace bullying may be considered an exception, as education and non-profit organizations that cover the topic are on the rise. However, even bullying is to-date generally not dealt with very effectively.

Given the status quo, there is an array of opinions and suggestions in the media. They range from questioning if what feels abusive to an employee, is, in fact, abusive from an “objective” perspective to suggesting to prevent “meltdowns by recognizing triggers and proactively taking care of those small problems that tend to set the person off (, confronting the problem to drawing a lesson from getting sworn at by a boss. Abusive behavior tends to be played down or ignored particularly when the abuser is a successful individual; in an article published in 2006, the author praises Harvey Weinstein for his accomplishments while nonchalantly acknowledging him as one of the “great intimidators.” Fortunately, today, we have a better understanding of Weinstein’s legacy.

What we learn about abusive leaders like Weinstein should not surprise us because misconduct is rarely an isolated, single behavior. When individuals abuse the people they work with, they generally don’t stop after one or two incidents or in one or two areas, especially then when those around them fail to speak up or push back.  

Speaking Up Or Remaining Silent In View Of Wrongdoing

Educating the public on how best to deal with abuse in the workplace is crucial to a society that values human dignity. However, no matter the amount of available resources, at the end of the day, every individual must take responsibility for their own lives; in this case, the affected individuals have a choice to make, between being silent, not drawing healthy boundaries, letting themselves down versus standing up for themselves, speaking up, and drawing healthy boundaries; they have to make that choice regardless if they decide to stay or leave a particular organization.

Remaining silent may seem like the safer choice. However, over time, there is a significant price for that, most of which is generally hidden from the plain view—unexplained illnesses, back, neck and shoulder pain, ulcers, depression, and the long list goes on; however, the most painful price is a loss of confidence, self-esteem, and self-respect. 

There is no doubt that speaking up can be risky.  However, there are many reasons to do it anyway. An individual who speaks up in the workplace will have heightened self-esteem, be more confident and, subsequently, attract healthier relationships, professionally, and beyond; such a person is less likely to become a target of abuse in the future.

Professionalism—Silence, Looking Away, Lying?

Silence, looking away, and (letting others get away with) lying has become such an epidemic in workplaces; they are often equated with professionalism. One’s emotional intelligence even seems to be measured by how unmoved an individual remains in view of wrongdoings. Behavior that one would not tolerate anywhere else has become acceptable in the workplace.  Much of the misconduct is often in plain sight, for everyone to see; because the perpetrators can rely on a majority, if not all, to look away.

Subsequently, when one can no longer take it, it has become customary to leave an organization, without saying anything or even lying about the reasons for leaving, to ensure one doesn’t “burn any bridges.” On the other hand, many individuals “speak up” after they leave an organization or retire—when it is relatively safe to speak—, after having participated in keeping up the status quo in their organizations for many years; they write books in which they “finally tell it all.” We celebrate such individuals and award them with fame and fortune, instead of asking tough questions about their legacies and motives.

There is a notion that it is acceptable to become “someone else” in the workplace, professionals who do what they have to do to put food on the table. However, the workplace is not only where people spend their most productive hours, but also, all important decisions that affect the lives of others are usually made in places where people work; the Congress, The White House, the automobile industry, pharma, news outlets, detention centers, grocery stores, meat industry, animal shelters, fast food restaurants, and the long list goes on. Employees cannot simply detach themselves from the consequences of their actions or inactions in the workplace.

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