Sticks, Stones and Broken Careers:
Verbal Abuse in the Workplace
By Cathy Hartt-- RN, CNM, MS Editor, VHPublishing's woman2woman
He leaned back comfortably in his swivel chair behind the elegant desk, placed both hands behind his head in a attitude of pure superiority and said condescendingly (while rolling his eyes and shaking his head), “No one really reads your newsletters. Mostly, I find them in the trash around here.” You are stunned, confused and hurt. All your life you have been complimented on your writing abilities and you know lots of folks who love your newsletters. In fact, you feel this is something you enjoy and do well. Why would a supervisor not see the gift you are giving to his organization with your talents?
The reason is simple, once you come to recognize verbal abuse. There are a couple of excellent books written on the verbal abuse that frequently occurs in couple relationships by an author named Patricia Evans, which I refer you to for a more in-depth look at the cycle of verbal abuse. For the purposes of this article, I will focus on verbal abuse that occurs in the workplace.
To make a long story short, verbal abuse occurs because the abuser is in a reality where he feels he must overpower his victim to feel good about himself. Often he was abused as a child. Or perhaps both victim and victimizer are influenced by cultural beliefs which support the man dominating and controlling the woman. Often the victim is confused, as in the scenario above, because she wants an equal relationship with the male. She wants to feel empathy, respect, compassion and acceptance from him. She may believe she can elicit this behavior from him by modeling it – by treating him as she wants him to treat her. Unfortunately, from his reality, he sees this as a weakness on her part and will, most often, only escalate his abuse because scoring a “win” makes him feel good about himself. He suffers low self esteem and the abusive behaviors help him cover up the part of himself he doesn’t like. He blames his faults on the victim, thereby feeling the abuse is justified.
So what happens when this dynamic occurs in the work setting in a supervisor/employee relationship? Several things might happen. The abuse might be very subtle, such as the example in the first paragraph. Just enough to make her doubt herself and wonder if her talents are really something shameful. Or, perhaps it is more overt abuse, such as name calling, belittling jokes, or yelling. Over time, the female employee may begin to believe the abuser’s perceptions, like a kind of brainwashing has occurred. She may even lose interest in the things she is most passionate about related to her work. The key question is: Does my employer applaud the talents I bring to the organization or does he belittle me when I am successful and believe I am using my talents to “manipulate” him? If he is not applauding you, chances are good that this may be abuse.
Because most abusers are in a position of being highly trusted and usually appear to be the “good guy” to bystanders, often the woman’s coworkers will blame the victim for the abuse. They may try to get her to believe she is emotionally less healthy than they are, because this “nice” supervisor is not abusing them. On top of this, most verbal abuse occurs in one-on-one meetings where there is no witness to help validate the woman’s experience of what her boss has just done to wound her. Perhaps slowly she begins to wonder if everyone is right – if she is doing something to deserve the abuse. She begins to doubt her perceptions because everyone else does. If she believes the abuse is her fault, she will often try harder and harder to please the boss (or to “fix” herself), only to find out that the blaming and put-downs have nothing to do with her. They are about his need for control over her.
What should a woman do if she believes she is being verbally abused in the workplace? I think there are several answers, depending on the individual and the situation. First, remember the abuser is not going to understand that he is abusive if she tries to explain this to him. This is not his reality – he will see any explanations as her weakness. The best thing is just to tell him to “stop”, that his behavior is abusive and will not be tolerated. In the best scenario, this will bring him to a realization that he is abusive and he will be open to trying to change his behavior. All too frequently, however, this confrontation about the abuse may actually make the behavior escalate as he struggles for control. He may accuse her of attacking him! He is often in a position to end her employment or make her even more miserable, and she may be forced to find another job.
Fortunately, there are some avenues a woman can pursue if she can substantiate that she is in a hostile or abusive work environment. These could include the institution’s human resources or affirmative action offices, a professional mediator or attorney, or the EEOC. The most important thing for the woman to keep in mind is to trust her perceptions and to stand up for her right to be treated with respect in the workplace. This can be tough, as the all too frequent response from her coworkers is to blame the victim and support the perpetrator. For these reasons, it is imperative that she find supportive friends, a support group or a qualified counselor as she works to resolve this painful situation. Above all, she must believe that the abuse is not her fault! The abusive supervisor is accountable.
Cathy Hartt, RN, CNM, MS, Editor Empower! – women empowering women quarterly, women’s health and abuse prevention newsletter (www.HarttWeb.com).
Editor’s note: Cathy Hartt, RN, CNM, MS, is currently a nurse consultant and faculty for the University of Colorado Health Sciences Center in Denver. In this role, she is coordinating quality improvement efforts for the National Center for Children, Families and Communities – a program aimed at maternal/child abuse prevention. She also serves as secretary of CNMs Service Director’s Network. Prior to this, Cathy pioneered the first effective system for low-income women’s obstetric care in Montrose, Colorado, where she practiced from 1991-1998.