Emotional Abuse in the Workplace

How to Recognize Emotional Abuse at Work

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Whether you have been at a job for ten months or ten years it can happen to you. And it happens more than you think. Learn How to Recognize Emotional Abuse at Work. I have not only seen psychological abuse at work in my own life but in the lives of co-workers, friends and family who have also experienced it.

Types of Abuse in the Workplace

There are many types of abuse. The truth is, abuse exists everywhere. Common types of abuse are physical maltreatment, child abuse, domestic violence, sexual abuse, people in power abusing their authority, and many others. Typically those who have been abused continue the cycle.

There is, of course, one other type of abuse that often goes undetected, under-reported and unmanaged. Because this type of abuse is subtle and often disguised as a valid form of communication, yet it does not get the attention it deserves. It will never get as much attention and publicity as say, physically attacking someone, since it is non-physical and does not cause injuries. This is called Emotional Abuse. Unfortunately, I have also seen it called a “management style”.

Why am I writing this? The only way to bring change is to recognize the problem, empower people to recognize the signs and take action. I can promise you, as I have watched others and myself go through this. It does not get better from staying in your lane or keeping your head down, once you are seeing a repetitive pattern of abuse. Reminiscent of middle school bullying, it actually can make it worse.

Often it comes from superiors who decide for one reason or another, real or imagined, that you are undeserving of their respect and someone to be picked on, ignored, chastised in public, or the other ways that we will show you that you are in fact being abused. It is not just a personality conflict. It is about control, jealousy, and power.

How to Recognize Emotional Abuse at Work

What is Emotional Abuse?

Once I was in a meeting and our Sr. Vice President came in to address the managers. Sales were down and so was customer satisfaction. He had just come from a meeting with his boss. The Sr. VP, stated in his meeting with the Market President, that “they” were going to start applying “healthy pressure” on this Sr. VP. So in turn, we were going to start to “receive healthy pressure”. Now it is just a fact of life that if you are not performing on your individual level, the pressure will come. Whether it is from yourself or from Sr. Management, the pressure is a way to get employees to perform at a level that is acceptable to the company norms.

Where it becomes Emotional Abuse, is when the healthy pressure turns unhealthy or toxic and singles out an individual employee. When it is because the victim is not liked and different requirements are made of that employee or more likely they are isolated and ostracized from the rest of the team. The other telltale sign is when the victim is held to a higher standard than other employees. The term “Emotional Abuse” is ambiguous at best. But we must define it. Here are some characteristics.

Emotional abuse in the workplace
Isolation in the workplace

Defining Emotional Abuse

  • Non-Physical – It is always non-physical behaviors that define Emotional Abuse. It may also be wordless. I can be in the form of constant monitoring or stalking. Refusing to return phone calls and isolating the victim with a clear lack of communication. There can also be verbal abuse and isolation.
  • Intention – The abuse is intentional and methodical. The abuser can use random situations or is choosing specific actions against the victim to discredit them and further injure the target.
  • Imbalance of Power – It does not always come from a superior but it definitely comes from an imbalance of power in the relationship. It can actually come from an employee or co-worker that falsely accuses you of something. The power then shifts in favor of the accuser.
  • Consistent – The abuse occurs on a regular basis and will typically escalate as time goes on.

The Signs

We have established that often this person is in a position of power over the victim. Although elusive, there are signs in their behavior that can tell you who you are dealing with.

Wearing down your self-esteem

  • After a tirade, they will often try to minimize the situation. They will act as if everything is normal. They will try to isolate you from others that can help them or even intimidate the victim from reaching out for help.
  • Belittling your accomplishments, derogatory pet names and character assassination was done in the name of humor or jest. Regardless, they make you look foolish.
  • Dismissiveness with your concerns. It will often involve head-shaking, smirking and eye-rolling then a denial of these events.
  • Backhanded comments and passive-aggressive behaviors knowing they are pushing your buttons to try to get a rise out of you. This can be in the form of raising goals higher for you than others, taking credit for your work or holding you accountable for things that other peers are not.
  • Lecturing you in monologue format so that you are unable to respond or even make sense of the accusations that are most likely false.

Shaming Behaviors

  • Monitoring your whereabouts or activities more than your peers with no justification. Digital spying and monitoring of emails and even personal internet activities.
  • Having other employees engage in conversation about you. Excluding the employee from workplace events, activities or team builds. Not including the employee in conversations or even completely ignoring the employee.
  • Gaslighting the employee is becoming more commonplace. This is where you are made to feel incompetent or they will alter events to make you look incompetent. They are typically gossips and will try to get information from you for their benefit later. Superiors will make decisions and then blaming you for the consequences of their decision. Telling you to take a specific action or do something and then later denying that they told you to do it.
  • Not helping the employee. The term is hanging you out to dry.

How You Know Your Days are Numbered

Emotional Abuse in the Workplace
Isolation in the workplace

The one key sign that your boss wants you gone is that your boss ignores you. Being ignored is worse than being ridiculed. At least when you are ridiculed, you are acknowledged.

Three Signs Your Boss Wants You Gone

Avoids you
If your boss is avoiding you, he is indicating that your presence in the workplace doesn’t matter. Your boss is sending clear signals that you are not someone with whom he needs to be engaging. Avoidance is worse than dismissiveness and is akin to rendering you invisible.

Gives your work to others
By handing your work over to others, your boss is saying that your work doesn’t matter and/or that he doesn’t believe that you can do it. This indicates a lack of trust as well as a lack of investment in you. If your work is being given away, you’ve already been written off by your boss.

Grabs credit
A boss who takes credit for your accomplishments and grabs your ideas screams of insecurity. Rather than defining his own success in part by whom he lifts with him, he is stealing your success to make himself look better. You will never get ahead in that environment.

The Abuser’s Insecurities

  • Jealousy can often be the issue. From certain lifestyle choices to performance, jealousy can sometimes be the culprit. As an example, the lifestyle choices of the victim make the abuser feel insecure about their own choices in life. Or the abuser needs to take credit for the victim’s accomplishments. They may even rob them of the accomplishment and if not taking the credit for themselves, give the credit to a “favorite” employee that is an underperformer.
  • Asserting their dominance over the employee is a classic sign of abuser insecurity. The abuser attempts to control the victim with dominant behaviors that lets the victim know they will be unable to “win” or come out on top of the situation.
  • Aggressiveness towards the victim who is being singled out and is often chastised in public or private. This gives the abuser a sense of control over the victim. It also lets the victim know they are the target in an effort to control them.

The Effects of Emotional Abuse in the Workplace

Often the effects can be devastating to you and your family. Anxiety and stress not only can wreak havoc on you mentally but also, physically. Check out our article My Job Was Ruining My Health! Anxiety and panic attacks can become a part of your life causing you to seek out medical help or even prescription drugs that can help with the feelings of distress.

Financial stresses and pressure can cause relationship issues. You may isolate yourself from friends and family. A lack of energy from the worry and stress can rob your kids of your time with them at home.

What the Federal Law Says

Emotional abuse is legal unless it is wrapped around other discriminating behaviors like religious or racial discrimination. Off-handed comments and teasing do not count when it comes to this discrimination. Most managers are trained well enough to know not to overtly discriminate against you in this way. The abuser will operate in a passive-aggressive way to remain undetected.

Illegal Discrimination

The following are the common types of illegal discrimination to happen in the workplace.

  • Race
  • Religion
  • Sexual Harassment
  • Disability or pregnancy
  • Age
  • Retaliation
  • Hostile working environment – harassment is unwelcome conduct that is based on race, color, religion, sex (including pregnancy), national origin, age (40 or older), disability or genetic information. Try proving that one!

This type of behavior is less commonplace or at least more difficult to prove in our politically correct society where managers have been well trained to avoid being accused of this.

Photo Credit Pexels and Pixabay


There are not many. I do not recommend leaving a job in haste but if this type of behavior is happening to you then you need to seriously consider finding different employment. No, it’s not fair.

  • Keep your cool. Things can escalate quickly when you get heated.
  • Confront the abuser with a common-sense approach. Come to them with a genuine heart of wanting to work things out. This could backfire though as they could take this as a threat or manipulation since that is how they operate. They also will not want to take responsibility or validate your concerns. Talk in “I” rather than “you”
  • If you are working for a company with an HR department, call them for advice and to report the behavior. Be prepared that this could also isolate you further. The abuser will not want to be accused of retaliation. Smaller companies do not offer this but you can attempt to go to the higher-ups in the company for help. If it is the higher up then start applying for a new job.
  • Document everything! Email your self notes of the behaviors on the day it happens. Or keep a journal and when you get home document everything so dates and circumstances are clear. As time passes and memories fade your lack of this information does not help your situation. You can rest assured your abuser will sound confident in the facts.
  • If the emotional abuse is, in fact, discriminatory then you can contact the EEOC to file a claim and start an investigation.

In Conclusion

Emotional abuse goes largely unchecked and unmanaged in corporate America. After speaking with several people who have experienced this, the common theme is that you are different from your boss in some sort of way and typically on a social level. This can trigger a toxic manager to react with hostility.

I am planning to write a book about this topic and other’s personal experiences in corporate America in relation to Emotional Abuse in the Workplace. It is a topic I am passionate about. I would love to hear your stories and thoughts in the comments! Are you a victim of Emotional Abuse in the Workplace?

How to Recognize Emotional Abuse at Work

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