Amy Frost, MBA, MA in Spiritual PsychologyCoach, Life Manager, Triage Specialist, Keynote Speaker, Trainer

Coach, Life Manager, Triage Specialist, Keynote Speaker, Trainer

Creating a Healthy, Empowered Workplace:
Giving Workplace Abuse a Bad Name


Amy Lynn Frost, MBA and MA Spiritual Psychology

Yelling at living things does tend to kill the spirit in them. Sticks and stones may break our bones, but words will break our hearts... Robert Fulgum.

There is a virus running rampant in today’s business world. It’s called workplace abuse. Most cannot name what is going on. They just feel a terrible unease. Many figure that it’s their own problem. Others see it as business as usual. Take the example of Kathy. She had spent two weeks, much of it nonpaid overtime, working on the proposal for funding new projects for the next quarter. She wanted it to be perfect knowing how picky her boss could be especially under pressure of a deadline. She chose a moment when the manager was not distracted and gave him the project. She waited anxiously for five minutes while the proposal was scanned. Then the unthinkable happened. The manager crumpled it up and threw it at her and yelled so that the whole floor could hear “This is unacceptable. We can’t submit this crap. I want a rewrite on my desk tomorrow at eight am sharp.” Everyone within earshot turned away in embarrassment. Kathy wished that the ground would open and swallow her up.

Sounds like a scene from a melodramatic movie. Unfortunately not – it happened. It’s an example of abuse in the workplace.

Some other examples:

Setting a person up to fail by not providing adequate resources and support
Not considering the personal life to be of value
Demanding more from the worker than is reasonable
Demeaning and sarcastic remarks
Managing by intimidation with comments like: Get that list to me or you’re fired.
Unfair and unjustified performance reviews
Not showing appreciation for a person’s work and value
Yelling at others
Hurtful attacks of your nature and abilities

I was preparing to write this article and I pulled out a notebook from my work with the Air Force from years ago. Inside it was a yellow post it note saying, “Amy - Rewrite his paragraph so it flows. The document was almost right before; now it is horrible.” For a moment I flashed back there. I had spent months coordination efforts and writing a lengthy, complicated acquisition document. It was reviewed by many, many people and I rewrote and rewrote striving for excellence on this very important project. Then in a fit of rage my boss describes the document as horrible. This is abuse.

I am writing on this topic with the hope that workplace abuse can be identified, healed and prevented. I believe that companies that are values driven and people oriented make for a kinder, gentler workplace with an excellent bottom line. There are toxic systems, policies and people that cause deep hurt, reduce productivity, and generally raise the misery factor at work. Workplace abuse results in depressed workers with the joy sucked out of them. They dread going to work, are frequently absent, show little loyalty to the company, and even resort to violence to themselves and to others.

Are you in an abusive environment? Do any of these describe you?

You feel off balance and unable to be back in balance.
You feel disconnected, confused, disoriented.
You are upset by the mere presence of a person.
You feel a strong desire to leave.
You feel empty and unfulfilled.
You don’t feel safe.
You don’t feel appreciated.

Tens of thousands will attest to the fact that abuse happens all the time and at many levels in almost all businesses. In recent years, sexual harassment has rightfully received significant attention. There are more subtle and not so subtle forms of mistreatment at work that do not get the press that they deserve.

Kathy and my experiences are only the tip of the iceberg. Sometimes it’s the whole corporate culture that hurts people. It’s not just bosses that mistreat subordinates. Corporate bullies are found at all levels of the organization. It’s just that the more managers don’t get called to task for their misbehavior. When bad manners becomes normal behavior, abuse sets in and destroys people and companies.

Abuse in the workplace is real and it affects us every day in many tangible and intangible ways. The example I began with is based on a true event. Kathy left the job she loved because the harassment her boss, Ted, was giving her became unbearable. Joe came in to take Kathy's place. Joe was working hard for Ted even though he was going through a messy divorce. Finally one more put-down tipped the scale. Joe came to work with a gun to kill Ted. Ted had left for the day, he went to Ted's boss, another abuser, he was gone. He went to his estranged wife's house she was gone. Joe then tracked down his wife's lawyer he killed him and then himself. Ted's answer to this tragedy, "He was nuts and get metal detectors". Are there enough metal detectors?

Identifying the Problem

If a person feels that he/she is being abused then it is more than likely happening. Granted some people are thin skinned and feel ‘abused’ by the heavy demands or high standards of a job. There is a huge difference between a tough boss and one who rules by intimidation.

Abusive bosses often have an attitude of contempt towards those under them. They often seek to motivate by intimidation and so create an atmosphere of fear. Such a workplace environment does not evoke the best from the worker. Companies contaminated with abuse often lose their brightest and best employees. They jump ship to a company that treats them respectfully and fosters a climate of cooperation and creativity.

In the end, low employee morale and loyalty can sabotage any chance a company has of remaining competitive. Even a good salary in an abusive company is not enough for employees to stay. Although money is a necessary concern to workers, people are really motivated by intrinsic factors like finding value in one’s work as an expression and expansion of the self, needing to be recognized for excellence, the drive to be creative (innovative and seeing the world with a new set of eyes), and the desire to make a difference.

What are the consequences of living with this virus?

Workplace abuse hurts everyone. Like ripples in the pond it spreads to the person’s family and then to the community at large. The road rage manifest on the freeways today is in part a result of unbearable work stress. Domestic conflict is often a spillover from an abusive workplace. We have to give it a bad name. We have to train managers to recognize it’s symptoms and act decisively to reverse the process. Denial of the problem is rampant. Some other consequences are a loss of enthusiasm, being on guard, and a loss of self confidence. All this can result in a reluctance to take action or to make decisions and can show up as emotional and physical health problems. Abusive behavior kills initiative causing people to shut down to protect themselves. The are not striving to do their best work but struggling to merely survive.

Why do we resist calling the virus ABUSE?

Carmen started working in a department store. Within two months, she saw five “good” workers walk out with no notice leaving the rest of the people to take up the slack. Everyone kept saying, “its okay here” there are no problems. Obviously good workers don’t walk out of a good workplace -- there is a problem BUT no one wants to admit it -- power denial. Other reasons why we refuse to admit that abuse exists are:

We may be an abuser and don’t want to admit it.
We don’t have a vision of a healthy environment so we just accept this is as good as it gets.
Its not abusive all the time.
The abuse can be so subtle that is erodes slowly and we don’t notice until we are ill or walk out without notice.
We are too busy to deal with it.
“I'm lucky to have a job” attitude
We don’t know what to do so why acknowledge it.
I don’t hear others saying its abuse so I must be overly sensitive.

The problem is that people do hurt in the workplace but often don’t quite know why or are so numb don’t realize they are in pain.

Unfortunately they have adapted to the pain. Like a frog that is slowly boiled in water it adapts to the heat until it’s too late, the abused worker has to ‘hit bottom’ with a major breakdown or flare-up before the problem is addressed.

People who where abused tend to be abusive. Since the workplace is and has been abusive for a long time, it makes sense that many operate this way for it is what they know how to do. There is another way.

After one of my classes, a student came up to me and said, “I realized that I am being abusive and I am going to take steps to change that.” WOW! He also said, “This behavior can be avoided by remembering, that not everyone can live up to your level of expectations. People should be measured on their own merits against the expectations of the position they fill and their contribution to the team effort.”

How is a certain action considered to be abusive? An acid test: If you did the same action would you be considered disrespectful, out of line, or be fired? If so, then that action may be abusive.

Breaking the Chain

The time has come for us to call a spade a spade. Abuse is abuse. The unseen killer of the human spirit needs to be brought out into the open and resolved. Disempowered individuals need to recognize that the problem can be changed. Despite the perspective of the “golden handcuffs” (I can’t leave because I have it too good -- great benefits, pay, and/or title), the long history of helplessness, and the growing toll on the human spirit victims can learn to be victors. The following strategies are intended to empower us to take action towards a healthy way of working.

Abusive corporate structures and personnel cannot be changed by band aid interventions like group dynamics, job enrichment, and educational seminars. The managers who abuse and coworkers who demean must change their basic view of people and motivation.

Here are some of the steps to break the chain:

1. Admit the Problem - Coming out of denial is the first step. Sometimes the pain from the abuse has to become so great that in desperation we admit “we cannot go on like this any longer.” We then begin to look for options other than being trapped. Abuse is receiver defined. You don’t have to wait until you hit your limits. We have to learn what is abusive to us. This is also a good time to look at your own actions. Are you helping to perpetuate a cycle of abuse by not standing up for yourself or letting the pain roll downhill to those around you? Is your response to the abuser the energy needed to continue the abuse?

2. Gather Information - A journal of abusive incidents reminds you of the severity of the situation. It gives you ammunition when you report to appropriate authorities or superiors. It helps you to divorce yourself from the issues and define the real source of the problem. Ask others to document and write memos for you. This will empower the entire group and add more strength to your claims.

3. Set Appropriate Boundaries - Learning to stand up for yourself and others is essential in the breaking of the chain of abuse. “Just say no” is futile unless it can be backed up with consequences. This also gives you the freedom to say YES and feel good about it.

4. Heal Yourself from the Past - If you have suffered from abuse earlier in life, recognize the patterns your may be living today; such as defending the abuser and thinking that the pain is normal. Be gentle with yourself as you grow out of accepting abuse as normal. Now is the time to ensure that you are not self abusing in addition to the external abuse. Listen to your Self Talk. Would you say to a friend what you are saying to yourself? Be patient and view personal empowerment as a process. Learn from others who have walked the path of empowerment.

5. Create a ‘tool-box’ of skills - There are many to stop the cycle of abuse. Different situations demand different skills. Learning the abusers hot buttons and the times when they are likely to be abusive and consciously avoiding them is a self-protective strategy. Assertiveness training helps you make your needs known. Critical thinking strategies can be developed to disarm some difficult people. This involves responding to irrational requests in common sense ways. Learn skills to empower yourself.

6. Know your job options - Find out what are viable job options. Knowing when to get out of an abusive situation is a judgment call. You have to do what is best for you. Knowing what you legally need to do is an important option.

7. Establish a value driven organization - A corporate environment that places high value on the individual, human dignity, and kindness can become the norm for business. The company mission statement needs to be values driven and actually lived out day to day.

These prescriptive steps are not the end all in stopping abuse. They are a guide to help you take charge of your situation and make a difference for YOU. It takes courage to take action. Make sure you are not being abusive in how you handle the situation. Once you courageously stand up and begin to make a change, you will become a leader and a mentor for your fellow employees. You will not longer be a force of one AND together you will make a difference. No matter what the outcome you will feel good about you.