Sticks and stones: verbal abuse in the workplace

Pamela R. Johnson

ABSTRACT

The great silent secret of the American workplace is that verbal abuse is a far more pervasive problem than most people realize. More than 90% of adults experience workplace abuse sometime during the span of their work careers and the larger the company, the more likely verbal abuse occurs. Verbal abuse is intended to cause distress to the target. Verbal abuse is overt or subtle verbalizations ranging from profanity and openly hostile remarks about competency to double-edged comments, gossip and rumors. And, the costs are high from low staff morale to high staff turnover. This paper will look at a definition of verbal abuse, describe who abuses, delineate the causes and the costs of verbal abuse, and discuss what companies can do to eliminate this problem thus increasing performance and enhancing their bottom lines.

INTRODUCTION

“Anger is a brief lunacy.”

Homer

“How stupid can you be?” “You’re an idiot.” “Can’t you do anything right?” “My kids could work faster than you do.” The great silent secret of the American workplace is that verbal abuse is a far more pervasive problem than most people realize. While people acknowledge that workplace violence exists, no one wants to openly look at chronic verbal abuse and the toll it routinely takes. While it may be much easier to be outraged by physical violence, verbal abuse does exist in the workplace and it exacts a huge penalty (Estrin, 1996). Verbal abuse can be buried in corporate layers, and if bosses don’t dig deep, they won’t find it. And, no matter where we work or volunteer our time, verbal abuse is an unavoidable consequence of doing business. While the sources may vary–abusive bosses, combative customers, heavy workloads, and impossible deadlines–the result is often the same: people disconnect from work, morale sinks, performance drops, and turnover increases (Brillinger, 2003).

The supervisors who inflict psychological abuse on subordinates represent one of the most frequent and serious problems confronting employees in today’s workforce. Verbal abuse is repetitive, targeted, and destructive and is communicated by more powerful members toward less powerful members in the workplace. It is costly, widespread, and may be the precursor to workplace aggression and violence (Lutgen-Sandvik, 2003).

More than 90% of adults experience workplace abuse sometime during the span of their work careers and the larger the company, the more likely verbal abuse occurs (Elias, 2004). This paper will look at a definition of verbal abuse, describe who abuses, delineate the causes and the costs of verbal abuse, and discuss what companies can do to help eliminate this problem thus increasing performance and enhancing their bottom line.

DEFINITION

“There are more pleasant things to do than to beat people up.”

Mahatma Gandhi

There is a difference between a strong manager and a verbal abuser. A strong manager listens to a staff’s concerns, lets people know that they are being listened to, and offers only constructive criticism on work matters. A verbal abuser doesn’t listen, offers destructive criticism, uses insults about appearance, race, or gender, uses abusive language, and intimidates others (Sparrow, 2005). And while it is no longer acceptable to treat women as sex objects, it is still acceptable in this politically correct age to verbally batter and humiliate employees. To compound the silent conspiracy, these browbeating techniques are excused and forgiven by many as “just part of the job” (Estrin, 1996).

Verbal abuse can be defined as language intended to cause distress to the target. Verbal abuse is overt or subtle verbalizations ranging from profanity and openly hostile remarks about competency to double-edged comments, gossip and rumors (Brennan, 2001). Being the target or victim of verbal abuse can prove to be a traumatic experience. The word trauma comes from the Greek, meaning “to pierce–to breach something once intact.” When verbal abuse does “pierce” that protective psychological barrier, it “bruises” the victim psychologically, challenges self-esteem, and impairs resistance. When this happens, coping skills are seriously undermined. People who experience verbal abuse are unlikely to forget the sense of fear, anxiety and terror. And, although there are training courses aimed at addressing physical violence, there appears to be almost no attempt by employers to deal with the damage caused by verbal abuse (Brennan, 2001).

WHO ARE THE ABUSERS?

“No man can think clearly when his fists are clenched.”

George Jean Nathan

Both men and women are equally likely to be verbal abusers. However, most abusers are bosses who are empowered to fire their victims. Over time, targets may suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, exhaustion, and insomnia (Prasad, 2003). Almost anyone can become abusive under certain circumstances. Personality, stress, family history and specific events play roles in sparking verbal abuse (Rivenbark, 2005). Research indicates that although workers are at times abusive to their coworkers, the overwhelming majority, from 70%-90% of abusive communication is perpetrated by superiors toward subordinates (Lutgen-Sandvik, 2003). Yet, surprisingly, managers are also abused by their subordinates. Not delivering messages, hiding notes, changing documents, excluding people from social groups and not delivering papers for meetings in time can be designed to make the manager seem incompetent (Hall, 2005).

CAUSES OF VERBAL ABUSE

“Violence is the last refuge of the incompetent.”

Francis Jeffrey

Verbal abuse is a repetitive, targeted, and destructive form of communication. One study estimated that approximately one in four managers abuse their employees and this abuse was found in a wide variety of organizations, universities, and hospitals (Lutgen-Sandvik, 2003).

And, verbal abuse occurs for many reasons, ranging from frustration over a perceived failure of a service to situations where it is used to cause emotional or psychological distress to the target. Other triggers include anger, confusion, alcohol/drugs, perceived injustice, poor communication skills, means of domination, and “because they can” (Brennan, 2003). In addition, external pressures on organizations such as heightened diversity in the job arena, increased pressure posed by the global economy, the decline in unionism, and the development of the contingent workplace increase internal pressures and contribute to verbal abuse (Prasad, 2003).

Employees learn to accept being screamed at, harshly criticized or threatened with job loss. If they do not accept this kind of behavior, it is construed as the employee’s weakness. Employees are taught to “take the heat” and receive positive feedback for doing so. So repetitive and constant are the incidents that it is almost impossible to distinguish between a manager letting off steam and abusive behavior. Unfortunately, many companies resolve these problems by avoiding them which eventually just makes the situation worse (Estrin, 1996). Although many workers report that although they didn’t feel they were in any physical danger when being verbally abused, they experienced anxiety, an urge to cry, a sense of freezing up and a sense of inadequacy, a desire to run away, and they described themselves as being tearful and unable to get the experience out of their thoughts (Brennan, 2003).

A national survey of more than 1,300 workers conducted by Opinion Research Corporation found that 42% of respondents experienced yelling and verbal abuse and 29% admitted to yelling at coworkers (Brown, 2001). Overwork, stress, doing “more with less,” and lack of job security all lead to verbal abuse whether it is between boss and subordinate or between coworkers.

COSTS OF VERBAL ABUSE

“How much more grievous are the consequences of anger than the causes of it.”

Marcus Aurelius

Physical attacks are obviously dangerous, but serious or persistent verbal abuse can be a significant problem too, as it can damage employees’ health through anxiety and stress. This can represent a real financial cost–through low staff morale and high staff turnover. This, in turn, can affect the confidence of a business and its profitability. Further costs may arise from expensive insurance premiums and compensation payments (How to … deal, 2004).

Verbal abuse at work fosters depression, insomnia, and alcohol and drug abuse. This lowers productivity, motivation and job satisfaction (Elias, 2004). In addition, 80 million working days are lost as a result of verbal abuse in the workplace, with half of all workplace stress resulting from abuse or relationship difficulties (Beating the bullies, 2005). In addition, verbal abuse refocuses employee energy from productivity to self-protection, it results in staff turnover, increased medical claims due to occupational stress, and leads to out of court settlements, legal fees, and litigation And, finally, the organization loses credibility and suffers the loss of its good reputation (Lutgen-Sandvik, 2003).

Besides potential legal liability, studies show companies suffer in other ways from workplace abuse. Rather than “gang up” on the verbal abuser or report his or her behavior to their superior, which tends to escalate the conflict, most victims punish their employer by consciously reducing the quality of their work, not coming to work, or leaving their jobs (Prasad, 2003).

Two out of three people who tried to defend themselves against demeaning behavior said it drew retaliation. Mistreated people may be afraid to complain, particularly if the verbal abuser is a favorite of the supervisor or the abuser is the supervisor. Job insecurity also squashes protest, because if the target doesn’t have options, s/he figures this beats the unemployment line (Elias, 2004). Avoiding or denying abusive behavior reinforces its pattern and promotes tolerance of unacceptable behavior. Occasionally, a higher-up will mediate or consult with these troublemakers but the general tendency is to create solutions that fail to address the real causes. Rarely is the offending behavior made the focus or the offender forced to change. In addition, employees participate in the conspiracy by refusing to speak up (Estrin, 1996).

WHAT COMPANIES CAN DO TO HELP

“Holding on to anger is like grasping a hot coal with the intent of throwing it at someone else; you are the one who gets burned.”

Buddha

Trying to sell the idea that verbal abuse can be very distressing is often a major problem. Many senior executives, in various professions, still believe that because it isn’t physical it cannot, or should not, hurt the person. But verbal abuse can and does hurt. Training courses aimed at addressing the problem need to be highly interactive and should aim to expose attendees to verbal abuse in a safe and controlled way, while teaching positive stress, and anger and anxiety management techniques (Brennan, 2001). Other techniques for managing verbally abusive situations include:

* Develop administrative policies and procedures to guide staff in handling verbal abuse.

* Track and note trends in verbal abuse to best provide intervention and support for the involved individuals (DelBel, 2003).

* Ensure clear communication throughout the organization so that problems can be identified at the root before they escalate (Sparrow, 2005).

* Recognize and reward managers for constructive behaviors.

* Hire for attitude and interpersonal skills, as well as technical requirements.

* Maintain a fair-minded workplace with consistent values.

* Build a culture of community to foster productivity and human well-being (Brillinger, 2003).

* Train managers to deal with people who verbally abuse others.

CONCLUSION

“He who angers you conquers you.”

Elizabeth Kenny

Verbal abuse is not just something that happens in a few workplaces; rather, it is widespread. While verbal abuse can be expensive for an organization, particularly in terms of absenteeism, low productivity, and turnover, it is the individual costs that must always remain at the forefront of employers’ minds. Verbally abused people can’t sleep, they can’t eat, and they’ll cry for no apparent reason. An organization needs a clear policy that commits the organization to treating employees with dignity and respect.

At the present time, less than five per cent of training courses deal with verbal abuse, yet verbal abuse makes up 90 per cent of all reported incidents of violence. Despite including verbal abuse within the Health and Safety Executive’s definition of workplace violence as “any incident where staff are abused, threatened or assaulted in circumstances related to their work,” the reality is that verbal abuse continues to be disturbingly under-acknowledged and poorly addressed.

REFERENCES

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Pamela R. Johnson, California State University, Chico

Julie Indvik, California State University, Chico

COPYRIGHT 2006 The DreamCatchers Group, LLC

COPYRIGHT 2008 Gale, Cengage Learning