Defining Workplace Abuse: The First Step Towards a Solution
Despite 1 in 3 Americans reporting workplace abuse, no clear definition exists. Experts agree that without clarity, targets suffer more and solutions are impossible.
Lately, terms like “abuse at work,” “workplace bullying” and “workplace abuse” are all over the news. We can see them in George Aye’s exposé on the workplace trauma he experienced at IDEO or in the piece exploring the suicide of a Kroger Worker, the target of “torturous conditions.” With the prevalence of workplace abuse, one might assume it’s been defined, measured and studied. However, “there is tremendous disagreement among experts internationally on a specific definition” (Crisis Prevention Institute, 2012). One in three Americans disclose being bullied at work (Namie, 2021), yet no consensus exists on defining the abuse. Even OSHA (Occupational Safety and Health Administration) doesn’t even attempt a definition, let alone any kind of regulation. Interestingly, they have explicitly prohibited “intimidating behavior” in their employee handbook since 2011, but extend no such protection to the greater workforce.
This lack of definition makes workplace bullying difficult to legislate, but also difficult to identify for targets.
“If they were hitting me, it would be a blessing, because it’d be very simple,” says Marcus Brown*, a 24-year-old junior developer working at a New Hampshire tech startup as he tries to explain his experience with workplace bullying.
“When bullying occurs, targets don’t even oftentimes recognize it, but they start to have the effects of it, especially the psychological effects,” says Jerry Carbo, Esq, president of The National Workplace Bullying Coalition (NWBC) and professor of Labor Relations, Employment Law and Social Issues in Business. “They lose esteem, they begin dreading going into work, they begin to have things like depression, high blood pressure or anxiety.”
Much of this difficulty lies in the subtlety of the abuse, says Dr. Sari Trungold, clinical psychologist and specialist in the treatment of issues related to workplace abuse. “There are clearly abusive, overt behaviors, like yelling, throwing things, physical violence. But workplace bullying can be much more subtle, and from my observation, the subtle attacks are much, much more damaging. Subtle attacks seem much more detrimental to the target’s self-esteem and self-image. These subtle attacks are just crazy-making. ”
“It took me six months to be like, hey, this isn’t OK, I shouldn’t be treated this way.” Marcus spent an hour going through screengrabs of Microsoft Teams’ conversations with his Chief Technical Officer (CTO) and manager, illustrating a campaign of ever-changing goals, non-existent communication, and regular threats to his job.
Recently, Marcus and another junior developer were given a 2-week deadline for a sizable project. “I would reach out to my manager and the CTO just about every day saying, how are we supposed to do this? And the response I got was very vague and a little threatening. They said things like, “It’s in your best interest to finish it.”
“They told me to work every night and weekends to make sure it was done. The first week I had three panic attacks. To be totally blunt with you, I cried four or five nights out of the week. I was so stressed. Ultimately my girlfriend put me in touch with a cousin of hers who’s a senior developer and he was like, that’s absurd, I wouldn’t have senior developers do that in two weeks.” Marcus adds, “I’ve worked in the service industry, I was a lead bartender for years before I started working as a software developer, so I’ve had my fair share of poor treatment, but I’ve never been made to feel so stupid.”
“One way that targets start to notice what’s going on,” says Dr. Trungold, “is when they realize ‘you know, there’s a lot of complaints about my work. I’m getting all this criticism and all these nasty things said, but they’re not doing anything to either supervise me, or put me on any kind of probation, or write me up, or train me.’ I think that’s a sign that something’s really amiss.”
Reports of harassment and hostility have increased with the rise of remote work (Hong et al., 2021). Forty-five percent of respondents report experiencing harassment over chat, 41% via email, 41% via video meetings, and 25% via productivity tools. They also found that the people being harmed are “disproportionately Asian, Black, Indigenous, Latinx, women,13 non-binary people and people over 50.”
“Actually, I’ve also heard the opposite,” says Liza Talusan, Ph.D., a facilitator and strategic change partner who works with leadership teams to guide difficult conversations around diversity, inclusion, equity, and justice. “Being virtual actually decreased the number of micro and macro aggressions that people experienced. No one was coming around touching our hair. No one was complaining about the smell of our food. With fewer social interactions, there wasn’t space for those crude jokes in the break room or passing by and making comments.”
Often, the clearest view of workplace bullying is in hindsight. “I was so angry at myself, I was angry that I had been duped,” says Willow Jones*, speaking about the long-lasting impact of her 2013 abusive job with an upscale Boston Fitness Studio.
Like Marcus, Willow says her sense of reality was subtly undermined for months. She was scolded for eating a muffin, or playing the wrong playlist — new rules no one had told her about, but the feedback that always made her feel like she was doing something wrong. “Things just didn’t add up. I remember saying to the receptionist, what is going on? Am I crazy? This doesn’t make any sense. One day a couple of the people I worked with were like, ‘Girl! Let’s go get some brunch after shift. Like, let’s get out of this place with these cameras, let’s go somewhere where we can talk,’ and that was a very helpful moment for me because it was finally an opportunity where they could be like, ‘Yeah, this is all just batshit crazy but we are just putting up with it.’ They were all very young too.” She says that gradual moments of gaslighting accumulated and began to include public shaming and humiliation when the owner called Willow “chunky” in front of clients and other members of staff. Eventually, Willow handed in her notice after she was asked to sign a contract that prescribed how much she would exercise in a week, her daily steps, and limited her daily calorie intake. “That job degraded my trust in myself, it’s complicated my relationships, especially with female mentors. It’s impacted my ability to trust.”
The effects of workplace abuse on the target can stretch far beyond the immediate toxic relationship, impacting the target’s financial, physical, and psychological wellbeing for years. A 2018 study gathered data from almost 80,000 Swedish and Danish employees, finding that those who reported being bullied were 1.59 times more likely to develop a cardiac-related illness (Xu et al., 2018, 1123–1134). Another 2018 study found a similar increase in the chance of developing type 2 diabetes (Xu et al., 2018, 75–83). “Professionally, there can be a lack of advancement within the organization, damage to professional reputation, and negative information on the employee’s record,” Dr. Trungold says. In terms of psychological impact, “there can be stress, obviously, which can include symptoms of trauma, in some cases full-on symptoms of PTSD. There’s also anxiety, depression and, in rare cases, there have been suicide attempts associated with workplace bullying. I’ve also observed maladaptive self-soothing behaviors like substance abuse.” Another study found that workplace bullying may inflict more harm on employees than sexual harassment (Hershcovis & Barling, 2010, 874–888), one of the elements of workplace abuse that is actually illegal.
Workplace abuse is an umbrella term that covers “any behavior within the workplace that results in emotional or physical harm to employees” says Dr. Trungold. Under that umbrella, you’ll find “workplace harassment, discrimination, workplace violence and also workplace bullying. They overlap, but to my understanding bullying behavior that’s based on a target’s membership to a protected group is characterized as harassment, and has a legal remedy as does discrimination. But workplace bullying at this time does not have a formal legal remedy.”
“The immediate solution to workplace abuse is making sure that companies mandate education and awareness and behavior-changing,” says Dr. Taluzan. “The next steps are more complicated but also so crucial. First, we have to actually hold people accountable for workplace abuse. Too often we deem abusive behavior “quirky” or “that’s just so-and-so’s style.” But, we have to stop treating this as if it is a byproduct of personality rather than a symptom of larger issues. Secondly, people need to work out their deep issues in therapeutic relationships. I’m a big fan of therapy and the need to understand why people behave the way that they do; and thirdly, there have to be structures that truly respond to those most impacted by workplace abuse.”
Jerry Carbo and the NWBC say they are doing what they can to create those structures, such as drafting the Dignity at Work Act (DAWA), a piece of legislation that would offer legal recourse to the currently unprotected 75% of bullying targets who are not being abused based on their membership in a protected class. They are currently working to pass this legislation in Rhode Island. “If people want to get involved, they can visit workplacebullyingcoalition.org, where they could sign up to volunteer based on their skills, or interests.” The act is available to view at dignityatworkact.org.
*The names of some interviewees have been changed, and identifying facts have been obscured at their request, to protect their future livelihoods.
Crisis Prevention Institute. (2012, 4 17). The Challenges Defining Workplace Bullying. Crisis Prevention Institute. https://www.crisisprevention.com/Blog/The-Challenges-in-Defining-Workplace-Bullying
Hershcovis, S., & Barling, J. (2010). Comparing Victim Attributions and Outcomes for Workplace Aggression and Sexual Harassment. Journal of Applied Psychology, 95(5), 874–888. https://www.researchgate.net/publication/45706529_Comparing_Victim_Attributions_and_Outcomes_for_Workplace_Aggression_and_Sexual_Harassment
Hong, Y., Mack, M., Pao, E., & Sinders, C. (2021, 3). Remote work since Covid-19 is exacerbating harm. Project Include. https://projectinclude.org/
Namie, G. (2021). 2021 WBI U.S. Workplace Bullying Survey. Workplace Bullying Institute. https://workplacebullying.org/2021-wbi-survey/
Xu, T., Magnusson Hanson, L., Lange, T., Starkopf, L., Westerland, H., Madsen, I., Rugulies, R., Pentti, J., Stenholm, S., Vahtera, J., Hansen, Å., Virtanen, M., Kivimäki, M., & Rod, N. (2018, November 19). Workplace bullying and workplace violence as risk factors for cardiovascular disease: a multi-cohort study. European Heart Journal, 40(14), 1123–1134. https://academic.oup.com/eurheartj/article/40/14/1124/5180493
Xu, T., Magnusson Hanson, L., Lange, T., Starkopf, L., Westerlund, H., Madsen, I., Rugulies, R., Pentti, J., Stenholm, S., Vahtera, J., Hansen, Å., Kivimäki, M., & Rod, N. (2018, Jan). Workplace bullying and violence as risk factors for type 2 diabetes: a multicohort study and meta-analysis. Diabetologia, 61(1), 75–83. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/29130114/