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Blog Guide

Your Guide to Fighting Verbal Abuse at Work

Stop workplace bullying in its tracks

Illustration of woman shouting

By Abbey Slattery

While we all hoped that bullies would disappear after the hallway taunts and study hall whispers of middle school, they are, unfortunately, common in the workplace. In fact, more than 65 million Americans report having to deal with workplace bullying, which often includes verbal abuse.

Maybe you’ve got a work coworker who can’t control their temper or someone in the office that has spread some pretty nasty gossip about you. How do you know if any of that constitutes verbal abuse? And if it does, have they crossed a legal line?

What constitutes verbal abuse in the workplace?

Verbal abuse doesn’t have to be outright shouting or insults—although all of that certainly counts. Oftentimes, verbal abuse in the workplace is more subtle and includes any language that is: 

  • Intimidating

  • Threatening

  • Humiliating

  • Discriminatory

  • Degrading

  • Insulting

  • False (as in spreading lies about someone or gaslighting)

Examples of verbal abuse at work

  • Discriminatory language, like racial slurs, insults, or degrading language based on gender, sexual orientation, or ability

  • Sexually harrassing language, like sexual innuendo, comments about someone’s physical appearance, or discussion of sex or sex acts

  • Calling someone out for poor performance in front of their coworkers or boss

  • Shouting, yelling, or screaming

  • Spreading gossip or lies about someone in the office

  • Blaming a coworker for something they didn’t do or weren’t entirely responsible for (throwing someone under the bus)

  • Verbally trivializing, minimizing, or dismissing concerns raised in the workplace

  • Arguing with or challenging anything and everything voiced up by a coworker

  • Constantly interrupting or undermining colleagues

  • Threats to personal safety or property

The damaging effects of verbal abuse in the workplace

According to Alicia Grandey, a Penn State organizational psychologist, the stress that verbal abuse causes changes the way our bodies react, leading to an elevated fight-or-flight instinct—even when it’s not needed. We anticipate stress even before it gets to us, even if it never does. So simply interacting with a colleague or boss who has been verbally abusive can trigger the same response, whether they say anything harmful or not.

With stress hormones running rampant through our system, we’re more likely to experience things like trouble sleeping, depression, high blood pressure, anxiety, headaches, and even heart disease.

Verbal abuse can also negatively affect the business’s bottom line. All those stress hormones on overdrive put everyone on edge, killing company morale. Employees who feel unsafe in their workplace report feeling withdrawn from their coworkers and exhibit higher rates of absenteeism.

An unhealthy company culture can put a serious dent in employee engagement, productivity, innovation, and ultimately, retention. In fact, a study by Harvard Business School found that toxic employees can end up costing a company over $12,000 in employee turnover alone—not to mention those days missed from stress and reduced productivity. 

Read more: Ending the Hostile Work Environment

When does the verbal abuse violate the law?

Not all kinds of verbal abuse are illegal, but there are plenty that are.

Threats to personal safety or personal property violate the law. Additionally, if the abuse crosses the line into harassment—which can violates ton of acts, like Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967 (ADEA), and the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA)—then you may have grounds to initiate legal action. 

Not sure what harassment looks like? The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) describes it as “unwelcome conduct that is based on race, color, religion, sex (including pregnancy), national origin, age, disability, or genetic information.” This can include offensive jokes, insults, physical threats, slurs, and any general interference with your work performance. 

If you’re still unsure whether or not the verbal abuse is subject to legal action, ask yourself these four questions:

  1. Have the incidents been unwelcome?

  2. Has the discrimination targeted me based on a protected characteristic? 

  3. Have the comments happened multiple times over an extended period of time?

  4. From both an objective and subjective point of view, have the incidents been hostile?

Answered yes to all of those questions? Then you might have grounds to sue over a hostile work environment

Read more: 13 Signs of a Toxic Workplace & When It Becomes Illegal

How to report verbal abuse in the workplace

Sometimes addressing the issue can make you feel just as miserable as the abuse itself. But the abuse is not your fault, and it doesn’t mean you’re bad at your job. Here’s how you can confront and work to oust the verbal abuse.

  • Start keeping a record of the incidents of abuse: dates, times, context, who was there, what was said. 

  • If you feel comfortable enough, address specific instances with the person who is acting abusively, and let them know that it made you feel uncomfortable or unsafe. (The way you dismissed my ideas in that meeting was unnecessary and it undermined my ability to the team. I would ask that you be mindful of the tone and language you use.) Keep a record of that conversation as well. If they ignore you or laugh it off, report it to human resources or management.

  • If you don’t feel comfortable addressing the problem with your abuser, then you can schedule a meeting with your manager or with HR. Bring your documentation and review the specific instances of abuse. (Kiyo has made multiple comments about my weight to me and to my coworkers. It’s inappropriate and hurtful language that’s affecting my morale here in the office.)

  • You can notify the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) if you don’t feel like you’re working in a safe or healthy environment. If you do file a complaint, an OSHA representative will inspect and evaluate your workplace, then bring their findings to your management. You’re also legally protected from retaliation if your coworker or employer lashes out following your report.

Read more: How to Know If What You’re Seeing Is Workplace Retaliation—And What to Do About It

What to do if you see verbal abuse at work, but you’re not the victim

You might be witness to verbally abusive behavior, even if the behavior is not directed at you.

Start by offering support to the one being abused. They might want help bringing the problem to leadership or simply need someone to talk to.

You can bring the matter to the attention of your manager or human resources. The victim of the abuse may or may not have already reported the matter, and confronting the bully yourself (if they do not report to you) may exacerbate the problem.

Read more: Have a Difficult Boss? Whatever You Do, Please...Don't Do These Things

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