As adults, most of us don’t have to deal with the same kind of bullying and verbal abuse we might have faced as kids, but this kind of abuse does happen in the workplace fairly regularly.
A 2014 survey from the Workplace Bullying Institute found that 27 percent of all American workers are being bullied at work or have been in the past, and 21 percent have witnessed episodes of verbal abuse against co-workers.
In all, more than 65 million Americans have been affected by bullying at work.
What Defines Verbal Abuse at Work?
Verbal abuse is one part of workplace bullying, which can also include sabotaging a person’s work to prevent them from doing what they are supposed to be doing at work. Taking just the verbal piece, abuse is defined as language that is intimidating, threatening or humiliating.
It may or may not include yelling, cursing, insulting or mocking the victim. This abuse may be tied to sexual harassment or not.
How Do You Know You’re Being Verbally Abused?
One reason it can be difficult to pin down what is abusive behavior — and to get the bully punished — is because people with different personalities have different levels of tolerance for teasing, gossip or sexual jokes. One person might be OK with it while another dreads coming to work and is ready to quit over the same situation.
There is clearly a difference between blowing off steam and complaining about work or your co-workers and being abusing to the point of harassment. But the difference can sometimes be hard to pin down.
You might begin to call the behavior verbal abuse when it regularly affects your attitude and performance at work. If you are dreading work and obsessing about what might happen there in your off hours, that can be a sign. Other changes like higher blood pressure when around the abuser, feelings of shame or guilt or not wanting to do things you once enjoyed can all be effects of abuse in the workplace.
Why Do People Abuse Others in the Workplace?
If there’s such a thing as an average abuser, most are men in positions of power above the person they are abusing. Fifty-six percent of the bullies in the Workplace Bullying Institute survey had authority over their victims, and 69 percent were men (60 percent of targets were female).
An abuser often has a group of friends  who may egg him or her on or who serve as witnesses to the abuse. These people will often laugh and try to make the abused person feel like the verbal abuse was all a joke that they shouldn’t be so sensitive about. But sometimes abusers will wait until they are alone with their victim so there is no proof of the abuse.
Either way, as with a lot of bullying outside the workplace, this verbal abuse is often related to the abuser wanting to feel more powerful and in control. They’ll abuse people they feel are weak in some way and use that person to make them feel better when they are under stress or in other situations when they feel the need to control someone.
Why is it Important to Understand Workplace Abuse?
Even if it’s not happening to you right now, it’s important to understand workplace abuse and what can be done about it so that you can support other people who might be in that situation or know what to do if it happens to you.
The most important thing to know is that there is no law against bullying or verbal abuse in the workplace in the United States. But that doesn’t mean you have to suffer in silence.
Bullying can and often does rise to the level of harassment or creating a hostile work environment, which can be documented and presented as a formal complaint to a superior or to human resources.
How to Deal with Verbal Abuse at Work
The main thing you need to understand first is that the verbal abuse and bullying you are experiencing is not your fault. It’s not because you’re bad at your job and usually doesn’t have much to do with you at all.
Second, recognize that what is happening to you is not normal, and it is abuse. Don’t say “oh, she’s just having a bad day” or “he has a bad temper” to excuse the behavior.
Begin by trying to talk to the abusive person about their behavior. Tell them you don’t like it when they talk that way and you feel they are being abusive. They may laugh it off, or they may take you seriously.
Some people secretly tape their abuser and play the tape back to them to show them their behavior, which they might not even fully realize they are doing.
Check your employee handbook for next steps. While there’s no state or federal law against bullying, your company may have respectful workplace policies in place or a procedure for dealing with harassment.
Document what’s been happening if you can so it doesn’t become a he said, she said battle.
But be aware of the possibility that you won’t be believed or supported by people who should be on your side. The company may feel the superior is more important and try to protect them even when they are in the wrong. Sometimes the only answer to verbal abuse in the workplace, unfortunately, is finding a new job or transferring away from that person.
Also consider getting help in the form of therapy, talking to a trusted friend or seeking out stories of people who have survived workplace abuse. It always helps to know that you are not alone.
|Workplace Bullying Institute: BNA: Over 65 Million Workers Affected by Bullying, But Most Employers Don’t React Adequately
|Healthy Place: Dealing With Verbal Abuse At Work
|Chron: Worker’s Rights in the Workplace Regarding Verbal Abuse