Verbal Abuse


How do you handle verbal abuse from an employee?


How ???


Dear How ???:

It depends on who you are; whether you are a victim, an observer, a supervisor, or in Human Resources? Also it depends on what is the power relationship and on the nature of the verbal abuse. Is the verbal abuse to which you refer a one-time remark or a pattern? Was it name-calling, threats, yelling, screaming, slander, or jokes of a sexual or discriminatory nature? Was it by a boss who is picky-picky about minor things or who might praise sarcastically minor accomplishments and belittle major effort? Did the abuse come because the victim provoked it by irresponsible acts? Let’s say you are a supervisor. Handling verbal abuse you observe by one within your charge might begin with an informal private talk; asking what were you trying to say and is that a good way to get what you want or to say what you dislike? And firmly stating what is and is not appropriate. If an individual you supervise/manage brings a complaint that someone is speaking abusively, one must investigate to get past the he-said, I said accusations. That entails learning the nature of the verbal abuse and prescribing verbal warning and graduated more severe discipline if it continues. Most workplaces have policy of what is and is not acceptable. “Handling verbal abuse” entails careful investigation if one is a supervisor and assertiveness if one if a victim. Victims can rarely persuade a bully to stop, but they should know that stopping verbal abuse won’t stop is they bite their tongue and take it. Each of us has a voice. Unless we are willing to speak to power (a boss) or to a coworker to assumes she/he is more important than others, we will be subject to those who use verbal abuse to control us. Stopping verbal abuse of a coworker can begin with mustering one’s courage to say, “Sam, I am more cooperative when you ask rather than order or shout at me.” Or “Stop belittling what I do. I’m willing to listen to suggestions when you talk calmly.” Or, “We need to take time-out, Jane, to define who does what and to make the rules about how we communicate. I won’t yell and order you and I don’t want you to order me.” Stopping verbal abuse of a boss is not risk-free, but it will continue unless a subordinate secures a clear understanding of what is she/e considers disrespectful and how she/he wants to be given assignments and complaints. Verbal abuse can be more than incivility. Amie Comeau in “Employee Rights Against Verbal Abuse” (May 20, 2010 puts it succinctly:: “Verbal abuse is considered harassment. Employees have a basic human right to work without discrimination based on age, race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation or religious beliefs. Hostile work environments include those where an employee is the subject of jokes, belittling comments or threatening reprimands. Federal law requires employers to act in a manner consistent with protecting against liability for prosecution.” Ours site does not give legal advice, but we are clear that employers are responsible to make a reasonable effort to prevent and/or correct communication that discriminates for any of protected groups. Do these few remarks provide guidelines and a course of action to address the problem of verbal abuse that prompted you send your question? Finally, consider that instances of verbal abuse might surface from coworker and boss-bossed unhappy and unproductive work relationships. Building and nurturing a team-minded communication can prevent and cope with verbal abuse. Our Archive has hundreds of Q&As about team building. Working together with hands, head, and heart takes and makes big WEGOS is more than my signature sentence. Its underlying suggestion is that handling such issues, as verbal abuse requires the courage to act in the face of disrespect and to encourage interdependent-mindedness.

William Gorden