Emotional Abuse Hurts Careers

It’s sneaky, subtle, underhanded, and all too common.

It’s emotional abuse. And if left to flourish, it can take a toll on workers, and ultimately organizations.

Emotional abuse is not about hurting people’s feelings on the job. To the contrary, it is a systematic and patterned way for the abuser to undermine an employee’s confidence and erode their self esteem for personal, psychological or professional gain. Abusers may derive personal pleasure seeing an envied colleague or subordinate suffering, or they may be motivated to obtain power in the office by undermining another. Or they may stand to gain professionally by inheriting a colleague’s position by forcing him or her out.

Marie-France Hirogoyen, author of “Stalking the Soul”, describes emotional abuse in the workplace as abusive conduct through words, looks, gestures, or writing that infringes upon the personality, dignity or the physical or psychological integrity of the person. This behaviour endangers the employment of the victim and generally degrades the climate of the workplace. According to the author, emotional abuse at work causes psychological damage, diminishes productivity and encourages absenteeism.

Emotional abuse appears to start harmlessly, but can spread insidiously. At first, victims are reluctant to take offense and tend to gloss over abusive incidents. Yet, over time, the victim experiences multiple attacks and ends up feeling inferior, degraded and humiliated.

Conflict is normal in groups. Hurtful remarks made under stress may occur in the workplace. But if followed by an apology, they are easily dealt with. Emotional abuse differs in that it comes with repeated humiliation without apology or recourse. The author likens workplace emotional abuse to a machine that pulverizes everything in its path. Colleagues run for cover, leaving the victim isolated and alone.

According to Hirogoyen, those who become victims of this insidious form of abuse are often model employees. They’re willing to take on extra work and contribute greatly to the workplace. So, how do they become victims? She identifies seven ways this occurs:

1. The Use of Indirect Communication
An atmosphere of tension and disapproval begins to exist between the victim and the abuser. The abuser does not directly offer the victim specific feedback about his or her performance. Rather, the abuser uses looks, gestures, vague comments like, “You did a great job on the file – too bad about the typos”, to knock the victim off balance. Once the abuser has been able to induce the victim to ask himself, “What did I do?”, the abuse has begun to take hold of the victim’s psyche through self-blame. Blaming oneself without specific feedback is a common way to identify that emotional abuse might be occurring.

2. Invalidation
Essential to a pattern of emotional abuse is the ability to cast doubt on the employee’s competence, questioning what he or she says or does through innuendo. This can include exasperated sighs, contemptuous looks, things left unsaid, shrugs and the like. When this happens, defending oneself is difficult because the “feedback” is indirect and unspecific. For example, it is difficult to describe a reproachful look that conveys an opinion that the staff member is useless. And these looks tend to be fleeting, making the employee doubt her perceptions and ultimately herself. Using jokes or sarcasm as well as telling the victim that the comment was misunderstood or wasn’t meant “that way” invalidate employees and their worth.

3. Discrediting Staff
Destroying another’s reputation is relatively easy when insinuation is involved. For example, raising doubts in other’s minds about the victim’s character, work performance or intentions can be simple. By speculating critically and out loud (“I wonder what he was thinking when he..”) or by implying instability “He has a bit of trouble at home..”), an abuser can sow seeds of doubt about the victim’s credibility or stability. At times, the abuse can take on even more obvious overtones of sarcasm or slander in the form of a horrible nickname or ridicule over a shortcoming. Many of these tactics are exercised by envious colleagues or tyrannical bosses who are threatened or believe staff are motivated by being humiliated. When the victim gets depressed or reacts to the abuse, the abuser can point to the behaviour as “proof” that he or she was right about the victim.

4. Isolation
Abusers remove the possibility for alliances when they break an employee down psychologically. For example, emotionally abusive managers will use preferential treatment and innuendo to isolate an employee. Envious colleagues will finish the job, alleviating the manager of responsibility. Ostracism occurs when employees eat alone, aren’t invited for coffee after work or on breaks, or aren’t included in the camaraderie others share at work. This includes being deprived of information to do one’s job. Through the use of isolation, many abusive managers have successfully drummed employees out of the workplace.

5. Bullying
Setting impossible tasks, making urgent deadlines for, say, the completion of a report then not reading it, requiring employees to do meaningless jobs, requiring them to continually work late, are all ways of bullying employees.

6. Facilitating Mistakes
Excessive micro-managing can induce employees to make mistakes when their self esteem has been degraded and they are being supervised for errors. In other words, the manager is actively looking for problems with the employee’s work. Creating situations in which an abused employee is goaded into reacting, either showing anger or crying, also increases the abuser’s ability to further denigrate the victim.

7. Sexual Harassment
This form of emotional abuse denigrates women in particular. The targeted employee is considered an object and treated as such, which assails her dignity. This kind of emotional abuse can range from creating and tolerating a sexually harassing environment to sexual assault.

Creating an emotionally abusive work environment is easy, yet incredibly destructive. Organizations that take this problem seriously and create policy that has the teeth to end emotional abuse before it flourishes benefit from a healthy workforce and bottom line. In our next column we will feature what to do if you are being emotionally abused at work.

Dr. Jennifer Newman and Dr. Darryl Grigg are registered psychologists and directors of Newman & Grigg Psychological and Consulting Services Ltd., a Vancouver-based corporate training and development partnership. They can be contacted at

Identifying information in cases cited has been changed to protect confidentiality.

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