Business Category Business: career motivation and tips to move ahead

Verbal abuse in the workplace & legalities

People often think that verbal abuse in the workplace is when supervisors, managers or colleagues rudely give orders without a "please" or "thank you," or repeatedly yell at their employees instead of talking in a normal voice. This is definitely considered verbal abuse, but the definition goes much further. Sometimes the abuse can be very subtle and even said with a smile.

Blatant Abuse

In the workplace, verbal abuse, or mistreating people with words, can be blatant or subtle. Blatant verbal abuse includes raising one's voice to employees. It also can include calling someone a name, making threats or using offensive language. This can occur either behind closed doors in an employer's office or in front of peers. For example, a supervisor comes into a workroom and yells, "Can't you do anything right? Do I have to do everything myself?"

Subtle Abuse

Examples of subtle, or hidden, verbal abuse include talking to a worker in a sarcastic or demeaning way, whispering about someone in his or her presence, and treating some people in a negative fashion and being overly pleasant to others. Sometimes subtle abuse only occurs when the employer and employee are away from other workers, so no one else is aware of it. This type of abuse is the most difficult to prove, since it is not out in the open.

Personal Impact

Regularly occurring verbal abuse can make for an unpleasant workplace. In addition, subtle comments easily can lower someone's self-esteem. It is easy to take negative comments personally, especially from a person in a position of authority. Since abused people are often embarrassed, they will most likely not talk to other people about these negative comments and feel even worse. They might become physically or emotionally ill, begin making mistakes because of nervousness, or leave the company.


In most cases, the employee is not the main cause of the abuse, even if it is taken personally. The reasons for verbal abuse are varied. An employer who believes that yelling makes people work harder, or the "KITA" (kick-in-the-trousers) syndrome; a supervisor who is worried about losing a job and taking that fear out on others; or an employee who always acts like a bully because of issues with self-confidence. Anyone who is being verbally abused should first ask, "Is it because of something I did? Or, is it because of something that is totally unrelated to the situation?"

First Response

If someone is infrequently verbally abusive, it is just part of being human. Everyone has bad days. Normally, this person will later apologise for his or her behaviour. However, when it becomes a frequent occurrence, an employee needs to respond. If a supervisor or manager is verbally abusive, the employee should ask to privately speak with that person. It is important not to use a raised voice or negative nonverbal behaviour, such as crossed arms and legs. The employee should instead talk at a normal voice level and use positive body language, such as opening hands and arms, leaning forward, and placing hand to chest as a gesture. The abused person needs to explain that such treatment will not be tolerated and will be reported if it continues. Sometimes this makes the situation more tolerable, if not perfect. If the abuse continues, it might be necessary to meet with a senior manager or someone in the human resources department. This person might try to mediate, or help find a mutual understanding with the individuals involved, or speak directly to the abusive person.

Taking Legal Action

The U.S. Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA) defines workplace violence as ranging from threats and verbal abuse to physical assaults and homicide. Presently, no federal laws or regulations specifically address workplace violence, including verbal abuse, but the OSHA General Duty Clause mandates that employers provide a hazard-free environment. Some states are also passing "bullying" laws. An employee who is not having a situation properly addressed can request a citation from OSHA, ask for legal advice from the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), or contact an employment attorney. Union members should speak with their representatives to develop a plan of action with or without grievances when the employer does not take action to solve the problem.