People & Human Resources

How to deal with different types of abuse in the workplace

Eve Ash /

Abuse in the workplace is sadly far too common. Friction between people in workplaces is understandable – there will always be disagreements, competing goals and power dynamics that lead to frustration. But often a line is crossed where one person commits an act of aggression against another.

It’s not fair, but you have to deal with it

Possibly the worst aspect of someone abusing you is that you then have something that has to be dealt with. It rises quickly to the top of your priority list as it is usually quite consuming. Some people try to shake their head, ignore it and carry on, while others engage in an emotionally-driven war that escalates the situation.

It is important to gain control over these situations as most of us will at some point encounter abuse in one form or another. Rather than leave it to chance, depending on how you are feeling on the day or letting context dictate your response, it is so much better to have a pre-determined method of how to deal with abuse.

Forms of abuse

The obvious forms of abuse are yelling, swearing, threatening and berating, pushing, hanging up phones, slamming doors, stalking … but there are so many other avenues now for people to deliver aggression.

Abusive emails, calls, text messages, tweets, Facebook comments, snide comments, public derision, deliberate exclusion or unfair allocation of resources and work, unfair appraisals, unwarranted, unsubstantiated or false accusations and invasions into privacy are all examples of abuse in the workforce.

Whilst the overt abuse is easily categorised as abuse, it is often the more subtle forms of abuse that are the most difficult to navigate. The aggressor often hides behind this subtlety, sometimes anonymously, knowing they can easily discredit any opposition as a misunderstanding on the victim’s behalf.

First response versus best response

When abused, the first response is always an emotional one. It feels awful; your face might flush red or even go very white, while your stomach twists with angst. You might feel as if you have been stabbed, maybe you feel nauseous or a rising rage and want to return fire immediately.

This is the point at which a level head needs to kick in. Instead of acting on pure emotion and thoughts of eking out immediate revenge, your thoughts need to shift towards a strategic constructive approach.

A strategy for coping

The first thing you need to do with abuse is to become mindful of your thoughts and actions. Avoiding a reflex counterpunch is an essential first step. Once you get beyond this you can start to assess the situation objectively.

Think about the act – would you object if this happened to someone else? Would you ever treat someone else this way? Is there a company policy that outlines acceptable behaviour? Is there someone you can talk to about the incident in order to have an objective take on things and get some useful advice? Maybe you need to talk to an expert.

Once you’ve assessed the situation properly you can begin to act in the most appropriate way. Sometimes that does mean confronting a person about their behaviour.

Other times you need to explore legal options if the abuse is excessive and potentially illegal. Where possible gather evidence of the abuse so you know you aren’t basing your response on emotion alone. Record facts.

You must respond to abuse. If you let it slide and absorb the discomfort because it came from someone more senior, or because you don’t feel you have the confidence to respond then you are effectively encouraging it and condoning it.

You owe it to yourself to reply swiftly to an act of abuse in order to make the other person aware of their action and to stop it happening in the future… to you or anyone else.

Eve Ash has a wide range of resources and books that can help people change their thinking and habits in a constructive way.

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Eve Ash

Eve Ash is a psychologist, author, filmmaker, public speaker and entrepreneur. She runs Seven Dimensions, a company specialising in training resources for the workplace.

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