7 Ways a Boss Can Be Abusive

By: Christine Hammond, LMHC

Usually, abusive behavior is discussed in the context of a marriage and parent/child relationships. But in reality, it can exist anywhere, even in a work environment. Many larger corporations address obvious abuse such as hitting or screaming though the human resource department. Yet few acknowledge the more subtle methods of abuse some bosses employ. Here are the seven ways a boss can be abusive.

Physical. Their posture is an aggressive stance or intimidating stare. They might even stand over the employee while talking to intensive feelings of domination. Some limit the ability to leave office by physically blocking doorway.  Shoving or pushing occurs behind closed doors with no witnesses. Even the room temperature can be increased to uncomfortable levels to further agitate the employee.

Mental. A rage occurs out of nowhere in private causing the employee to fear being alone with the boss. Some use gaslighting technique to abuse by lying about the past to make the employee doubt their memory, perception, and even sanity. Giving employees the silent treatment, twisting reality to avoid blame, and projecting their negative behavior onto employees are other tactics.

Verbal. They praise employees in front of others but privately are belittling, demeaning, bullying, and degrading. An abusive boss frequently interrupts, talks over, withholds key information, and interrogates.  Typical browbeating includes sayings like: “If only you would…, then I won’t have to be this way,” “The problem with you is…,” and “That (verbal abuse) didn’t really happen.” There is no apology, only threats of being fired.
Emotional. Some bosses nitpick employees apart, belittle their accomplishments, aspirations, or personality in front of co-workers. Teasing, sarcasm, or gossip is commonly used to degrade and mock. They embarrass employees by sharing private information without consent, treating employees like a child, or exposing some shameful event. Often in a passive-aggressive way, they remind employee of their shortcomings. They treat employees as inferior by holding them to an unrealistic, unattainable or unsustainable standard and gloating when they fail.
Financial. They like to use an employee’s need to earn money as a weapon by refusing to pay what is due, knowing the employee’s vulnerable position makes it unlikely that they will retaliate. They rewrite the rules to avoid paying bonuses, tell employees they can never earn any more money, make it difficult for employee to earn degrees, or limit employee’s ability to advance their career. The employee might be put on overly strict budget while the boss spends excessively.

Sexual. They suggest an employee dress provocatively to attract clients or hint that an employee should have sex with a client. Sometimes they tell inappropriate sexual jokes, knowing this bothers the employee. The more foreboding abuse involves asking for sexual favors in return for a favorable review, coercing employees into performing sexual acts, and threatening loss of job if sexual favors are not performed.

Spiritual. They refuse to give religious holidays off, such as Yom Kippur, when requested.  Employees who don’t comply with the boss’ beliefs are seen as disobedient. A boss may insult the religious choices or practices of employees or treat employees as less because of differing religious views. They might isolate employees from other co-workers due to religious differences. Spirituality or religion may be used as justification for performing abuse acts.

These abusive behaviors may begin cunningly and then escalate further as time goes on. It is similar to bring a pot of water to a boil over low heat. The change is not noticeable day-to-day, but reflecting on it over a longer period of time can reveal the abuse. 

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