How do you deal with verbal abuse in the workplace?
March 18, 2012 9:57 PM   Subscribe

How do you deal with verbal abuse in your workplace?

A person I work with is verbally abusive. He has already been fired for his 'attitude' but has recently returned. The owner of the business sees a very different side of this person than I do. This person can be reasonable, kind and professional when he wants something. And I tend to accept that the nice, reasonable person is who he 'really' is. Then this veneer wears off and he becomes verbally abusive. He will probably get fired again or I will find another job. In any case, I need to improve the way I handle such things as:

- When a person denies something they just said or did: 'No. I didn't say that' or, 'I didn't do that' when they just said or did 'that'.

- Being spoken down to or talked to like a child.

- Verbal abuse masked as jokes. 'Oh, calm down. It's a joke'.

- Being cut off: in this case my response to any given insult ('joke') issued to me by my coworker will immediately be treated with, 'okay, move on' and 'let it go' the instant I start to speak.

- Dealing with condescending, snide, arrogant personalities.

The person I work with recently yelled expletives at me when I asked him to let me do a task that he had already started doing that is my responsibility. I asked him more than once because I definitely needed to do the task and because he was arguing with me instead of letting me do the task. I explained to him that I needed to do it because it is my job (something he already knows). He became furious, said personally insulting things to me and he stormed out. I stood up for myself. I didn't yell (they were yelling) but mentioned as calmly as I could that their yelling and swearing at me was not appropriate and would they 'please let me do my job'. I heard myself, though, and I sounded scared and almost like I was negotiating or pleading with them, which is not okay. When I'm being verbally abused or bullied (either subtly or overtly) I wind up feeling nearly incapable of speaking. The incidence of several negative emotions all at once makes me feel frozen. I feel a tiny bit frantic which may or may not be evident to others. My vocabulary and ability to string together words becomes diminished. What I do manage to say comes out in a way that betrays the fact that I am upset. It is very much like nightmares I've had where I can't scream. I was bullied as a child so I know why I respond this way. I am currently in therapy but think hearing what other people actually do in such situations will be beneficial.

How do you deal with verbal abuse in the workplace? What things outside of therapy do you do to prevent verbal abuse from having an effect or from occurring? Resources, books and websites that are especially helpful are welcome. Thank you!
posted by marimeko to Human Relations (21 answers total) 13 users marked this as a favorite
OP, I am so sorry that you are going through this.

Based on what you have stated, I would think that this might overlap with certain parts of workplace mobbing.

Please check out this link which discusses both workplace mobbing and workplace bullying.


"Where you are on this continuum (of being bullied) will best determine how or if you can overcome the situation. In the early stages of bullying it is possible to fight the bully by drawing attention to their inappropriate behavior, by being assertive in standing up to their assaults. Your success will depend in large part on your coworkers. If others are willing to back you up and corroborate your complaints a common front may convince management to confront the bully. However, be warned that this is rare. Most people, even those sympathetic to you, will run for the hills when its time to stand up to a bully. They will not want to be the bully's next target. They will not risk their job so you can hold onto yours. They've seen what the bully has done to you and your career, fear will keep them silent" (


If leaving your job is by any means an option, then I would strongly suggest that you leave. However, if you cannot leave for whatever reason then please check out this link which will provide you with methods for dealing with bullies at work.
posted by livinglearning at 10:15 PM on March 18, 2012

When I was in this situation, I talked to HR. When HR did nothing, I quit. It's not worth the aggravation. No one deserves to be treated that way.
posted by brynna at 10:16 PM on March 18, 2012 [3 favorites]

Make sure you have a file on this: January 1, Jerkface called me &@$?. I asked him to nit use that language and said that I was offended."

I was bullied for a few years. I did not push hard enough in describing her behavior to our supervisor. She made me miserable. At a certain point our assignments changed so that, while we sat next to one another, we didn't really work together, and at that point we literally stopped speaking to each other, which was a great relief. She was finally laid off. You need to push hard for yourself.
posted by Occula at 10:26 PM on March 18, 2012

I work with that person too - and I ask myself the same question on a fairly regular basis. You of course know all the answers that most people will tell you because you can google bullying in the workplace and get all the tips. But, it's really much more complicated than that. Bullies are very insidious creatures who put a lot of work into how they manipulate you. Most people see the bully but some how they find a way to thrive.

I am slowly coming to realize that the best I can do is come to terms with the fact that I can only control my actions and reactions and not theirs. I know that sounds a little lame but I did really need to figure out a way to manage the bullying and manipulation. I did pick up a couple of books to help put me in a better frame of mind - not bullying books - just books that were easy to digest and helped me be a little more Zen - Dharma Road and Zen Flesh, Zen Bones.

The good thing is that bullies do tend to hang themselves a little in that they spend such a lot of effort bringing other people down that they don't tend to gather tons of influence. It does appear though that they find a way to influence the boss - I haven't quite figured that part out yet and I doubt I ever will.

In order for me to continue managing my work and my sanity I have to choose to surround myself with the other 98% of people who aren't bullies, who contribute to a positive work environment and who act with honesty, integrity and credibility. The bullies want on that bus but never really get there.

Think of it this way - you have to spend 8 hours a day with them but they have to carry all that manipulation with them 24/7. Be glad you're free. Keep your head down and don't give them the power. Kill them with kindness if you have to - give in on the things that aren't important. For the things that are important just make sure you raise issues when you have support around you i.e. meetings when you can put items on the agenda.

I've lost way too much sleep over this sort of behaviour because it just feels so wrong. I wish it was easier to be level headed when faced with work place bullying but it takes work - work at being calm and keeping your focus in the right area. I'm getting there - it's a long road. You have to find the thing or happy place that works for you - for me it is trying to learn about how I can be a better person.
posted by YukonQuirm at 10:26 PM on March 18, 2012 [2 favorites]

Just leave - life is seriously too short for this kind of crap.
posted by mleigh at 11:35 PM on March 18, 2012 [2 favorites]

Just leave - life is seriously too short for this kind of crap.

While I agree with this whole heartedly, I need to work on my reaction to bullying because it will happen again. Also, I'm still there because I was unemployed for long period of time ending with getting this job (though I am looking!). I can simply leave.
posted by marimeko at 12:24 AM on March 19, 2012


I can't simply leave.
posted by marimeko at 12:25 AM on March 19, 2012

You need to log each and every reaction. Where possible, excuse yourself from their presence and work on your body language and your assertive tone of voice. Repeat ad nauseum: "the way you are acting is unprofessional. Please leave now." present hr with the data, then start looking for a new job.
posted by These Birds of a Feather at 12:27 AM on March 19, 2012 [3 favorites]

*interaction and your reaction
posted by These Birds of a Feather at 12:27 AM on March 19, 2012

- When a person denies something they just said or did: 'No. I didn't say that' or, 'I didn't do that' when they just said or did 'that'.

I don't know if teaching management strategies might work, but this reminds me of teaching adolescents who often do this kind of thing. Depending on the moment, I'd say "I'm right here, and I just saw that/heard that/experienced that. Please don't do that again. ... Can we get this [thing/action/job] done now?"

You'll get push back, defensive people behave defensively, but the therapy will help you to start to feel that your direct observations of the world are legitimate and not to be second-guessed or refuted. There is no point lingering in the 'argument' about your observation, so redirect quickly. I think you have to work on a manner that doesn't allow for interruption or rebuttal - until you get more confidence and belief in yourself this is hard work. I think you need to believe absolutely that people around you should respect you because you are worthy of respect, and this takes a lot of work in therapy.

- Being spoken down to or talked to like a child.

"Thank you for your concern, I have this under control. Could you please ..." [redirect to a purposeful task.]
"Please don't talk to me as though I am a child." [Depending about the moment, I might add "this isn't kindergarten"]
"You can use adult words, they work much better on me if you would like something done a certain way."
"I'd like for you to address me respectfully. Can you do that?" [I've done this with my bullying principal in the past and it just stopped him in his tracks. He had to think about two things - my refusal to accept the tone, and being asked if he can speak respectfully to others. I'm not sure how it would go in your situation, because your bully actually frightens you.]

- Verbal abuse masked as jokes. 'Oh, calm down. It's a joke'.

"Less jokes, more getting to the point, please"
"You're not being funny. You're verbally abusing me."
"I'm calm. I just don't think you're being funny."
"Saying 'it's a joke' isn't a free pass when you're being rude to me" Then move on quickly to the task at hand.
Or non-verbal: wave a hand of dismissal and say "yeah, yeah, you're being hilarious" and move on.
I wish you could say "You're not telling a joke, you're being an asshole" but I probably wouldn't do that.
"Yes, yes, very calm, but rather bored by your ideas of funny."
"Could we just get on with our jobs without your 'comedy' routines then?"

- Being cut off: in this case my response to any given insult ('joke') issued to me by my coworker will immediately be treated with, 'okay, move on' and 'let it go' the instant I start to speak.

"We can 'move on' after you've made your apology"
"Please don't interrupt me, I haven't finished speaking" Then talk over them and persist with your point until you've finished.

- Dealing with condescending, snide, arrogant personalities.

I think this is a case where you act by attrition rather than hoping for an epiphany. In the smaller moments above keep holding the line against his abusive behaviour towards you.

Can you also cultivate a manner of cool, aloof, distant forms of engagement? Part of what gets a bully off is having a reaction of submission or fear. Sometimes it's best to cultivate a bored, dismissive manner so that you provide a detached response that doesn't give him what he wants.
posted by honey-barbara at 2:26 AM on March 19, 2012 [48 favorites]

Apply for at least one new job every day.

Next time he says something out of line, go "could you repeat that please?" and "do you have the exact time?" then write it down.

You know that management approves of his bullying, though, so getting out of there as fast as possible should be your main goal.
posted by tel3path at 4:17 AM on March 19, 2012 [1 favorite]

This person already knows what you think of him and his actions. So the next time he starts up, just stare at him. Not the no-blinking staring contest kind of staring, but just look at him intently, not saying anything, as he goes about his verbal abuse. Eventually, he'll either stop abusing, at which point you continue the conversation; or he'll break off the conversation entirely, at which point you note the time and date with, "Attempted to ask Person X about Subject Y. He refused to help." Email that to yourself (and your non-work email) so you have a record of it. If a problem with Subject Y ever gets you in trouble, you pull up your record of the times that Person X was unhelpful and give it to your boss. That is the only reason your boss might be made to care whether Person X is an asshole -- when it's affecting your ability to work in ways that you can't help by "being tougher."

If your boss refuses to understand what "Person X was unhelpful" really means and lets him go about his schtick even when you've shown that it's bringing other people's work down, then leave. You and he have been weighed and balanced, and he -- even as a Known Asshole -- is more important to them than you. Don't ever work in that situation. Flipping burgers is better for your soul.
posted by Etrigan at 5:14 AM on March 19, 2012 [2 favorites]

If he was fired once, he can be fired again.

I'd take your laundry list of his worst behaviors into your boss and present it to him. Make it his problem. His response will tell you if you need to leave.

"Boss, It's not a case of he goes or I go, it's a case of I won't put up with this, and here's my notice."
posted by BlueHorse at 5:26 AM on March 19, 2012 [1 favorite]

This bully is actually extremely insecure and is defending himself in the only way he knows how. What you can do with this information isn't so clear, but knowing this and trying to reassure him may make both of you more comfortable.
posted by Obscure Reference at 5:35 AM on March 19, 2012

I have tried to give sincere compliments to competitive people with big egos, which is a superclass of "bully".

Invariably, even the nice instances of this type would just get visibly fatter in the ego, and since merit is a zero-sum game, they would use their newly-increased sense of superiority to put me down. After all, they were better than me - I'd just said so myself.

Maybe others have had good experiences with enabling these people's egos, but I never have.
posted by tel3path at 6:22 AM on March 19, 2012 [2 favorites]

How do you deal with verbal abuse in the workplace? What things outside of therapy do you do to prevent verbal abuse from having an effect or from occurring?

This is so wrong. No. No and no.

The way you prevent verbal abuse from occurring is marching into your boss's office every time it happens, with the offender. By documenting it in email every time it occurs, and emailing it to everyone in management. This isn't about you, or anything being wrong with you. This is about working with an asshole. Not your problem and not your fault. Dump it on your boss's desk, at the very least.
posted by RJ Reynolds at 6:39 AM on March 19, 2012 [5 favorites]

Is this person a coworker at the same rank as you, or someone higher in the org structure?

I agree with RJ Reynolds. You fight this by making it your boss' problem.

My caveat is this: when going to your boss, I would focus less on "he's speaking in a mean way to me" - that makes you look thin-skinned and reduces your credibility in the eyes of your boss, which is what workplace bullies always want. Instead, focus as much as possible on the ways in which he's preventing you from doing your job, or otherwise being a speedbump in the office. He's taking your tasks away from you, then being abusive when you assert your authority to do those tasks. If I read between the lines, he's probably not as good at those tasks as you are, meaning the job gets done less well because of him. Is some of this time spent talking to you in lieu of him doing his work? Use that to your advantage - here he is gabbing at you when he needs to do his own damn work.

Honestly, I'd be extremely tempted to go the passive-aggressive route here. Go to the boss and paint this as him not having enough work to do - he's clearly not busy enough, he's trying to do your job, on top of his own! Does boss have some more tasks to give this guy? Keep him busy, and he won't have as much time to talk to you, and you have less of his nonsense to have to deal with.

Good luck, I've been where you are!
posted by LN at 7:57 AM on March 19, 2012

If someone at work mischaracterizes me or insults me and then says "just joking", I tell them that it is obviously on their mind and "saying you were kidding doesn't mean that you didn't just say it". They might persist and tell you to have a sense of humor, I respond by saying "I have a great sense of humor, but I'm not going to let you get away with saying that just because you follow it with 'I'm just joking'"

They key is to say this calmly, clearly, matter-of-factly, and the absolute moment they say it.

Do not get angry. It is very, very difficult at first, but it gets easier. Sometimes they might even be smiling when they speak to you, like they're being nice and you're being the weirdo.

But this is not a smile, this is a show of teeth. They are trying to dominate you, in a completely cowardly way. Show them that they have failed: Show them your smile.
posted by dobie at 8:26 AM on March 19, 2012 [3 favorites]

I absolutely do not agree that you should leave. This is not your fault and you should not have to pay for it.

You need to have a clear and direct talk with this person, along the following lines:

"X, I need to make it very clear to you that it is not acceptable that you talk to me in that way. I am asking you politely to stop it, because I want us to get on and work respectfully and well together. I don't want this to turn into an HR issue."

If it persists after that you must warn him that any further occurrence will result in an escalation of the matter.

Bullies and workplace harassers must be faced down, I'm afraid. For your good, and the good of everyone else. It's unpleasant, but it needs to be done.
posted by Decani at 10:03 AM on March 19, 2012 [1 favorite]

- Verbal abuse masked as jokes. 'Oh, calm down. It's a joke'.

"I don't think it's funny. If it's not funny to me, and if it's only a joke to you, then you shouldn't have a problem stopping."

- Being cut off: in this case my response to any given insult ('joke') issued to me by my coworker will immediately be treated with, 'okay, move on' and 'let it go' the instant I start to speak.

"If talking about this makes you this uncomfortable, then I suggest you stop bringing it it up, especially since you know it's something I object to."

I had a coworker situation that involved gaslighting and evasive maneuvering on the other end. I used a voice recorder on a few conversations and found that it helped avoid having my perception of reality manipulated. It also gave me the confidence to press issues face to face. Check into the legality of it in your state.
posted by alphanerd at 2:04 PM on March 19, 2012 [1 favorite]

I think honey-barbara's advice was really good. I also think it's time to make it your boss's problem; back it up with documentation, and with the idea that this is consistently disruptive to work flow, unprofessional behavior. Make it clear (to yourself, to your boss, to your bully) isn't not about you being thin-skinned or being a victim, but about you being strong enough to advocate for yourself and the type of workplace which is conducive to quality work.

I know that for me, when I'm really rattled/upset, sometimes my voice wavers or sounds weak, too. What helps me is to have a script - a kind of revolving list of responses - and I literally imagine that I am made of steel, that my very words are made of steel. Steel is durable, flexible, and strong. You don't fuck with steel. Sounds silly in a way but, every little bit helps. However, personally, I quit. The abusive person was the boss, owner, and only other employee, so I didn't have any other options. But there are people like that every where.

But I also agree that it's time to start aggressively looking for a new job. When a person with a behavior problem is let go because of that problem, then brought back, and that behavior hasn't changed... well, it's indicative of a less than supportive atmosphere.
posted by sm1tten at 4:11 PM on March 19, 2012 [1 favorite]

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