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What Is Verbal Abuse in the Workplace?

by Melissa King, studioD

According to the April 2007 issue of the "Harvard Mental Health Letter," people who experience persistent and severe verbal abuse risk developing post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, dissociation disorders and depression. When verbal abuse occurs on the job, it can make coming to work a very unpleasant experience. Some abuse, such as screaming and name-calling, is easily recognized. Other types of abuse are more subtle and difficult to detect. No matter the type of abuse, however, the negative effects are lasting and powerful.

Complaints and Mean Remarks

It's fairly easy to recognize verbal abuse when someone complains or belittles you or your work. Complaining is different from constructive criticism, in which a coworker might tell you what's wrong with a project and offer ways that you can fix it. When a coworker complains, he has nothing good to say and isn't interested in helping you. For example, your colleague might call your ideas "stupid" and your work "ridiculous." Mean remarks, such as name-calling and profanity, can be very painful for the victim. Some abusers make mean remarks about their victims in front of other coworkers, but others wait until they're alone with the victim before verbally attacking him.

Disrespect, Blame and Other Abuse

Verbal abusers tend to disrespect others regularly. For instance, an abuser might try to talk to you while you're on the phone with an important client. He may also talk about you behind your back with other coworkers. While you're giving a presentation, an abuser might take phone calls, do paperwork or talk over you without being invited to speak. Abusers also blame others for mistakes or their own shortcomings. For example, if an abuser doesn't do his part of a project, he might find a way to blame his partners. It might not seem like it, but ignoring others is another subtle sign of abuse. For example, your coworker may happily chat with everyone around you but fail to acknowledge your presence.


The effects of verbal abuse can be traumatic and long-lasting. Repeated abuse may lead to depression, sleep disruption, headaches and other physical problems. Abused workers may withdraw or seem fearful of communicating with others. They tend to skip work more frequently and the quality of their work suffers, creating a variety of problems for the victim's boss and company.


Verbal abusers demean their victims, so it can be difficult to gather the strength to confront them. One solution is to tape-record an abuser as he berates you. Sometimes, showing a recorder to the abuser and asking him if you can tape the conversation is enough to stop the abuse. If it doesn't, taping the abuser allows you to collect evidence in case you need to report him to your boss. An effective way to deal with an abuser is to simply tell him to stop abusing you. Note specific things the abuser said and tell him how his words hurt you. If he doesn't seem to care, tell him that you may need to speak to your superior about the problem if the abuse doesn't stop. If you talk with your boss, she may transfer the abuser to another department or reprimand him for his behavior. If you're not ready to report the abuser, speaking with a trusted person, such as a friend, partner or psychologist, can help to ease the trauma of the abuse.

About the Author

Melissa King began writing in 2001. She spent three years writing for her local newspaper, "The Colt," writing editorials, news stories, product reviews and entertainment pieces. She is also the owner and operator of Howbert Freelance Writing. King holds an Associate of Arts in communications from Tarrant County College.

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