Not ‘bossy,’ not ‘tough.’ Abusive.
A few years ago, I was approached by a young Chinese friend. She told me that her friend’s boss belittles her. Calls her stupid, yells at her in front of colleagues. She asked for advice.
In one of those professional Me Too moments, I told her, “I’ve been there,” and gave her some coping strategies. She was so shocked that she quietly revealed that there was no friend – it was her dealing with an abusive manager.
The shame she felt sharing her experiences was too familiar. Early in my career, I had a boss that employed every abusive tactic in the book: humiliating me in front of clients; yelling and cursing constantly; weaponizing information; even threatening to end my career. It was so extreme and cartoonish, I sometimes felt like a henchman in a James Bond movie.
Yet even though my former boss’s behavior is well known throughout the industry, I was reluctant to share my experiences. When asked about it, I chose softer terms, like ‘difficult’ and ‘complicated’ – immediately rushing in with all the positive sides to that job. Abuse was not in my vocabulary at the time, and wording it would have resulted in lost opportunities. Even writing about it now makes me extremely uncomfortable.
The public discourse about verbal, physical, and economic abuse, and the public’s understanding of it, has vastly improved. Yet we don’t talk enough about the complexities and scarring nature of undergoing abuse in the workplace. These relationships rely on hierarchy, power, and seniority for justification. They happen in broad daylight by people who were given the establishment’s permission to hurt others. Like other types of abuse, they flourish in silence.
Some misconceptions and toxic social norms around abusive relationships in the workplace include:
MISCONCEPTION: IT ONLY HAPPENS EARLY ON IN ONE’S CAREER / IT’S PART OF THE POWER DYNAMICS
It’s true that abuse can happen during the early stages of one’s career, as an intern or junior. Managers often use workplace hierarchy to justify abuse. But there is NO age limit to being abused. I know people that endured such abusive well into their 40s and 50s. Abuse is never justified, not in life and not in the workplace.
SOCIAL NORM: THE EMPLOYEE IS FORCED TO LIE WHEN LOOKING FOR A NEW JOB
So here’s the kicker – research shows the #1 reason for leaving a job is a bad boss; yet did you ever provide that as the reason for quitting when interviewing in a new place? No, right?
Abuse in the workplace still enjoys the sweet protection of shame. Employees worry – probably with good cause – that the abuse reflects poorly on them. It’s 2023, and we are still blaming the victim.
MISCONCEPTION: WHY DON’T YOU JUST QUIT?
A reference to a sobbing Richard Gere – and also the biggest misconceptions out there. Let’s address this right now – even if the person can afford to financially, there are plenty of reasons, both emotional and professional, that might keep a person in a bad workplace. This doesn’t mean they’re blind to the abuse – it means they’re making a difficult decision to protect themselves in other aspects.
And anyway, isn’t it time we ask abusive managers to QUIT?
I would love to hear your thoughts and experiences – here or in private.