Workplace Abuse and You

Having recently quit a hateful job – a situation so bad I quit without finding my next position first – I’ve been sharing my experiences with friends and family, and I’ve noticed that the responses have been divided between two very distinct options.

Friends who’ve had similar experiences tend to share their POW stories: almost everyone I’ve spoken to had a boss once who harassed them, acted aggressively toward them, intentionally and overtly thwarted their ability to succeed in the position. Meanwhile, friends who’ve had fairly stable careers in jobs they enjoy look at me like I’ve grown an extra head when I describe the treatment I received in my last position. They say things – well-meaning things, like, “Are you sure you’re not exaggerating?” and “It can’t have been that bad!” and “Maybe you should take a step away from the situation until you calm down.”

Okay, I get it. They’re trying really hard to make sense of a situation I’m reporting that just doesn’t make sense, and because they’ve never been sexually harassed, insulted, belittled, or marginalized by their bosses, they’re having a hard time conceiving of a boss that’s like that in the real world. Hearing this kind of feedback when your workplace is already hostile, though, pretty much makes you feel about two inches tall; you start to doubt yourself (even though I’ve been witnessing this behavior every day, am I blowing this out of proportion?), which is already your employer’s goal, and now your friends are joining in on the fun. It sucks.

But, look, you have rights, don’t you? The thing about rights is not that people won’t violate them; they will, all over the place. But your rights are enforceable, which means that when your rights are violated, you have recourse to set things right.

So, how do you handle this kind of situation?

1. Keep records. If your employer is actually stupid enough to put this abuse in writing, make sure you save it somewhere off the company servers. Forward that shit to your private email. This record can be valuable if the situation comes to a lawsuit, or in negotiating the terms of your end of contract. If there isn’t a paper trail, create one by keeping a log of incidences on your own. Also keep records of all praise you receive in writing or in person, and try to keep at least a light log of all of the work you accomplish so unfair accusations of laziness or poor job performance can be put to rest immediately.

2. Collect witnesses. Try not to have meetings with anyone who displays abusive tendencies alone. Ask for other members of management or members of your team to be present for any meetings you have with this person; most likely, this will decrease their abusive output, but it also means that if they do continue to abuse you, you can immediately have someone there as a witness.

3. Keep calm. Seriously. Unfortunately, especially for women, even the slightest emotional response can be used against you. You probably wouldn’t be surprised to hear how often an abusive boss who’s trying to either force an employee to quit or trying to gather a case to fire them will try to level accusations like, “She is unstable,” or “She is emotionally volatile.” Speak in level tones, present your own evidence clearly and calmly, don’t interrupt, and don’t take an argumentative tone. This can be maddening, particularly when faced with such a huge level of unfairness, but don’t let them pander to stereotypes.

4. Know when to hold ’em, know when to fold ’em. Some work environments will do anything to avoid the appearance of impropriety, so they will work hard to ensure that negative situations in the workplace like this are solved quickly, quietly, and to the broadest satisfaction possible. Particularly larger corporate environments, or, you know, a Human Resources department. On the other hand, smaller companies, newer companies, and situations in which your abuser is everyone’s boss are less likely to want to hush this up or make it go away. They’d much rather make you go away. At that point, you have a couple options: fight for your job (though why you’d want to stay there, I don’t know), press charges, or quit and find something better.

5. Don’t sign anything without consulting a lawyer first. This should be self-explanatory.

6. Make the best choice for you. Ultimately, no one can sustain staying in an abusive work environment for long. Your records can help you obtain unemployment benefits if you don’t leave under terms that would normally guarantee them to you. If you have time to find another job first, that’s great, but do what’s best for your emotional and mental health, and get out of there as soon as you can.

This time around, I was lucky: we had a little cushion saved up so I could afford to quit without having another job guaranteed yet. I’m scared a little about finding a job before we run out of money, yeah, but I’m also so hugely relieved not to be in a situation that has me second guessing myself, come home crying every night, and hating every moment of my workday. You deserve to be treated with respect. You deserve to work in an environment in which you are not abused or marginalized. You deserve recourse if you experience those things. Unfortunately, abusers often continue that kind of behavior because they believe they can get away with it.

Prove them wrong.

By Meghan Young Krogh

Meghan had a number of quality writing mentors over the course of her education, which just goes to show that you can't blame the teacher for the way the student turns out. Team Oxford Comma represent.

16 replies on “Workplace Abuse and You”

When I got fired last October, I was sure my ex-employer would fight my unemployment. He didn’t, but we still had to go through the process for me to receive it.

I did my interview first and recited my absences due to an ongoing medical condition as the reason for my termination. I then sent them every ER or doctor’s note/invoice/bill, a letter specifically from my neurologist explaining the absences, all my e-mails telling my boss I wouldn’t be in. I also provided an entire list of all the praise I’d received from him, from members, from other coworkers (including copies of cards and e-mails). The best part was the ‘log’ of our various meetings and what was said (including him accusing me of lying about my migraines), how all of this started after my 6 day stay in the psych. ward, his blaming me for things that went wrong in the office that weren’t even something I was supposed to contend with (IT issues, inventory of supplies, making sure the printers had enough toner, etc.), plus a copy of my first review (which garnered me a 4.5 on a 5 scale) and my second review (which garnered me a 2.5 on a 5 scale–and included a bunch of crap he’d never once discussed with me).

When they interviewed him he stated ‘poor performance’ as the reason for termination. The Dept. of Employment services has filed a lawsuit to recoup the money that’s been put towards my unemployment because even though we didn’t have enough employees to be covered under medical leaves, etc., he did violate other laws regarding firing someone with medical/mental conditions when they’re seeking help or treatment.

I’m not sure where they are with it all, but I was kind of happy that my boss is getting a kick in the pants. I just hate that it affects the organization and the members since they didn’t have a say in what was going on.

I just left a horribly abusive job in which three years of service ended in a text message from a co-worker (and friend of my boss) passing on the message that my boss had cut my hours down more than half. When I emailed my boss asking why he’d cut my hours, and why he’d done it through a text message, he said, “You haven’t been vacuuming well enough at the end of the night. I didn’t talk to you about it but I assumed it would be common sense.”
Which… I won’t even go into all the reasons and details of why this was absurd. So I quit. This was after taking my manager to the hospital as she was having a panic attack because of the way they kept treating her; forcing her to work 60 hrs a week. When I and a co-worker were promoted to be co-managers after she left, they worked us 50+ hours a week and made us figure out how to alter the schedule so they wouldn’t actually have to pay us overtime. I’m only 22, and this was two years ago and both of our first managerial positions, so we put up with it, but I regret ever doing it. When I finally quit for good, my boss laughed in my face.
I stayed for years, hoping they would change; I quit once and came back, hoping that if they could just see how much they needed me and how good a job I was doing that they’d learn their lesson and start to treat their employees better… Didn’t happen. But I learned some very, very valuable lessons from that experience. You can’t let people bully you – I don’t care how “important” you are (as a business owner, CEO, whatever), you are not ever so important that you have the right to treat others with disrespect.

And now, at my new job, my boss is quickly showing herself to be similar in many ways to my old bosses. Yippeeeeeee

Great article. I agree 100%.

I’ve left more than one job in the past because I refuse to be treated badly by employers. I simply don’t have that ‘grin and bear it’ attitude – I really balk at authority figures abusing their power. I suppose to some it looks like I don’t have a great work ethic, but seriously, I will not be treated without respect, even if it means losing a much needed paycheck.

A boss I had a few years ago was a really douchebag. He insisted that the women in the office (there were only three of us) call him ‘sir’. As in ‘yes sir’, ‘no sir’, ‘may I leave now, sir’. Now, I happen to have impeccable manners, and I am a fan of the ‘yes maam’ and ‘no sir’ etc when I’m dealing with elders, but at the same time, I feel that respect is earned. This man was rude, aggressive, sarcastic, curt, and made it clear that he thought his employees were little more than peons. So I refused to call him sir. He did not deserve it. Not to mention the man was only about ten years my senior and talked down to me like I was some idiot teenager. One day he hauled me into his office to cuss me out over some supposed mistake I made, and he asked me if I understood. I said, ‘yes’. And he says, ‘Yes WHAT?’. I said, ‘Yes, Bill.’ And he was like, ‘Don’t you mean, yes sir?’. I stood up, looked him square in the eye and said, ‘I am 28 years old. I am a fully grown woman. If I don’t feel that you deserve the title ‘sir’, you won’t be called ‘sir’. You start calling me ‘maam’ and I’ll consider calling you sir. Until then, get over it or fire me’. And I stormed out. He fired me a week later. I don’t regret anything.

One more thing I wanted to say.

I live by this creed and it has served me well.

When you take a job you are agreeing to provide your employer with a service, in exchange for compensation. They need that service from you just as badly as you need that compensation. It is not a one sided arrangement. If the compensation isn’t on par with the service you provide, you don’t have to accept that. And that goes for monetary compensation as well as every other kind of compensation – benefits, treatment in the workplace, respect, accolades, etc.

I just recently got out of a long-term abusive work relationship. My boss was emotionally/verbally abusive, depending on how she felt that day. But in my situation, she left and I stayed. And now my life is nearly 180 degrees opposite from those dark days before. I nearly quit twice, but didn’t. I’m now glad, because I outlasted her.

But I ran into the same things – she met my whole family and was wonderful to them, and my family was like – really? she’s mean to you? But then my dad told me, “you know, I could go by just having met her, and say ‘well, she was always nice to me‘. But I know you, and I know better. And I’ve been in situations like that before – I believe you.” That meant a lot. That and him telling me that if I had to, I could just move home.

Getting away from a toxic work environment – however you do it – is important. And all your above points are right on. Especially keeping records. I learned that early, and it has served me well. Most of all, I loved this:

You deserve to be treated with respect. You deserve to work in an environment in which you are not abused or marginalized.

It’s a truth that’s easier to lose than I ever thought.

Abuse is abuse is abuse. And people tend to react similiarly to hearing about it. It’s so horrible that they don’t even want to THINK that it might be true. So apathy and disbelief is often the same response. You don’t say what your boss did but it had to be pretty bad for you to up and leave w/o another job.

One things for sure, abuse over time, day in and day out leads to trauma. So I hope you have someone to talk to about it, because otherwise when you get to your next job . . . .

You advice is great. The thing is when someone is f-ing with your head, it’s pretty hard to think straight.

But I’m really glad you got yourself out of that situation and had the means to.

You bring up a really good point here: people need to make sure that they have a full support system when they’re dealing with this, AND afterward – not just friends and other loved ones, but hopefully a professional who can help them work through the abuse they suffered. And you’re right. It’s really effing hard to think straight when you’re in a situation like that.

Kudos to you for getting out. Quitting a job with an abusive boss is not easy, nor is all the naysaying from friends and family afterwards.

A really compelling radio program was aired recently about bullying and abuse in the federal government here in Canada, surrounding the case of Zabia Chamberlain. If anyone is interested you can listen to the program here.

In my last job I worked for someone who, while never doing anything that I would consider full out abuse, was deeply mean to me for reasons I still don’t understand. I was a casual employee, and most of the casual employees were treated the same way. One of the permanent staff even remarked on the different treatment as a caste system. Most things that went wrong in the office were blamed on me and I was regularly given tasks and timelines that were impossible. (“Please collate these documents and stuff 500 envelopes in the next five minutes.”) The final kick in the ass was after working there for a year and a half, I wasn’t allowed to sign a goodbye card of a good friend in the office because I was “casual staff and that would be inappropriate and unwelcome.” I quit. If I had been been thinking straight I would have at least given some comments to HR so they’d have it on file.

So that would be my advice. Even if you don’t want to take any sort of immediate action, let HR or someone higher up (if there even is one) know about what’s been happening. There’s a chance that there are more complaints in the bully’s history.

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