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Sticks and Stones

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I recently received a letter from a reader that raised a very important topic: verbal abuse in the workplace. Here’s how he put it: “About a year ago, a friend took a job with an independent financial planning firm while he studied for his CFP exam. He works directly for the owner of the firm. We spoke on the phone last week, and he said that his boss is a control freak. He thinks his boss’s heart is in the right place, but he wasn’t sure where the line was between tough love and verbal abuse. His boss routinely berates him in front of other employees, and if he tries to defend himself, he will call him into his office and lecture him about embarrassing him in front of his subordinates. Only after he was hired did he realize that all four of his predecessors quit after a short time. He asked me what he should do, and I wasn’t sure how to respond.”

Unfortunately, verbal abuse in the workplace is all too common, sometimes by coworkers, but more often by managers or firm owners. I understand that owners of small businesses can be under a lot of stress and that having your name on the door can really ramp up your drive to offer the best service possible. Believe me, I’ve been there.

Still, I think we can all agree that while the office isn’t a good place to vent one’s emotions, if it happens from time to time, a simple apology is usually enough to get things back on a professional footing. Verbal abuse—that is, repeated aggressive (or passive-aggressive) behavior such as shouting, swearing, belittling, angry motions, or hurtful or sarcastic comments directed at employees or coworkers—has no place in the workplace, or anywhere for that matter.

From an owner’s perspective, verbal abuse is among the most damaging behaviors in an office setting. Repeated over-the-top responses can undermine a business culture, the sense of team work, the office morale and employee confidence—not only of the victim, but of all one’s employees. Even worse, it can restrict or disrupt the lines of communication that are essential to the success of a service business.

Sure, employees can be exasperating from time to time. Chances are, many employees sometimes feel the same way about their employer. Their job is to overlook the short-comings of their employer and help him or her build a great business and deliver high-quality client service. Through my work and research (see “Let Go to Grow,” Investment Advisor, November 2011), I’ve come to believe that an employer’s job is to create great employees by creating a great working environment, which includes building up employees’ abilities and confidence. Continued verbal abuse can certainly undermine that goal. (It can also lead to high employee turnover, which is the road to mediocrity for advisory firms.)

For employees dealing with an abusive employer or coworker, the first step is to recognize that abusive behavior usually stems from factors unrelated to you—and often, not related to work at all. One current theory in the book “You Can’t Talk to Me That Way!: Stopping Toxic Language in the Workplace” by Arthur Bell, Ph.D, holds that workplace abuse stems from a fear of inadequacy and the resulting need to control other people’s actions through intimidation. Verbal abusers also tend to have been the victims of severe verbal abuse themselves. It may also stem from anger issues or high stress levels at home or at work.

Even if some mistake, omission, or other failing may have triggered a particular incident, true verbal abuse is a disproportionately strong reaction, which the abuser has a tendency to repeat under other circumstances and with other people. This kind of pattern clearly indicates that “it’s not you,” and therefore, it’s not a problem that you can solve.

The good news is that people can change their behavior. In my experience, there’s a very good chance that an abusive boss or coworker will stop the abusive behavior if handled professionally. In large corporations with HR departments and extensive employee manuals, abusive managers are less of a problem: Employee rights are usually taken very seriously these days, with well-publicized procedures for reporting and dealing with abuse. In smaller companies, however, such as independent advisory firms, an employee’s only recourse is with the firm owner, who many times is the perpetrator of the abuse. Don’t let this dissuade you from taking action: The longer you allow the abuse to continue, the more psychological damage it will do to you and the more time you will have wasted being miserable at your job.

Before you act, have a candid conversation with yourself about what you want the outcome to be. If the abusive person were to stop his or her abusive actions tomorrow, would you want to continue working at your current firm, or has too much damage been done to your relationship? Don’t waste any more time trying to “get even.” If you have to have an exit interview and give your boss a parting shot, well, that’s a few rungs down on the professional scale, but, hey, you’re only human.

If you’ve decided that you truly like (or need) your job and want to stay, I’ve found that your best next step is to confront your abuser. Do it on your timetable, under your terms and in private (abusers are often worse in front of an audience). Be professional, keeping in mind that you really do want to stay with this firm. You’re going to have to find a way to have a workable relationship with this person going forward. Be direct: Calmly point out the behavior in question, giving three or four examples, and conclude by firmly pointing out that this is unacceptable in clear and unmistakable terms. (I know a woman who told her boss: “I wouldn’t let my mother talk to me that way. Why would I let you?”)

Don’t make the discussion completely negative: Talk about how much you like your job and the firm, and what a shame it is that his or her behavior makes you so uncomfortable it’s affecting the quality of your work. It couldn’t hurt to point out that you’re not perfect and that you’re more than willing to learn and improve, but that being abused is not the way to talk about your performance.

At no time should you argue or get defensive. Simply tell him or her what the problem is and that you won’t stand for it. Never (this is key) respond in kind to a verbal abuser with loud aggressive language, either during the abuse or during your later discussion of it. That will only escalate the situation and send the message that this type of behavior is OK. Instead, quietly let your abuser vent. When it’s your turn to talk, look him or her in the eye, and say the behavior is unacceptable. Your calm firmness is by far the best defense.

Often, this kind of confrontation is all it takes. I think that’s because most people don’t realize they are being abusive, or what effect their bad behavior is having on other people. But what do you do if they don’t stop? Once again, it’s time for a reality check: Do you want to quit or threaten some other action? If you decide to give it one more shot, you’re going to have to give an ultimatum. I’ve found the most effective ultimatums involve something important to the other party. Your leaving may be enough, or perhaps going to someone who’s important to them: their boss or other employees, for instance. But remember, if they call your bluff, you’re going to have to act, so be prepared to follow through.

Verbal abuse in the workplace is never healthy and almost always destructive. I strongly encourage employers and employees alike to adopt a zero tolerance policy. Firms should have strong toxic language policies and clear procedures for handling verbal abuse should it arise. Employees should not tolerate repeated, harmful words and take steps to confront it when necessary. How can workers tell if they’re being abused? Simple: Are they more or less self-confident now than when they started with the firm? If the answer is “less,” the reason is serious. The most respected bosses, coaches, leaders and managers all say things they regret in the heat of the  moment, but at the end of the day their players, employees and team leave more confident, not less. Words do hurt and great leaders choose them wisely and use them appropriately to build confidence, not tear it down.


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