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.