Jane's Mental Health Source Page

One of the Web's Oldest Personal Mental Health Sites [Est. 1998]

Emotional Abuse in the Workplace

4 comments

Note: I have disguised the situations and parties involved to protect the victims! This is based on a true story.

A journalism professional has a monster boss. Actually, this boss is an equal-opportunity monster boss, because he is mean to many people, not just the journalist.

The boss would give the journalist the crappiest assignments with a lot of research work, so that the journalist could never have enough time or energy to pursue more cutting edge stories that would help his career. Whenever the journalist gets really good networking contacts at media events, the boss would start micromanaging him, or questioning the quality of his work, and use these as pretext from preventing the journalist going to any more of these events.

Every other week the boss would remind the journalist how lucky he was that he has his job, the journalist being a single working dad. It is as if the boss wanted the journalist to know that he didn’t need to give working dads the chance, given that jobs are scarce and he could have given it to other journalists without annoying baggage – like kids.

One day the boss told the journalist that he is being let go because the journalist was not doing enough cutting edge stories. Then the boss became really nice to the journalist, as if to make up for all the horrible things that the the boss has put the journalist through. The journalist was not sure what to make of this sudden show of friendliness, or how to behave.

At first the journalist tried to make peace with the boss, and became friendly to him. The boss said to the journalist that maybe he would help the journalist keep his job after all. This made the journalist happy. Then a short time (within weeks) later, the boss said that the journalist’s contract would not be renewed.

The journalist felt as if he was being played in a cruel and unusual game.

I told this journalist that he needs to keep watching his back, and that the cruel and unusual game the boss is playing is called emotional abuse.

People like this have very low self esteem, and they have learned one way of bolstering an illusion of self esteem by taking power AWAY from other people. In the workplace, this usually happens between people who are bosses and those who are subordinates, where the boss will emotionally abuse the subordinates because they are less likely to be in a position to challenge the abuser.

Emotional abuse in the workplace can also happen openly – or covertly.

If the abuser has power over a group of people, then the abuser will openly emotionally abuse several employees, because not many will challenge this behavior. But this will not prevent the emotional abuser from seeking out an easy target to secretly abuse that person. An easy target does not need to be a “weak” person – simply someone who has more at stake and therefore unable to act on impulse (like telling the abuser to “take this job and shove it”).

Emotional abuse in the workplace different from workplace aggression – but it is just as sinister if not more poisonous – because someone can be smiling at you while figuratively sinking a knife into your chest (some of these people do not even bother going for your back)! It is sinister because it seems hidden. Can you imagine trying to file an HR related complaint for emotional abuse? You would be told to “suck it up” or “grow a thicker skin”!

Image by Miguel

Written by Jane Chin

March 4th, 2010 at 6:25 pm

  • Jane,

    Excellent piece and more than a little frightening.

    Bully bosses tend to be insecure and lack the emotional intelligence to get the most from employees.

    The best managers are those who provide project parameters and then let the project manager do the job with on-going consultation.

    Micro-managing is counter-productive and demoralizing. I live it every day.

    Thanks for the post.
    PL

  • Debbie

    Jane,
    Thanks for this. I am currently dealing with an emotionally bullying boss. My husband was recently diagnosed with cancer and I carry the health insurance hence keeping me tied to this job and she knows it. I feel so trapped and go home every night depressed and in tears. It’s comforting to know I’m not alone.

  • Hi Debbie, I am sorry to hear about what is happening to you. One of the only ways you can change the tide with an emotionally bullying boss is by altering your own emotions (she is not likely to change unless she wants to). I know my buddhist friends may advise transforming these “abused” feelings into thoughts of compassion for the abuser (who knows if she is going through some emotional pain herself elsewhere, or in the past). I don’t know if I am enlightened enough for that yet, but I find “feelings of pity” easier to generate. You turn feelings of anger into feelings of pity for that person, as part of your own self-preservation (anger will eat you up alive from the inside).

  • Emily Frugalsworth

    I do my best to detach, but I talk back also, even though it is risky.