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Managerial abuse towards general employees

There are many forms of abuse in the labor market. It exists among general staff, from general staff to managers, and from managers to general staff.

Abuse between general employees, and from general employees to managers, is usually tackled immediately by managers or human resources departments when reports of such occur.

But what about abusive behavior which managers show towards general employees?

Intent behind abuse

Abuse by managers towards employees is as varied as abuse can be is in general. When assessing abuse by a manager towards employees, it is important to assess the intention behind the behavior in order to better understand the situation and how to best deal with it.

Abuse by of a manager could be due to the manager's poor communication skills, the stress of the manager's work being taken out on staff, the manager possibly being incompetent at work and therefore taking that frustration out on the staff, the manager choosing to show the violent behavior, or staff have complained about the manager who is retaliating against that complaint or is trying to silence the staff from complaining further.

The first thought of victims of any kind of abuse is to consider what they themselves did to deserve the abuse, what they themselves need to change or do better in order for the abuser's behavior to change towards them. It is therefore good for victims of abuse to learn to recognize the intent of the behavior towards them, in order to provide some closure to the events that took place.

Types of abuse

But whatever the intent behind the abusive behavior, the manifestations are often the same. For the purposes of this article, abuse is divided into the following four categories:

  • Mental and/or emotional abuse
  • Financial abuse
  • Physical and/or sexual abuse
  • Reactive abuse (is. Hvarfgjarnt ofbeldi).

Managerial abuse towards general employees is usually accompanied by a certain degree of escalation. First steps are usually mental and/or emotional abuse, as it can easily be construed as anything other than abuse by both the victims and by any third parties who are approached for help with the manager.

If a manager who exhibits mental and/or emotional abusive behavior has access to a payroll, financial abuse begins to occur.

And if the employees who experience the abuse show any kind of resistance to it, or if the abuse does not have the desired effect the manager is after, then the abuse often escalates to physical violence and/or sexual assault/harassment.

At any point in this abuse chain, it can be expected that reactive violence will begin showing. Reactive abuse occurs when a victim has reached their limit of tolerance due to continuous abuse from another, and starts responding with abuse in return.

It should be noted that from now on, when discussing perpetrators or abusers it will be referring to managers, and mentions of victims is in reference to affected employees.

Mental and emotional abuse

What mental and emotional abuse has over other forms of abuse is that it is often invisible and difficult to point out. Also, mental and emotional abuse is often part of other forms of abuse, and therefore usually present regardless of other apparent forms of abuse. The following list indicates how mental and emotional abuse can potentially manifest itself:

  • The abuser observes the victim's behavior.
  • The abuser threatens the mental, physical, occupational, and/or economic security of the victim.
  • The abuser isolates the victim from co-workers and/or other managers.
  • The abuser humiliates, shames, or slanders the victim.
  • The abuser makes accusations and shows paranoia in communication with and towards the victim.
  • The abuser constantly criticizes the victim.
  • The abuser taunts, makes fun of, and/or teases the victim.
  • The abuser prevents the victim from achieving their professional and/or personal goals.
  • Gaslighting

Since behavior isn't a fixture and can take numerous manifestations, it is often difficult for employees to take general definitions of behavior and transfer to the situation in which the person finds themselves. When the behavior is verbal, it becomes even more difficult, as individuals who use mental and/or emotional violence are often good at using nonsensical speech to confuse the victim, talking down the victim, or turning the conversation around so that the victim has difficulty understanding what is going on. The following examples can give an idea on how mental and/or emotional abuse may occur in the workplace:

  • The victim points out that the manager is utilizing uncomfortable ways to communication and requests that the manager only maintains written communications. The manager ignores this request, repeatedly calls or insists in their power that the victim attends only verbal meetings.
  • The victim describes discomfort of attending verbal meetings with the manager. The manager then begins to follow the victim's movements, ambushes the victim to "catch them" in the corridors of the workplace to "discuss their issues".
  • The victim doesn't receive necessary information or decisions from the manager to fully perform at their job. The victim is reprimanded for poor or late performance.
  • The victim receives a task to be carried out, but no information, access to systems, devices or tools in order to be able to carry out the task properly.
  • The victim is isolated from other staff, with direct orders from the manager to mingle less with staff and attend fewer meetings with other employees, that the victim's work should only be done through e-mail communication, and the manager even goes between other staff members and announces that all direct communication with the victim should end.
  • The victim is required by the manager to ignore certain duties towards other staff or tasks, often at short notice, only to meet further abusive behavior by the manager.
  • The victim finds it difficult to carry out their work due to the direct intervention of a manager who purposefully works against the victims professional goals and projects.
  • The victim is purposefully flooded with various tasks at work, often tasks that the victim is not supposed to be doing nor is it in the victim's field. If the victim points this out, the victim receives threats of receiving poor work performance reports or reprimands for refusal to carry out tasks.
  • The victim is slandered by the manager to other staff, other managers are informed about the victim's inability to do their job and that the victim only delivers unsatisfactory results. Relationships and communication with other staff and managers are systematically broken down.
  • The victim tries to point out the unpleasant working conditions that the manager is setting up, only to have the responsibility of the situation placed upon themselves by hearing the victim "should have known this information", "was responsible for the project" or "is not doing their job properly".
  • The victim tries to discuss the negative working conditions with the manager, but the manager answers nonsensically or offers little to no support on the matter. Often the manager uses confusing language to shift the responsibility to the victim, or simply gaslights the victim.
  • The victim perceives that the manager does not value their time: Meetings and events are arranged at short notice, and those who cannot attend are reprimanded. Meetings and events are also postponed at short notice or meetings are dragged out, leaving the victim less time to work on other projects or attending other engagements late.
  • The victim tries to discuss the situation with the manager to mend the atmosphere between them. The administrator does not answer the victim about the subject in question, but makes accusations against the victim instead. The accusations often appear as possible breach of contract, victimization of the manager by the victim, and other rhetoric that are hard for the victim to defend themselves against on short notice.
  • The manager threatens the victim with loss of income or job, or negative changes to their position when the victim tries to discuss the issues.

When it comes to mental and emotional abuse, each case must always be evaluated individually, and therefore it is not enough to see isolated behavior and think that it is abuse. It is important to look at the manager's overall behavioral pattern towards the victim, and always evaluate the entire situation and not individual cases or moments.

Financial abuse

Financial abuse in the labor market is something that is rarely discussed, and is often reduced to economic offenses that can easily be paid up. But there is a difference between when the financial loss suffered by staff at the hands of management is due to wage theft, or due to financial abuse.

The intention of the loss is a key factor, and the following attributes can be evaluated to assess the situation:

  • Is the loss aimed at individuals, or the whole group?
  • Does it happen occasionally, or all the time?

An example of wage theft is e.g. overtime for all employees is prohibited, and everyone perceives that they are being cheated out of their rightful wages.

An example of financial violence is e.g. that individuals within the workforce see that sometimes overtime is being withheld while others get paid in full, and when this mistake is pointed out it is difficult to get it corrected. This causes the affected staff a lot of mental discomfort at work, and they feel ignored by the manager.

Another difference between wage theft and financial abuse is the immediate supervisor of the staff. Wage theft is usually carried out gradually against everyone and there is nothing personal behind it, so the manager's relationship with the staff is not necessarily negative nor affected by it, except when directly discussing the financial loss. Financial abuse is personal, and therefore negative and difficult relations between affected staff and manager will be apparent.

But like all behavior, financial abuse can have miscellaneous manifestation, and not just in the case of unpaid work hours or misappropriation of the right to time off or vacation. An example of financial abuse that obviously also falls under both mental and physical abuse is when employees are forced to do something that goes against their own interests:

  • The manager forces the victim to sign a new employment contract that changes the victim's job or terms in a negative way.
  • This also includes making additions to employment contracts, change agreements, termination agreements, or any other type of content that in some way has negative consequences for the victim.
  • The victim is often prohibited from leaving the situation until the article has been signed, thusly deprived of their liberty.
  • If the victim gets out of the situation without signing the article, they might not be allowed to take said article with them to have its contents evaluated by their lawyers or trade union.
  • During the deprivation of liberty, and if the victim manages to get away without signing the article, the victim will be threatened with loss of employment or income if they continue to refuse to sign.

The above-mentioned example sets up a situation where the victim is deprived of freedom by a manager (physical abuse) as well as threats (mental abuse) and coercion of signing away their rights (financial abuse) and therefore clearly shows how many types of abuse play together as a whole.

Physical abuse and sexual harassment

Physical abuse is the type of abuse that can most often be readily identified as abuse. Sexual harassment, on the other hand, is often obvious, but due to the cultural norms, sexual harassment is often considered normal or acceptable behavior and therefore the victim often feels they have to suffer sexual abusive behavior towards them in silence.

Physical abuse and sexual harassment often manifest after the victim has already suffered through other forms of abusive behavior. In the case of a person who is good at making themselves heard regarding issues that the manager could be doing better, it is often possible to see a clear escalation on how the abuse escalated from mental and emotional attempts to silence the person, to sexual harassment or physical violence that is done so that the victim is unable to continue their work due to threatening and uncomfortable working conditions.

Reactive abuse

Reactive abuse is abusive behavior that the victim themselves shows when their tolerance limit has been reached. It is difficult to deal with reactive abuse, as it is a case of reprimandable behavior from the victim, which often even calls for their immediate dismissal from work, even though the abusive behavior was a direct response to abuse that the victim themselves was experiencing.

When an abusive culture has become entrenched with the employer, reactive abuse begins to emerge. This is either a sign of inability of the HR department to deal with the situation, or that the employer's top management team is unable or simply unwilling to intervene and fix the situation.

In conclusion

Managerial abuse towards employees is a serious issue, not only because of the impact that their actions have on the employees themselves, but the negative impact on the business that any kind of abusive culture has in general.

An employer known for an abusive culture has a harder time finding new staff to fill vacant positions. Absence from work, whether it is due to illness or employees simply avoiding the workplace, is expensive for the employer. There are also problems beyond the employer, as an abusive culture affects the services and products that the employer offers to customers.

Eradicating an abusive culture is therefore not a matter of considering the needs of individual employees, but of building and strengthening all staff in order to strengthen the employer in general.

Employees themselves often feel they have no reason to fight through abusive managers, and this is especially true when it comes to individual employees as individuals who go up against an abusive manager only run the risk of further abuse being used against them in retaliation.

When an managerial abuse is a known problem at a workplace, it is important that the employees unite against the situation. The crowd provides protection for the individual and lends a stronger voice to the cause. It's good to keep the following in mind:

  • It is important for employees to look at patterns of behavior, not individual incidents, and report the pattern as a whole.
  • Although identifying intention behind the abusive behavior is important, employees should summarize all abusive instances together and avoid reading into intention all together when reporting managerial abuse. This article mention identifying intent only so that individuals could better understand the situation they were being subject to and better handle their feelings after the fact. Understanding behavioral effects on one's feelings helps in exposing mental and emotional abuse, which is often difficult to pin down and summarize.
  • It is also important that when the decision to file a complaint due to unpleasant working conditions has been made, it is imperative to do so in a thoughtful manner, and list out behaviors and incidents, but not tear down the manager's character.

Complaints made by employees about incompetent or managerial abuse should always be taken seriously.

This article first appeared as a review on 13.02.2023 [link]. Interview with Dagmál 07.03.2023 [link, link, link].