Identifying Abuse in the Workplace

Abuse can happen anywhere – at home, in public and in the workplace. 

Unfortunately, abuse is more common in society than many people would hope or realise. It can take many forms and is not always easy to recognise, both in the case of victims and for outsiders looking in.

Abuse in the workplace is perhaps more subtle than in other areas because of the nature of professional environments. However, its impacts can be just as damaging and significant.

What is abuse in the workplace?

Anyone can suffer abuse in the workplace. It can be inflicted by coworkers, managers, customers or clients. Behaviours or actions that cause psychological, emotional or physical harm to you or any other employee can be regarded as workplace abuse and could warrant someone looking into abuse claims.

Abuse in the workplace can be so difficult to deal with because of the importance of employment and income for employees. Those who are suffering from abuse may not recognise it, and even if they do, may feel as though they risk their employment if they speak up. It’s certainly not a comfortable position to be in.

Employees can experience abuse in many forms, we outline a few of the key areas below:

Physical abuse – this can be the easiest form to recognise because it’s more difficult to conceal. Physical abuse can include slapping, punching, pushing, kicking, choking and any form of physical restraint.

Sexual abuse – sexual abuse can be one of the most damaging, particularly when committed by superiors and people in positions of power. It can fall into three categories – physical, verbal and non-verbal. Inappropriate jokes, unwanted touching, groping and intrusive staring are some of the more common forms, but any kind of sexual abuse or harassment can be demeaning, humiliating and very difficult to recover from.

Bullying and harassment – perhaps the most widespread and often unrecognised form of workplace abuse is bullying and harassment. This can be any situation where someone is mistreated or discriminated against for any number of reasons. It can happen through all forms of communication and can leave victims feeling helpless, isolated and vulnerable at work.

What are some signs of abuse in the workplace?

Some situations are easily recognisable as abuse, but others are more difficult to identify. Whether you suspect someone else is being abused or you aren’t sure if you are – here are some signals that you or someone else may be a victim in your workplace:

  • High levels of absenteeism
  • Crying, sadness and stress
  • Change in productivity or quality of work
  • Name-calling and workplace jokes
  • Social, workplace or professional exclusion
  • Unfair treatment
  • Denial of training or progression opportunities
  • Possessive and controlling behaviour (from an oppressor)

How to deal with abuse

If you are an employer make sure that you have a staff policy on bullying, harassment and sexual misconduct. This should be introduced to all staff as part of their induction and training should also be provided to staff at all levels to ensure that they fully understand the policy and expectations in the workplace. The policy should include a complaints procedure.

If you are an employee, in the first instance look at the relevant policy and the steps you may need to take to have the issue dealt with appropriately. It is important to save evidence as well. If you are a member of a union your membership should entitle you to support and advice on how to deal with any abuse at work. Alternatively, ACAS may be able to help or a specialist employment lawyer.

Finally, if abuse is of a serious nature, including violence, sexual assault, or stalking – call the police.