Working Wounded: How to Handle Abuse

DEAR READERS: I received a lot of e-mail after a column on handling abuse at work. Below are some of the responses:

"When abused verbally during a previous job, I did what you suggested (kept a record, consulted HR, left scene when abuse began to escalate) but found that the most effective way to deal with my abusive co-worker was to let him know that I understood what he was feeling and then refocus his attention from his emotions to the job at hand. Statements such as 'I hear that you're feeling (frustrated, angry, etc). How is this going to help us (achieve our goal)?' really defused the situation."

"When my boss went on one of his verbal abuse attacks I activated the recorder on my cell phone and recorded 30 seconds of him just verbally abusing me. After he was done, I said this is how you sound and played it back. I then asked him how human resources would feel about this and the verbal attacks stopped."

"Your column over-generalizes the issue of verbal abuse in the workplace. You need to help people recognize the different types of abuse. For example: customer service representative vs. angry customer = de-escalate and appease. Retail worker vs. angry noncustomer = de-escalate and remove (may require assistance from security or police). Co-worker vs. co-worker = apeal to reason, name behavior, document, make contact with supervisor(s). Worker vs. supervisor/boss = de-escalate and appease or quit. Worker vs. abusive family member in the workplace (most common cause of workplace violence) = de-escalate and remove (security, help again)."

"I traditionally work in sales environments and have a pocket tape recorder. In one situation where I encountered abuse I simply pulled out the recorder and asked if I could tape our conversation to make sure I didn't miss anything and clearly got what the abuser was trying to say to me. The look on their face was priceless, very much a deer caught in the headlights because they immediately recognized what 'might' happen. A short 'Never mind' and they turned and left, never to use that tone or approach with me again. That one encounter turned a very toxic environment into a much more pleasant and productive one almost immediately. I also hear through the office grapevine that after that incident, the abuser toned it down with everyone else as well."

"Most companies have policies regarding the treatment of employees. Find a copy of it and read it. Often the policy will state how they expect employees to deal with harassment -- usually by having a discussion first with the abuser then possibly with a supervisor."

"The secret to dealing with verbal abuse is to keep your cool and don't be the lesser of two evils. The second you stoop to their level, you are not only showing a sign of weakness, but it also reflects inexperience and immaturity. It will NOT make the situation any better, but only make each of you more angry."

We'd like to hear your strategy for dealing with abuse at work. I'll give an autographed copy of "Working Wounded: Advice that adds insight to injury" (Warner, 2000) to the best submission. Send your entry, name and address via: or via email: Entries must be received by Wednesday, Feb. 1.

Online Ballot and Contest

Here are the results from a recent online ballot:

How common is abuse at work?
   I've never seen abusive behavior at work, 4.7 percent
   I've seen others abused at work, 23.8 percent
   I've been the victim of abusive behavior at work, 71.4 percent

Winning Strategy

Our winning strategy for dealing with abuse at work comes from MP in Cyberspace..:

"One day a co-worker threatened to punch me. I answered back, 'Well if you think you can afford to do that go ahead.' He asked what I meant by that and I went into the following long explanation. 'It will be a one-punch fight. You hit me and I fall to the floor. I will not be able to get up, and an ambulance will be called to take me to the hospital. My lawyer will bring in his own doctors, and I may spend days or weeks in the hospital. My lawyer will file a million-dollar lawsuit against you. I may not win the full million but you will have to pay a lawyer month after month for the next few years to be defending you in this lawsuit. It may cost you thousands of dollars in legal fees. In court I may only be awarded my medical fees and legal fees, but it will most likely be in the hundreds of thousands of dollars by that time. My lawyer will have to garnish your wages for the rest of your life to recover the judgment I win in court. So if you think you can afford to hit me go ahead.' His reply was 'just forget it.'"

List of the Week

Really minimum wages…states with the lowest minimum wage

  Wisconsin, $5.70
  New York, $6
  Delaware, Florida, New Jersey, Minnesota, $6.15
  Hawaii, $6.25

From: OfficeTeam

Bob Rosner is a best-selling author, speaker and internationally syndicated columnist. His newest best-seller, "Gray Matters: The Workplace Survival Guide" (Wiley, 2004), is a business comic book that trades cynicism for solutions. Ask Bob a question: or publishes a new Working Wounded column every Friday.

This work is the opinion of the columnist and in no way reflects the opinion of ABC News.