Abuse of Power in the Workplace


Abuse of power in the workplace is becoming a national concern in the United States. According to the Workplace Bullying and Trauma Institute, 54 million employees surveyed in September 2007 reported being victims of abuse in the workplace. Understanding the different definitions, types, effects, consequences and warnings of such abuse--and knowing what resources are available for victims--can help employees and supervisors handle abuse of power in the workplace.

Abuse of power is very common in the workplace
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Men and women define and recognize power differently. According to a "Science Daily" article from April 2007, men understand power in terms of a hierarchy in which bosses abuse power by sexually harassing employees--asking them personal questions and touching them inappropriately. Women understand power in terms of gender differences, meaning they perceive that any man, regardless of his job title at work, can abuse his power to target female employees. This difference has led scholars to examine power abuse by both supervisors and co-workers in various workplace environments.

Man sexually harassing woman in office
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Employees need to distinguish between the various forms of abuse of power in the workplace. According to the Gender and Diversity program's website, supervisors can abuse their power through their speech, including making criticisms about employees’ physical appearance, work skills and intellect. The tone of a supervisor's voice--for example, a supervisor raising her voice at an employee or using foul language--can constitute emotional abuse. Ignoring employees and threatening employees with paycheck reductions or loss of a promotion are abusive. So are physical forms of abuse, including touching, hitting and slapping.

Man asserting idea
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Supervisors’ abuse of power has several effects on employees. The U.S. Workplace Bullying Survey conducted by the Workplace Bullying and Trauma Institute in September 2007 found that employees who suffered from abuse experienced a significant amount of stress at work and the stress lasted longer than a year. Moreover, employees reported feeling mentally distressed, which affected their focus at work. Another study by the Counseling Outfitters showed that employees dealing with workplace abuse suffer from lack of self-esteem and decreased productivity.

Woman feeling stressed at office
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Supervisors who abuse their authority at work can face serious consequences. Abusing people on the basis of sex, race or age is illegal behavior under federal and state laws, according to the CBS Business Network. Employers who allow a supervisor to abuse his power risk lawsuits and financial damages and fines. According to Counseling Outfitters, organizations suffer from higher turnover and absenteeism rates when abuse of power in the workplace is not curbed.

Employee in meeting with HR
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Knowing how to handle abuse in the workplace is critical. Counseling Outfitters cautions employees that reporting the abuse to the abuser's supervisor can escalate the problem if the abuser's supervisor blames the victim for the problem or doesn't believe the victim. An alternative option is to use resources offered by the organization and outside organizations, including in-house employee assistance programs, labor relations agencies and state and federal agencies that handle abuse and harassment in the workplace. If the abuse becomes physical, employees can contact legal authorities.

HR meeting for employees about abuse handling
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