July 27, 2022

Using Training to Cut Down on Verbal Abuse at Work

Using Training to Cut Down on Verbal Abuse at Work featured image

Creating a positive and helpful work environment, one where all employees feel welcome and supported should be a priority in every organization. Whatever your industry, you can enhance morale, retention, productivity and more by preventing abuse and harassment from infiltrating your company culture. This extends to verbal abuse — harmful spoken conduct that doesn’t have a physical side.

At first glance, verbal abuse may be harder to identify or prioritize than physical assault, but this kind of abusive conduct is worth preventing with specific, targeted programs. If left unchecked, verbal harassment can create a hostile work environment harming mental health and motivation, and each employer should make sure there are significant protections in place for workers.

What is Verbal Abuse at Work?

Defining verbal abuse is an important first step when it comes to creating preventive measures. Business News Daily offers a reminder that many of the kinds of workplace harassment defined in employment law by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission are verbal in nature.

When someone makes an offensive joke, uses a slur, calls someone hurtful names, intimidates, threatens or insults a coworker, that is harassment. The fact is verbal abuse covers a wide spectrum of possible issues, so any harassment prevention policy or strategy would be incomplete without accounting for verbal issues.

Workplace sexual harassment, racial discrimination and more can be verbal, just like more generalized workplace bullying. Organizational leaders must prepare managers and team members to recognize all of these issues. Without such preparation, verbal harassment may already be prevalent at a company, but going underreported or otherwise overlooked.

As the EEOC notes, employers are responsible for preventing harassment of all kinds, and are immediately, legally liable when the offense is committed by a supervisor and leads to negative consequences. The business is also liable for abuses committed by any employee, or even a non-employee on the premises, if the business should have been aware of the issue and did not take corrective action. This liability includes verbal harassment incidents.

How Does Verbal Abuse at Work Affect Employees?

Being verbally harassed at work can have multiple negative effects on employees. While the impact of verbal abuse can build up, even an isolated incident may be enough to cause harm. Workers shouldn’t have to suffer from this kind of abuse from anyone, whether the aggressor is a colleague, manager, third-party contractor or even a customer.

As Amplio Recruiting founder and CEO Chris Chancey tells Business News Daily, suffering from verbal harassment can exacerbate mental health symptoms such as worker anxiety and depression or even lead to physical symptoms like high blood pressure. Chancey adds verbal harassment incidents may go unchecked if leaders write them off as a simple “personality conflicts” rather than workplace abuse.

A workplace culture where verbal abuse, bullying and harassment is prevalent tends to have an ongoing harmful impact on workers’ morale, leading to long-term issues for companies. Businesses are especially likely to notice related problems during candidate-focused hiring markets, including the Great Resignation. Organizations having trouble retaining or attracting workers due to a verbally abusive culture may prove especially susceptible to losing top talent.

The Cumulative Impact of Verbal Abuse on Companies’ Effectiveness

Investopedia notes a few of the specific problems affecting companies where harassment and bullying are allowed to continue, including:

  • Low productivity: When morale is low and mental health is consistently being damaged by the effects of verbal emotional abuse in the workplace, employees may find themselves unable to function as effectively as they normally can. This can add up to productivity problems for teams, departments and the business as a whole.
  • High turnover and absenteeism: The ongoing Great Resignation is made up of employees realizing the most direct way to resolve dissatisfaction with their current roles is to leave. Verbal harassment and abuse could be a negative work factor. Even when employees don’t quit, they may be more likely to take sick time to cope with recurring problems in the office. 
  • Reputational problems: A company’s reputation comes from a variety of factors, and in an era of ubiquitous social media messaging, internal problems with worker morale can quickly become public knowledge. In these cases, leaders may find everything from selling products to attracting new candidates for open roles is more difficult, as people try to avoid supporting a business that doesn’t stand up for its workers.
  • Elevated health care costs: While verbal abuse’s physical effects are more subtle than the impact of physical workplace violence, they may still raise a company’s health care spending. Both mental health treatments and care for physical ailments such as elevated blood pressure cost money, making it important for businesses to address issues at the source — by stopping the inciting harassment wherever possible.

A business suffering from the ill effects of verbal harassment can feel that impact in multiple ways. The answer to these problems is clear: Organizations should review their countermeasures against verbal abuse, search out any shortcomings and deliver new solutions where needed.

What Are Some Ways to Counteract Verbal Abuse at Work?

Since verbal abuse is such a foundational component of so many different types of harassment and discrimination, there is a great deal of crossover between strategies to prevent this type of abuse and general anti-discrimination efforts.

Having policies in the employee handbook that expressly forbid harassment of all kinds, both general and specific is an important start. These can use the EEOC’s general definition of harassment as a baseline, but should go into greater detail, especially in states with more stringent and specific codes.

As The Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) explains, California, New York and other states have passed updated harassment-prevention rules that dictate factors such as required training. 

How Can Training Equip Employees to Stop Verbal Abuse?

In any state, training is an essential component of abuse-prevention programs. Lessons teach employees of all levels important competencies, including how to:

  • Recognize verbal harassment: Since it’s so common for supervisors to not know what kind of speech counts as verbal abuse, awareness training has an important role to play for companies actively trying to improve their culture.
  • Intervene in negative situations: What’s the most effective way for an employee to counter verbal harassment or stop a verbal abuser? What are the victim’s rights? How should supervisors discipline harassers? Training can answer these questions with specifics.
  • Prevent ongoing incidents: Changing a company’s culture doesn’t happen overnight. Training courses specifically on this subject can reach leaders of all levels and help them design lasting, sustainable frameworks for better practices.

Specific courses dealing with harassment and verbal abuse cover a range of specialities, differing in their level of granularity, target audience and more. Examples include:

  • Building a Culture of Respect: Stop Harassment: A general overview course such as this one can give businesses a strong framework for a more suitable company culture, free of abusive behavior. Topics include victim rights, how to report a coworker being harassed and general guidelines around being a respectful colleague.
  • Let’s Talk… Bullying, Abusive Conduct and Their Consequences: This type of course, breaking down the effects of bullying and the correct way to respond, is especially important for managers and organizational leaders. Authority figures have to grasp what verbal abuse is and how to counteract it to create a more hospitable workplace.

A well-stocked digital training library can impart these important lessons and more on a whole workforce, even when a company uses a hybrid or primarily remote model. Learn more about the latest in HR training here.

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