HR Pros – 6 Reasons Employees Don’t Disclose Workplace Abuse

The basics of child abuse disclosure can be found in “7 Reasons Children Don’t Disclose Abuse” by Ginger Kadlec (you can follow her @gingerkadlec). In the world of mental health and child protection this article provides an easy-to-understand summary – a neat list of the forces of silence. Those of us who have worked with abused children know these things instinctively. We know why kidnapped children don’t run away. My background in clinical social work is one reason that I tune in to workplace abuse.

Of course, workplace abuse is not the same as child abuse. Children are much more vulnerable and in need of adult protection. Adults are in a better position to know when something just isn’t right. However, the power dynamics are similar because workplace bullies use similar control tactics. The key dynamic at the center of both types of abuse, is fear. Even though this fear may not be rational, it has great power over the employee victim. It is the reason employees endure workplace abuse and intimidation for years without approaching management with a complaint. Instead of worry about their family’s reaction or safety as child victims often do, it’s the desperate need for employment and the fear of job loss that keeps many abused employees at work.

Here are my application of theory, paralleling the original article noted above.

1. “Keep this a secret.”

There are truly evil things going on in certain workplaces about which leadership has no idea. Sure there are clues like turnover, employee absenteeism, etc. But workplace bullies are often skilled at making employees feel as though management agrees with them and sanctions their tactics. Fear of straight-forward confrontation with this manipulative individual keeps employees silent. In addition, sometimes bullies draw coworkers into their confidence and offer full membership into the “power group” cultivating the idea that the bully is right. This “power group” also represents a social safe haven. At the the end of some of my culture assessments which is generally a series of confidential staff interviews, I describe extreme workplace behavior to senior leadership who stare back at me, mouths open, incredulous.

2. Threats and fear

Employees learn very quickly who’s in charge, who calls the shots. Case in point, when an employee questions the bully and gets punished with rumors, defamation and marginalization. Everyone sees what happens, how the victim of retaliation suffers. No one wants that to happen to them. Even the most independent workers want to be liked at work. We want to be a part of the group – not sit alone at the lunch table. The threat of marginalization is very powerful. When you add the need for employment and fear of losing one’s livelihood it creates the perfect opportunity for emotional blackmail.

3. Love

Ms. Kadlec notes that children are often abused by persons they love on another level. Perhaps it’s someone they look up to or a friend of their family. In a work situation I see employees who love the company and basically love the content of their jobs. They don’t want anything bad to happen to the company. With this mindset, they have difficulty taking a posture “against” the company. Employees wrestle with the question: “Doesn’t management understand we’re suffering? on the one hand and: “This bully must be doing something right for management to keep them on,” on the other. This made worse when the bully is in a key, one-of-a-kind type position.

4. “No one will believe you”

This one is easy. Employees know that a long service bully has been behaving this way for years. They know that no one has been able to get them fired. In the worse case, they have seen the bully dispatch complainers swiftly and with ease. The dynamic of emotional manipulation sets up punishment of coworkers Seen as unfriendly to the bully and friendly to those aligned with the bully. Employees wonder, “If all those people weren’t successful in stopping the abuse and intimidation, why would anyone believe me?”

5. “It’s all YOUR fault”

You would be surprised at how long employees sit with upset, analyzing if they did something to deserve the abuse. Or, if only they could say the right thing in the right way, the bully would see the light. When companies bring me in to help with long-standing workplace bullying, I speak with employees who have endured terrible treatment. Even after the bully is gone, they continue to have residual feelings that there was something they could or should have done. Bullies are so good at manipulating others to feel responsible for keeping them (the bully) happy and comfortable. This co-dependent relationship is well understood in clinical and substance abuse counseling practice and it surely applies here.

6. Grooming 

Finally, bullies select their victims carefully. They cultivate power-over relationships with those whom they think they can successfully manipulate. These might be new staff; new supervisors; or employees who are fundamentally shy or insecure. These folks are more likely to bend to ideas that the bully is well-connected in the office and much more powerful. Bullies, like abusers, have two ways to deal with coworkers perceived to be more powerful. They can cultivate positive relationships with senior management (“suck up” in a way) or they can undercut powerful coworkers with rumors and promoting them as bad or mean. Peremptory strikes are an extremely successful technique for getting rid of those who might otherwise have the power to hold the bully accountable. The same way that domestic abusers don’t hit their boss, the workplace bully reserves their really abusive treatment for coworkers they perceive as no particular threat to them.

I would love to hear from you about your workplace experience with these dynamics.

(c) Copyright Benoit Consulting, LLC 2020 All rights reserved 
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  1. I’ve spoken up but my workplace bully is very sly and does her bullying in a way that is passive-aggressive and easily hidden. I’ve complained about her to management but I’m just told I’m paranoid and it has hurt me greatly at work.

    • Hello “Bliss”
      I’m sorry to hear this from you but I am not surprised. Staying out of the limelight and avoiding consequences is what bullies do. It’s a tricky dance with victims often marginalized and victimized further. Just because you want to speak up about something that is upsetting to management doesn’t make you “paranoid.” It may be best to keep a low profile while you make a plan of what to do about this job. Good luck. You are in good company throughout the world in bad workplaces.


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