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Professional abuse takes a significant toll in workplaces, including turnover and reputational damage

February 20, 2024
By Kelly Cooper

Aggressive and mischievous behaviours cannot go unchecked; turning a blind eye only allows these behaviours to grow in power. (zinkevych/Adobe Stock)

Have you worked with or for someone who is a charmer to some people yet simultaneously harmful to others? Maybe you’ve seen the media highlight these people in politics or the entertainment industry, or traditionally male-dominated sectors?

They hold such power and influence that they can hire, fire, and destroy another person’s career simply by gossiping and undermining them within their network.  If so, you may be witnessing a form of harassment called professional abuse.

There is little to no awareness about professional abuse in the workplace. Knowing what it is, how it presents, and the impacts of it — psychologically, professionally as well as the affects to the bottom line, are all necessary so that people are empowered with the courage to stop it. With mental health issues on the rise in society, we simply can’t afford not to.

Most workers have experienced harassment

A study conducted by researchers at Western University, the University of Toronto, and the Canadian Labour Congress in 2020-2021 took a look at harassment in Canadian workplaces. It found that 71.4 per cent of workers have experienced at least one form of harassment and abuse in their workplace over that past year.


This research also showed it happens across a range of workplaces including both public and private sectors.

“Forms of harassment included verbal, sexual, online bullying, along with intimidating practices to sabotage work performance,” according to CBC News coverage of the study. The latter form of abuse is less known and is the focus of this article.

Professional abuse

Professional abuse in the workplace is stealthily delivered by people in positions of power and authority who use their imbalance of power with their network and institute bullying tactics to put their own interest ahead of the collective.

Primarily based on deceit, it is quite common among individuals that are inadequately supervised. Through my research I have learned that policies do exist that address professional abuse in some companies, however, very little training about it occurs. In the forest sector for example, most companies talk the talk on this issue but do not walk the walk.

I have witnessed executives intentionally undermine individuals leading successful initiatives simply because they are not directly involved or struggle with not being in control of it.

Even when asked to participate, they refuse. They can also destroy workplace relationships between the target and co-workers.  This can include mobbing – when the instigator of the bullying convinces others to join their campaign against an individual. A mob consists of ordinary workers who, after deeming an individual worker a threat, collectively attack the perceived enemy in a pack-mentality manner.

Bystanders and group shun

Often the bystanders are not entirely sure what is going on. Group shun can creep over time, and because of its sly nature, it can be hard to describe to others so that they recognize it. When colleagues are suddenly ostracized by organizational leaders, remaining silent only serves to enable the abuser. If left unchecked, the abuse could target bystanders next.

Individuals who harass and abuse others are likely to have a narcissistic personality disorder (NPD). According to research conducted by the Cleveland Clinic, 5% of the population has NPD. Narcissists have a need to make themselves look impressive, crave admiration and power, lack empathy and often act arrogantly.

Professional abusers do this because they fear their power is being taken in some manner and lack the wherewithal to know how to cooperate and find success for all parties.

They are often insecure and struggle to find any other means but to command those in their network to follow their toxic lead.

Knowing the financial implications of ignoring professional abuse can be a driver to moving toxic leaders along. Each organization can tally up their cost by assessing sick days, employee turnover, health care needs for things like counselling, migraines, high blood pressure, and even the loss of innovative initiatives that address organizational needs.

There is also the cost to the organization or sectors reputational damage as a result of these instances, and there may be legal costs should someone decide to take the issue to court. All of these things can and do impact the bottom line.

Professional abuse hides in the shadows of a workplace.  Knowing the impacts of keeping someone like this at the helm versus taking action to address the issues is critical so that all employees feel they can thrive in their careers.

Kelly Cooper is the CEO, Centre for Social Intelligence and Author of Lead the Change – The Competitive Advantage of Gender Diversity and Inclusion.

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