Verbal abuse at work might bring back thoughts of middle school, when bullies used to make fun of the kid with glasses. As an adult, the verbal abuse can become more creative, harsh and hurtful. And when verbal abuse is happening in your business, your employees' morale and productivity can suffer.

Basic Description

Verbal abuse at work can take many forms. It can be loud, where the perpetrator yells at someone in front of co-workers, perhaps using profanity. It can also be quiet, where he comes into a co-worker's office to tell her how much of a failure she is and how her work is consistently sub-par. He might belittle or criticize others unnecessarily, in public or private, including calling them names. The abuse might include derogatory nicknames, or it might escalate to threatening others with physical violence -- even if the perpetrator never follows through on his threat.

Is It Illegal?

Being a jerk isn't necessarily illegal in the workplace, unfortunately. If someone is calling your employees names or yelling at work, it's probably legal for him to do so, as long as he doesn't cross the line into what the law defines as harassment. Check with your attorney about drafting a section in your employee handbook to address verbally abusive behavior in the workplace so you can discourage it and so you'll have a defined disciplinary plan in place if the abuse occurs.

When It's Harassment

Verbal abuse can cross the line into harassment, which is illegal in the workplace. When this happens, employees can take legal action and file suits against the individual and, perhaps, the company, depending on how much management knew of the problem. Harassment occurs if the bully makes derogatory comments about a co-worker's gender, age, religion or disability. Employees can argue this is discrimination in the workplace, especially if the abuser doesn't speak the same way to other people in the office.

Problems with Verbal Abuse

When verbal abuse crosses over into harassment, it can lead to costly and time-consuming legal battles that can become a public relations nightmare for your company. It's essential that you listen to all harassment and verbal abuse complaints carefully and take immediate action to discipline or terminate the perpetrator. Even when it's not technically harassment, verbal abuse in your office can lead to decreased morale for the recipient of the abuse and witnesses. It can cause increased turnover and leave days used, as well as reduced productivity among your employees. It's usually less expensive to discipline or fire a verbally abusive employee than to deal with the loss of productivity of other employees and the constant need to hire new employees when good workers leave your hostile workplace.