How Leaders and HR can Combat Workplace Abuse

In this article, we take a look at a very serious issue that affects almost every employer to some degree - workplace abuse - and provide actionable steps you can take as a leader to reduce the occurrence in your organization.

By David Bradshaw, Chief Executive Officer
6th September, 2022
David is a highly experienced consultant specializing in business strategy, lean operations/automation, and human resources. He holds a Master's degree from the University of Cambridge, UK, and an MBA from Quantic School of Business and Technology.

Workplace abuse is a type of workplace behavior that can be physical, psychological, verbal or sexual. It can happen in any type of work environment. It can affect any employee, at any level in the organization.

Workplace abuse can take many different forms. Some examples include: shouting at someone, making threats to someone's safety or property, making unwanted sexual advances, withholding information that an employee needs to do their job and sabotaging the work or reputation of another person.

Sadly, some of these behaviors have become normalized in many workplaces, as they give the perpetrator some sort of personal quick win without immediate repercussion. However, the consequences for the victims of workplace abuse are often severe and long-lasting. As well as ruining the victim’s enjoyment of their jobs, and even their careers, abuse often leads to long-lasting mental health problems such as anxiety disorder, depression and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Furthermore, abuse often goes on for extended periods, unwitnessed and unreported. As leaders of your organization, you have a duty to take proactive steps to protect your team from abusive behaviors.

Step One- Adopt a zero tolerance approach

The first step to combating workplace abuse is adopting a zero tolerance approach. This means that you should not turn a blind eye to any form of abuse, no matter how small it may seem. It is important that you also hold people accountable for their actions and act on any problems as soon as they arise before they become bigger and more difficult to fix later on. . Everyone in the workplace should lead by example, as they are more influential than anyone else and can provide a good model for future employees.

One of the most important things that employers can do is to create a workplace policy against harassment. This will help employees know what to do if they are experiencing harassment in the workplace. It also helps employers know what to do when they are made aware of harassment in the workplace.

A good way to prevent harassment is by having a clear understanding of what it is and how it manifests itself. Harassment may include unwanted advances, offensive jokes, intimidation, or any other unwelcome conduct that makes someone feel uncomfortable or unsafe at work.

Step Two- Provide Support, such as an Anonymous Reporting Service

It is important to provide employees with resources and support services so they know where to turn when they encounter abuse in the workplace.

Here are some of the ways that you can provide these resources:

  • Provide helpline numbers for employees who may be experiencing abuse.
  • Provide clear instructions for how to report incidents in a safe way
  • Have an anonymous reporting system in place.

If your organization is smaller, you may not have the resources available to set up and provide these services in-house. Fortunately, they can be easily and cost-effectively outsourced to any competent HR Outsourcing organization, or specialized third party service. Because the usage volume of these services are usually low, outsourcing these services surprisingly inexpensive.

Step Three- Understand and Address Issues as They Happen

Your efforts will be wasted if you don’t follow through and proactively deal with issues and incident reports as they occur. It is important to treat each one with empathy and to take employee concerns seriously, even if they seem relatively minor. The zero-tolerance approach will not work unless you positively reinforce it through action. Be sure to follow your process carefully, document everything, and treat the information you collect as strictly confidential. Be careful to respect the anonymous nature of any reports made through an anonymous reporting system, even if you discover who made the report.

Just as importantly, don’t forget to proactively communicate with the relevant employees at regular intervals, even if you have no progress to report. People who don’t hear back from you will either assume that nothing is happening, or will worry about what might be happening without their knowledge. A good anonymous reporting system will allow a continued two-way dialog between the incident reporter and the incident handler while preserving anonymity.

Finally, do not fall into the trap of making excuses for people (‘oh, that’s just his personality, he’s under a lot of stress lately’), or protecting individuals who may be guilty of abuse because of their position in the company, or their perceived value to the organization. Nobody is above the law.


Encouraging victims of workplace abuse to speak up is one of the most challenging elements of an effective anti-abuse initiative. Fortunately, affordable tools now exist to allow employees to report abuse anonymously.

Northstar can recently launched AIR - the anonymous reporting service designed with smaller organizations in mind. AIR is a cloud-based monthly subscription service, which means it has no upfront costs, requires no expertise to set up, and doesn’t require integration with any other IT systems. It can be accessed from any web browser in the world, and is available for a monthly subscription that any business can afford. You can read more about AIR, and get a demo or a free trial here: [link]

Although we can never fully eliminate workplace abuse, leaders can make a tremendous difference by taking the issue seriously and standing up to this destructive practice. Even if you feel that it is not an issue in your workplace, (a) you are probably wrong - give your employees a voice and see what happens, and (b) prevention is better than the cure. Everybody has the right to a psychologically safe work environment - take action today:

Action Checklist

  • Create a clear, concise zero-tolerance abuse policy, and communicate it
  • Invest in frequent anti-harrasment training to raise awareness
  • Give your employees an easy and safe way to report issues
  • Make support resources readily available to employees
  • Create an unbiased and thorough investigation process
  • Proactively address any issues witnessed or reported
  • Ensure the topic of culture and psychological safety is proactively raised in the standard exit interview process