The office can be a real pressure cooker. Competition and deadlines can add a lot of stress to your supervisor’s job and he or she might be taking out their frustration on you. Some supervisors are downright abusive, continually harassing employees with hostile verbal and silent behaviors. This may include using derogatory names, yelling or screaming at someone for disagreeing, threatening to fire employees, withholding necessary information, hostile eye contact, the silent treatment, or humiliating an employee in front of other people.

Research has shown that employees reporting to abusive supervisors have a greater job and life dissatisfaction and are more likely to consider quitting their job. Employees, who understandably tend not to respond to a supervisor’s abuse in kind, do manage to get in a more subtle form of revenge. They do this by withholding organizational citizenship behaviors (OCBs), such as helping coworkers with work-related problems, not complaining about trivial problems, behaving courteously with coworkers, and speaking positively about the company outside of the office. Importantly, failure to perform an OCB is never a source of punishment for an employee.

In a study published in the Journal of Applied Psychology , researchers from the University of North Carolina at Charlotte and the University of Kentucky found that while abused employees do get their work done on time, they perform fewer OCBs, particularly when they perceive those OCBs to be outside of their official responsibilities.

About the Study

The researchers enrolled 373 supervisor-subordinate matches from the Air National Guard.

The subordinates filled out a survey in which they:

  • Ranked supervisor abuse
  • Specified whether they felt that given OCBs fell within their job descriptions or exceeded their job expectations
  • Noted whether they felt their organization makes decisions in an informed and unbiased manner

The supervisors filled out surveys in which they ranked their subordinates’ organizational citizenship behaviors.

The Findings

Previous studies have shown that employees of abusive supervisors continue to fulfill their job responsibilities and get their work done on time. In this study, however, the researchers found that the employees of abusive supervisors perform fewer organizational citizenship behaviors than employees who are not abused by their supervisors. This relationship is much stronger when employees perceive OCBs to be outside of their job description. In other words, abused subordinates will continue to perform OCBs if they perceived them to be part of their job, but will hold back if they view them as discretionary, or outside of their official responsibilities.

How Does This Affect You?

Other studies have found that OCBs positively affect a company’s sales, performance, and operating efficiency. So the results of this study, which indicate that abused employees perform fewer OCBs, strongly imply that employee abuse can hurt a company financially in the long term.

If you are an employer, you should be aware that frustration and stress can lead to supervisor abuse. It is in your best interest to create an office environment that minimizes these factors. In addition, you should be alert to instances of supervisor abuse within the company, and take steps to alleviate the underlying issues that may lead to this abuse.

If you are an employee dealing with an abusive supervisor, try to talk to someone within the company who may be able to help you, such as a different supervisor or a human resources representative. Make the case that such abuse can seriously affect company performance. But, even if it doesn’t, you should not have to tolerate the abuse. Everyone deserves to be treated with respect.