Verbal Abuse at Work is Abuse. Period.

New subject for a trigger warning: stories about verbally abusive bosses.

Politico broke a story this week about economist Heather Boushey’s allegedly wretched management style during her tenure leading the Washington Center for Equitable Growth, a think tank. President-elect Joe Biden has appointed Boushey to his Council of Economic Advisors.

The story was sickeningly familiar to me — not because I know Boushey, which I do not, but because I have been on the receiving end of remarkably similar behavior by other women (and some men) in leadership roles, going back decades.

Writing this now, I feel my heart racing. Being abused in any form is traumatic and trauma stays with us, long after the incident has passed. And believe me when I tell you that sexual harassment in the workplace is not the only form abuse takes, and may not even be the most common, if my own experience is anything to go by.

Politico reports that “Former subordinates and employees have alleged that Boushey was ‘phenomenally incompetent as a manager’ and had ‘frequent episodes of yelling and swearing.’” The story refers to a memo that has been made public, reporting that five think tank employees quit because of Boushey’s “difficulty managing staff” and “appropriately communicating her expectations.”

Being abused in any form is traumatic and trauma stays with us.

Reading this immediately brought back memories from February 2019, when HuffPost broke a story alleging that Senator Amy Klobuchar, who was then on the cusp of announcing a run for the presidency, was verbally abusive toward her staff. At least three staffers refused to join her campaign because of this.

Klobuchar reportedly was “habitually demeaning and prone to bursts of cruelty that make it difficult to work in her office for long. It is common for staff to wake up to multiple emails from Klobuchar characterizing one’s work as ‘the worst’….”

And how was this information received? Was it taken seriously? Was there an outpouring of sympathy for the staffers on the receiving end of the alleged abuse? Hardly.

Bloomberg News ran an opinion column on the subject with a boldfaced subhead stating that “Reports that the senator has mistreated staff should be taken seriously. But also with a grain of salt.” The Washington Post also followed up, asking “Does it matter if Amy Klobuchar is a mean boss?”

It is so easy to dismiss stories like these as salacious, or worse, as cat-fighting, or worse still, as an unattractive airing of internal grievances that should never see the light of day. I’ll bet that many Democratic partisans, upon reading such accusations, groan and roll their eyes dismissively, as if to say, ‘Really? We need this like a hole in the head!’

But imagine if the allegations against Boushey and Klobuchar were sexual in nature. Wouldn’t the eye-rollers be clamoring for an investigation and justice on behalf of the alleged victims?

Our institutions will not benefit from having emotionally incompetent leaders at the helm.

It’s incredibly sad and frustrating to watch time and again as complaints about leaders who yell and swear are dismissed as the boss simply having a bad day.

Well, I had hundreds of bad days. I had bosses who would come to my office, or ask me into theirs, and then close the door and scream at me — literally, scream at me — for moments on end. Over…nothing.

I had a boss who, just a few feet away from me, began bashing his phone as hard as he could, while I stood by worrying whether bits of plastic were going to come flying at me.

I had a boss who slammed my office door and screamed at me because I had not gotten a flu shot.

I had a boss who was a true “mean girl.” She didn’t often yell, but she sure knew how to drive a shiv into my heart, and my confidence, again and again. She told me I’d never get ahead, never amount to anything. She made me feel stupid every single day. She picked on me, plain and simple.

Admit that you’re asking yourself as you read this: I must have done something wrong to set the boss off, right? You suspect I’m a disgruntled employee with a petty axe to grind.

My response is an emphatic no. I have the awards and honors to prove it. And: You would never ask this question if I were discussing sexual abuse or harassment. Shame on you.

My bosses’ behavior devastated me. I lost weight and had trouble sleeping. I thought a lot about quitting each of these jobs. I even developed a form of battered-woman syndrome: I blamed myself every time they screamed at me.

I want to be absolutely clear. When people in positions of power raise their voices and repeatedly demean their employees in ways large and small, that is abuse. And these leaders do not deserve a pass. They do not deserve the benefit of the doubt. Our institutions will not benefit from having emotionally incompetent leaders at the helm; the best and brightest will go elsewhere.

I applaud every employee who is brave enough to go on record to warn others that abuse is abuse, and we should not tolerate it in any form. Their courage has inspired me to come forward with my own disclosures from years past.

And my heart is still racing.

Photo by Engin Akyurt for Unsplash

I write to learn — how to think, how to live, how to be — in a world that has never made much sense to me. Novels, essays, poems. Whatever the moment demands.