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To be successful, supervisors must develop and maintain positive working relationships with their employees, providing them with psychologically safe environments to complete their job tasks and responsibilities. Yet, there are times when supervisors engage in forms of negative behaviour that significantly jeopardize their working relationships.

Admittedly, work can be demanding and stressful and can lead to one-off instances of supervisors losing their tempers with their employees. However, when supervisors engage in sustained displays of hostile behaviour, both verbal and non-verbal (excluding physical contact), employees are experiencing what prominent management scholar Bennett Tepper describes as abusive supervision.

What is abusive behaviour?

Public criticism of employees, coercion, rudeness, invasion of privacy, taking undue credit for employees' accomplishments and public tantrums are all considered forms of abusive supervision.

Although abusive supervisors engage in these kinds of behaviour willfully, the intent usually is not to cause harm or injury. In fact, Prof. Tepper suggests some supervisors take this approach to elicit high performance from employees or to send a message that mistakes will not be tolerated. Over the years there have been many depictions of abusive supervisors, including Kevin Spacey's unforgettable characters in Swimming with Sharks (1994) and Horrible Bosses (2011). Even the beloved Michael Scott in The Office was regularly rude, coercive, invasive, prone to temper tantrums and publicly critical of employees at Dunder Mifflin – yet, the sense was that Michael's intent was never to harm his employees (except maybe Toby).

What makes an abusive supervisor?

Some supervisors are just bad apples. Others are authoritarians who demand unquestionable obedience from their employees. Abusive supervisors also tend to have emotionally-detached and manipulative dispositions. They are selective about their targets as well. They tend to be abusive toward subordinates who perform poorly on the job, whose core beliefs and values are dissimilar to their own, and toward employees who are moody, irritable, hostile and negative in general. In addition, the broader organizational context plays a significant role – for instance, supervisors who report to abusive bosses are more likely to be abusive towards their own employees. Supervisors who believe they have been mistreated by the company or who perceive that the company has fallen short of its promises also tend to engage in abusive behaviour.

Why should we be concerned?

Unfortunately, estimates from the United States show that abusive supervision affects almost 14 per cent of employees, and collectively, can cost corporations billions of dollars annually. As one can imagine, employees who report to abusive supervisors are often dissatisfied with the job, less committed to the organization, distressed, emotionally exhausted and more likely to quit. In addition, these employees tend to report greater mental-health complaints, perform poorly on the job, and may themselves engage in behaviour that ultimately harms the supervisor and even fellow co-workers. Non-targeted employees who observe the abuse of their colleagues also often experience many of these negative consequences. And it gets much worse: Research has linked abusive supervision to detrimental consequences outside of work, including substance-abuse problems and problems at home. Family members, especially spouses, often report increased relationship tension, more conflict, greater aggression towards family members and overall poorer family functioning. For organizations, many of these consequences lead to higher numbers of sick days, lost productivity and ultimately, greater costs associated with replacing employees who leave.

Are there legal liabilities?

From a legal perspective, abusive supervision can open an organization up to legal liability if an employee claims constructive dismissal. According to the Alberta Human Rights Commission, an employee may claim that he or she was forced to quit due to the insufferable working conditions created by the supervisor's abusive behaviour. This is considered a breach of the employment contract to the extent that the employee's well-being was put in jeopardy.

The onus is on organizational leaders and supervisors to minimize abusive supervision in the workplace. Leaders must examine how the culture and practices inherent within their companies may serve to inadvertently promote abusive supervisory behaviour. Supervisors must also look to themselves to identify what may be driving them to be abusive towards their employees. The fact that an employee is pervasively moody or different like Toby in The Office is not sufficient reason to subject them to psychological abuse.

Tunde Ogunfowora is an assistant professor in the human resources and organizational dynamics area at the University of Calgary's Haskayne School of Business (@haskayneschool). Tunde's research and teaching expertise includes areas such as leadership, human resources and organizational behaviour.

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