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The Cycle of Abuse in the Workplace

Updated on September 30, 2014
The three parties in any abusive relationship: The abuser, the target and the witness.
The three parties in any abusive relationship: The abuser, the target and the witness. | Source

“The Report estimated that workplace bullying costs the Australian economy between $6 billion and $36 billion every year and that a workplace bullying cases costs employers an average of $17,000 to $24,000 per claim.”

Australia: Workplace bullying - amendments to the Fair Work Act 2009 (Cth)

Abuse in the workplace cost businesses money. Lots of money.

Where there is abuse, there is fear. And with fear come division and inequality. The presence of abuse guarantees the decrease or loss of productivity, morale, and creativity.

Abuse in the workplace can also cause long term psychological damage; both to the targets of the abuse, as well as those witnessing the abuse. In some jurisdictions, workplace bullying is considered an occupational health and safety hazard. The failure to provide a psychologically safe workplace may breach the employer’s duty of care towards their employees.


Don’t underestimate the risks

Risks from workplace abuse can include:

  • Damage to the business’ reputation.
  • Destruction of client relationships and loss of business.
  • Placing the organisation at risk of law suits.
  • Loss of valued employees, organisational knowledge, morale and productivity.
  • Long term psychological damage to individuals like post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and even suicide.

As with domestic violence, certain situations can carry more risk than others:

  • Exposed vulnerability: When the abuser is confronted with their behaviour, when they realise they have been caught out and can no longer hide or manipulate the situation.
  • Nothing to lose: When the abuser realises they are going to be fired, and feels there is no more recourse.

Abusers tend to be risk-takers. When cornered, they can resort to dangerous actions. In domestic violence, the victim is at most physical risk when they decide to leave their abusive partner.

The Cycle of Abuse

Awareness is the key to change. Being vigilant for uncharacteristic or sudden changes in behaviour and morale, especially after a new hire arrives, is your early warning system.

The Cycle of Abuse (also called the Cycle of Violence) is a framework commonly used to describe domestic violence and child abuse. I have adapted it here for the workplace. It provides an overview of all the phases in an abusive relationship, and describes the key behaviours to look out for.

It is important to note that we are looking for a pattern of behaviours, rather than point to specific isolated behaviours which may be just that – isolated, one-off behaviours.

This hub is intended to give you an overview only. Please seek professional help when required.

The Cycle of Abuse in the Workplace
The Cycle of Abuse in the Workplace | Source

New Hire

Preventing an abuser from entering your organisation is always better than trying to remove one. Ideally the recruitment process will be able to identify and prevent disruptive personalities from coming into the organisation.

Unfortunately many abusers are excellent manipulators. They can present as charismatic, charming and “perfect” for the role. They are able to convincingly explain away any oddities in their work history.

Look for:

  • Signs of self-aggrandizement. Putting the best foot forward in a resume is quite different from making up achievements, “promoting” job titles, or claiming credit for others’ work.
  • Signs of arrogant entitlement; especially when discussing work satisfaction, success and remuneration.
  • Bragging about pulling the wool over others; and subtle put downs of groups of “others.”
  • Inconsistencies across their submitted resume, their LinkedIn profile and other social sites. Rewriting history to hide previous cases of abuse is one characteristic of an abuser.
  • Mis-directions and distractions when asked about previous work experiences. Including reasons why multiple previous employers “just did not understand or appreciate their talents” and why you cannot contact them for references.
  • Sequences of short employment stints; especially where the role responsibilities seem to demand a much longer engagement period than claimed.


Best Behaviour

When an abuser first arrives in an organisation (or when they are moving on from the Buy Back phase) they will be on their best behaviour.

In domestic violence, the best behaviour phase is also known as the Honeymoon Phase. During this phase, the abuser works to ensure guards are lowered, and to convince everyone that all is well.

Look for:

  • Uncharacteristic personality changes like acts of helpfulness.
  • Denials of old pattern/previous behaviours.

If the abuser is new to the group, you won't have a personality baseline to compare with obviously. And every new hire would naturally be on their best behaviour. If a new hire is an abuser, this is the time when they will be selecting their target.

Build Up

As time passes and everything is peaceful and good, the abuser will start their bullying and anti-social behaviours.

This can be casual little snide remarks about the target to begin with. Over time this will start to build up to more and more aggressive actions.

At the same time, the abuser is also busy maintaining the “perfect employee” image for everyone else, and especially those recruited into their "in-group." These are the people who have only experienced the abuser as an extraordinarily nice person, and who voice their support without hesitation.

These opposing positions, and the lack of evidence of abuse, cause confusion and self-doubt for the target. They feel something is wrong when interacting with the abuser. The abuser may even tell the target: "you make me do this" or "it is all in your head."

Look for:

  • Controlling behaviours.
  • Spreading various, seemingly harmless, rumours about the target.
  • Hinting at doubts about the target’s professional abilities.
  • Blaming the target for the abuser's own behaviours.
  • Recruiting “supporters” by polarising the group into those who sings the abuser’s praises, and those who don’t.
  • A growing sense of tension and apprehension in the target, and generally in the workplace.



As more time passes, the abusive behaviour will inevitably escalate.

The cool, calm and in-control veneer of the abuser starts to crack as they become increasingly aggressive towards the target. Acts of bullying become more obvious and occasionally public. The abuser will be triggered more and more often.

Some of the abuser's "in-group" may voice doubts about the abuser. The target, and witnesses to the abuse, are visibly shaken after each encounter.

Look for:

  • Domineering behaviours like shouting, aggressively interrupting others, or crying.
  • Actively setting one group against one another, though public accusations. This can sometimes be disguised as “just encouraging some friendly competition.”
  • Consistently blaming and condemning others for mistakes; avoiding personal responsibility. “You made me do this!”
  • Quickness to anger; a short fuse. Reacting to matters with inappropriately intense emotions such as sobbing and screaming.
  • The target and others start walking on eggshells around the abuser, trying to avoid setting them off (which is impossible to achieve.)
  • An increase in sick or stress leave by the target or witnesses.



The explosion phase is the culmination of the build-up and escalation.

Following a trigger, the abuser reacts with extreme outbursts like throwing objects, destroying property, punching walls, and even physical attacks on the target. The abuser is no longer concerned with other people witnessing their behaviour, even the people from their in-group.

Look for:

  • Inappropriately extreme emotions like rage or sobbing by the abuser.
  • Strong personal attacks on, and public humiliation of the target.
  • Throwing or breaking objects, and punching the wall.
  • Physical and verbal assaults including making wild accusations.
  • Data destruction and information security breaches.
  • Inappropriate contact with external entities like suppliers or clients.
  • Significant shock and distress on the part of the target and witnesses.
  • General distress and disruptions in the workplace.

New Fire

Sometimes the explosion phase will trigger the organisation to fire the abuser.

Unfortunately, many abusers seem to ride off the willingness of people to give them the benefit of the doubt, and are able to manipulate the situation so they don’t get immediately ejected from the organisation.

Not everyone who has an angry outburst at work is an abusive person of course. You need to determine whether there is a pattern. Extreme emotions like anger can indicated deeper issues. You may want to arrange counselling and other assistance for those involved.



After the explosion, the abuser moves into the remorse phase. This doesn't mean they are necessarily sorry for their behaviour. They may be more sorry that they have been caught out.

They can genuinely believe that their explosion was “just a misunderstanding.” And now that they have “let it out,” no real damage was done and everything can just return to normal.

This belief can make their remorse appear more genuine.

Look for:

  • The inability or unwillingness to empathise with others.
  • Casual dismissals of the damage they have done and belittlement of the people they have hurt. "Ok so I made a mistake. But why can't they get over it already?"
  • Non-apologies which sound genuine but are really elaborate justifications for their behaviour.
  • Charming apologies designed to elicit sympathy rather than take responsibility for their actions."I've been under so much stress lately. They [the target] should have known not to press my buttons."
  • Subtly externalised blame; with a good dose of “I have been misunderstood” and “no one understands my value and contribution.”


Buy Back

To return the situation to the status quo, the abuser leverages their charisma and charm to make amends and buy back favour.

Many of us are conflict-avoidant, and all too willing to give others another chance. We also tend to forget traumatic incidents quickly. These factors make the abuser’s buy back job easier.

Look for:

  • Uncharacteristic ingratiating behaviour on the part of the abuser. They go out of their way to be nicer than usual, especially to the target.
  • The target starting to voice self doubt, taking responsibility for the abuser's actions, excusing and downplaying the abuser’s bad behaviour.
  • The target (and sometimes others in the group) engage in "magical thinking" - believing that the bad behaviour will never happen again. And that all will be well.

The cycle is now primed to repeat itself.

Breaking the cycle

There is unfortunately no single, sure-fire way to determine whether abuse is occurring in your business. This is one reason why breaking the cycle is so hard. It can take time, and even multiple attempts:

  • For the targets to realise they are caught up in an abusive situation; especially if they have never experienced it before. We just don’t normally expect to be caught up in an abusive relationship.
  • For management to gather enough evidence, and come into consensus that an abusive situation is in fact happening. It is important that management is united in their approach.
  • To engage a suitable professional to come in and develop an appropriate plan of action. And for that plan to be put into place.
  • For all the due processes to happen; such as reviewing employment contracts, legal positions, clarifying duties of care, and risk assessments. The people caught up in the abusive situation can hold positions of power and influence within the business, and any disruptions can cause damage to the business, as well as the other workers.


Help is available

No one deserves to be abused. Yet most of us are not equipped to handle difficult abuse situations.

You don’t have to deal with this alone.

As a business leader, you should seek qualified professional help if you suspect workplace bullying is happening. It is your moral if not legal duty to look after your people as well as your organisation.

If you are the target of a workplace bully, you don’t have to suffer in silence. You are not responsible for the bully's actions. You cannot "make" them do anything.

If you believe you are in imminent risk, tell someone right now. Report it to the authority if necessary.

Seek help from your employee assistance program (EAP) which often includes the services of a psychologist or counsellor. Depending on your situation, using an external professional this way can be more approachable than your manager or HR department.

Abuse has no place in our society, or the workplace. We can all work together to stamp it out.

JETpapers (Just Enough Theory) are condensed, technical knowledge for busy business people who want to make better-informed decisions, work more effectively with experts, and implement practical improvements.


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    • dhimanreena profile image

      Reena Dhiman 

      4 years ago

      It's true that we often come across to abusive behavior at our work place. I strongly believe that instead of becoming a slave to the situation, we all should raise our voice against it.


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