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Abusive and Vicarious Abusive Supervision: Bullying Boss Behaviors

by Ellen Fink-Samnick MSW, ACSW, LCSW, CCM, CRP on 03/11/18

You are in care coordination rounds when you get a call from a colleague. “Have you heard the latest; Talia was this week’s whipping post! We thought Daniel’s treatment yesterday when Janet went off about his partner was bad enough. She just berated Talia for not answering a question ‘fast enough’. With the unit’s new medical director in attendance, Janet yelled at Talia for ‘being up late with that new sexy boyfriend’. How does she get away with this behavior? Morale is bad enough from these daily personal assaults, with three more resignations. Does Janet really think her abusive behavior makes us perform better?

Janet is a bully boss with her only intent to use ‘power’ to her advantage; the possession of control, authority, or influence over others (Merriam-Webster, 2018). Bullying is about power, and health care hierarchies are overstaffed with it. This dynamic is an interprofessional issue, from which no employee or discipline is immune. Power can be a positive force, such as when a department leader advocates for increased staffing, salary, or other benefits. However, power can be grossly misused, such as when a supervisor wants to show who is in charge by denying a staff member vacation or promotion. This is coercive power at its ugliest; when the boss has the ability to control staff through punishment (Giang, 2013). When bullying occurs between those individuals in leadership positions and the staff who report to them, there is an inherent power differential between roles. As a result, manifesting situations between bosses and their subordinates present as more intense, with the stakes even higher (Fink-Samnick, 2017). Misused power embeds itself within the organizational culture, where it reinforces a negative atmosphere of 'powerlessness' and ultimately convinces staff that change is impossible.

Definitions and Demographics

Rates show as high as 75-80% of employees are impacted by workplace bullying, whether as a target or a witness (Comaford, 2016). Those who witness their colleagues or other staff being bullied in the workplace can equally be impacted. The concepts of abusive and vicarious abusive supervision are bullying behaviors of leadership that beg for definition and discussion.

Abusive supervision is dysfunctional leadership where subordinates perceive supervisors engage in sustained displays of hostile verbal and/or non-verbal behaviors, excluding physical contact. This is psychological bullying; while less obvious in nature than direct bullying attacks, it leaves staff traumatized for the long term. It is as pervasive as any traumatic event, for the targets of this behavior are exposed over a lengthy and continuous period of time. This bullying behavior is usually directed at the entire office and not a single person (Harris, Harvey, Harris, & Cast, 2013; Walton, 2013). 

Vicarious abusive supervision is, simply stated, second hand bullying.  It refers to the observation or awareness of abusive supervision that is not experienced first hand. It occurs when an employee experiences abusive supervision indirectly through the direct abusive supervision experienced by another employee. Hearing daily from colleagues about the public ridiculing, devaluing, and berating of peers is a form of vicarious abusive supervision. Employees become traumatized by:

  • The knowledge that they are somehow vulnerable to attacks, and
  • Their employer allows negative behavior of this type to exist.

37% of American workers are affected by bullying, roughly 54 million people. If the coworker bystanders of those persons bullied are included, the numbers total nearly one-half of all employees in the United States (Morgan, 2014). Ultimately over 62% of those who have experienced bullying, report a distrust of organizations, with 74% fearful that colleagues will betray them (Falzoi, 2016). Concerning numbers reveal that victims of vicarious abusive supervision are affected as much as those who are direct targets (Cannizzo, 2017).

Those who are targets of bullying, and abusive supervision are more often dynamic professionals who excel on the job; they are intelligent, motivated, and a threat to whom they report. How sad a statement this is! In an industry whose next generation relies so heavily on quality leadership, mentoring, and succession planning, abusive supervision serves no value. Vicarious abusive supervision further weakens an already compromised workforce: one already coping with an array of disrupters that have the potential to impact the safety and quality of patient care. Negative forms of leadership put quality professionals at substantial risk, forcing them to balance their mental health with the need for sustained employment; an untenable choice at best. 

Take Action 

What can you do in the moment?

  • Take control: Abusive and vicarious supervision, as forms of bullying are all about power. You have power too; Never give it up!
  • Protect personal information: Abusive supervisors are deceptive and manipulative. The more they know about you, the easier it is to disarm you. Remember, your boss/supervisor/manager is NOT necessarily your friend.
  • Stay Proactive: Abusive and vicarious abusive supervision weaken your emotional intelligence, causing you to react in the moment. Take charge by:
    • Doing a mental count to 10
    • Distract yourself so you don't get lost in the emotion of the moment
    • Politely excuse yourself from the interaction as you can (e.g. you have a meeting to attend, an important call to take)
  • Approach abusive and vicarious supervision like the professional you are
    • Document (e.g. time, date, events, witnesses) post incidents
    • Stay objective, not emotional
    • Assess, strategize, and plan.
    • Report the incident to Human Resources: the literature is all over the map on this topic, but it is still the recommended path to take.
  • Avoid the Toxic Talk: Gossip about abusive supervision situations will run rampant, plus exacerbate the emergence of vicarious abusive supervision. Be mindful of the amount of energy you engage in these discussions. Stay smart and strategic in your actions.
For more strategies to manage a bullying boss and leadership, read my article, Managing the Bullying Boss and Leadership


Alberta Bullying Research, Resources, & Recovery Center, Inc.

Overcome Bullying

Partnership for Workplace Mental HealthTM

Times Up Now

Workplace Bullying Institute

Until next time.......Stay Resilient,



Cannizzo, M. (2017, June 8). New North Texas study high­lights bystanders in workplace bullying incidents. Dal­las Business Journal.

Comaford, C. (2016) 75% of Workers Are Affected by Bullying: What to do about it? Forbes

Falzoi, D. (2016). New study shows that prolonged expo­sure to workplace bullying can lead to suicide—And it can happen to anyone. MA Healthy Workplace Bill.

Fink-Samnick, E. (2017) The new age of bullying and violence in health care: Part 3: Managing the Bullying Boss and Leadership, Professional Case Management, November/December 2017, 22(6) , pg. 260-274 

Giang, V. (2013) The 7 types of Power that Shape the Workplace , Business Insider July 31, 2013 

Harris, K.J., Harvey, P., Harris, R.B., & Cast, M. (2013) An investigation of abusive supervision, vicarious abusive supervision, and their joint impacts. Journal of Social Psychology, 153(1), pg. 38-50

Merriam-Webster (2018) Power 

Morgan T. (2014, March 26). The organizational challenge of workplace bullying. Workplace Answers. 

Walton, A. G. (2013, February 7). The “dark side” of leader­ship: The impact of a bad boss can go viral through the office. Forbes 

Comments (2)

1. Gail Bothwell said on 3/12/18 - 09:06AM
Excellent article! You are shedding light on what those of us who have worked in these situations already know. This and providing tools to "take the power back" will help those dedicated professionals to continue to do their jobs that we need them to do.
2. EWright said on 4/7/18 - 03:39PM
Great article. Many of us don't think or want to see that "bullying" does exist sometimes in such caring line of work. However it does, this article helps explains what to do in those type of situations.

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