6 Ways to Mitigate an Abusive Employer

An abusive employer takes advantage of his/her employees who are dependent on a regular paycheck to keep food on the table, a roof over their heads, and their bills paid.  In a perfect world with a free market, an employee who is being overworked, verbally abused, asked to do something illegal or unethical, etc. has the recourse of leaving and finding employment elsewhere.  Unfortunately, in the real world, this form of recourse comes at a great cost especially if the employee in question is living paycheck to paycheck and a missed paycheck can mean either a loss of the basic necessities of life (food/shelter/etc.) or hefty long-term costs (debt).  Like the perpetrators of an abusive relationship, abusive employers exploit the inability of the employee to leave without facing dire consequences.  This is especially true in an economic downturn where finding new employment can be a lengthy and uncertain process.


I’ll assume you have a healthy work ethic and know what is reasonably expected from you.  So NONE of the following, in my opinion, should constitute as abuse from your employer:


  • Being asked to stop surfing the web or going on Facebook while on the job.
  • Being asked to do anything that is in the scope of your job description (or even a bit beyond it) and what you agree to before accepting the job/promotion.
  • Occasionally being asked to work overtime, even on the weekends.
  • Your managers or coworkers occasionally raising their voice at you.
  • Having a personality that’s not a good fit for your company or industry’s culture which leads to frequent conflicts and/or inability to meet the normal day to day stresses of working.


Instead, if you manager crosses the line with you on a regular basis, especially on the assumption that you cannot be without a paycheck for more than a few months, then it definitely constitutes as abuse.  Very likely, one or more assets in your life will be taxed to its limits.  Examples (not limited to these):


  • Being forced to work overtime or much longer hours than originally agreed upon, with little or no extra compensation.
  • Being asked to do something illegal or unethical.
  • Being yelled at regularly or treated without basic human courtesy and respect.
  • Being subjected to sexual harassment.
  • Being asked to cancel prepaid vacation at the last minute (especially without any dire emergency) and without any refund/compensation.


If the latter list sounds like a better representation of your situation, then read on.


Tactic 1: Document Everything


Start keeping a journal at work if you haven’t already been doing so.  Write brief daily entries about:


  • Your interactions with coworkers and managers.
  • What’s being expected of you and what you’ve accomplished.
  • Some random details like if someone got a haircut or was wearing a shirt of a certain color (but don’t go overboard here.)
  • Instances where you feel you’re being abused.


If you’re verbally being asked to do something unreasonable or unethical and still wish to proceed, email your manager for a confirmation.  Most people including myself have been known to say things during the heat of the moment that we later regret.  This gives your manager or coworker a chance to reiterate their unusual request or take it back after thinking it over again.  And if they still insist and you choose to play along, you’ll at least have documentation in case of a firing or lawsuit.


Tactic 2: Confront the Elephant in the Room


If you notice something’s off about your manager, coworker, and/or company, it would be best to confront it directly instead of letting it slide and potentially snowballing into something even more formidable.  Don’t accuse anyone or be judgmental.  Ask with a curious mind and try to stick with the facts and be honest about how you’re feeling (overworked, undervalued, discriminated, etc.)  Then see how the other party interprets the situation.  Be prepared for the possibility that it’s all a misunderstanding.


Tactic 3: Build your Emergency Fund


So you hang on to your employer despite being treated far worse than what you deserve because you’ll be starving on the streets if you lost this job?  Then stop living paycheck to paycheck and build your emergency fund!  This is a very common tactic many abusive employers have used for millennia to coerce their employees: by leveraging the threat of being fired either implicitly or explicitly.  So save up as much as possible in an Emergency Fund that covers at least 1 year of expenses just to be safe (there are more popular but politically incorrect names for this fund which I won’t mention here.)  Also, I can’t stress enough but make sure you’ve documented everything major in case you need to explain in future interviews (including at the unemployment office) if you do end up being fired.


Tactic 4: Search For Another Job


If your employer is being abusive, then it’s pretty clear you’d rather be somewhere else.  So start finding someone else to work for!  It’s also possible you might end up being terminated if you choose to protect your sanity instead of giving in to the abusive employer’s every single whim and demand.  The average job search can take over 6 months in the current economic climate of the 2010s so it’s never too early to get started.  Should you network or submit to online job listings?  I’d say do both since the former is more likely to land you a new job but the latter will give you access to completely new opportunities that may further enhance your long term professional development and network.


Tactic 5: Cut the Non-Essential Work.


If you’re being overworked and carrying far more than what’s reasonably expected in your industry, then you’ll need to cut back the least important tasks.  Have a talk with your boss like I’ve recommended in Tactic 2 and listen to what he/she deems as most important within all the tasks you’ve been assigned.  So your boss says you need to do everything and you’ve had more than you can reasonably handle for as long as you can remember (rather than before a temporary but critical deadline)?  Then you need to take the initiative and cut the tasks you deem least important!


Stephen Covey recommends taking a sheet of paper and dividing your tasks into its 4 quadrants (explained in detail in the book 7 Habits of Highly Effective People and this article.)


  1. Quadrant 1: Urgent and Important
  2. Quadrant 2: Not Urgent, Important
  3. Quadrant 3: Urgent, Not Important
  4. Quadrant 4: Not Urgent, Not Important


What I’m about to explain will seem dead obvious but in practice, many people are psychologically conditioned to behave in a much different manner.


We can all agree than any sane and rational person will focus on getting tasks in Quadrant 1 done ASAP and avoiding Quadrant 4 as much as possible, right?  Now that leaves Quadrants 2 and 3: which one should take priority over the other?  When presented in this manner, you’d be hard pressed not to put Quadrant 2 (Not Urgent but Important) over Quadrant 3 (Urgent but not Important.)  But most people instinctively prioritize based on urgency and not importance (and hence, put Quadrant 3 over 2.)


Urgent == Important


Just because something needs to be handled urgently doesn’t mean it’s important.  A random phone call, a coworker who drops in to chat about nothing in particular, Facebook notifications on your phone, etc. are all “urgent” and require your immediate attention but usually are not very important to your bottom line.  During normal times, attending to these before Quadrant 2 won’t necessarily have adverse effects due to an abundance of time.  When you’re under an extreme workload, making this mistake will likely cost you the ability to go home at a reasonable hour and get some direly needed rest for another hectic day tomorrow.  So don’t be afraid to drop the niceties and stick to Quadrant 2 hand over fist if it means you can cut an hour or two out of your already grueling hours!


Tactic 6: Limit Your Availability by Phone/Email/etc. Outside of Work Hours.


If you have an abusive employer, at least you can look forward to finally escaping from his/her wrath and tyranny in your off hours…  except if he/she continues to nag you via email or (heaven forbid) your personal phone.  Unless the scope of your job’s basic responsibilities requires you to be available 24/7 (like a doctor on call) and it’s not gonna make or break your company’s future prospects, feel free to make yourself unreachable by your superiors and coworkers whenever you’re not being paid to work.  In the extreme case, get a second mobile phone and only give the phone number to selected friends and family and turn off the other phone.


Final Thoughts


Don’t put yourself in the desperate position where being fired will put you up a creek without a paddle.  Protect your “assets” and long-term career so you don’t end up having to give up your health, sanity, and dignity in order to pay the bills.


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