How to Spot Covert Abuse by a Boss

July 1, 2019 Kristen Milstead

Is your boss covertly abusive? How can you tell if your boss is covertly verbally and emotionally abusive? Learn the answers to those questions in this article about covert abuse by a boss.

No workplace is perfect and most bosses have both admirable qualities and flaws. Sometimes, however, a supervisor's negative attributes are more than just flaws. A boss can be verbally and emotionally abusive.

The Workplace Bullying Institute defines workplace bullying as abusive behavior that is "threatening, humiliating or intimidating, or work interference--or sabotage--that prevents work from getting done, or verbal abuse."

Unfortunately, not all abuse, even verbal abuse, in the workplace is easy to spot. There are actually two types of verbal abuse that a boss might use: overt and covert. 

When people envision workplace harassment or bullying, overt verbal abuse is the type of abuse they typically imagine. It is more obvious, as it involves displays of negative emotions or treatment that can be difficult to ignore.

Sometimes, however, a boss's workplace verbal abuse or harassment flies under the radar. If you experience covert abuse from your boss, you may even become confused yourself because the manipulation and abuse happen slowly over time and in ways that are difficult to detect. 

Types of Covert Abuse By a Boss 

It's important to recognize covert abuse by a boss in your workplace because the emotional and professional consequences can be just as devastating as those experienced from overt abuse by a supervisor yet it can be difficult to observe directly. 

Here are some methods of covert abuse, verbal and otherwise, a boss may use and why they matter. 

  1. Insults disguised as jokes: The insults can be denied as insults and can make an employee doubt his or her own expertise and ability to perform the job. 
  2. Gaslighting: This is a form of verbal and cognitive abuse bosses may use to make an employee feel that he or she is imagining the abuse or is being too sensitive or even that the employee's actions are the problem.   
  3. Criticism in front of coworkers: This action can make an employee feel incompetent, lower his or her self-esteem, and cause coworkers to lose confidence in the targeted employee. When a boss singles out an employee and chastises him or her in view of others, it's a form of humiliation.
  4. Belittling work: A boss who is a covert abuser may consistently put down an employee's work instead of offering helpful feedback to highlight both strengths and weaknesses to help the employee improve. 
  5. Pitting employees against one another: This behavior is also called triangulation. Instead of team-building, bosses may encourage competition or even "ganging up" on certain employees and scapegoating. 
  6. Smear campaigns: Bosses may talk about an employee to others, but disguise negative information as concern or provide only part of the story. This can cause coworkers to lose faith in that employee's work. In addition, the boss may have planted seeds of doubt in the mind of anyone the employee may decide to speak with about the boss's abusive behavior.
  7. Exclusion from meetings, information, or work: By not saying anything at all, the boss may be trying to send a message that the employee is unimportant and his or her work is not valuable, or the boss may be setting the employee up to fail.
  8. Moving the goalposts: A boss who moves the goalposts sends the message that no matter what the employee does, it's never good enough. The boss may set the employee up to fail by sending conflicting instructions or never being satisfied with a work project.  
  9. Micromanagement: Extreme micromanagement is not only difficult to deal with, but it is also a form of manipulation and harassment when it is used to dismiss and belittle the expertise of employees and to shift the blame to them and avoid ownership when something goes wrong.
  10. Intermittent reinforcement: The boss may occasionally randomly praise a targeted employee for something he or she has done, often in front of others and to make the employee look unreasonably sensitive, although the same employee is often walking on eggshells because anything he or she does could be deemed "wrong" at any time without justification or notice.  

Individually, any one of these forms of abusive behavior is difficult to endure. Yet what makes covert abuse by a boss so dangerous is that covert abusers don't just use one of these tactics. They often use many of them. It is their combined effect over time and the fact that they are so difficult to detect that creates such a psychologically and professionally damaging climate. 

The power that a boss has over an employee and the use of these covert abusive tactics create an environment where an employee can be isolated, made to look incompetent, and even begin to feel incompetent. Covert abusers manipulate you or others into believing that there is no problem or that you are the problem.

Unfortunately, the employee may not realize that it's happening until it's too late to seek the assistance of others in the office or until much of the damage has already been done.

For that reason, it's important to recognize the signs of a boss who is a covert verbal abuser because the abuse itself can go unrecognized or unacknowledged.

Signs of a Boss Who Is a Covert Abuser

  1. Low empathy: Have you had a death in the family or a recent medical issue? Your boss may treat your need for some extra time off as an inconvenience or show some annoyance even if he or she tries to hide it. 
  2. Engages in negative gossip: Your boss may randomly share his or her complaints about your coworkers or express disproportionately emotional complaints about minor things about the company with you in private meetings.
  3. Treats employees with inappropriate emotion: Resentment, contempt, disgust, or attempts to shame are not constructive. If your boss uses tone, facial expressions, body language, or words that derive from any of these emotions, it's not just unprofessional. It's a sign that your boss is emotionally abusive.  
  4. Unable to admit to mistakes: Everyone makes mistakes. For bosses who can't, it's as if they believe a mistake means they are the most incompetent person in the world forever and always. Beware, because bosses who are unable to admit they made an error will likely project the shame they feel at their own mistakes onto you. 
  5. Takes the credit: A manager may assign you the work, but want to be the one to present it to the big boss. 
  6. Hoards information from employees: A boss may want to control the flow of information between everyone. He or she will feel like the most important one in the office while for everyone else, there is a lack of transparency.  
  7. Views input as a criticism of his or her authority: You may approach the boss with an idea about how to improve a process or avoid a problem in the future. Instead of valuing your initiative on behalf of the company, the boss may view this input as a challenge to his or her authority and treat you with disdain, or worse, begin treating you as an enemy and a target.
  8. Entitlement: The boss may feel entitled to contact you at all hours or on your days off or to make unreasonable, inappropriate or even illegal demands. If you speak up, your requests for boundaries will likely be ignored. If you protest, you may be accused of not being dedicated to your job.
  9. A lack of flexibility: Bosses who are inflexible may believe that their way of doing things is the "right" way or that there is only one way to see things. He or she may even give lip service to listening to employees but always seems to have his or her mind made up.
  10. Mistrust: Some bosses seem obsessed with hierarchy and advancement and treat everyone as if they are "out to get them." They have a mistrust of others in the office and may take a suspicious, confrontational approach that causes workplace tension.

The Workplace Bullying Institute equates bullying at work to a domestic violence relationship. In fact, the types of covert abuse that occur are not different from the types of covert abuse that can occur in other relationships, such as romantic relationships or within families.1  It is sometimes difficult to see any covert abuse that we have experienced objectively because there is often so much manipulation that leaves us feeling confused.

Yet if you have experienced verbal abuse by a boss, there is always an abuse of power and you may be especially confused about where the line is between what is an appropriate way for a boss to behave and what wasn't. Taking a step back and looking only at the boss and how he or she behaves more generally can help provide more clarification.

What makes the signs of a verbally abusive boss signs of verbal abuse is that in any other context, they would also be warning signs of abuse. They are still problematic in the workplace. If your boss displays many of these behaviors and you've experienced behavior that has left you confused about whether you're being harassed, bullied or abused by your boss, your gut instinct is probably right. Awareness is the first step to figuring out what to do next.

Verbal abuse from a boss is dangerous to your health. A boss's verbal abuse is just as serious as any other type of verbal abuse. You may feel as if you have to "walk on eggshells," and the psychological impact can result in anxiety, depression, posttraumatic stress disorder, and physical disorders.1

There are additional considerations when it comes to workplace abuse. if you're being targeted and the abuse and harassment is the result of or includes any specific references to certain characteristics of who you are--your sex, race, age, or disability (including mental disability), this may be against the law.2

If this is you and you believe this is why your boss is verbally abusing you, you may wish to get assistance from the equal employment opportunity office in your workplace or talk to a legal representative to find out about your rights.


  1. Workplace Bullying Institute, The WBI Definition of Workplace Bullying. Accessed June 29, 2019.
  2. U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, Types of Discrimination: Harassment. Accessed June 29, 2019.

APA Reference
Milstead, K. (2019, July 1). How to Spot Covert Abuse by a Boss, HealthyPlace. Retrieved on 2024, June 21 from

Author: Kristen Milstead

Kristen is a survivor of narcissistic abuse. She has a Ph.D. in Sociology and is the author of a toolkit, "Taking Your Life Back After a Relationship with a Narcissist," which is available for free on her website, Fairy Tale Shadows, a blog with the mission of promoting awareness about hidden abuse and empowering other survivors. Find Kristen on Pinterest, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and on her website. 

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