Signs of Covert Abuse at Work

Donlyn Turnbull
8 min readMay 29, 2021

Abuse is still considered abuse, even when it comes from a place that you never expected — your job.

(Watch the video version of this article here.)

Psychological and emotional abuse can be difficult to recognize. Sometimes all we know is that we feel horrible, and we don’t understand why. Frequently, we turn the blame toward ourselves. This is exactly what skilled manipulators want you to do.

The first person who informed me about emotional abuse was the woman who performed my intake interview at a battered women’s shelter. Since I wasn’t covered in bruises, I was awash in guilt, repeatedly apologizing for being there and taking up valuable resources from women who really needed it. I had nowhere else to go.

Out of 100 questions, I answered yes to all but one. She gently broke the news to me that I was in an abusive relationship. It shocked me.

How could I be in an abusive relationship and not know it? I spent years seeking the answer to that question.

Transforming my life meant eradicating abuse forever by learning first to identify it. Secondly, I learned to make myself a hardened target to no longer be put in these situations.

That night the blinders came off, and I released the world of denial. After that, I wanted to learn everything I could about it.

There are certain tactics abusers use that are universal. It doesn’t have to be a romantic relationship. It applies to all areas of our lives, including the workplace or possibly even our families. Abuse is abuse, no matter the source.

Many people have terrible bosses. That’s just a fact of life, and we can learn how to navigate around difficult personalities that may clash with our own. But, abusive behavior is much more insidious and dangerous and must never be tolerated.

I spoke with my friend Stacey recently, and she mentioned some increasingly difficult occurrences at her job. Raise the red flags!

I immediately recognized one issue she mentioned as a classic abuse tactic. After we talked about it, she began to see it too.

Here are some of the covert ways abusers choose to harm and manipulate. This is not an exhaustive list but some of the more common tactics in their toolbox of abuse.


Stacy told me about how her immediate boss started to isolate her from the rest of the company. Since working remotely is more common because of the pandemic, isolation is accomplished with greater ease. It’s easy to feel isolated in today’s remote work environment.

This is different.

These are active steps to prevent Stacy from communicating with her workplace and anyone other than her immediate boss. This gave her boss complete control over the narrative of communication to and from Stacey. Her boss alone owned the interpretation of their conversations.

Stacey soon noticed her boss intervening on any comment she made on their online project management website. She would then remove Stacey and block her from the projects.

You may think that the boss had valid reasons for her doing so, but there were none. Stacey had been at the company from its very inception. She also was given an award for excellence the year before. The “problems” didn’t start until there was a change in leadership.

Her new boss started to tell other employees lies and say how difficult Stacey was to work with. If Stacey offered an opinion on a project, it was considered insubordination. Stacey was never allowed to defend herself.

Eventually, her boss destroyed her reputation within the company and fired her.

The good news? Stacey is a much happier human. When Stacey lost her usefulness to this narcissist, for whatever reason, she fired her. Since no one who had a long history with Stacey came forward to defend her, it revealed that the company’s toxicity ran deep.

Isolation begins to make the victim feel a sense of helplessness. They start relying on their abuser for pretty much any type of outside communication. Abusers like that. The abuser wants to control the narrative, keep you isolated, which keeps you in their control.


I’ve experienced extreme gaslighting, and it really can make you feel like you are going crazy. The purpose of gaslighting is to manipulate you, cause you to doubt yourself, erode your self-confidence, and teach you that you cannot trust yourself. It’s one of the more insidious tactics.

Losing trust in yourself opens you to manipulation and abuse.

The term first came from a 1938 play followed by the 1944 movie of the same name, Gaslight. The movie starred the stunning Ingrid Bergman. Her husband begins manipulating her surroundings then denying her the truth when she questions it. Eventually, another character helps bring her to reality by telling her…

“You’re not going out of your mind; you’re slowly and systematically being driven out of your mind.”

Gaslighting looks like this.

You had a meeting, and your boss crossed some boundaries. You speak with your boss later, but they respond by saying, “Oh, you misheard me.” They are shifting the blame to you and telling you that what you observed didn’t really happen.

They may deny something altogether and say, “That didn’t happen. What are you talking about? Something must be wrong with you because three different people are saying it didn’t happen that way.”

You begin to doubt yourself.

The one good thing that came out of my past abusive relationships was the ability to spot the same tactics in my work relationships. I began to see the abusive patterns and started to protect myself if I had to defend my side. Keeping a record of what was happening helped me clearly see that I was being lied to.

Because of my past, I fully understand how abuse plays out. You will not change an abuser or an abusive company, for that matter. Ever. I left that job.


It doesn’t matter how much experience you have, how smart you are, or how much you bring to the table; workplace narcissists love to talk down to you. The problem is, they really do believe they are superior to you in all ways.

They know best. You know nothing. After a time, you even stop suggesting new ideas or living in a creative space because, after all, why would they use something you’ve suggested?

You will not be able to change their mind. I can’t begin to tell you how deep-seated this dysfunction is. They sing your praises one day and attack you the next, leaving you feeling unbalanced and frequently believing you are the problem.

They will give you the praise and validation you need only so they can threaten to take it away. Narcissist coworkers are like a box of chocolates. On any given day, you never know what you are going to get. And they like you feeling unnerved and off-balance. You are easier to control in that state of mind.

You are only useful to a narcissist as long as you are a supply for their narcissistic needs. Once your usefulness runs out, a narcissist will discard you. If you can see through their veiled disguise, they will make it their mission to get rid of you.


Covert abusers have a good habit of creating situations that don’t exist. They desire to define your reality for you by twisting your words and misrepresenting your thoughts and motives.

It may look a little like something like this. (Hyperbole used for effect.)

You: “Here’s the project you asked for.”

Them: “Great, thank you. I know you were really frustrated by this project and that it was tough for you.”

You: “What? No, I, um, I never said it was frustrating. I’m not frustrated.”

Them: “It’s okay. I totally understand your frustration with it.”

If they have you isolated, what’s the very next thing they are likely to do? Deliver the message of your “frustration” to the higher-ups. “Stacey was so upset over this project. I don’t think we should give her any more projects for a time. Let’s demote or fire her. She can’t handle the responsibility.”


Covert workplace abusers will use veiled threats and mistruths to frighten you into compliance. They may share comments that “others” have made negative comments about you, often leaving you unable to confirm the validity of those comments.

They choose to use intimidation and may describe threatening outcomes or vague threats. “I’d hate it if you were fired.” or “You better watch yourself.”

Wait! They are thinking about firing me? You panic. Then you decide to jump through every hoop they hold in your hopes it will be enough to save your job and win their favor. Many abusers are void of remorse and empathy, making it very easy for them to use fear-mongering.

They never intend for you to be able to jump through the hoops successfully.

They operate from their own morally bankrupt system and may even derive pleasure from keeping you in a suspended state of stress.


Narcissistic abusers are masters in controlling their image to the world. Other coworkers, who may not be a target of abuse, can’t understand why you have an issue with the abuser. It’s why your CEO loves them so much because they are meticulous not to reveal true colors to everyone.

Narcissists have earned their black belt of manipulation and know what to say and exactly when to say it. They understand how to use dark psychology to get what they want and need from others. They’ve been practicing their whole lives.

You can always expect people to eventually be who they are.

It takes time, but it will happen. This is also why abusers use the “boil the frog” method with their potential targets. If you put a frog in a pot of hot water, they will immediately hop out. If you put the frog in a pot of cool water and slowly turn up the heat, the frog will stay.

Many abusers will be your best friend in the beginning. The changes are so subtle you won’t notice them. It’s only when you realize you are in hot water that you clearly see the manipulation leading to that point.

What can you do?

  • Realize that you can’t change them. Period. You will never do enough or be good enough for them. They are choosing their actions, not reacting to yours.
  • Leave. Get a new job if you are able. I’ve found that when I step out on faith, the path appears.
  • Set boundaries like a mother-fucker! I wrote a post on self-advocating that includes some great tactics to use if you cannot change the situation…yet.
  • Reach out to your Human Resources department if you have one. Keep a record of every incident. Record your phone calls and meetings but be certain to check the laws for your state on how to comply legally. My state was a “one-party consent state,” meaning it is legal to record a phone conversation when only one party to the conversation knows of the recording. Some are “two-party consent states.” Meaning both participants must be aware of the recording. Be prepared to prove your accusations if nothing more than to create a record of your complaints and hold your company accountable if things become increasingly worse.
  • Know that you are worth more than this treatment. That job isn't worth your mental health.

Remember, we are talking about covert abuse, but if you have experienced any sexual harassment or physical abuse, then you should contact authorities immediately and hold your abuser accountable. As with covert abuse, the more evidence you can collect to bring to the table, the better.

You aren’t crazy. You’re just in a crazy situation.

I’m all about self-transformation and being the best version of you. You can find more self-transformation videos on my YouTube channel here.

I appreciate you!! ~ Donlyn



Donlyn Turnbull

Dearly beloved. We are gathered here today to write about this thing called life. (Life transformation writer.)