It is the understatement of understatements to say there is way too much violence in our world — terrorism, violent crimes and the all-too-many horrors in-between. There is also far too much emotional violence within today’s workplace spreading stress, demoralization and many other “costs.” Law firms are not excluded, unfortunately.

As a legal consultant/coach, I have witnessed that even the smallest amount of emotional violence – even by just one person – can be doing enormous and widespread harm to many. By the way — it really doesn’t matter what it’s called – bullying, emotional violence, harassment ….. it’s still real and very dangerous.

When emotional violence exists within an office, all employees suffer its toxic, negative and lasting effects directly and indirectly. Emotional violence angers, embarrasses, shocks and hurts its victims and so much more. It weakens and destroys office morale, runs off great employees who refuse to work where leadership allows such destructive actions, dilutes (at best) productivity, chops down ladders to success and often entire careers. The types and size of destructive paths left by emotional violence are endless and this small column can merely attempt to touch the tip of this vicious iceberg.

Defining Emotional Violence

How is emotional violence defined? Like the word success, emotional violence should not be defined by one common or societal definition, but rather individually on a case-by-case basis. One of my definitions for it, however, is: Any words, body language or other actions that persistently attack, demoralize, threaten, destroy or otherwise demean or bring ongoing discomfort and other negative effects to those subjected to such ongoing abuse.


Ask these questions about your workplace:

  1. Do we have leaders, managers and co-workers who speak rudely, loudly or otherwise in a demeaning fashion to others?
  2. Anyone who curses excessively?
  3. Is there negative talk and gossiping behind backs?
  4. Is there loud arguing on a regular basis?
  5. Anyone who sexually harasses others?
  6. Is distasteful, offensive humor in common areas and meetings tolerated?
  7. Any employees that refuse to talk to and/or acknowledge each other?
  8. Anyone who could win the “I Make Hitler Look Like a Good Guy” award?
  9. How many chronic complainers — We all know the type — ones who can’t be satisfied unless they have something to gripe about?
  10. Any just plain ol’ loud mouths around – good people perhaps, but annoyingly and chronically loud?

Did you answer, “Yes” to any of these questions? If so and it’s not a once-in-a-blue-moon occurrence, then your workplace is indeed infected by emotional violence. Can you quantify the damages if these situations are allowed? That can be difficult, but the harm done can be huge, hard to recover from for individuals and the entire business.

The Aftermath of Emotional Violence

Think I’m sounding like a drama queen about this emotional violence stuff? I wish that were the case, however, it is a rare week that passes that I don’t learn of business and law firm war stories regarding the damaging and costly fallout from unchecked emotional violence. The injuries are too numerous to list here, but certainly include:

  1. Low office morale/lousy attitudes
  2. Widespread reductions in productivity and work ethics
  3. Increased lawyer malpractice & grievance risks
  4. Costly, frequent employee turnover
  5. Unspoken permission for all employees to act rudely and immaturely just as they observe the “leaders” doing
  6. The ongoing poisonous tension of unresolved disputes
  7. Fed up clients and customers who take their business elsewhere
  8. Unmet personal and professional goals year after year after year
  9. Excessive daily stress from the tensions within that keeps accumulating until implosion of some kind occurs – often suddenly and not so gently.
    defending the business or law firm in harassment and other claims, malpractice and ethical grievances
  10. The negating of time and money spent on marketing due to poor leadership that allows emotional violence to exist unaddressed and to infect the very soul of a business (and its employees).
  11. Disrespect breeds disrespect – period.

Tracing the Roots of Emotional Violence

What causes emotional violence? A few of the typical causes are listed below:

  1. Please re-read #12 above
  2. Unhealthy stress levels from unrealistic work and caseloads, unresolved issues at home or office, unhealthy life styles, dishonesty with ourselves and others, lack of exercise, poor time management skills, living lives that others expect us to live rather than the one we really want to be living
  3. Low emotional IQ’s (or the absence of any at all in some cases)
  4. Immaturity including two-year-old-style it’s-all-about-met attitudes and temper tantrums
  5. Self-centeredness overload by too many
  6. Substance abuse
  7. Depression
  8. Enablers at home and in the office
  9. Undeserved, self-imposed arrogance or holier-than-thou attitudes
  10. Chaotic, chronically disorganized office management

Why Is Emotional Violence Allowed to Exist?

Again, the reasons are endless, but for starters:

  • We refuse to hold ourselves or others accountable for their negative actions or non-actions
  • Many of us avoid personal confrontations like the plague.
  • It often seems easier to stay angry rather than to put the energies and time into making amends and changing our ways.
  • Personal insecurities which lead to “greater than thou” attitudes and actions
  • Self-centered “I” or “me, me, me” vs. team oriented “we” or “firm” mindsets (e.g. my clients vs. our firm’s clients)
  • We are too busy just trying to keep our heads above the water and swear we have zero minutes to spare
  • Attitudes such as “If I bury my head in the sand far enough or just ignore things long enough, they will go away or better yet, I’ll let someone else deal with it.”
  • Insensitivity to and disrespect for others’ feelings

Emotional Violence Prevention

There are, of course, no easy answers. Nor can I force anyone to make the required tough decisions that absolutely (and preventively!) do not allow emotional violence from rearing its ugly head in their offices.

If I had a magical wand, however, I would use it to rid all businesses and law firms of this dangerous and often unacknowledged threat. I say this because in all my years of working as a law firm management and planning strategist, I continue today to see the far-reaching damages caused by the failure of business leaders and attorneys to take a stand against emotional violence and its many related allies.

Those who that have had the wisdom and courage to finally say “No More!” to emotional violence would never return to an environment where such tactics are allowed because the rewards have been too great including (but far from complete!):

  • Employee turnover is greatly reduced and their productivity noticeably increase;
  • Office morale increases (almost instantly) and remains steady;
  • Stress levels decline;
  • Net profits grow; and
  • Client and customer satisfaction spirals upward.

Businesses and law firms that allow such violence to continue have made a choice to keep an imaginary (but real!) sign above their entryways: “Emotional & Demoralizing Violence Allowed.” Their unspoken message to employees and all who enter would be something like this:

  • Enter at your own risk.
  • Stay if your self-esteem is low enough to tolerate the disrespect and a multitude of negatives generated by the emotional violence allowed within.
  • No whining about the stress of our working environment; emotional violence and disrespectfulness tolerated – accept it or leave – thank you.


In Closing…

As an attorney, mediator and consultant/coach, I am and must always be mindful that an absolute essential of ongoing, successful lawyering is treating others respectfully – all others. Ditto for all types of businesses big and small. Being respectful to others is indeed essential if we are to successfully climb our individual and professional ladders of success. And, emotional violence has no rung on that ladder.

About the author 

Nancy Byerly Jones

Nancy Byerly Jones and her husband reside on their mountainside ranch (“Little Hee Haw Farm”) with an energetic “family” of horses, donkeys (large and miniature), dogs and cats. Their favorite pastime is sharing the joy and fun of their animals and ranch life with their family, friends and clients.

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