Disability and the Misuse of Power


Staff with disability are more likely to be subjected to abuse of power than other staff because they may exhibit attributes that render them more vulnerable to managers who are inclined to be abusive.

While general material on abuse of power and bullying tends not to highlight disability as a point of vulnerability, those more familiar with disability see the danger signs clearly. Abusive conduct by managers is the single most common reason why staff with disability experience distress and even injury (physical or psychological. That abusive conduct can be intentional or inadvertent.

The duty of a manager is to ensure staff with disability are supported and included. In over 3 years of being a DEN Chair I can recall only one instance of advocating on behalf of DEN member that did not arise from a manager’s conduct.

Abuse of power is the abdication of a duty to treat staff with respect and fairness in favour of a personal agenda – whether conscious or unconscious. On the broad spectrum, abuse of power can include corrupt, incompetent, or negligent conduct by a person in authority. Here I want to focus only on abuse of power that becomes abuse of staff, and in particular, staff with disability. That abuse includes failures to address workplace adjustments, inclusion and accessibility needs, and forms of bullying that include threats of forcing medical retirement.

It is important to acknowledge that there is not an epidemic of abuse of this kind in NSW public sector agencies, but neither is it uncommon. There is an inertia in responding to concerns that comes across as an appetite for tolerating abusive conduct. There are two main problem areas:

  • The chain of responsibility favours inaction.
  • The perpetrators are motivated to conceal their conduct; and are often in a credible and influential position to do so.

The chain of responsibility has a weak link

Organisations naturally protect managers to a higher degree than subordinate staff. This can be seen in language that identifies managers as a class apart from and workers or employees.

If a manager has an issue with a worker, they can talk to their manager and a course of action can be determined – proper or improper. If a worker has an issue with a manager no such opportunity exists. Policies might suggest otherwise, but workplace culture and politics generally reveal a stark power and privilege imbalance. 

The hierarchical nature of most workplaces understandably means that subordinate staff do not have easy access to senior executives. This situation is exploited by abusive managers who will encourage the belief that executives are inaccessible. They, of course, will, have access, and use it to massage an executive’s perception of the subordinate staff. In some cases, managers and executives will have formed an alliance and will share adverse opinions of staff.

That hierarchies are self-protective is unremarkable. What is of concern is that they are protective of misconduct too.

Unless the abuse is flagrant, the abuser is generally part of the response to any complaint about that abuse, while the complainant is held at a distance – and subject to confidentiality requirements. There are sound reasons to ensure natural justice in any complaints process, but it must be understood that such protection also can become a method of concealing manipulations of processes.

In fact, a staff member lodging a complaint may quickly find the experience disempowering, with the focus of blame shifted onto them. They can become a target for subtle (and not so subtle) emotional abuse. A manager who is the subject of a complaint is motivated to make it go away; and has an established relationship with senior management – and hence the means to influence matters.  

There is a myth that complaints investigations are impartially and competently handled. While this may be genuinely believed to be the case by the people managing the process, it is rarely accepted as such by the complainant. External ‘independent’ investigators are selected and paid by the employer, so they are not truly independent. Besides if you want ongoing work, you deliver what the payer wants – and that is so often to exonerate the manager.

In my experience, the submission of a formal complaint is a last act of desperation, and rarely turns out well. Instances of truly abusive conduct, even when acknowledged as such, almost never lead to the responsible manager being held to account. I know of no instance in which a manager has been counselled or disciplined. I know of no ‘victim’ who has been apologised to; or been advised that their manager had been ‘spoken to’. In short, no evidence of acknowledgement of injury done, or responsibility taken. 

Having a disciplinary conversation with a staff member is famously deeply unpopular. It is hard to do. It is easy if they are seen as weak or vulnerable. It is easy if there is a reason to dislike or dismiss a person as ‘not one of us.’ This does not have to be a conscious choice. It can operate below the threshold of conscious awareness. 

These conversations are harder to have in a management/leadership team. There is a difference between performing a specific task poorly, and not managing well. The matter is exacerbated when the members of the management/leadership team lack contemporary training and don’t operate in a culture that values and demands professional management and leadership skills. In such a culture abusive management would not be tolerated and staff would have access to an effective remedy. This is the weak link in the chain of responsibility. 

Who are the perpetrators of abuse?

Abusive managers may exhibit psychopathic or narcissistic traits that impede empathic responses. They may also be psychologically immature individuals whose response to gaining power exposes unconscious emotions – such as suppressed anger and a desire for retribution acted out upon the less powerful and the vulnerable.

Power can lead to people becoming more impulsive, less aware of risks and less empathic. 

(Abuse of power at work, and how to stop it – Eve Ash (Psychologist) 21/11/2017)

Abusive conduct may also arise from a response to excessive pressure – being under stress and short tempered will reduce empathy.

And then we have unconscious bias. Objectively, managers are expected to treat all staff with respect and inclusively. Realistically this isn’t always the case.

Finally, management competence may be a factor. These days management requires an array of skills and capabilities essential to ensure that a work group or team can function at a high level. The influence of the manager is fundamental to work performance – not in terms of operational knowledge, but relational competence.

Any of the above factors is sufficient alone to be a cause of abusive conduct – which may or may not be intentional. But combine any, or, indeed, all of them and the problem is greatly magnified.

The vulnerability of the staff member with disability

Studies into workplace abuse show that staff with certain attributes are more likely to be the targets of abusive conduct from managers. Here are some from a checklist that may be especially relevant to people with disability (words in brackets and italics are mine).

  • Are you experiencing personal trauma like divorce, financial difficulties, single parenting and loneliness coupled with a lack of support systems? (include acquired disability, early onset and diagnosis of a debilitating disease or the worsening of a degenerative condition)
  • Does your appearance pose a threat to others? (some people respond adversely to forms of apparent disability)
  • Are you over 40? (age discrimination plus disability is not a good mix)
  • Do you stand up for the rights of other staff members? (people with disability may have a strong sense of what is fair or just – and say so)
  • Do you have difficulty relating to colleagues on an interpersonal level? (this can apply to a range of psychological conditions, autism, and sensory disabilities)

Source: Kathy Simmons – Workplace Abuse: Causes and Cures 

It is important to remember that disability is an additional risk factor for the wider problem of workplace abuse. There are common assertions that staff with disability don’t change jobs as often, don’t take as much time off, and worker harder than other people. These assertions are frequently held up as virtues and are cited as good reasons to employ a person with disability. 

But in fact, they must also be read as signs of anxiety. Leaving an abusive work situation is not easy. Enduring the abuse can sometimes be the best of a very limited array of very bad options. Being forced out is a real fear – and sometimes abuse is employed as the impetus to generate a reason to terminate employment – if ‘voluntary’ departure is proving not to be an option.

By the very nature of being a victim, a person is also often powerless in workplace self-defence. People who are disempowered are readily made into culprits. A person in a condition of psychological distress might violate social norms, and, as transgressor, be targeted as the person primarily at fault.

This may be a brutal observation to make, but it is a truth constantly reported by staff with disability. The victim of abuse becomes victimised when reporting it. The proper anticipation of empathy and respect is unfulfilled.

Perpetuation of the problem

Here is a couple of excerpts from Psychopathic Employees Thrive Under Abusive Supervisors, Study Finds from the University of Arkansas, Fayetteville

Lauren Simon, assistant professor of management, and her co-authors — Charlice Hurst at the University of Notre Dame, Yongsuhk Jung at Korea Air Force Academy and Dante Pirouz at Western University in Canada — found that when working for an abusive supervisor, individuals who possess high primary psychopathic characteristics appear to have distinct advantages over those who don’t. 

The second study asked participants to rate their supervisors’ abuse using a variety of items such as how often the supervisor ridicules or is rude to the employee, gives improper credit for work, or puts the employee down in front of others. Results showed that high primary psychopathy individuals, compared to those who did not have psychopathic traits, felt more positive and more engaged in their work, as well as less angry, under abusive supervisors. 

Simon cautioned, however, that companies should be wary of employees who exhibit these extreme characteristics. 

“Many people leave their jobs when they work for an abusive supervisor,” Simon said. “If abusive leadership does not bother—and perhaps even excites—individuals high in primary psychopathy, then these individuals may be more likely to remain with the organization.” 

There is a clear warning here.  Abusive managers, if left unchecked, can create an environment in which potential future abusive managers may emerge – and toward whom the abusive manager may have a natural bias.

Here are some excerpts from Abusive leadership infects entire team citing a study by Crystal Farh and Zhijun Chen from the University of Western Australia:

Lead investigator Crystal Farh said supervisors who belittle and ridicule workers not only negatively affect those workers’ attitudes and behaviors, but also cause team members to act in a similar hostile manner toward one another. 

“That’s the most disturbing finding,” Farh said, “because it’s not just about individual victims now, it’s about creating a context where everybody suffers, regardless of whether you were individually abused or not.” 


Previous research has shown that workers emulate supervisors’ positive behaviors, she said, so it only makes sense they would follow negative behaviors as well. 


“Teams characterized by relationship conflict,” Farh said, “are hostile toward other members, mistreat them, speak to them rudely and experience negative emotions toward them.” 

Abuse breeds abuse; and perpetuates it. Individuals, teams, and the organisation are all harmed.

The need for a timely response

Workplace abuse can be extremely harmful to the victim – injuring their psychological health to a significant degree. That’s the bottom line. It is a form of assault, and the fact that the injuries are psychological rather than physical cannot diminish the need for a speedy and effective response.

Conventional mechanisms are not effective because:

  • They are often invoked very late (or too late), when the psychological harm has been done and remediation is no longer a realistic prospect. 
  • They are often predicated on quasi-legal logic that demands an adversarial approach – which is all too often converted into a performance issue about the victim. 
  • They favour the manager over the victim because of how the processes are designed.
  • They are not person-centred with a focus on the fact an injury has been sustained.
  • They are about objective and abstract concerns, rather than accountability and support for the perpetrator to mend their ways. Abusive managers must be held to account, but not in a punitive way.

The comparison with physical abuse is compelling. A staff member with disability who has evidence of physical abuse is more likely to be taken seriously because the injuries are plain to see. Psychological abuse is not so comfortably self-evident. It has an invisible quality about it, even when distress is evident. It simply may not evoke a sufficient level of empathic response to precipitate the needed urgent and effective action.


Disability can create a level of vulnerability few other people seem to appreciate or recognise. Where abuse of vulnerable staff is permitted, it is then justified and defended. In workplace cultures where an abusive manager is tolerated and enabled by the next level of management – and the next – empathy and compassion are no more than empty words that are a mask to conceal the absence of both vital feelings. 

Even if the abuse is not intentional, a workplace culture unwilling to acknowledge that the risk of cruel conduct is real will continue to permit it. And in so doing it also implicitly condones it. There are no acceptable excuses. 

Accountability is one of the core values of the NSW public sector, and it is more than a noble statement of an aspirational value. It should be an assurance of action – and yet it is so often missing in action when a staff member with disability seeks help. The exercise of power must be ethical and compassionate.

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