Office Mean Girl: Memories of a Workplace Bully
There She Is
The loud laugh was unmistakable. While shopping in a department store, I heard the voice of my former bully as she rifled through sales racks with her son. Although her back was turned towards me, spotting her took me back to that awful place five years earlier.
The Dream Job—With One Small Catch
Since I was a child, I had yearned to work for a particular Fortune 500 company that is well respected in my community. When I scored a job in their Human Resources (HR) department, I believed it was a dream fulfilled.
I Was Simply Next in Line, but for What?
However, HR has bullies, too. What I didn't know when I signed on was that my coworker, "Betty," had a track record of tormenting coworkers whom she found threatening. Worse yet was that she seemed to have management's consent. Betty had chased my predecessor off in less than a year using petty personal attacks and uncooperativeness. I was simply next in line.
Betty had worked for the company for nearly 30 years, having risen through the ranks from an hourly production employee to the maven of the company's HR computer system. She effectively "owned" that system, making it hers by customizing it so highly that no one else understood all of its intricacies.
There was no user manual, no formal training. There was only Betty, Office Mean Girl (OMG). Within six weeks of joining the company, I sorely regretted the move.
I was hired partially because of my knowledge of other systems, as Betty's system was coming up for bid. This automatically made me a perceived threat—Strike One. Both my predecessor and I were external hires at a company that valued promotion from within. Strike Two.
Betty also frequently commented on the fact that she had achieved so much in spite of having only a high school diploma. It was a touchy issue for her, and no matter how I recognized her contributions, it just wasn't enough. My predecessor and I each held graduate degrees. Strike Three, according to Betty.
Welcome to Hell
On my first day of work, neither she nor our manager could find the time to take me around the office and make introductions. I finally did it myself on day two. Betty later couldn't find the time to train me, either, even though my job depended on my knowing the system inside out. She cancelled our training sessions at the last minute and was too busy to reschedule. Our manager, hating conflict, permitted this and made excuses for her.
Bitterness and Attacks
Making an honest attempt to get to know her, I listened to Betty's family crises and her rants about being passed over because of age discrimination, nepotism, and not giving into sexual harassment. She assassinated the characters of coworkers and executives alike.
Although she was very charming to coworkers' faces, behind their backs Betty described them as unmotivated and incompetent. She called them "pond scum" and "stupid." She and our manager frequently joked that it was "time to drain the pond." No one was immune from her ridicule, even those she considered friends.
Being a new employee, it was hard to know just what to believe. I wondered aloud what names Betty called me when I wasn't around. She chuckled, tilting her head back, as our manager sat there, smug and silent.
Struggling to Make It Work
As I struggled to make sense of my ill-defined job and the bully in the next cubicle, I worked late nights, took work home, and often cried at night from the stress. I was determined to somehow work through this.
I had wanted this job too long and wasn't going to let someone like Betty defeat me. I struggled with migraines and flare-ups of Multiple Sclerosis, both exacerbated by stress.
Betty the Bully was unrelenting in her thinly veiled hostility. As I became more competent in my role, Betty dumped loads of work in my lap.
She sent emails to the rest of the department that pointed out how they weren't using the system correctly, then referred them to me for questions. She routinely pointed out my errors (real and imagined) to superiors and clients, both in public and behind my back. She once even off-handedly accused me of stealing, then laughed it off when I objected.
It Got Worse Before It Got Better
My bully increasingly "forgot" to include me on key emails and meeting invitations with clients and left me out of projects and lunches with her small clique. I often did not have the necessary information to do my job and felt ambushed with surprise findings during meetings. I even overheard her and my manager describing my husband as "ugly" after they had first met him at a social event.
As a ringleader, Betty also recruited several others to her bullying cause. They had previously been mere bystanders but joined her in whispered gossip sessions. Word usually got back to me, however, via sympathetic coworkers. When I addressed Betty's behaviors with management, my concerns were turned back on me.
A Funny Thing Happens
Then, in spite of Betty, I started to succeed, relying on trial and error as well the kindness of other coworkers to learn the system and the company culture. (They weren't the "pond scum" that she claimed.)
Reaching Out to My Predecessor
I also reached out to my predecessor to compare experiences. Betty and our manager had described my predecessor as very headstrong and hard to get along with, so I didn't know what to expect. Meeting with her over lunch, I discovered parallel stories— an office bully and the timid leadership that allowed her to get away with it.
Sure enough, Betty had used the same bullying tactics with my predecessor, except my predecessor did not put up with the behavior for as long as I had. She had bid on a job in another department within a year, leaving behind both Betty and the ineffective management that enabled her.
Have you worked with an Office Mean Girl like Betty? (If so, tell me about her in the comments section.)
Seeing Her for What She Was
No longer worried that there was something wrong with me, I finally saw Betty as the insecure, jealous bully that she was— nothing more. She was an adult version of a middle school Mean Girl.
As a result, I became savvier in dealing with her. I learned to either brush off her snide comments or to respond to them directly. I found support from others both inside of the department and out. Even without Betty's help, I developed my own expertise.
I remained business-like but limited my interaction with Betty to only necessary conversation. Out of self-preservation, I stopped engaging her in any chit chat and isolated myself from her negativity. Biding my time, I put up with our manager's excuses and uneven treatment, such as cancelling my vacation requests because Betty wanted to take the same week off.
Moving On and Not Looking Back
Then, when the time was right, I applied for other jobs in the company, competing with outside applicants to interview successfully for a mere lateral transfer to another department. My new job involved the same pay, a longer commute, and considerable overnight travel away from my young child.
My manager tried to convince me to stay put by asking what would be the effect of all that travel on my six-year old child. He also dangled the remote possibility of a promotion if I stayed and disparaged the managers in my new department.
Regardless, I left Betty the Bully behind . . . as well as her cowardly management enablers. I loved my new job, and there was no looking back.
Buh Bye! Gone, Betty, Gone
Betty took early retirement during a round of voluntary downsizing shortly thereafter. I was not surprised when I was not invited to her company-sponsored retirement dinner. Finally, after three years of working with her, the Office Mean Girl was gone.
Part of a Wider Phenomenon
I thrived for several more years in my new role then resigned from the company after becoming safely pension-vested. Throughout my ordeal with Betty, that had become my goal—to survive long enough to be vested in the company pension. Because of my experience with this company-sanctioned bully—and because later I saw that so many other employees had their own "Bettys"— I lost trust in the organization that first created and then tolerated Betty's hostility for so long.
And Then I Saw Her in the Store
When I saw her in the department store that day, memories of Betty the Bully came back to me like a scab, ripped away to expose a bloody wound of rejection and self-doubt. For the first time in several years, she was only 15 feet away. Should I acknowledge her?
I steeled myself and finished my transaction at the cash register, making sure to speak loudly enough to the cashier so that Betty could hear me. No hiding here. I decided that Betty the Office Mean Girl did not merit even artificial niceties from me.
She had already done enough damage. As I turned to leave, I knew I would continue to move on—flourish even—being stronger now and ever resilient.
Flying Under the Radar: Most Bullies Bully Because They Can
This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. Content is for informational or entertainment purposes only and does not substitute for personal counsel or professional advice in business, financial, legal, or technical matters.
© 2013 FlourishAnyway