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Office Mean Girl: Memories of a Workplace Bully

FlourishAnyway is an Industrial/Organizational Psychologist with applied experience in corporate human resources and consulting.

An Office Mean Girl made my dream job a nightmare, but slowly I learned to flourish anyway.  Workplace bullies get away with their behavior because management allows it.

An Office Mean Girl made my dream job a nightmare, but slowly I learned to flourish anyway. Workplace bullies get away with their behavior because management allows it.

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 pretty sure that Betty, the Office Mean Girl, had fangs.  Never let the bullies win.

I was pretty sure that Betty, the Office Mean Girl, had fangs. Never let the bullies win.

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.

Bitter Betty: Bite on this. For some people, being mean comes easy.

Bitter Betty: Bite on this. For some people, being mean comes easy.

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.

Making memories in the workplace . . . bahahaha. Just a fun game of office politics, right?

Making memories in the workplace . . . bahahaha. Just a fun game of office politics, right?

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.

Office Mean Girls bully because they can get away with it. Behind every OMG is a manager looking the other way.

Office Mean Girls bully because they can get away with it. Behind every OMG is a manager looking the other way.

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.

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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.

You know these mean girls?  You work with them?

You know these mean girls? You work with them?

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.

Office bullies may belittle you behind your back—or even to your face.

Office bullies may belittle you behind your back—or even to your face.

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.

Eventually I flourished, with the help of others.

Eventually I flourished, with the help of others.

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.

Mean girls grow may change location but their tactics stay the same. They're neither cuddly nor nice.

Mean girls grow may change location but their tactics stay the same. They're neither cuddly nor nice.

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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