What NOT to Do When Being Bullied at Work
Bullying Doesn't Only Happen on the Playground
We know about bullies at school, but when we graduate from school and get jobs, we expect it to stop, right? We're grown up. How can anyone bully an adult?
The sad reality is, people can be bullied at any age and in any situation. The tactics may change, but the motive is not that different. Adults are bullied at their workplace on a regular basis. Research from Dr. Judy Blando at the University of Phoenix indicates that almost 75% of employees have been affected by bullying at work during their lifetime, either as a target or a witness.
Mark Bertsche, a senior leadership consultant for Talent Plus, Inc. had this to offer: “The power of office bullies is harsh and cruel, producing outcomes that cannot and should not be ignored. The devastation experienced by those directly affected can be severe. Morale, productivity, and culture all decline in a culture with a bully (or bullies). Organizations and their leaders should not ignore bullying."
Bullying is a common occurrence at the workplace, so if it happens to you, you're not alone.
Signs You're Being Bullied at Work
What is workplace bullying? Sometimes it's hard to know if you're the target of bullying, and every individual case varies, but if you experience any of the incidents listed below, you might be the target of workplace harassment.
- You're being outcast, alienated, ignored, or excluded. You get left out of meetings or events; you're the butt of jokes, false rumors about you are being spread, or co-workers avoid interacting with you.
- You are held to standards that are different from your peers'.
- If your reasonable requests are being refused without reason.
- You are publicly criticized, belittled, or teased.
- You experience verbal abuse—subtle or obvious—including public or private dress-downs and whispered or shouted criticisms.
- You experience sexual harassment or unwelcome sexual comments.
- You are removed of duties or if your job is changed or limited without reason; the goals of your project are suddenly changed, negating all your progress, or you're saddled with impossibly difficult tasks.
- Obstacles, distractions, and busywork are thrown at you to prevent you from doing your job.
- You experience overbearing and constant supervision and monitoring of your job, even its smallest aspects.
- Every decision you make is called into question, even the tiny ones.
- Unfounded threats to and comments about your job security.
- You are excluded from progress, promotion, or training opportunities.
- Your boss or HR says that you should just work it out yourself.
- You feel sick when you think about going to work; the physical and psychological repercussions mount, and it's like your body is telling you not to go to work.
I Was Bullied at Work
It happened to me. For professional reasons, I don't feel comfortable sharing all the details, but I will share the mistakes I made in handling the bully and what I learned. After doing a lot of research to understand my situation, and after much reflection, I saw that I made a lot of mistakes. I don't blame myself because few of us are automatically equipped to deal with workplace bullying. We don't expect it, and it takes us by surprise. It is often only after going through it that we gain a very painful education.
Here are ten things not to do when being bullied at work. I want to stress that even if you are making all of these mistakes, don't feel bad. These lessons are not designed to make you feel bad, but rather to help you feel like you're not alone.
1. Don't Blame Yourself
If we are bullied, we might think it's because we are not a good worker, or perhaps not a good person. In other words, we start to believe what the bully is saying about us. We start to blame ourselves.
But please remember this: You don't deserve to get bullied! No one does, but the bully wants you to think you do. Don't give in to the lie. No one is perfect, and if you are trying your best to do a good job, that is all anyone can ask of you.
If they are unhappy with some specific aspect of your performance, they are obligated to tell you in a professional, direct way, not to intimidate you into not believing in yourself.
According to BullyOnline, a list of resources to help with bullying, a target is often chosen because of their strength, not their weakness. This goes against the stereotype of a victim being a weakling on the beach having sand kicked in his face by a muscular winner, but it's true. The abuser is bothered by a strength he sees in his target, one he does not have, so out of jealousy he finds a way to punish that person.
There is a good chance you are actually being picked on because you are a good person, an honest person, and a hard worker. So remember not to blame yourself. This is hard to do, but you have to try. This is a test of your emotional, mental, and spiritual strength. It is not easy to be belittled, ostracized, and called out for no reason, but I do believe that we come out stronger from the experience.
What I Did: I Thought It Was My Fault
When I was bullied, I blamed myself, constantly searching to see what I might have done wrong to provoke such attention. This came from being insecure and tending to second-guess myself. Because I was so busy interrogating myself, I had few resources left to handle the attacks when they came.
It took me a long time to let that go and believe in myself again, but I do believe that my confidence now is stronger than it was before.
2. Don't Obsess About It
If you are experiencing difficulty at work, it is sometimes very difficult to let things go. It is easy to go over and over in your mind, wondering why it is happening, and considering what you could have done differently.
This is a mistake. Obsessing about it takes away all your power and makes you start to feel weak. This behaviour can also mean that you start to feel confused, wondering how much is your fault and how much is theirs. An unwavering fixation on the problem can lead you into addictions to try to escape from what is happening. Recent parliamentary changes in Canadian laws acknowledged a connection between suicide and workplace bullying.
This moving article tells of the author's experience of her father's suicide as a result of workplace abuse. There is no doubt that it is very hard to not fixate on it. In order to get out of the cycle, it is usually necessary to take some kind of action, either by getting intervention, receiving counseling, or doing something to confront your intimidator. Doing nothing leads to internalizing it more and more, sometimes being unable to control the feelings.
During your time off, try to stop thinking about it for a while, and focus on other things. You won't solve it by thinking about it day and night. If you have faith, I would also recommend prayer.
How I Obsessed About It
When bullying kept occurring at work, I could not get it off of my mind. I am naturally conscientious, and it really bothered me that someone did not seem to be pleased with my work. I spoke about with my husband, to the point where he got tired of hearing about it. I became obsessed with the problems I was dealing with at work.
3. Don't Assume Things Will Get Better
It's often hard to know if it's really bullying or if it's just normal work relations. But if you really are being bullied at work, there's a very good chance it won't get better. The dynamic has been set up, and it is likely to continue until action is taken to stop it.
Many bullies are serial offenders, which means that they will choose one or two people to target and keep bullying until they are forced to stop or find another target. If it wasn't you, they would find someone else. The only motivation for them to stop will be when someone refuses to be bullied, or another person forces them to stop. In fact, it will likely get worse as the harasser becomes more confident in her ability to get away with inappropriate behaviour.
How I Assumed Things Would Get Better
As a natural optimist, I did not want to believe that I was being bullied. I figured it was just the flush of a new job, a temporary state that would end soon.
It didn't end. In fact, it got worse as time went on. I allowed small things in the beginning, and so bigger liberties were taken.
4. Don't Fail to Document
Documenting your experience is the first thing to do when dealing with a bully at work. If you don't keep track of what is happening, then, in the eyes of the law and other people, it didn't happen.
The only hope you have of ever confronting the issue in any formal manner is to show what happened. You can only do that through documenting every incident, even if it is small, so that you can show the pattern of what is happening.
If you try to fight it through Human Resources, they will need a written record of what was happening. If you go to a lawyer or your union, they also will need to see documentation.
Even if you decide not to pursue recourse, you will rest easier knowing that you could, if you wanted to. Documentation is even good for your mental well-being, as you can view evidence that you have not been making these things up.
How I Failed to Document
The single biggest mistake I made when enduring bullying is that I failed to document what was going on until it was too late. I had a feeling that I should have been writing some of these things down, but denial is easy to fall into. I kept thinking, "it's not that bad" until I could no longer deny it.
When I went to talk to people who might be able to help me, they all wanted to see my documentation, and it was inconsistent. Therefore, they weren't able to help me.
How to Document Workplace Bullying Properly
According to Marianne Worthington, the founder of Work Warrior, a business that helps companies build healthy workplaces, "For documentation purposes I always advise people to have three clear documented incidences of bullying behavior. If the incidences can prove that quality of work was affected, then that’s even better. Once someone has three examples, it should be enough to show a pattern."
According to Deb Falzoi, who educates employees, employers, and therapists about the dynamics of workplace bullying, "Documentation (incident logs and emails, for example) serves two purposes: 1. To look back and see a pattern to help targets understand they're not crazy, as the abuser wants them to believe, and 2. To present a pattern to higher-ups."
When documenting inappropriate behaviour, do so in a non-emotional way. Keep your notes terse and to-the-point. Leave out long explanations of how it made you feel: Just write down what happened. Keep a log and include dates, exact words that were spoken, actions or gestures, and witnesses' names. Keep a file of all relevant electronic communications, as well.
How NOT to document bullying:
Oh man, my boss was so mean to me today! She would not get off my back, and I felt like she liked me less than all the other girls in the office. I can't stand it when she always picks on me for no reason. I felt like crying when she spoke to me so rudely. She actually had the nerve to ignore me during the staff meeting! It makes me wonder if my suggestions are no good, or if she just doesn't like me because I might get the next promotion.
How to document bullying:
April 11, 2012: This morning I was finishing up some paperwork when my boss came into the office, walked directly to my cubicle, and asked loudly, "What are you doing, Cynthia? You should be keeping busy even when I am not around." He said this in a serious tone that did not indicate a joking manner. He then walked away. At 2:00 p.m., during the staff meeting, I brought a suggestion about hiring a person for the summer. He ignored me and immediately started talking to another staff member (Bill K.). When I tried to bring it up again, he did not respond to my request at all, but asked Sue S. about her summer plans instead.
5. Don't Allow Secret Meetings or Conversations
One friend that worked as a warden for many years at a prison told me that you should never allow any meeting to take place without having a paper trail of it. So, if your boss pulls you aside for a "secret meeting," insist that you receive an e-mail outlining everything that happened during the meeting.
If your boss neglects to do this, then send him a e-mail outlining everything that happened in the meeting, and ask him to confirm. In some cases, you may also want to send a CC to someone else in the company, such as someone in the HR department.
Of course, this is not necessary for every meeting you have with your bully, but if anything is said regarding your performance, changes to company policy, or anything else that seems important, you need to have that documented. Otherwise, if you act on what you are told to do and there is no record of it, you could have your head on the chopping block.
This is absolutely crucial. If your bully invites you to a secret meeting, there is a good chance they are trying to get away with something.
Another tactic of workplace harassment is to actually leave people out of workplace meetings that they should be invited to. If this happens, keep a record of the meeting, when it happened, and why you should have been invited. If your job is affected because you missed that meeting, document that, as well.
How My Bully Covered His Tracks
My bully often told me about decisions, policies, and assignments through private one-on-one meetings which were not recorded. Therefore, later on, I could not prove to anyone that these meetings had happened. Now, I know that any meeting that affects my job or my position should be documented, especially if bullying has already occurred.
6. Don't Allow Yourself to Be Intimidated
This is the hardest thing to do when someone is trying to intimidate you: to not be intimidated. But just remember that intimidation is aggression, and they are doing it deliberately.
You have just as much right to be at that workplace as they do. You were hired to do a job. Even if the bully is your supervisor or has been there longer than you, they don't have the right to make you feel small. If the bully says something that is clearly not in line, acknowledge it and address the inappropriateness in a polite but firm tone.
Of course, it it important to distinguish between warranted discipline by the boss and inappropriate action. If you need to do better or get your work done more efficiently, your supervisor has the right to let you know. But she does not have the right to watch you constantly for mistakes, call you out loudly in front of other employees, or insult you personally.
There is a lot of information about how to deal with bullies, each with its own viewpoint. The site, KickBully.com, outlines how to understand the bully and, in essence, beat him at his own game. Other sites, such as BullyOnline, focus more on getting outside intervention with your problem.
Whichever way you go, plan your approach and make a promise to yourself that you will not allow this to go on indefinitely. You will either confront and communicate with the harasser in a way that is effective, try to get outside help, or leave. It is intolerable to not to do anything for too long.
I Was Intimidated
For those raised to be "nice girls" or maybe "good boys," workplace harassment can come as quite a shock. When it first started to happen, I did not know what to do. I had been raised to be obedient to my boss and not rebel against authority. I knew it was wrong, but did not have the tools to deal with it. So, I did nothing. I let this person continue to intimidate me.
What I should have done was to document it, and then taken some kind of action.
If I was ever put in a similar situation today, I would take action right away. Even though my personality still makes it difficult to confront someone like this, I know that allowing it will only let it get worse.
7. Don't Isolate Yourself
One of the bully's tactics will be to isolate you from fellow workers by encouraging gossip about you and encouraging fellow employees to bully you, as well.
As you become more and more obviously the target in the workplace, other employees may feel that it is not in their career's best interest to align themselves with someone that the boss doesn't like. You may lose people you thought were friends.
The important thing to d, is not give in to this. Keep your relationships with co-workers as strong as you can. You may lose some "friends," but keep the real friends close to you. Let them know what is going on, without going on and on about it, but acknowledge that it happening. You need support during this time.
You may be tempted to cut yourself off because the harassment is making you feel bad about yourself, but don't succumb to those feelings. Fight through and keep the friendships strong.
I Was New
I was new to the job and had not built up any alliances of my own. This is one of the hazards of being new and a reason why new employees are especially vulnerable to workplace bullying.
8. Don't Wait Too Long to Ask for Help
If you are going through this type of experience, you may feel embarrassed to ask for help, and that is understandable, but don't wait too long because the longer you wait, the more beaten down you can start to feel. It's better to ask for help early on so that you can learn your rights and know that you are not alone.
Possible people to talk to are in the Human Resources department of your company, a wise friend, a counsellor, or a pastor. How to Handle the Office Bully and Financial, Verbal, Emotional, and Physical Abuse suggests using the EAP services at your company or union. You may also consider talking to a lawyer about your rights.
Asking for help can be problematic, too. You don't always know if others will be willing to stand up for you. Sometimes, HR departments are part of the problem. If someone in HR tells you that you don't have a case, don't take their word for it because maybe they are not knowledgeable, are afraid to cause waves, or are a part of the problem. Try consulting someone else.
But whatever you do, get help as soon as you realize what is happening. In this situation, waiting does not help you at all. You need to bolster your strength by getting support while you still have your confidence left. After continued harassment, it is harder to reach out.
I Was Told I Had No Recourse
In my case, I reached out to my union and was told that I had no recourse. Later on, I talked a different individual at the same union and found out that first person had been incorrect. I lost valuable time and did not get the help I needed.
I did finally reach out to several people, but by that time, I was emotionally worn down. Reaching out sooner could have made things a lot better for me.
Will HR Support Me If I Come Forward?
It depends on your company's culture. According to David Schein, MBA, JD, Ph.D., Director of Graduate Programs at the University of St. Thomas in Houston, "HR departments should handle such situations quickly, especially in this day and age of #metoo and violent incidents in the workplace, many spurred by bullying. Consult the HR department, however, do not expect HR to immediately take your side. They need to be objective and must investigate any allegations before taking action."
According to Misha Shvartsman, General Counsel at USB Memory Direct, "HR departments at large corporations are often better at dealing with these situations than small companies, with one caveat: that the person bullying you isn’t a high executive or owner. At a large corporation, when both people are employees, covering their liabilities is priority. However, in small companies this could be the exact opposite. What if the person bullying you oversees HR and your department?"
So although it might seem like the HR department is there to protect you, that isn't always the case. It depends on the size, culture, and history of the company and on the particulars of each individual case.
9. Don't Forget to Take Care of Yourself
Workplace harassment is very emotionally taxing. A person can feel confused, stressed, doubtful, angry, and helpless. To deal with this power keg of emotions, it is extremely important to take care of yourself even more than you usually do.
When faced with stressful situations, some of us turn to addictive behaviours. Others may experience family conflict, or use escapism to get their mind off it. These are all negative ways of dealing with stress, and hurt more in the long run.
Try to eat right, take some time for some exercise, and do some things that you enjoy. If the boss is piling extra work on you, don't let it consume your whole life. Take a break. Take time with your family and friends, and talk to them about what is happening, too.
I Gave In to Emotional Eating
During the time of being bullied at work, I felt extreme stress and found it hard to take time for myself. I gained weight from eating emotionally and failing to exercise. I turned to the addiction of food. This did not help the situation, and only made me feel worse.
10. Don't Stay Too Long
The decision of whether or not to stay in a harassment situation is a very personal one. If you are willing to stay and fight, then perhaps you will be able to make a difference with your actions. You can't change the bully himself, but you may be able to shine some truth into what is happening and help stop it from happening to other people.
If the situation is getting to you, though, don't stay too long. Your health and well-being are more important than money. Don't let yourself get so beaten down that you lose your confidence for the next job. This is your decision, but listen to what your body is telling you. If you are always stressed, your body may be telling you that it's time to move on.
I Left the Situation
In my case, I chose to leave the situation. I could have stayed and tried to change things, but I found the emotional toil had been too high. I needed to get out and to recuperate.
Everyone has different strengths. You have to look at what you are called to do. If you have tried to fight it and haven't received support from superiors, you may not choose to go any further with it.
Whatever you decide, please know that it is possible to get over the trauma that can occur from workplace bullying and feel good again. The more we talk about this travesty that happens daily in our workplaces, the better off we all will be.
How Long Is Too Long to Stay at a Job Where You're Being Bullied?
According to Marianne Worthington, the founder of Work Warrior, a business that helps companies build healthy workplaces, "Three to six months. If the target is documenting appropriately, that timeframe should allow them to see if management or HR is going to action on their complaint." But if management is the bully in your case, then she recommends looking for another job as soon as possible.
Deb Falzoi, who educates employees, employers, and therapists about the dynamics of workplace bullying, "Workplace bullying works like domestic abuse—targets often don't see the abuse until their self-esteem and health have already begun to deteriorate, since abusers often convince targets they're the problem. So once targets realize they've been bullied, they have already been in the job too long. At that point, the goal is to preserve their health."
How About You?
Have you ever experienced bullying at the workplace?
More Advice About Workplace Bullying
Should I Confront My Bully?
According to Marianne Worthington, the founder of Work Warrior, a business that helps companies build healthy workplaces, "The only time this is really effective is if the target can confront the bully the first time they see the bad behavior. If the bullying is addressed as soon as possible it could be enough for the bully to find another target. However, this rarely happens because usually we give people the benefit of the doubt and don’t address behavior until it has become a pattern. By then it’s usually too late and confronting the bully will only make the situation worse."
Should I Quit or Stay and Try to Change the Company Culture?
The expert advice on whether you should fight or quit are split:
- Some advise that you don't leave right away. Lynn Whitfield, who not only has served as a City Attorney for three different municipalities but who also experienced workplace bullying herself and chose to stay on the job, says, "They should not quit their job. It can be hard sticking it out, but you only empower the bully more when you quit. It will not stop them for bullying someone else."
- Others advise that you quit. Cristian Rennella, VP of HR & CoFounder of oMelhorTrato.com, says, "The culture of an organization is impossible to change while you are employed. It is better to look for another company that has a culture and way of working that defends all its employees from this type of people." And Marianne Worthington, the founder of Work Warrior, a business that helps companies build healthy workplaces, "Leaving is always the best choice. Workplace bullies are real. The longer someone stays in a toxic place, the more severe the effects on mental health can be."
Is Workplace Bullying Illegal? Can I Sue My Employer?
According to Jonathan Street, an employment attorney with The Employment Law Group, "If the bullying is based on race, sex, gender, religion, national origin, or age, it might be a violation of Title VIL and therefore illegal under Federal law. You must report it to your HR department or other person responsible for overseeing this type of complaint. Follow through the process they set out in any handbook or other documents if at all possible. If you fail to do this, you could lose some of your rights on which you later wish to file suit."
According to head of human resources and CPO of ShipMonk, Katerina Funk, who was also once a victim of bullying herself, "Note that bullying is not necessarily illegal, but it might be if it is against a protected class of workers. If you are being bullied on the basis of gender, age, sexual orientation, or religion (among others), you will find HR especially quick to act." She also points out that HR sometimes has a conflict of interest: "Remember, HR exists to protect the company, specifically from actionable situations. Bullying, again, is not necessarily illegal. But it absolutely can be illegal, and it is very likely against your company's code, which means that it may not (and should not) be tolerated."
Questions & Answers
I keep text messages sent to me by my bullying boss. Is this the same as documenting?
Yes! That is an excellent example of documenting. You may also want to write a list of the content of the texts, along with the dates and times when they were sent.
© 2012 Sharilee Swaity