Workplace Bullying:  What to do in a workplace Harassment Emergency

It was a good job, in her chosen field. All that training had paid off; she was making good money and was on her way to seniority. There was a union. But by the time she reached our office, Trina* was frantically looking for a way out of it. She was tearful and anxious, doubting both her ability and her worthiness as a human being. She wasn’t sleeping. She felt defeated, lonely, frightened about the future, and fragile. Trina, isolated by a whisper campaign and targeted threats and insults both anonymous and open, was suffering from a problem that schoolgirls understand all too well. She was being socially bullied, and she was in danger of losing her job over it.

Bullying on the job may be on the rise—uncertain economic times bring out a heightened sense of competition and a mean edge in some people, and some workplaces seem to encourage scape-goating and betrayal among the work force. As a new employee, and new to her field, Trina was particularly vulnerable. And because workplace bullying bears a strong resemblance to the social bullying that girls experience (although boys are not, by any means, immune) so painfully in their school years, it seems that women are particularly sensitive to its dynamics and its effects.

Workplace bullying may take a number of forms. There may be rumors and lies being spread, causing the target to be socially isolated. Personal characteristics may be singled out for mocking or for criticism, including mannerisms, looks, perceived race, religion, nationality, or social class. A common target is perceived rebellion from gendered standards of behavior: a man who is “too feminine” or a woman who is “too masculine”. Alternatively, a woman may be criticized for being “feminine” where a tough, masculine role is expected. Signs, “jokes”, notes or remarks signal that the target person is not welcome, or not to be appreciated for his or her skills here. The target person may have difficulty getting the cooperation he needs to complete projects, or she may repeatedly fail to get credit for her ideas and accomplishments. The bully may be a single instigator, or a group of people.

The effects of workplace bullying are substantial. Trina is typical (in fact, she’s an amalgamation of many such clients we’ve seen). Tearfulness or full-blown depression are common responses, as is anxiety and sleeplessness. A profound sense of helplessness is both common and logical: this is something that is not under the victim’s control. Harassment knocks the wind out of the sails of people whose sense of power and agency comes from their work. A vague but powerful sense of being fundamentally flawed may set in. Finally, grief and loss are significant but often unrecognized. There are so many losses facing Trina: the loss of her job, her confidence, her sense of fairness, the belief that good work will be rewarded, and possibly even the career that she trained for. And while leaving may seem the way out, having been driven off a job often haunts a person for years afterward.

While workplace bullying is a maddeningly difficult life experience to go through, there are some strategies that can help rise above it, perhaps even keeping one’s job and transforming a bad environment. A bullying workplace is toxic to everyone: the bully, the victim, and the many bystanders who witness. Knowing what to do in response to bullying that is experienced or witnessed is important for all levels of employees and supervisors. Here are some tips for overcoming a poisonous, bullying atmosphere on the job.

1. Create a record. Start carrying a simple black book. Write down what is said and done, when and where, and who witnessed. This isn’t a secret activity. In fact, ask a harasser to repeat their words—you want to write it down correctly. Ask them to clarify what they meant. This simple act often nips harassment in the bud. But if it doesn’t, you have a record. You can take this step as a victim or as a witness/ally.

2. Be clear about what you don’t want. Tell the person that their behavior isn’t welcome. Tell them to stop. Often, people try to lighten a tense situation by joking with the bully, returning witticisms for insults. Don’t—this confuses people into not knowing what is, and is not, acceptable to you. Again, if you are a witness/ally, you can do this on behalf of the direct victim, and on behalf of your own right to a respectful workplace environment. What denigrates one, denigrates all.

3. Assess where power lies. Both the formal chain of command and the informal one matter. You won’t be able to get much help from people who have less power than you—either in rank or in social influence. Asking vulnerable people for support puts them at risk, and they are likely to disappoint you, and perhaps themselves, by protecting their positions first. Go one step up for help.

It is a supervisor’s role to create and support a safe (including emotionally safe) and respectful workplace. At each step up the chain of command, this responsibility reaches farther and subsumes everyone beneath. No one likes to be skipped over in a complaint process; this makes them look bad. So choose carefully, and start by trying to make an ally only one step up from the position of the person doing the harassment.

If you have a union, go to the shop steward. If your steward is involved in the harassment, go one step up, and keep going up one step at a time until you get help.

4. As a witness, supervisor, or steward, focus any intervention on the harasser’s behavior, not on the victim. It doesn’t matter if the victim is being “sensitive”. It doesn’t matter if they are different, odd, or in some way weak. If they are indeed sensitive or vulnerable, then what makes them feel safe will set the bar high for a respectful workplace, and everyone will benefit. Appreciate having been sent such a clear messenger to help achieve a better workplace.

5. As a supervisor (or a union steward), use informal and proactive interventions whenever possible. When the approach taken is retroactive and punitive, the staff tends to take sides, and the rift that develops can be permanent. Likewise, formal grievances rarely give anyone the sense of security and satisfaction that is warranted, and they often backfire in behind-the-scenes intimidation and isolation. Try to give the instigator room to move, and a way to save dignity. Be clear about future expectations and consequences, but focus on the way forward.

Training, posters, leading by example, and recognizing positive examples of collegial support among staff all have a place in establishing and maintaining a respectful workforce. Make no secret of the position that diversity in the workplace is a strength to be cultivated, and that bridging differences is a shared responsibility.

Workplace bullying is a serious and costly issue with major consequences for individuals and for companies and organizations. Although we work with the consequences in individual counselling, we’d rather see and hear about successful prevention or early workplace interventions! By the time a victim reaches us, they’ve suffered a preventable injury to the soul.

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