If I told you to close your eyes and think of the word “bully”, what comes to mind? Would it be a school yard where a bigger kid is picking on a smaller kid? Or maybe one kid pressed up against his locker while another kid steals his lunch money?
Whatever scenario you thought of, it’s probably likely that you thought of one that involved kids.
However, bullying is a very big problem that we as adults have to deal with. According to a 2016 Forbes article, 75% of adults have been effected by workplace bullying. This statistic includes the targets of bullying as well as those who witness it. At work though, we call it harassment!
You may think that the only one truly hurt by the bullying is the target, but that is not true. The mental and physical health, behavior and work performance of those who witness workplace bullying is also effected. These people will try to fly under the radar, so they don’t become a target as well. They may avoid making suggestions or going the extra mile if it means having to work with the bully.
Most of us in the corporate world have gone through some form of harassment training. Especially those who are in managerial positions. But nevertheless bullying continues.
As a child, I experienced bullying at times. One kid in elementary school “altered” my last name to make it an insult. I was also called freckle face a few times as a kid. How truly original, huh? I wish back then I had the comeback that I would use now if called that … Freckles are kisses from God, and obviously, God loves ME more than you! Actually now, as an adult, the only comments I hear about my freckles are compliments. Perhaps there are people who don’t like them, but as adults they know that to call someone freckle face, or four eyes or some other standard bullying name calling would only make themselves look bad.
Childhood bullies and adult bullies work very differently.
Adult bullies in the workplace will try to threaten, intimidate, humiliate and sabotage. And they usually will do so in a subtle way.
At a prior job, a coworker of mine set out to bully me. She would “accidentally” leave me off of emails, would roll her eyes when I spoke up at meetings, make up horrible things about me, tell people I said negative things that I never said, not relay messages that I asked her to tell someone, not give me messages that someone asked her to relay to me, and badmouth me to our coworkers. I tried approaching her directly. I knew her bullying came from her own insecurities and I tried to develop an atmosphere that we were a team. That didn’t work. I tried to ignore it. When that didn’t work, I got right back in her face (not in a physically aggressive way, but by speaking up when the bullying happened). None of those approaches worked. I went to HR (human resources). They spoke to her. The bullying continued, although she was careful to be even more subtle about it. Eventually, I found another job. Our work community, while huge, is also small when it comes to people who know people that you know. A few years later I heard that she had left for another job herself, and was bullying people there, who eventually left that company because nothing was being done to stop this bully.
The problem isn’t only the bully. It’s the company’s inability or unwillingness to effectively deal with workplace bullies.
If you are the target or witness of bullying and you say something about it to a supervisor or human resources, or even to coworkers going through the same thing, you’ll probably hear that there’s nothing that can be done, or that it’s just the way the person is and to not take it personally, or to try to just avoid interaction with the bully if you don’t have to interact with them. They’ll tell you to just do your job, do it well, and not worry about it.
But the thing is, bullying does have an effect on work performance, and it’s not something that can be, or should be, ignored. And if it’s “just the way so-and-so is” … well, that doesn’t make it right and it doesn’t mean you should have to put up with that!
The “costs” of bullying in the workplace are more than just the mental and physical wellbeing of the target. There is a definite financial cost to a company that does not effectively deal with bullying. Lower productivity, excessive absences, loss of initiatives and innovative thinking, and even the costs of replacing employees that leave due to this toxic environment.
So, what can we do?
Well, if you are the target of a bully, there are steps you can and should take.
First, document everything! Especially if you are being bullied by someone in a supervisory position. Be detailed in your documentation. Note dates, times, those present and if possible exact words that were spoken or very detailed descriptions of the events.
Second, and this one is a bit more difficult for most people, stand up for yourself. This does not mean to yell and scream. It means to calmly and without raising your voice state that what is happening or what is being said (or the tone of what is being said) is inappropriate, unprofessional, and will not be tolerated. Do not get into a debate, do not lash out. Just state that you will not tolerate that, and that the work related conversation can continue at a later time, when that person is ready to stop their harassing behavior and to communicate in a professional collegiate manner. And then WALK AWAY! Go back to doing your work, and do not continue to engage with the bully.
A lot of times, although not always, bullies will pick on those who let them get away with it. Or on those who they can get a rise out of. This is why it’s important to remain calm. And as my sister points out, it will probably either piss them off or freak them out if you are calm in the face of their drama.
You can speak with the person’s supervisor or human resources. If you do, again, remain calm, state FACTS, not emotions of the situation. Use the word “harrassment”, because that way the company knows that this is not just a personality issue and that it needs to be taken seriously or they will risk a lawsuit. Bring your documentation notes with you. But do not turn them over to anyone. They can take their own notes if they want to. And get a definitive game plan of how this will be addressed and the time frame. If they cannot give you that at your first meeting, set up the second meeting for a couple days later right then and there. Do not allow them to sweep it under the rug. Let them know that if it has become bad enough for you to come to them in the first place, it is important enough to be high on their priority list to deal with.
Do you run the risk of things getting worse or getting fired? Unfortunately, yes. But if you don’t do anything, it definitely won’t get better! And if either negative result happens, you do have a case for legal action. That’s also why the documentation is vital, and why you should not turn that over to them.
If you are just a witness to workplace bullying, you may not want to speak up. But you should. There are a number of reasons why you should, but I’m going to give you only one … because when the current target decides it’s too much to deal with and they find another job, you might just be the next target on the bully’s list!
Bullying will continue as long as we (the collective “ALL OF US” we) continue to allow it! Let’s step up and stop the cycle!