Office Bullying: A True Story we wish wasn’t True

Originally shared on Medium, here, and Facebook, here.

Bullying. Yes, office bullying. You’ve probably heard of bullying, unless you’ve been living under a rock in the ocean with Aquaman. But, before we get too far, I would like to start by talking about the often horrible, terrible consequences of office bullying. Because, no matter how we feel about this subject, I want us to consider the hurt it causes first. Because people are at the forefront of this. People.

People.

Remember that.

This isn’t about bullying. It’s about people.

Side effects of office bullying

Rest assured, being bullied is not fun. And the long term effects of being bullied can be lifelong and permanent. They can be mental, physical or emotional. They can ruin relationships, destroy workplace environments and run an organization into closure.

Here are some things that can fester from office bullying:

  • Depression
  • Anxiety
  • High blood pressure
  • Emotional and mental distress
  • Stress
  • Physical ailments (such as ulcers)
  • High turnover rate
  • Hostile work environment
  • Suicide

And to quantify some of these for you, I can say that I have encountered 7 of these personally.

So when we talk about office bullying, it’s not a small thing. It’s not a “oh, buck up” or “grow a thick skin” thing. It’s abusive. It’s something that over time, unchecked, can have harsh effects on the individuals and the organization. People can suffer all manner of health problems, and may need therapy or more health services to recover from such workplaces where bullying is allowed. And when a person or persons leave said company, they won’t have a positive report on working there. In time, an organization will see an increase in turnover rate, and lack of motivation from their employees. People will just be looking to get out, and when new employees come they’ll only be using the organization as a stepping stone to something better. The reputation of such a place will precede it and has the potential to be its undoing.

Most importantly, bullying like abuse can corner a person into a place where they feel helpless, worthless and depressed. People will feel like they are truly pitiful as the bully would have them feel, and that there is nothing they can do. That they deserve the treatment they get. That quitting isn’t an option. That they must stay and deal with it, because it’s the best they deserve. That no one will believe them. That no one cares. And, in the end, such a person may turn to suicide for relief.

So, let’s be careful before we make crass judgments on the importance of talking about office bullying. It has effects. Long lasting effects. Permanent effects. Just because we may not have experienced it, or seen it, doesn’t mean there aren’t people out there suffering horrible emotional, mental and physical conditions because of office bullying. And as we move forward, agreeing on everything or not, let’s remember those people who suffer from it and try our best to respect them, because that’s exactly how they feel right now. That no one does.

And if you’re reading this as someone who is currently in a situation where you are being bullied in the workplace, know this… people care. Lots of people care. Find those people, look around you. Talk to those people. Surround yourself with those people. They will protect you from the pain and your own self-torture that may result from being bullied.

You are not alone.

You are not worthless.

You do not deserve it. You deserve better.

Working with bullies

Bullying can come in all kinds of forms and from different corners of the work space. It can be a co-worker who pushes their co-workers and even their manager around with a ferocity that is unmatched and untamed. It can be a manager who feels the need to look down on their staff, and assert their dominance. Whatever the case, it’s all hurtful and can ruin the victim and the business itself. People cannot work effectively and efficiently in a hostile work environment, and an organization or department cannot thrive in one either.

Possibly the biggest conundrum about working in an environment with bullying is that it feels like there’s nothing you can do to change it, especially if the bully is a boss.

Decisions, decisions

As if it isn’t hard enough working in an environment where bullying is rampant, now a victim has to make some hard decisions about that bullying. Do they take the bully head-on? Do they go over the bully’s head? What if the bully has been around longer and has a better report with the management above him or her? Do they go to HR? What if HR has a bad track record of handling such cases? Do they go outside of the organization and hire a lawyer, start a lawsuit? Do they have a case? Will it be one person against the whole organization? What happens if they lose? Do they quit and move on, and just hope they can find somewhere else better? What if the job itself is good, only this one person is the problem? Should they stay and endure? What is the potential consequences of staying, doing nothing and just accepting the bullying that comes their way? Will it affect their health? Will it affect the relationship they have with their family? What is the price of doing nothing? What is the price of speaking up?

These are the kinds of questions a person who is being bullied goes through. And it’s not easy. It’s anxious, painful and exhausting. If only there was a certain security in speaking out, in asking for help.

“Harassment by any other name is still harassment”

Bullying is a good word for what we’re talking about, from a layman’s point of view, but it’s also a bad word. Because we don’t have laws, policies and legal precedents for bullying. But we do have those things for harassment. Rest assured your organization has a policy on almost every form of harassment, and if not, they should.

Your organization may not have policies on bullying, but they will have policies on harassment. Read up on it, discover your options. But not only that, read up on what your options are in the state legally, if your organization’s system lets you down one way or another.

Bullying is a layman’s term for harassment. This term works in layman’s conversations, but in discussion with an HR representative, manager, administrator, or even your lawyer this won’t be sufficient. Use the legal and appropriate terms.

Human Resources can be devoid of human compassion sometimes

I’m gonna launch this section towards folks who work in human resources (HR) as a plea to do the right thing, and a warning to folks relying on their HR department to do the right thing for them.

Sometimes, if we’re not careful, HR can add to the already difficult situation. Sometimes the hostile work environment is a direct result of a lack of help from HR. Sometimes an HR can be just as biased and corrupt as any other department. Sometimes instead of preventing a hostile work environment, HR has enabled it because of a lack of accountability.

DON’T BE THAT HR. Be the HR who works hard to ensure a safe, and peaceful work environment. Be the HR who listens, truly listens, and guards the information they receive to help protect and preserve the work environment and the people who work in it.

It is absolutely inappropriate for HR to tell a victim reaching out that they have to build their case, they have to provide proof of the victimization. For example, if someone goes to HR and asks for help against someone who has been bullying them for sometime, and they are told they must provide proof of some kind before HR can do anything. This is completely backwards. No one understands more what HR needs than HR. No one understands more what a police officer needs, than a police officer. The proper authorities and representatives who ask the victim to do the leg work are shirking their own responsibilities. Get up, and prove or disprove the accusation. Plain and simple. It’s not hard, but it does take work. Putting that kind of responsibility and extra stress on a victim is setting the whole process up to fail.

“Victim, heal thyself!”

All that being said, if you are a victim, you should start documenting what you are going through. Every time your bully sends a harassing email, keep it. Copy it. Print it. Make sure you have multiple digital copies and paper copies as well. Never give away an original. Things in black-and-white (ink and paper) are priceless.

Realistically, though, a lot of bullies won’t say things in email. Therefore, make sure you have a witness or two who can back you up when you talk to the bully. Having a witness or two who can confirm your version of the events is also priceless.

If you have been experiencing health problems due to the bullying, make sure you have documentation of this as well. Hospital visits, therapy visits, diagnoses and so on. This can help affirm the amount of damage this bully has caused you, and help show a pattern of the issue as depression, anxiety and other health conditions don’t develop over night.

It would be nice if the victim didn’t have to build their own case, but the reality is that more than likely a victim will be drug through the mud. Personally speaking, I have slowly built up 3-ring binders in certain situations, prepared to hand that binder over if necessary. It sounds ridiculous, because it is, but it has to be done because there’s a little thing called bureaucracy.

Bureaucracy is a four letter word

Bureaucracy is one of the main reasons an environment of bullying, harassment and hostility is allowed to exist. Yes, allowed. These types of environments and bullies thrive, because it’s allowed. No one high enough up the food chain is making an investment in holding guilty persons accountable.

It could be a buddy system. Everyone in positions that can make a difference have been there for years. And they all know each other. And their kids all hang out. Of course they’re not going to take any accusations against their long-time friend seriously. Of course they’re not going to discipline or fire their friend.

It could be the system itself. It could be that the whole system has been rigged against staff at the bottom of the rung. It could be that the policies are designed to hold everyone accountable, except people in positions of power.

It could be about reputation and money. It could be that if the story came out, especially on the public record, that the reputation of the organization would be at risk. And if the reputation is at risk, the money is at risk. No one wants to work for an organization that has a reputation for bullying their employees. And no one wants to buy from an organization that has a reputation for mistreating its staff.

There are lots of bureaucratic reasons not to invest time and energy into accusations of bullying and harassment. There are lots of bureaucratic reasons to cover things up and pay people off to keep things quiet. But know this… if you are in a position to make a difference, covering things up and keeping things hush-hush will backfire every time. EVERY. TIME. It’s in the best interest of your own career, and the organization, to respond by doing the right thing and doing it immediately. If an organization nips everything as soon as it rears its head, it will grow a good reputation. One that protects and prevents. Protects its staff an prevents bullying and harassment. The record will show that anyone working for such an organization can feel safe, respected, and appreciated. People will be knocking the door down to get a role in the organization. And it will be a breeze to retain all the staff you have, and everyone will gladly pay for your products out of sheer respect. You will be a competitive organization in the industry by merely being respectable. Not by faking respectability.

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Benjamin Little in photographs; pictures taken by yours truly, Nathan Weaver.
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