Work Place Bullying – The Hidden Abuse
Numerous articles cite statistical data on work place bullying. What they appear to lack is the frontline experience of abuse victims. This post is different. It shall outline the nature of victims real life attacks, its impact on their lives and most importantly whether current anti-bullying policies in use by employers is effective and appropriate.The majority of adults have experienced work place bullying of one sort or another. It can take several forms, from verbal and physical abuse, intimidation, subtle grooming and humiliation to overt and covert violence. Ever had a colleague criticize your work when it was clearly unwarranted or mocked you in front of others, all in the name of ‘having a bit of fun’? Perhaps its just the rolling of their eyes at the apparent silliness of a comment you made? Whatever form it takes, the result is always the same – damage to the victim. The more the exposure, the deeper the wound. Perhaps we should listen to what our peers or elders might say. Namely, deal with it and be a ‘Man’ or indeed a ‘Woman’. Workplace bullying is not gender specific, it cuts through all levels of the social stratum. It matters little if one is rich, poor, skinny or fat, young or old, inept or highly intelligent. So why state the ‘bleeding obvious’? Because, bullying affords power to the offender. It provides a temporary ‘high’ in venting their own self-loathing on others. This often results in helping them to feel better about themselves. If one imagines an office employee as a lit match, try to see a bullies attack as likened to a puff of wind. No sooner does it hit the match, than it outs the flame and all that is left is a lifeless piece of wood. This is the unfortunate employee – disempowered, unproductive and lost. Lets hear the real life stories of 3 former employees, from vastly different industries. With their permission, l have re-edited their stories to fit this article.
Mark, 35 years old, University Post Graduate, Out-going, well rounded individual, single but in a long term relationship. Employed in the Hospitality Industry at middle management level for 5 years. Generally liked by staff.
“I used to enjoy my job for the first 3 years, until a new colleague joined the team. From the outset, she struck me as friendly, easy going and efficient. I befriended her within the first few days of starting. As expected, she was reserved around the office until she got a proper grasp of the team dynamic. It was then that the trouble started. On the 3rd week, she began to drop uncomplimentary comments about certain team members through the medium of humor, while simultaneously aligning herself to the more vocal and dominant members of the office. Overnight this started to create a rift between staff, and as time progressed, it worsened. By week 5, one could feel tension in the air. Normal office banter was replaced by whispering, sniggering and conversations that were often cut short, when specific team members entered the room. It was as though, the harmonious atmosphere that once existed, was vacuumed out the window, never to return. This was when her attention turned on me. One Wednesday morning, she made the following comment in front of a fully staffed office, ‘Mark, why is it that you use words in conversation, when you don’t even know what they mean?’ This generated giggles from staff around the room, while l was lost for words. I pretended to find the comment funny and giggled, and then returned to my computer, as if l were pre-occupied with my work. The following day she was working alongside me at my desk (not my choice), and commented in a low voice ‘Mark, will you please use normal words when you type? No-one will understand what you’ve written’. In trying to defend myself verbally, she brushed off my comment ‘No-one ever complained about it before’, with ‘Thats because they probably didn’t want to offend you.’ By this stage, l found myself questioning what l was saying, writing and even how l was behaving, in the office. These are only two examples of hundreds that were dropped by this individual over time. As a result, I went from being outspoken, friendly and accessible, to reserved, cautious, highly anxious and inhibited. Anything wrong that happened in the office, was automatically my fault, or that is how l felt at the time. I found myself apologising for everything and nothing. Such was the general level of office tension that a simple greeting of good morning from colleagues, was met with silence, which further aggravated the way l felt about myself. Unfortunately, this colleague, whilst destroying the atmosphere of our open plan office, had managed to ingraciate herself with our Line Manager and Area Manager. In their eyes, she could do nothing wrong and no-one had the strength of conviction to make a complaint against her. Within 3 months, 11 office staff out of 16 were actively looking for a new job. My private life was in tatters. This bully, had managed to destroy the self esteem, brick by brick. of 11 staff, through the use of rolling her eyes, silence when a conversation was struck up, making disparaging comments about each staff member who wasnt part of her group, etc. The list goes on and on. For myself, l was left with a sense of terror on entering the office each morning. My normal sleeping pattern was gone, l was constantly in a state of panic and was suffering from depression. I was advised by an outside party to get help from my Union, to sort matters, and to my despair, the options open to l and my colleagues were too dire to contemplate. A year later, l resigned from my job on health grounds and am now unemployed. Three of my colleagues are in a similar position and the two that have remained, are a shell of their former selves. Both have lost their relationship with their partner citing stress from this bully as the root cause”.
Christine, 49, Payroll Officer, 12 years in the Motor Industry. Quiet, reserved in nature, married with 3 teenage children.
“I loved my job. There was always great craic and nobody took life too seriously. We just did what we were paid to do and went home at 5.30pm. That was until 2 years ago, when my boss handed the business over to his Son. Overnight, he transformed the company for the worse. One minute he was friendly and considerate as a boss, the next, he would turn on you with the foulest of tempers. On a particular Wednesday, l made the mistake of calling to his office to ask for a document. Without turning his head from his desk, he pointed at a cabinet to the left and muttered that ‘its in there’. I searched and when l couldn’t find it, l told him so. His response was to jump up, grab me by the arm and bring me back to the cabinet, where he showed me the document l needed. As this was happening, he said ‘Oh for fucks sake, are you blind? You stupid bitch, its there – look !!!’. I took the document and ran back to my desk in a state of shock. A week later, l found out that he had thrown a full Lever Arch File at a colleague out of anger. Over a period of 6 months, he went through 5 receptionists, all of whom resigned either on the first day of working or within a week. It wasnt uncommon for him to routinely check that people were in their offices when they were supposed to be. If by chance, they weren’t, they were frequently chastised in front of other staff, for what seemed to be, his amusement. Matters came to a head, when his bullying towards temporary staff, moved up a gear. In desperation, members of staff went to two separate employment law solicitors for advice. In each case we were told that new staff who wish to make a complaint, could only do so, after 12 months of continuous employment. As for the rest of us, we could complain, but the process to follow, would be fraught with problems. For one, we didn’t have enough proof to back up, most of our allegations etc. In the end, many staff resigned, including myself. Those who stayed on, say that he has eased back on bullying, but he still attacks junior staff as the mood takes him. Senior staff are not experiencing as much difficulty. While l now have a new job, a good employer and colleagues around me, l still shudder at the slightest raised voice. This man has left me with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and it has placed a huge strain on my family life. I doubt, if lll ever be able to get my life back to the way it was”.
Alan, 32 years old, Post Graduate, working in the Public Sector (Education). Married, one child. out-going, shy, charismatic, sports orientated in nature.
“I started work in the Public Sector 10 years ago. While my job held a lot of responsibility and was clearly stressful, it was nevertheless enjoyable. I worked in a large city centre, open plan office with 18 other colleagues for over 8 years before a new colleague was recruited. As l was charged with his induction, l befriended him within a matter of days. Over the space of a year, we became close colleagues and even socialized together on staff nights out. From this time, l began to notice how he would nit-pick small errors l’d make. As l had few friends, l started to worry that my behaviour (though l was doing nothing wrong), might cause him to fall out with me and before long, l began to alter my working behavior accordingly, so as not to cause offense. It wasnt long before, l was craving his attention, but not in a manner that would draw the interest of others. Id often have lunch with him and to my dismay, he would routinely remain silent and leave me with bouts of awkwardness at the table. First, l thought it was because, l had invited him for lunch and he might have felt obliged when he clearly wanted to be elsewhere. But that was wrong. For he often invited me for lunch and treated me in the same awkward manner. On a daily basis, he would praise and encourage me in my job and in a instant turn critical, cold and downright vicious. Having endured this misery for over 1.5 years, my mind was in turmoil. I went from being an easy-go-lucky guy, who was upbeat in mood, to an emotionally messed up individual whose self esteem was on the floor. I couldnt think straight. I was overly self critical and negative and more importantly, my work was suffering. His behavior towards me was best likened to a hot and cold water tab. Eventually matters got so out of hand, that l was terrified to be in his company incase he would chastise me over something trivial. While he never bullied me in a manner that others could see, he did so, by meddling with my emotions. When l eventually mustered up the courage to tell him to stop, his bullying increased considerably. Anything I’d do, would trigger a major burst of anger from him but never in public. Eventually when l sought help from Senior Management, l was given grievance procedures to follow. By this stage, l was emotionally and psychologically incapable of filling out a form, much less, meet with the individual and HR to resolve the issues he created. In the end, l had no choice but to resign due to a complete mental breakdown. I am now unemployed and have been so shattered by this individuals grooming, that its unlikely that lll ever be in a position to work again. It was only in the past 2 years that a former colleague acknowledged that he was also groomed and bullied by this person. The person concerned, resigned sooner than l, and struggles to hold down a job at present”.
While these represent the experiences of 3 separate individuals, it cannot describe in full, how bullying continues to destroy their lives.
In researching for this Post – l’m continually disturbed by the frightening manner in which bullying in the work place, is addressed by management. In the majority of cases, staff are encouraged to attend an informal meeting with their manager and the alleged bully to resolve their problems. Indeed the victim can even be encouraged to bring a Union Representative and/or a member of HR for support. Failing that, the alleged victim can complete a Grievance Procedure Form. Some may see this as reasonable and fair, but is it? Those who were gracious enough to share their experience of bullying, do not agree. Many people contend when bullying becomes so severe, over time, that the alleged victim is plagued with major anxiety disorder, any intervention via a three-way meeting with the perpetrator is wholly inappropriate. The victim needs genuine support, and certainly should NOT, to be placed in an anxiety provoking environment, where they are expected to speak their mind. Some might say ‘What about the rights of the alleged perpetrator?’ Well, l have no issue with the need to ensure that they are treated fairly. How both groups can be accommodated in the first instance is difficult to determine. However, l do suggest that every attempt should be made to reduce the stress of the alleged victim. If it means, that a suitably trained HR staff member acts as an intermediary between both groups without placing them in the same room – than so be it. Likewise those alleged victims who are clearly suffering from significant anxiety disorder, should be kept away from a potentially abusive work environment which is triggering anxiety in the first place. Thats assuming that they seek such an intervention. Sadly in these times, Management are often reluctant to take this action citing a myriad of reasons for not doing so. Given the seriousness of work place bullying – a company should adopt a pro-active approach at all times. Afterall, it is better to shut the door with the horse inside, rather than after it’s bolted down the proverbial road. Many staff disagreements and disputes can be resolved in the manner currently in place. However, and l apologise for repeating myself, it is not suitable to apply it to situations where long term bullying is suspected. So how would an employer know if a case of alleged bullying is severe enough to warrant the separation of an alleged victim or bully? This question, Im inclined to leave with the reader.
- What are the dangers of second-hand bullying? (metronews.ca)
- Twitter hides bullies but empowers their victims (abc.net.au)
- Workplace Bullying Quite Common (usdailyreview.com)
- Do Nurses Eat Their Young? What’s Wrong With Communication in Health Care? (kdhhealthcomm.wordpress.com)
- 5 Steps for Handling a Workplace Bully (money.usnews.com)
- Adult that get bullied by bullies (livingforum.wordpress.com)
- There is no Cure for the Sociopath (spreadinformation.wordpress.com)
- Dealing With WorkPlace Bullying (terkinn.wordpress.com)