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Most of what we know about bullying comes from the schoolyard. There is a broad body of research on the subject and it’s being discussed more and more in the media, including in public service announcements about how to teach kids to stick up for picked-on classmates. About one-third of people report being bullied as a child with about five to 10 percent reporting being severely victimized.
Kids can be cruel, but bullying is not a strictly childhood phenomenon. Many adults report being bullied at work, and the net effect of these toxic behaviors can leave us feeling humiliated, ashamed, embarrassed, intimidated and even depressed. Bullying is intentional hostility or aggression that is repeatedly directed at a target person who is usually less powerful than the bully. The hostilities can be emotional or physical, and the acts toward the target are done to coerce, intimidate or gain and maintain power. The topic of bullying in the workplace is a relatively new area of research (though, surely, people have been bullying each other for as long as they’ve worked together), but it is one that is growing rapidly.
Recognizing a Bully
Most simply, if you are repeatedly tormented and singled-out for intimation by a person who is trying to gain and use power over you, or to simply wear you down and frustrate you, then you’re being bullied.
If, on the other hand, your boss is simply a mean person and yells at you and everyone else quite a lot (like in "The Devil Wears Prada"), this is likely not bullying. It’s not always black or white; the line of what is and isn’t bullying can become very blurred (like in the movie "9 to 5").
Let’s assume, for the sake of discussion, that it is your immediate supervisor who’s after you. This woman, let’s call her Fran, is jealous of your performance. You’re far out-pacing her productivity when she was in your position, and it’s clear upper management has you on the radar for a promotion, perhaps even before Fran.
What does Fran do that’s so bad? Well, for starters, she always gives you assignments at about 4:45 p.m., right before it’s time to quit for the day. These assignments are always urgent, and they often come on Friday afternoons.
Fran also undermines you in public. She puts you down in subtle ways in front of others (“I liked your presentation at the meeting—I barely even noticed when you misreported those sales numbers.”), then explodes on you in emails, calling your ideas stupid and your choices unprofessional. On several occasions she has had the gall to lament about why you don’t treat her better, suggesting you’re not a team player. When other people are around, she sometimes supports your ideas, but everyone can sense her true feelings and your co-workers have even started to ask you why she dislikes you so much.
Having Fran as a boss makes going to work really stink. You love what you do but you hate your work environment. She’s got it out for you, and you’re overwhelmed by the sense that she’s not going to stop until you crack down the middle.
Does it sound like I know your bully? I have some personal experience with workplace and schoolyard bullying, and it’s true that one of the worst parts about it is feeling trapped, like there’s no way out of the situation.
Putting an End to the Abuse
When I was in elementary school, I was bullied quite a lot. I was a chubby kid and my nickname at school was Saucy, short for Sausage. I remember one day some bullies took my shoes and played “keep away” as I ran around trying to get them back. After being taunted and taunted, I just quit, got down on the ground, and pretended I broke my leg chasing them.
In fifth grade, I started growing faster than almost anyone else. I hit puberty early and was stronger than a lot of the other kids. Finally, the day came when I decided I had enough of the school bully. When he came to work me over for the millionth time, I punched him right in the face. I did a preemptive strike, laid him out, and that was that. I was not bullied again.
That tactic might work fine on the playground, but I do not advise punching your bully’s lights out in the break room. When the bully is your boss or manager, you can’t simply “stand up” to him or her, because doing so means you’ll either lose your job or this approach will make matters worse (read: pouring gas on the fire). Instead, here’s what I suggest you do:
First, know your rights. Most workplaces have clear policies about harassment. These policies outline the steps you can take to make complaints and initiate changes. (I am not saying you should do so yet, but the first step is to learn about the actions you can take.) If you wanted to talk with someone in Human Resources, find out who you can go to. (Please don’t tell me it’s your bully!)
Second, document, document, document. Make a list of all the ways Fran is undermining your efforts. Make sure to keep track of who else observed her act this way (including who “observed” her email actions) and when possible use direct quotes, or copy and paste from emails that contain the behaviors in question. In order to demonstrate that Fran is bullying you, the burden is on you (unfortunately) to show a clear and consistent pattern of intimidation, and to demonstrate that you are the specific target.
Third, who are your friends? When we deal with stressful events, there’s no doubt that friends can help. Tell your friends what’s up—share your thoughts and feelings with the people you trust. When you do so, you want to talk about how you’re being impacted by the event, but you also want to get advice on at least two key questions. For one, is this real? Am I over-reacting, or does Fran really seem to have it out for me? Secondly, what would you do if you were me? Ask for practical, solution-focused support from your friends to help you get new ideas.
Fourth, go see Fran. Don’t do it reactively after one of her attacks, but do it proactively when the water is calm. One way to be strategic is to use what’s called a “one-down” approach in which you talk with Fran in a very deferential manner. Remember, you’re trying to get her off your back, not convince her she’s a bully. Be specific and be direct, for example, “Fran, thanks for meeting with me. I want to talk about my work assignments. I know you’re so swamped with everything and that there’s a lot of important stuff happening, but I feel like my assignments often come right at the end of the day and sometimes even at the end of the week, which makes planning anything really difficult when we’re on a deadline. Is there a way we could work things out to solve this problem? I hate to ask this of you because you’re the boss, but I am hoping we can think of a good solution together.”
Fifth, repeat step four. I don’t mean this to be coy or even funny, but I assume that change won’t come quickly. The next time Fran gives you a work assignment at 4:45 p.m., ask her about it directly and ask her if there’s any way it can be delayed given your earlier conversation.
If the first five steps fail to make any improvement in your situation, I have two final suggestions. The sixth step is to return to Fran once again and to be even more direct (as direct as you can be without getting fired). Proceed cautiously as you think about what to do; once you go this route, there’s no turning back. Try this: “Thanks for seeing me again, Fran. I was hoping things would change based on our earlier conversations, but I feel like perhaps things have gotten a bit worse. Here’s the deal: I feel like you really don’t like me, and that I’ve done something to offend you in a pretty fundamental way. As a result, I think you’re angry at me most of the time and that you try to make it clear to me how you feel quite a lot. So, I am here to find out why you’re so upset with me and what we can do to make it better.”
After you say your piece, just stop. Listen. What does Fran have to say? She’s going to do one of two things. She’ll either tell you that you’re crazy and chew you out even more, of if she has any brains whatsoever, she’ll back the hell down. If she goes crazy, proceed immediately to the next step. If she finally hears you—perhaps only after you give her a glimpse of the evidence—then there’s a real chance for some change. Now, you’re in the driver’s seat.
Last step: Go over Fran’s head. Most workplaces take these kinds of issues very seriously, and you need to remember that Fran has a lot to lose by continually harassing you. Think about the best person to speak to. If you go over her head but find an ineffective leader, you risk making her even more upset. Once you start up the chain of command, you need to go as far up as needed until you find someone who will be a real ally. You need Fran’s boss to indicate to her directly that anything short of a complete change of attitude is unacceptable.
Find someone who can sit you both down together and help you air your grievances, then set a plan for moving forward. Remember, as much as you want Fran to suffer, you goal is simply to get her off your back and get on with your work. If there’s a way for Fran’s boss to help “solve” the situation without actually punishing her, this would be best. It won’t fulfill your sense of cosmic justice or need for revenge, but it will lead to more harmony, and that’s the most important thing in the end.
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