Bullied At Work
Forget school bullies, it’s the ones in your office you need to be careful of…
For the most part, work is not meant to be a barrel of laughs. And to borrow a phrase from that great philosopher Tyra Banks, work is not a sorority either. Yet when we don’t get on with the people we spend more time with than anyone else – our colleagues – it has a massively detrimental effect on us. Often the only thing we have in common with co-workers is that we walk on the same bit of office carpet. Yet there comes a point where personal differences spill over into something more sinister.
Adding insult to injury, a dramatic increase in the number of workplace bullying incidents has been blamed on the pressures and tension arising from the global downturn.
Not only has the stress of the recession impacted on how workers manage their emotions, people are also loathe to leave steady, secure jobs in these uncertain times. This, of course, creates a fertile environment for workplace bullies to really thrive.
Given the dominant/submissive dynamic between most bosses and their employees, it’s not surprising to find that bullies are rife in the upper echelons of some offices. And predictably, it’s also a scenario that goes largely unchecked and undetected.
Four years ago, Siobhan (now 32) landed her dream job in a top media firm after years of studying, interning and hard grafting. Her immediate boss had been instrumental in hiring her, and gave her a promotion six months in. However, their relationship turned sour when Siobhan stood up to her.
“We got on great in the at first, but I noticed almost straight away that she consistently bullied this one very quiet girl on our team,” recalls Siobhan. “As with most bullies, she had picked on the meekest – she’d criticise her work in front of other people and say things like, ‘wow, you’re not very assertive, are you?’ In the end I had enough and stood up for the girl and the next thing she went after me.
“My boss started to attack my work, my personal life, my appearance, nothing was off-limits,” she continues. “It was pretty poisonous, and it turned out she was famous in the company for it. She was just a horrible piece of work.”
“Then she started saying things like, ‘I can’t believe I promoted you’, ‘I can’t believe you ever got hired here’, that sort of thing. She tried to plant a mistake on my desk once, to trip me up in front of others. I tried to talk to her, but she wasn’t interested.” It wasn’t long before her turmoil started to creep into the rest of Siobhan’s life. Many bullied workers lose confidence in their work and become unproductive. They often feel anxious, stressed or depressed, and Siobhan was no exception. “When I wasn’t in work, my boss was all I could talk about,” she says. “Thoughts of her consumed my weekend and when it was time to go into work again on Monday morning I felt physically sick.”
Siobhan was left with no choice but to ask for help. “I went to Personnel,” she admits. “Turns out she’d written to them herself trying to get my contract trashed! In the end I was thankfully given some compassionate leave.” Elsewhere, bullying can be a little harder to detect, especially between colleagues or, in one case, when the boss is the one under fire.
Karla, 26, arrived at an advertising firm and found herself promoted over several co-workers who had been there for years. “In the beginning we’d all go out to lunch and things were great, but as soon as I got more responsibility, the lunch invites stopped,” she admits. “I began to ask myself if I was just being hypersensitive, but a couple of the girls started rolling their eyes at my ideas in meetings, and talking among themselves. It then got to a point where I would give them something to do and they would laugh as if to say, ‘yeah, you’ll be waiting’.”
People often feel a need to second-guess themselves if they’re victims of psychological bullying, as it is so subtle. Yet, if you’re being made fun of, or feeling intimidated, this constitutes bullying. Disagreement and conflict happens at most workplaces, however it should never turn into bullying.
If you’ve found yourself at the receiving end of a work terrorist, rest assured you’re not alone. Approximately 90% of cases involve a manager bullying a subordinate; 8% are peer-to-peer bullying, and 2% are subordinate(s) bullying their manager. Approximately 70% of all callers to a bullying helpline in the UK (www.bullyonline.org) are female, while 50% of bullies are female. And more interestingly, over 90% of calls to the helpline involve a serial bully. Irish statistics hint that a quarter of Irish workers claim to have been bullied in the past year and 7% say they’re victimised on a continuous basis.
To tackle the problem, the Task Force on the Prevention of Workplace Bullying has recommended that Ireland’s Labour Relations Commission (LRC) be given powers to hear complaints about bullying and impose sanctions where necessary. According to Ireland’s Health and Safety Authority, bullies who are reported will be investigated.
Of course, this all works well in theory. As it happens, Siobhan’s boss is still working at the company where she terrorised her employee, and has no doubt moved on to her next victim.
“I was the 14th woman in the company to complain about her,” says Siobhan. “A few bosses tried to deal with her but to no avail. In the end I applied for another job within the organisation. The weirdest thing is, she even tried to block that promotion too for some reason.
“My advice to anyone in a similar situation? Don’t leave it too long to complain, and take notes of every single incident,” she adds. “Above all, don’t leave your job. If you do that you’re doing yourself a disservice, and it means that the bullying goes onto another person. Instead, stick it out and succeed. It’s the best revenge.”