Bullying in the Workplace

Physical bullying at school, as depicted in th...

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A report in The West Australian newspaper yesterday (Page 7, Wednesday June 8 2011) stated that ‘bullying and discrimination are still rife in the workplace’ and that ‘Almost a third of the 5100 workers surveyed claimed to have been bullied at work’ with more than 1 in 10 having said that ‘they had been the victim of systemic workplace abuse or intimidation’.

Unfortunately, this doesn’t surprise me.  This is why I thought I’d share part of my story, as ‘bullying’ can be atypical, and it can really sneak up on you, catching you unawares.

So here goes…

It’s strange that at the pinnacle of my career I could fall victim to bullying. I presume that this is what we call the tall poppy syndrome? When someone is doing something good, and is happy, then they obviously need to be bought down a peg or two. We see it in the cricket, in the football – Aussie culture? I certainly hope not!

After a hard slog in a male dominated team, with a serious lack of training (training? What was that?), high workloads, insane deadlines and politics galore, I was fortunate enough to win 2 company awards – the prizes being right up my alley (a travel voucher and a junket to a tropical getaway for a get together with other successful people within the company to listen to inspirational speakers). It was funny that even though I was excellent at what I did, and had great respect from customers and stakeholders alike, I had struggled with my confidence for years. I mean, my average scorecard was 10/10, and I still had confidence issues… Sudden, unexpected recognition just blew me away – I was astounded by the reactions of my associates and customers and had a sudden surge in confidence.

Of course, there is always a flip side to the story. The days, weeks and months following turned into hell at work. First, the cold shoulders and what I called ‘death glares’, followed by the snickering and gossiping. Then the team meetings – people could not talk to me without feeling the wrath from certain offenders, I couldn’t talk without getting eye rolls. I couldn’t even tell my team about the junket I had been on to share the inspiration I had gained from some amazing people, due to having to tread on egg shells. I could have handled all of those things, but then came the attempts to discredit my work, my reputation and my personality. ‘She slept her way to the top’, ‘It’s because she dresses the way she does’, ‘She’s on with all of her male colleagues’. (Now I’ve worded them all so very nicely so as not to offend but you can get the gist!!!). And some people believed them (not everyone, thankfully).

I had seen things like this happen to other successful women in the workforce, but it still came as a surprise. Perhaps it was my new-found confidence? Thinking back on it now I admit this story goes back a few more years, from when I was the shy, retiring type starting work, to when I started taking pride in my appearance, dressing in suits, doing my hair, wearing make up, talking and excelling and whatever it was I did! The rumours and innuendo probably started then. Disappointingly, it was all from women (I think that’s a whole new blog in itself!).

There were so many ways I could have handled this, and admit that exhaustion from the job did contribute to my ability to deal with the situation – but that also gave me clarity.

Some of the steps I took to deal with the issue were:

– I discussed the issues, how I was feeling, possible ways to deal with it with my Manager, and other trusted Managers;
– Attempted to discuss with the ring-leader;
– Discussed with my ‘friends’ at work (most of who had left by then – which perhaps symbolised some bigger issues in the greater company at the time – who backed me up to anyone they heard ‘dissing’ me;
– I tried blocking it out as ‘ignorance was bliss’;
– Just tried to not care.
– I didn’t feel like I could report anything. How can you substantiate gossip?

In the end I made the hardest, and easiest decision I had to make in a long time – I quit. I think what helped me to this decision was the realisation that sometimes you cannot change people, a place or a culture, and I had done all I could do there. I needed to be around people who were like me. I needed to look after myself.

I admit that I have still not found the right place for me, and have gone through a few more interesting ‘experiences’ since then, BUT I will never regretted the decision I made to leave when I did.


31 thoughts on “Bullying in the Workplace

  1. I discussed this, briefly, in my BornStoryteller blog: we address Bully issues in schools, but we don’t look at the even larger problem: the adult bullies. They are all over. Since my field is in education, you would not believe the level of bullying that goes on in schools: and I’m talking Principal to teachers, teachers to teachers, and the parent/teacher equation.

    Practice what you preach.

    Good luck Janine.

    • I’ll check it out and refresh my memory Stuart.
      I must admit it isn’t a surprise as I have 2 friends who are teachers, and from personal experience when at school I had the pleasure of being told I wasnt smart enough by a teacher and told to reconsider what I wanted to do as I wouldn’t go far…hmmm

  2. Thanks for sharing your story. I, too, have experienced bullying. Only in hindsight did I realize I was being “bullied”. If I could have named it back then, I might have been able to at least “call it out”.

    My first instance of someone trying to bully me occurred after working 20 years in the corporate world. I went to work for my church so that I could have time to care for my terminally ill parents. This meant coming in at support level. As I think about your situation and mine, I realize that I came into the situation with a higher skill set then almost anyone on staff. After 2 1/2 years on staff and the death of my parents, I was moved out of a support role and into a management role. Having control over my work and the team, I began excelling. Then, bullying began from the leadership team.

    At the time, I made the decision to leave I told people I had “lost my voice” with leadership. There was no longer any value in my staying. I attributed their bad behavior to ignorance of how to properly manage staff.

    I hear so many stories of people being bullied by bosses and co-workers. It leaves me feeling like it is an epidemic. Most people won’t report it. And if they do, there is no clear definition of it or legal consequence. At least, that is in the USA.

    thanks, Elaine

    • Hi Elaine, Thanks so much for sharing your story with myself and the other readers. I think more people need to do this in order to highlight the situation. I know a lot of people who just sit there and take it and it’s so incredibly sad and the impact of these action effect themselves, yes, but also the others around them, families, company performance, and so on.
      I totally agree with you in calling it an epidemic. It is a very scary thing. At the moment, in Australia, there are some laws – with one recently being introduced in the state of Victoria following a suicide as a result of workplace bullying. I am sad to hear that it got to this, but also hope that this is just the beginning as many companies and people around the world need a wake up call.

      • A friend of mine, who works for one of the many governmental agencies in the US, realized she was being bullied. This inspired her to learn all she could about workplace bullying.

        She has begun an anti-bullying campaign by meeting with small groups of people at work who she thinks are victims of bullying and educating them in how to combat it.

        Most recently, she completed a training and certification in teaching workplace bullying awareness. She gave her first workshop recently. The interesting thing is that people who are bullies don’t see themselves as bullies – even when the behaviors/symptoms are being spelled out for them.

        Are you familiar with the work of Dr. Brene’ Brown? She has conducted research on the connections between shame/vulnerability/empathy. I raise the issue because when they were trying to bully me, one of the tactics was to shame me. I’m a pretty resilient person and refused to allow it. If you Google her name, you will find a lot out there. Here is a link to one the TEDx talks she gave to explain her work – http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=X4Qm9cGRub0

        Something to think about..

        Thanks for holding the conversation.

  3. Janine:
    This is a corporate culture study. Too many firms claim one culture, but nurture another. Some lucky team members are able to cultivate a sub-culture for their group, which can exist for a while.
    It’s a shame for those harmed by the aspects, but the company gets its just rewards by losing the talent they need.

  4. Hello Janine –

    Unfortunately bullying is alive and well in the workplace, in blogging, and all aspects of life. I find the workplace a nasty, ugly environment overall. Of course there are genuine and sincere, hard working individuals trying to do well with equitable and ethical business practices. Those people are far and few between. The majority consists of back-stabbing trouble makers whom are unethical yet preach ethics ethics ethics and lots of other company talk. They live nothing of what they preach. Their actions to not parallel their words. I fully enjoyed your post. 🙂

    • Thanks Charlie for the feedback and comment.
      I have been lucky – within the blogosphere – to have met many genuine, beautiful souls, of which have thankfully uplifted me as I struggle through certain situations in my day job. It is so easy to preach ethics, values, developing a ‘culture’ but unfortunately when a place is rotten to the core (or person/s) there is not a lot you can do – even for those of us that strive to help, make a difference and try and help and change something for the good.

  5. Very good post! I can totally relate to what you describe as I am French AND working in a very male-dominated environment -all of this in the British public sector… I think that you made the right decision when you quit. I might do the same thing. Life is too short! Thanks for sharing!

  6. It is unfortunate that the company lost someone who obviously contributed greatly but identifying that their corporate culture was not in alignment with your core values (or they would have actually done something to address the issue instead of losing you) is an excellent perspective. Sometimes you can help create change and other times, it is an opportunity to make a conscious change.

    Bruce Schneider’s book, Energy Leadership, is an excellent resource I highly recommend. It follows the story of a company on the verge of bankruptcy and how, by bringing an understanding of the kind of engagement occurring between employees helped turn the company around. Good luck finding a place that is a match for you.

  7. Hey Janine,

    I am not surprised. I am many friends who undergo the same thing. Luckily, I have never been a victim of corporate bullying or bullying at workplace. But many of my friends complain that they are victims – maybe a racist comment, an attack on religion or generally some thing that makes them hate going to work even though they like the “work”.

    • Ah it’s so sad Hajra. Yes I have friends who have been through that too. One of my friends was about to go on the pilgrimage to Mecca and before heading off on leave one of the Managers made the entirely insensitive remark ‘was she going to see a stoning’. Needless to say all round there was no respect to him, and thankfully he left not long after that to reek havoc somewhere else. Nasty nasty man.

  8. Janine,

    Thanks for sharing your story. Look and work for organisations that are worthy of your commitment.

    Leaders – create organisations that are worthy of the commitment of the people who work in your organisations. leaders – Do not tolerate the intolerable, as described by janine’s story, else you risk talented people leaving and serving other, more deserving organisations.

    Gary Ryan

  9. Janine,

    Thanks for sharing your story. Folks, look and work for organisations that are worthy of your commitment.

    Leaders – create organisations that are worthy of the commitment of the people who work in your organisations.

    Leaders – do not tolerate the intolerable, as described by Janine’s story, else you risk talented people leaving and serving other, more deserving organisations.

    Gary Ryan

  10. Memories of an unhappy time just flashed through my head. Bullying results from so many causes including power plays. Good on you for getting out. Stories like this help people realise that they have the same challenge. And more and more people suffer because of the pressures and stresses in the work place

  11. I’ve had the same thing happen to me as well. It is definitely not isolated to your location though maybe it IS just with us redheads 😉

    Seriously, bullying is pervasive in our society on every level which is interesting given how – culturally as a whole – we are a much more tolerant world than we were 70 years ago.

    • Interesting indeed Gina. Perhaps it is the increasing stress, faster paced life, drugs, alcohol…I don’t know. And yes us red heads are a bit susceptible to bullying. Sigh.

  12. Hi Janine,
    I can’t pass by a blog like this because of its subject matter. I’ve had those sort of problems in the past too. I’ve made amazing progress in the last couple of years. I have some questions to ask you: –
    1. You mentioned that you secretly had low confidence. Is that still the case? The reason I ask is because somehow, predators of bullying have a way of sub consciously finding people with low confidence, even when it is not overt.
    2. To what effect does you previous experience affect you now? I’m wondering if the experience has re-inforced self limiting beliefs.
    3. Have you thought about forgiving those that hurt you? It’s a tough one but very powerful in releasing the burden.
    To quite a large degree, I’ve overcome much of my self esteem and confidence issues by choosing the way I think. That has very much changed the attitude of other around me. I’ve written quite a bit about victimhood, confidence and forgiveness just recently on my blog.
    To conclude, I’ve come to realize that bullying will always go on. It is how we deal with it and how we move on that matters. I still have empathy for those that suffer it and I know it is possible to recover.
    Thank you for writing about this very important issue.

  13. Excellent post and insightful look into a newsworthy subject. There’s a lot of talk about bullying at school but bullying in the workplace is largely overlooked. I believe this kind of bullying is often related to jealousy. In your case, you were rewarded and shown certain preference that caused jealousy among co-workers. How many times have you seen/heard people say that so-and-so is making more than they/you are and what did he /she “do” to deserve it?

    I was largely unaware of being bullied though in retrospect, I realize I was many times, mainly because I was a woman in a man’s world. One woman whom I thought was my best friend carried out a covert bullying operation against me, trying and nearly succeeding, to ruin my reputation. I fought back but it was a Pyrrhic victory.

    Perhaps you should consider expanding this into an article. It concerns a very real and contemporary problem in the workplace and more should be written about it.

    • Thanks for providing that seed to my brain Penelope. It is something I have been increasingly concerned with over the last few years and I think I want to turn more of my focus to it in future…isn’t it weird how so-called friends sometimes end up being the instigators!

  14. Thanks so much for this post, Janine. It is so helpful to realise that we aren’t alone. Unfortunately some bullies never grow up (especially women). I know women in their 30s or older who bully like they are still in the playground with their gossiping, exclusion etc.

    A few years I was working as a librarian and there were very few permanent positions available at that stage in that particular library (most people were on contracts) so there were 4 of us fighting for the one permanent job. I was the fortunate one who got the job and that set off a string of incidents with one of the unlucky candidates. She was openly rude to me and when we ended up having to work closely together, she treated me like I was a little kid even though I had more experience in that role (she was middle-aged and I was 23). I started to dread coming to work because of her constant belittling and criticism. What was once an enjoyable job suddenly had all the enjoyment sucked out of it by this one person. I think it’s true that any mundane job can be made more enjoyable when you have great colleagues. But nasty colleagues can make an enjoyable job hell.

    How did it resolve itself? Well after considering going to my manager (but afraid to because the workplace was rife with gossip), the unpleasant colleague got shifted to another department and I thought ‘good riddance’. She ended up coming back to my department a few months later, but she was a completely different person and we ended up getting along really well. I can only describe that as an act of God.

    Racism and sexism has been mentioned here, but I think ageism definitely comes into play with bullying. I’ve been as qualified (or more qualified) than some people I’ve worked with, but they treat me like a kid because they ‘have a daughter my age’ or something like that. It’s very hard for new graduates to get a foot in places and I feel like I’m only taken seriously when they want me to show them something on the computer. So many workplaces pride themselves on equality between staff but that’s a complete lie.

    More posts on this topic are definitely needed.

    • Sorry to hear about your experiences but love what you wrote, especially this: ‘So many workplaces pride themselves on equality between staff but that’s a complete lie’. Here here. I totally agree. And I must admit I too have experienced ageism – not these days, but when I was about 23 also and looked younger. Now it’s progressed from that to sexism and just plain old bullying. Sigh. I’ll take up your challenge of more posts being needed on this topic. A lot to say – I just need the right words : )

  15. Pingback: Looking back through my blog: My 7 Links | Reflections from a Red Head

  16. My feeling as a supervisor is this: if the people you supervise have time to create mayhem at work, then they don’t have enough work to do. And so I give them more to do. To hopefully keep their hands busy and mouths shut. People that are envious and create gossip are usually low in their own self esteem. Anyone who has true self confidence does not see a successful peer as a rival.

    And that’s my two cents worth. You did the right thing. I’ve left jobs for the same reason. Twice. And never regretted it because I finally landed in a company whose philosophy mirrors my own. I feel like I am at home.

    ~cath xo
    @jonesbabie on Twitter

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