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What Workplace Bullying Looks Like and How You Can Take Back Your Power

It's a common, but overlooked part of workplace culture that leads to a toxic work environment for employees.

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Workplace bullying is on the rise and the recent NBC scandal with Gabrielle Union shows nobody, regardless of status, is exempt from experiencing it. A reported 96% of Americans are bullied at work. The most shocking part is, according to a survey Joseph Grenny and David Maxfield, co-authors of Crucial Conversations and Influencer, were astonished to learn “the person most likely to remain in his or her job was the bully.”

The survey also discovered 89% of bullies have been at it for more than a year and some have continued in the same job bullying for 30 years. Companies are losing millions to turnover and poor customer experiences due to bullying, yet fail to hold them accountable for fear of losing what they bring to the table, experience-wise.

If you’re in a workplace where you’re being bullied, know you’re not alone. I understand how destructive it can be. You feel like something is wrong with you and you’re the problem. Your confidence deteriorates and you’re too embarrassed to tell anyone what you’re going through. 

People bully because they’re insecure, intimidated and feel threatened by you. The problem with bullying is, very few report it when they witness it and even though there are policies in place, they’re rarely enforced. Bullies aren’t being held accountable and therefore emboldened.

As a human resources professional, I’ll be the first one to admit, HR is broken and it’s my mission to call it out and change it for the better. I was bullied by my manager in my department and I felt alone, confused and embarrassed. I tried to confide in others but they either justified it as “that’s just the way she is” or shied away from the topic completely. Before I’d get on calls with her, my anxiety would consume me. 

Her bullying impacted every area of my life. I wasn’t sleeping, I was emotional binge eating, my confidence deteriorated and I was living on eggshells. My bully made comments about where I grew up, my food allergies, she stalked my social media accounts to make comments about my personal life and she purposefully withheld necessary information and provided me with incorrect information so I couldn’t do my job properly.

Despite her attempts to try to take me down and push me out of the company, I figured out a way to get the correct information and do my job right. She didn’t take kindly to that and created a very hostile environment for me threatening me to choose between quitting or getting fired. It took me a bit to bounce back and I realize that’s not the case for everyone.

I’ve since been using my platform to bring awareness to this because there are too many people who are too embarrassed to speak up. Here are some things I’ve learned along the way and what you should start doing today if you’re in a situation where you’re being bullied.

Signs You’re Being Bullied

Bullying is an imbalance of power to harm or control others. It’s a pattern of mistreatment that makes you feel humiliated, belittled, insulted and not good enough, to name a few. Steph Korey, the now-former CEO of Away, a luggage startup, recently made headlines for abusing her power and fostering a toxic work environment. Korey abused the company valued to micromanage, bully and punish her employees. All the while, on the outside she portrayed perfect leadership through a Ladder interview and a self-published article on Inc.

Here are some examples of bullying:

  • Being yelled and/or cursed at
  • Isolated/excluded from meetings or activities
  • Offensive jokes that specifically target you or a group
  • Spreading malicious gossip or rumors
  • Intruding on your privacy 
  • Withholding necessary information or intentionally giving the wrong information
  • Threatening abuse or being physically abused
  • Setting you up to fail with impossible deadlines/constantly changing work guidelines
  • Intimidation
  • Blocking your applications for a promotion, training or leave
  • Enduring persistently or constant criticizing
  • Tampering with your personal belongings or work equipment

This is by no means a conclusive list, but it gives you an indication of bullying in the workplace looks like. Just because I didn’t list an example of what you’re going through doesn’t mean it’s not a form of bullying.

Start Documenting Everything

It’s vital you start keeping a record of every incident and comment to help strengthen your case. You never know what will happen and it’s better to be prepared. Looking back, I wish I would’ve documented everything. I learned my lesson the hard way and that’s why I’m writing this post to help you. Here are some things you should document:

  • The date and time 
  • Who is mistreating you
  • What were they doing or saying/Describe the situation in as much detail as possible
  • Where did it happen
  • Was anyone else there
  • How did it make you feel

Additionally, if there were text messages, emails or communication channels (i.e. Slack) messages, print them out immediately as evidence.

Review Your Workplace Policy

When you started at the company, you should’ve received an employee handbook that explains the company policies. If not, reach out to HR and ask them what the policy is. If you’re afraid to ask about the specific policy around bullying, ask for a copy of the employee handbook. It’s your right to have one

Your employee handbook will give you an idea of what protocols are in place for bullying and who you should talk to. I also recommend learning more about the Employee Assistance Program (EAP). This is a completely confidential program that is employer-paid to help you with anything you’re going through. Anything you talk about will not be reported back to your manager. I wrote an article for you to learn more about it here

Report It Higher

It’s important to have a record of specific examples of incidents and/or comments to back up what you’re saying. Providing evidence makes your case stronger. If it’s a colleague bullying you, schedule a meeting with your manager to report it. If it’s your manager, schedule a meeting with HR. If HR fails to do anything, schedule a meeting with their manager or higher.

I know that’s sometimes easier said than done. Especially if your manager is deeply entrenched in the workplace and it’s clear they’re not going anywhere. I’ve seen many people feel like it was a lost cause to go to other people because it would only fuel the fire more. Don’t let that stop you from telling someone.

Refuse To Accept It

I understand how exhausting and stressful this is for you. I know you probably don’t have anything else lined up and you can’t afford to lose this job. However, your mental well-being is more important. Bullying impacts you more than you know.

It not only impacts your sleeping and eating habits, but it affects your relationships with your colleagues, friends and family. It deteriorates your confidence and self-worth and it changes you as a person. Is this really worth it for a paycheck? 

You might have to take on one or a few contract roles to get by, apply for unemployment or you hustle and freelance just to make ends meet. There are options. Be proactive and start looking today. The reality is, someone who is threatened by you is trying to push you out of the organization anyway. If you report it, here are a few ways it can go:

  • You’ll or they will be transferred to another department (that doesn’t really solve anything especially if they have influence over people in other departments or you’ll still have to cross paths with them)
  • You’ll be fired. Yes, this happens more than you think.
  • HR will open an investigation
  • They’ll be fired
  • Nothing happens
  • It gets worse

I can’t say which one is likely to happen, but I will say it’s time to start looking for new positions so you’re prepared for the worst. Start by updating your resume and reaching out to recruiters. Utilize Indeed, LinkedIn and job boards to search for jobs. Reach out to friends, neighbors and family to let them know you’re looking. Freelance sites such as UpWorkPeoplePerHour and Fiverr are easy ways to bring in money. You might struggle a bit in the beginning, but it’s better to struggle than to have your identity stripped of you and your health decline because someone is bullying you.

Take Action And Demand Accountability

A victim of bullying will often remain silent, keeping their head down in hopes of just making it through the workday. This only fuels the bully causing them to escalate. Heather Monahan said it best “when you’re a threat to someone, you’ll always be a target.” NBC may have fired Gabrielle Union but that hasn’t silenced her. It’s time to demand accountability against workplace bullies. There are many organizations that are there to help such as TimesUpNow and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), to name a few.

20% of workplace bullying involves illegal discrimination. Discrimination is based on race, age, color, religion, sex, pregnancy, national origin, or disability. If this is the case, I strongly encourage you to reach out to the EEOC for help. If the situation worsens and you need to seek legal help or are illegal fired, reach out to an attorney.

If you find another position and are offered an exit interview, take it. Be honest about why you left. As an HR professional, I have taken my exit interviews seriously. I can’t speak for every company but it is worth speaking up. Here’s an example of something you can say “I pursued other opportunities because this wasn’t an entirely healthy work environment.” Be prepared to answer additional questions. It’s up to you how much information you want to divulge.

When you’re in a better headspace, you can always circle back and leave a Glassdoor review. Don’t pressure yourself to do so. However, if you do, make sure it’s as helpful as possible for candidates and not used as a diary to vent.

I train and coach managers and executives on positive leadership practices to prevent toxic workplace cultures. The benefits of investing in leadership training or coaching increase profit, retention, productivity, engagement and loyalty. Steph Korey’s example might be an extreme example of some, but bullying is happening in workplaces across the world. It’s my mission to dismantle toxic cultures and teach positive leadership practices so you don’t tarnish your reputation, lose customers and potentially lose your value in the market.

Originally posted on LinkedIn.com

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