NOTE: I am very happy in my current workplace, surrounded by smart people with whom I laugh and think and learn something new every day. Having escaped a very different environment, I write the following for anyone crushed by workplace bullying.
The world is a dangerous place to live; not because of the people who are evil, but because of the people who don’t do anything about it.
~ Albert Enstein
If you have ever been targeted by a workplace bully, especially the kind with significant power or longevity in the organization, your best and only recourse may well have been to leave the situation. The dysfunction fueled by a bully at the top of a hierarchy can fester for years, over the course of an entire career sometimes, because it might actually take that long for her, or him, to be exposed, if at all. Then there is the arduous but essential task of breaking apart and transforming the toxic culture that can languish even after the bully is long gone.
Picture that person, behind the scenes, behind your back, charming and affable, while at the same time manipulating others. With just the right combination of cunning and coercion, the bully will have them believing that you are difficult, a trouble-maker, an upstart. Who do you think you are with all your questions about the way things are done around here? Those who have been enchanted by such deception cannot bring themselves to believe that this person would ever in a million years be “the destroyer” you have come to fear. Thus, you begin to denigrate yourself, perhaps wrapping yourself in a cloak of self-doubt that grows heavier with every joyless hour you spend there.
Although the two are often compared, this bullying is a very different phenomenon from that of being bullied as a child at school. In the Three Faces of Bullyling, Dr. Janice Harper urges us to be mindful that within the context of school, “the instigators of the aggression are children, and the enforcers of policy are adults who are not under the authority of the children whose behaviors they control.” When a child reports bullying, the adult who successfully intervenes is not likely to be punished; further, the adult is much better positioned to change or stop the bad behavior than she would be in the workplace.
As an adult employee, if you have ever reported a bully in your workplace, especially if that bully holds a position of power, you should know that what comes next is probably some form of retaliation and reprisal, usually with the tacit approval of others that may include high level managers, board members, even Human Resources. And, when bullying deteriorates into mobbing at this level, your goose is essentially cooked.
Bullying, mobbing, workplace abuse – the current nomenclature that exists around the phenomenon of workplace bullying is vast and confusing. Consider the alphabetized list of terms Laura Crawshaw puts forth to describe what really is a monster by any other name:
“Abuse, abusiveness, aggression, bullying, bullying/mobbing, counterproductive workplace behavior, emotional abuse, emotional harassment, employee emotional abuse, generalized workplace abuse, harassment, hostile workplace behavior, maltreatment, mistreatment, mobbing, nonphysical aggression, nonsexual harassment, non–status-based harassment, psychological abuse, psychological aggression, psychological harassment, psychological terror, scapegoating, status-blind bullying, status-conscious bullying, unlawful bullying, vexatious behavior, workplace abuse, workplace aggression, workplace harassment, workplace hostility, workplace incivility, workplace psychological violence.”
I am no psychologist, and while I may not fully grasp the nuance of each, I would bet all of them wield psychological harm, and ironically do so, with increasing frequency, in places where you might least expect it. According to the United Nations-sponsored International Labor Office (ILO) “the caring professions,” those once regarded as sheltered from workplace bullying, are reporting higher numbers of bullying incidents. Places like schools, hospitals, social work agencies, churches even. But without a common language, how do we address the problem appropriately?
In the course of my own career in one of the caring professions, I can point to a few seminal moments where the momentum of collective aggression against me was such that I could literally feel what was left of my professional identity begin to crumble around me. There were days when I felt that Joe McCarthy himself was alive and well and possibly even managing my personnel file. But not at first. I missed many of the red flags that I was being targeted and that regardless of recognition in my field by colleagues locally and nationally, I may as well have been a piece of lint on clothing. Persona non grata.
Why are certain people targeted? Why would you be a target? Perhaps, unwittingly, you pose a threat to a bully boss. It is not necessarily a matter of simply being disliked because of your hair, your personality, or what you might have worn to the staff party. It has more to do with the perception of threat. Perhaps you are more skilled, more accomplished, and a boss may fear being overshadowed. There are certain organizational cultures that are highly conducive to bullying or “mobbing,” which happens when someone with power tells others in their circle of influence that they want an employee out of the organization. For convenience, we’ll call that certain someone-with-power, Chief. The decision made, the wagons circle, and the whispered conversations begin – rippling out in concentric circles. In secret meetings, you will invariably be re-characterized as difficult, a trouble maker, negative, or some combination of all three, and therefore, you must go. Sadly, well-meaning Chief supporters who might also be staunch supporters of the larger mission of the organization, will be easily led to believing the target is the problem, not the Chief – The Chief Instigator. Hard to believe, but sometimes, even though it my be grossly unfair or even illegal, Chief will do whatever it takes to reinforce what is becoming a widely shared negative perception of the target. This may include flat-out lying, gossip, trumped-up allegations of misconduct, investigations, rumors, and innuendo. The target, by this point, is essentially alone.
Mobbing, once it starts, is the quintessential runaway train. By the time folks are well and truly ensnared within it, they are unlikely to see the extent to which their perceptions of the target have been shaped and twisted. Don’t be surprised when you see them beat their chests, feeling fully justified in their criticism or condemnation of a target, reduced now to a fearful, paranoid, emotional wreck. Worn down. Worn out. Down and out. Out of options, out of hope, and not sure whom to trust. Bystanders tend to stand by, afraid to jeopardize their own standing or their position in the workplace. If you have been bullied, how many bystanders stood up to provide an eyewitness account of the bullying to those in power? They are afraid to lose their own jobs; they are afraid the bully will turn on them; and, so they are afraid to help you.
On that, I am drawn once again to Seamus Heaney, who, in ”Punishment” evokes a young woman who has been shorn, stripped, and killed. A primitive, barbaric act which he juxtaposes with the ‘tarring and feathering’ punishments of young Catholic women who were romantically involved with British soldiers stationed in Northern Ireland. Knowing, like the other lookers-on, he would not have spoken out against her punishment, he tells the dead woman:
My poor scapegoat, I almost love you, but would have cast, I know the stones of silence.
This, the greatest lesson of my life, I have applied to all manner of situations, and today has me thinking about a morning over forty years ago in my home-town, Antrim, Northern Ireland. As a child, I was a recalcitrant student in P.E. and when I could, I would convince my mother to write a note to get me out of it. For a time, I remember our class going to a local sports complex, Antrim Forum, where we played a variety of sports – tennis, hockey, badminton, squash, and swimming, all of which held absolutely no appeal for me.
Swimming was my least favorite. We freckle-faced girls with arms and legs hanging so pale and awkward from our swimming costumes, and the pre-pubescent boys in our class, scrawny and splashing each other, their upper bodies wet and white as paper. We all entered the pool as quickly as we could, eager not to swim, but to hide our embarrassment, from the neck down, below the surface of the water.
There was a boy in our class who suffered from psoriasis. I remember his name, but I did not know him. All these years later, I can picture him clearly, his tender young skin covered in thick red misshapen patches that often looked inflamed and sore as the skin flaked away on to his shoulders. I remember some boys taunted him with a cruel nickname, while I said nothing.
On that morning at the swimming pool, most of our class was in the water by the time the boy emerged from the locker area in his royal blue swimming trunks. As he stepped towards the edge of the pool, and before he entered the water, we all moved quickly away to the opposite side. Separated by the entire width of the pool, all of us quiet, we allowed that young embarrassed boy to stand on the edge, shivering on the cold tile, his torso, arms, and legs covered in great red patches of flaking skin that repelled the rest of us. At the time, I knew I was wrong to have gone with the flow against him and moved away.
I was ashamed, but still I said nothing. I averted my eyes and cast the stones of silence.
A young university student asked me today if I had any regrets, looking back over my fifty years. Without hesitation, I told him about the boy with psoriasis and how I had treated him. I had been a bystander who could have been kind, but chose instead to follow the mob. If there is one moment I could take back, that would be it.