What to Do If You’re the Target of Bullying at Work
By the time you realize you’re the target of workplace bullying and mobbing, it’s usually the beginning of the end. The ultimate goal of the bully/mobbing ringleader is to eliminate you from the organization. Unfortunately, most organizations neither acknowledge nor address workplace bullying in a way that protects the target.
In fact, Human Resources and management usually further victimize you by siding with the bully. Unless you can document acts of sexual harassment, racial or religious discrimination, pressure to engage in unlawful activities or discrimination for a physical disability, bullying/mobbing isn’t illegal in most states unless you can tie it to these specific acts of harassment. Therefore, it’s important that you come up with a plan to protect and remove yourself from this unhealthy and stressful work situation.
The following are measures you can take if you’ve become the target of mobbing at work:
1. Assess your professional options. What can you do to protect yourself in the short-term while working on a long-term solution? Do you know people who can connect you with other job opportunities? Do you need to learn new skills to transfer to another department or to seek employment elsewhere?
If management won’t address the problem, you’re going to have to leave or continue to suffer the abuse. Bullies don’t stop until they force you out. Their attacks escalate in severity and in frequency. The more they get away with their behaviors, the more vicious they become.
2. Play it cool. Don’t react with anger at work. Even though your anger is completely justified, don’t blow your top. Find an outside person with whom to vent your frustrations.
A common tactic of bullies is to provoke you into anger in front of co-workers and management. They then pretend like you’re the one who is out of control and hostile, “See. What did I tell you—s/he is uncooperative and people are afraid of him/her.” Of course, they don’t mention the dirty tricks and psychological torture they used to push you into it. They want to destroy your professional reputation. Don’t give them the ammunition to do it.
3. Don’t give your employer “cause.” The bully/mobbing ringleader is looking for reasons to have you terminated, so you have to be beyond reproach. When you’re bullied, you feel demoralized, unappreciated, attacked, and frustrated. Consequently, you lose interest in your job. Your heart just isn’t in it anymore and you let things slide. This is referred to as “presenteeism” or “discretionary effort.” The mindset is, “I’m being mistreated. The company isn’t doing anything about it, so why kill myself working any harder than I have to?”
Try not to do this. Your goal should be to leave your current organization on your own terms. Don’t give them grounds for termination. Demonstrate that in the face of a hostile work environment, you did your best. Once you’ve secured a comparable or better job, let the HR person know exactly what happened during your exit interview. If the company gets enough victims of the bully on record, they might eventually do something about it. The bottom line of any organization is money and recruiting and training new personnel is costly.
4. Create a paper trail. Document everything: dates, times, witnesses, detailed descriptions of their behaviors and events. Send emails describing what’s going on to yourself or a trusted colleague. If you meet with HR, take notes and submit a signed copy for your personnel file.
If your manager or boss is one of the people bullying you and they pressure you to sign a false or unfair performance evaluation or disciplinary action, draft a counter statement explaining your position. Stick to the facts and try to keep anger and emotionality out of it. State that you were made to feel belittled or persecuted. Document that it’s a hostile work environment, which is highly stressful and makes it difficult for you to do your job. Most importantly, keep the original copies and store them in a safe place—i.e., not at work.
5. Get a second opinion. Reality test with a trusted colleague, therapist, coach, or lawyer. One of the most damaging aspects of workplace bullying is gaslighting. You begin to doubt your own perceptions because most of these behaviors are diffuse forms of innuendo, done behind your back or, even worse, if you’re publicly humiliated, the participants deny or minimize how you were treated.
6. Use available resources. Do research on the web. Study your organization’s HR handbook, particularly work grievance and harassment policies. Although, keep in mind, workplace grievances usually aren’t an effective way to deal with a bully. Either the bully has friends in HR or management or is your boss. HR usually sides with management. Plus, most bullies are practiced liars who deny, minimize and distort the facts with ease. Additionally, your company has already failed you in allowing the bullying to occur and not stopping it.
If you have access to a labor attorney or are able to obtain a free consultation, consult with him or her about your rights. Look for other work options. Seek support from friends, family or a therapist.
7. Take care of yourself. Bullying is a form of emotional abuse and violence in the workplace. It takes a very negative toll on your physical and psychological health. Work becomes an active war zone, which causes you to maintain a defensive stance and become hypervigilant. It’s incredibly stressful, exhausting, and traumatic. This toxicity will eventually spill over into your personal life.
Minimize the effects of the abuse by reframing or changing how you see things (Sutton, The No Asshole Rule: Building a Civilized Workplace and Surviving One that Isn’t, 2007, pp. 131-147). If you change your mindset about what’s happening, you can reduce the amount of damage you experience. For example:
- Avoid engaging in self-blame.
- Hope for the best, but prepare for the worst.
- Develop indifference and emotional detachment.
- Learn when and how not to give a damn.
- Lower your expectations about your co-workers and management.
- Remind yourself that you’ll recover and move on from this ordeal.
- Look for small wins. Gaining control over little things will positively impact your well-being.
- Limit your exposure with the bully.
- Build areas in your life that provide support, safety, and sanity.
8. Use your free time to develop your career outside of your organization. If you’re not being given assignments anymore or your responsibilities have decreased because of bullying/mobbing, use that time to network in other departments, attend professional trainings, work on your résumé, and network outside your organization.
Quantify how these activities are related to your current job in some way, so that you can’t be accused of working on personal activities on company time. For example, hand out business cards when you attend an outside networking event and mention your company and what you do in conversation. Do not, however, bad mouth your company to anyone outside the organization. This will reflect poorly on you. Additionally, you don’t want to be accused of disparaging the organization as grounds for termination.
Workplace bullying and mobbing are insidious forms of psychological and emotional abuse. You can survive with your professional reputation intact if you don’t fall into the trap of reacting or shutting down at work (i.e., not fulfilling your responsibilities). Educate yourself, protect yourself, and develop a plan to get out and move forward with your life.
by Dr Tara J. Palmatier, PsyD
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- How to Avoid Bullying and Mobbing at Work
- Workplace Bullying and Office Politics: What is Mobbing?
- How to Recognize 7 Personality Types in Office Politics
- 6 More Office Personality Types
Sutton, R.I. (2007). The no Asshole rule: Building a civilized workplace and surviving one that isn’t. NY, NY, Warner Business Books.
Talking behind my back on Forbes.
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