It feels like something that should be left on the grade school playground, and yet some 27 percent of Americans have experienced workplace bullying at some point in their careers, according to the Workplace Bullying Institute in Bellingham, Wash. Women make up 60 percent of those targeted by workplace bullies. Women are also more likely to be bullied by another woman, both supervisors and peers, than a man.
If you’ve been bullied or are being bullied, going to work can become a nightmare, and several studies have found bullying impacts not only a victim’s emotional state, leading to stress and depression, but also their financial situation. WBI found 13 percent of victims were forced to transfer into a new position; 24 percent were fired without reasonable cause; and 40 percent quit their job to save their health and sanity.
All too often, victims of workplace bullying stay silent, according to a recent study by Iowa State University in Ames, Iowa. For the study, researchers collected narratives of 48 victims of workplace bullying about their experiences. Most of the study participants found it difficult to explain exactly how the bullying started.
“Many of the participants felt no one would believe them, or they were afraid of being labeled as a big cry baby or a whiner, so they didn’t tell a manager or someone else in the organization,” said study co-author Stacy Tye-Williams, an assistant professor of communications studies at Iowa State. “When you experience serious trauma in the workplace, it’s difficult to explain to people what is happening to you.”
Here’s how to take the sting out of workplace bullies and reclaim your territory in the workplace.
Stay Above the Fray: Just as you learned to deal with bullies on the playground, you may be able to find a way to co-exist with bullies in the workplace, without having to give them your proverbial lunch money each day. WBI provides targeted solutions for victims, including providing online advice for your particular situation (you can also read posts by other victims and WBI’s expert advice.) Whatever you do, don’t reciprocate your bullies bad behavior.
Know Your Rights: At face value, bullying is not illegal. Your boss or co-worker can mock your work performance, can berate you in front of your clients or peers, can set unrealistic deadlines and expectations, can spread rumors about you even, in short, can make your life a miserable hell but none of that is illegal. Bullying becomes illegal when it crosses the line into any form of workplace discrimination or harassment that is against federal law, including discrimination and harassment based on race, religion, gender, and sexual orientation. If you experience these situations, the law is on your side and you might want to consider legal action.
Document the Bullying: If you are confident in your work performance and believe you are being bullied, keep detailed notes of your encounters with the bully: what she says; how she says it; and what she does that causes you to feel bullied. Save copies of written evaluations and email messages between you and the office bully. Workplace bullies often use social media to further intimidate their target, so be sure to keep files of any such bullying, for example, by taking screenshots of the social media thuggery. If a co-worker witnesses the bullying, take down his or her name and ask if they’d be willing to back you up.
Form a Cohesive Narrative: Once you’ve gathered the details and data, form a coherent beginning, middle and end to your bullying experience. Run it by a friend to see if it makes sense. “When the story is all over the place and feels disjointed or disconnected, people don’t understand or they can’t make sense of what happened. Then what often happens is the victim is not taken seriously or not believed, which is really sad because these victims tend to the ones suffering the most,” explained Tye-Williams, in the study published in Management Communications Quarterly.
Follow Company Policy: Before you complain to human resources, check your company’s employee manual to see if it has a specific policy against workplace bullying and/or a violence prevention program, and follow the guidelines set to report such behavior. Some 43 percent of U.S. companies have some form of anti-bullying policy, according to a recent survey by the Society of Human Resource Management.
Go to HR: In the absence of a formal company policy, your HR department should be able to guide you. At the very least, reporting the behavior to HR might signal a problem with a worker who may be bullying others. Starting an official paper trail will also help your case later on, particularly if the bully is someone who has a say over your yearly performance evaluation and salary increase—bosses make up the majority of workplace bullies.