Being harangued, overloaded with work projects with impossible deadlines, sabotaged, gossiped about, lied about, yelled at – these are all typical experiences of people who are being bullied at work. While bullying is often started by only one person, it doesn’t take long before others pile on, leaving their target fending off numerous, often coordinated, onslaughts from multiple directions, as one-on-one bullying turns to mobbing.
Being on the receiving end of a bullying and mobbing campaign can be incredibly stressful. You don’t know why it all started, but you focus in and do the best work you possibly can, working well into the evenings, coming in on weekends and holidays, thinking that if you just work harder, if you just work more, maybe it will all stop.
But it doesn’t. It actually gets worse.
You find yourself thinking about work all the time. You keep talking about it with your family and friends. You can’t sleep well at night, and often wake up at 4am in a panic, dreading going into work and finding out what fresh hell awaits you. Once you get there, you spend most of your creative energy trying to predict where the next volley will come from, and trying to dodge the assaults. You’re finding that it’s getting harder and harder to get your work done because you’re so distracted with fighting off the attacks.
Your health starts to suffer. Headaches, stomach problems, chest pains, anxiety that just won’t quit, depression….
You feel horribly alone.
But both the good news and the bad news is that you are far from alone. Bullying and mobbing is a problem that is rampant in workplaces across the U.S., as well as in other countries around the world. To give you an idea of just how rampant, in 2021, the Workplace Bullying Institute (WBI) conducted a survey to research the state of bullying in the U.S. workplace. In their subsequent 2021 U.S. Workplace Bullying Survey Report, they indicated that 39% of all employees in the U.S. reported having been bullied at some point in their careers.
So let’s do the math. In 2021 there were roughly 160 million workers in the US. That means that as of 2021, when the WBI survey was done, over 61 million – that’s SIXTY-ONE MILLION – people in the US had been bullied at some point in time in their work lives. That is a LOT of people. That’s a lot of suffering, just for trying to earn a living.
We automatically assume that the person doing the bullying is a boss, and most often that is indeed the case. However, it is not uncommon for bullies to be coworkers or even subordinates. Bullying often starts when the bully feels threatened in some way by the target, for example, when the target refuses to be subservient, when the target knows more, is better liked, is more competent, than the bully. So if you think you’re being bullied because you’re somehow deficient, it should serve as some consolation to know that it’s often the best employees who are most likely to get bullied. Knowing this doesn’t make it any easier, of course.
If you’re the target of a bullying or mobbing campaign, what exactly should you do? Your friends and family are telling you that if it’s that bad, you should just leave and work someplace else. Of course, that’s easier said than done, especially given the current job market. On top of it, you may well have spent a number of years at your current job, and you really like it – except for the bullying. Fortunately, there are some strategies that you can use to push back it or at least make life a bit more tolerable for yourself.
Here are a few to get started with:
Document everything. This is important for several reasons. First, it will continually affirm to you that you are not the problem, particularly as you see patterns of behavior from your bullies that are completely disconnected from your work and your efforts. Second, writing everything down will keep you from rehashing the events in your own mind, partly from being upset about it, and partly from being afraid you’ll forget everything that happened when you need to remember. Third, and perhaps most importantly, if you plan on taking formal (or even informal) action against your bullies, having full and complete documentation is crucial. So, keep full records of all meetings, emails, conversations, your own work projects and the like, and keep your documentation in a secure location outside of your office where it cannot be accessed without your explicit knowledge.
Talk with some of your trusted coworkers, and see if anyone else has had similar problems with the person or persons that have been giving you a tough time. If someone else has also been bullied, at a minimum they may be able to offer you moral support. At the most, they may be able to give you guidance on how they got the bullying campaign to stop (assuming that they did), or they may be able to join you in your efforts against the bullying.
Do not withdraw. Your initial impulse will be to pull inside your shell, put your head down, just focus in on your work, and not talk to anyone. Force yourself to go in the opposite direction. Make sure others in the organization are aware of the high quality of your work and of your ongoing contributions to the organization. Much of the time, bullies hound employees who believe that if they just do a good job, people will notice. It doesn’t work like that. You have to be your own best public relations engine. As more people at work, including the higher-ups, become aware of you for your excellence, it will make it harder for them to buy into the lies and rumors being promulgated by your bullies. When your bullies find they’re not getting traction with their smear campaigns, it may cause their efforts to fizzle out.
Seek legal advice. While bullying in and of itself is not illegal in the U.S., it is illegal in some countries. In the U.S., it can be illegal if it is discriminatory against you as a member of a protected class due to your race, ethnicity, religion, gender, sexual preference and the like. Sometimes just the presence of a lawyer in the picture is enough to make a bully back off.
Keep your health up. Being the target of a bully is a uniquely debilitating experience. It can erode you emotionally, physically, psychologically. While your reaction will be to drink a lot of coffee just to keep yourself going at work, to drink alcohol at night just to sleep, to skip meals because you feel you can’t step away from your desk, and not to take vacation time when you need to, you can’t afford to do this. The more run down you become, the more devastating the impact the bullying will have on you. Make sure you’re eating and drinking in a healthy way and keeping your body in as good a condition as you possibly can. This also includes exercising. Not only will exercising help to support your overall health, it will also help you burn off stress rather than internalize it. On top of it, knowing you have physical strength will give you more confidence at work, in yourself, and in dealing with the bully. If the psychological stress has produced depression, anxiety, panic attacks and the like –all of which are common and normal reactions – seek out support from an independent, private counselor or therapist - not a company-contracted EAP counselor - who understands the issues involved with workplace bullying.
These basic approaches can generally be applied across the board to many cases of bullying and mobbing. However, since they represent only a small sample of a variety of methods that can be used, people who are currently being targeted by bullies would find it helpful to attend in-depth training to learn about additional strategies available to them, or to seek out one-on-one coaching for specific guidance for their own unique cases.
© Ardean Consulting Group 2022