Bullying is an Ugly Word

Henrietta was initially very happy to be in her new job, but after several months things had become awful. Charlene, one of her co-workers, was always telling her how to do things “the Company way” and giving her a bad time for making any suggestions (“How would you know? You’re just the new kid on the block!”) She made fun of her for coming in early to finish projects (“What are you trying to do, make us all look bad?”) and supporting the boss’s ideas (“Kissing-up again?”) In meetings she interrupted her loudly with comments like, “That’s the dumbest thing I ever heard!” And Henrietta started noticing that conversation always stopped when she entered a room where Charlene was with someone, and that she either made sarcastic comments to her or ignored her altogether when they passed in the hall.

Henrietta found herself trying to avoid Charlene (and a couple of her friends who were doing some of the same things) and not to react when she said something, to avoid being yelled at. She began to dread coming to work in case of another run-in with Charlene, though she really liked almost everyone else and loved the job. What’s going on? Most likely Henrietta has a bully in her workplace.

Bullying is an ugly word, isn’t it?  I started thinking about workplace bullying about 15 years ago when I kept hearing stories like Henrietta’s. At that time very little was written about it. But bullying was a huge topic in the mid 1990’s in England, where it’s been a popular pastime in schools for centuries, and where they’ve been actively addressing it in the workplace for a couple of decades. Unfortunately, we didn’t start really thinking about bullying on this side of the Atlantic until more recently, and are still grappling with defining what it really is.

One of the most useful definitions I’ve found comes from University of New Mexico Associate Professor Pamela Lutgen-Sandvik who says that workplace bullying is “persistent verbal and nonverbal aggression at work that includes personal attacks, social ostracism, and a multitude of other painful messages and hostile interactions.” All those things Henrietta was experiencing probably added up to bullying.

Employees are often in tears when they tell me about a bully in their workplace. They describe interaction after interaction in which they have felt attacked, intimidated and belittled. When I ask them what they’re afraid of, they’re usually unable to articulate what the fear is – they’re just afraid, and it feels horrible. Sometimes they describe physical syptoms as well: stomach or headaches, intestinal problems, sleeplessness, depression.

If you feel like a victim of bullying in your workplace, THERE IS SOMETHING YOU CAN DO ABOUT IT! For this week, start by writing just two sentences. In the first one, list the exact things the bully is doing to you, and in the second, state what you are afraid of. For example, Henrietta might write: Charlotte yells, says demeaning things, insults me, puts me down, ignores me, makes sarcastic comments, and quits talking when I enter a room. This scares me because I hate being yelled at and insulted and don’t want her to do it any more, I don’t want her to make me look bad in front of colleagues and my boss, to make me feel like an outcast when I walk in a room, or to talk about me behind my back because I’m afraid she’ll ruin my reputation and I then I could lose my job. Once you’ve written your two statements, keep working on them during the next week to make sure they really represent what the bully does and what you’re afraid of.

In my next blog post I’ll discuss what to do after you’ve written these statements. Till then, if you’ve had an experience with a bully at work, please tell us about it.  ~Daphne Schneider

2 responses to “Bullying is an Ugly Word

  1. I was wondering if it wouldn’t even be more effective for the bullied person to include some exact quotes from the bully in her statement.

  2. Workplace Insiders

    Sure – if that helps “Henrietta” really nail down what the bully did. At this point she’s writing the statement for her own benefit, to help her understand what’s going on and, in turn, what the fear is. Next week I will talk about what to do after that – which is a time when exact quotations are very useful. You’re just thinking ahead! Thanks, Mona.

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