I had a hard time writing this piece. It’s not the tightest piece of writing I’ve ever done, and I’m not sure I can ever make it that way. It’s the story of an extremely painful period in my life. I am probably too close to it to ever write about it academically. That’s okay.
As I read back through it, I see I didn’t get deeply enough into the pain and desolation workplace bullying causes. The constant demeaning and belittling chip away at you until you feel like you have nothing left, until you feel like you are nothing. It isolates you from everyone around you. In those aspects it’s not very different from an abusive personal relationship. A big part of my self-identity has always been my professionalism, my skill, my competence. I have always worked hard to excel at whatever my job is, and I’m proud to say that I have always succeeded at that (with the exception of waitressing, which taught me a whole new respect for food servers). I’ve always been a stellar employee and my bosses have always loved me to death. My time as a bullying target devastated me to the core. Being treated like an idiot, an incompetent, a hopeless loser, undermined everything I knew about my ability to earn a living and support my family, and it served to take my entire career away from me. I understand completely how people snap and harm themselves or go on murderous rampages. I daydreamed about it, and that scared the shit out of me more than any other facet of it did. It took more than a year of counseling with a wonderful therapist who specializes in recovery from abuse for me to get past the worst of the injury.
I knew this piece wasn’t ready when I clicked “publish,” but I felt compelled to get it out there. It was gnawing and nagging at me. Maybe there was someone out there who was in that dark place who needed to read my words on that very day. I may never know, and that’s okay. Maybe it’s a continuation of my recovery, to own my story and to share it. That works for me. Maybe a bully needed to stumble across it and be confronted with a mirror. Given what I understand about the narcissism that drives bullies, that’s doubtful, but one can always hope. Maybe I’m imagining these deep explanations and I really just wanted to be done with it. That’s okay too.
If you are in a situation like mine, you know of what I speak. If you’ve never experienced it, you may not be able to understand, and that’s okay. I appreciate that you’re trying.
Thanks for reading. 🙂
It’s embarrassing to even talk about workplace bullying. Strong, smart, independent adults don’t get bullied, right? Wrong.
First – the fact that you’ve been bullied at work is not your fault. It doesn’t mean you’re a bad person, or that you asked for it, or that you have a big “Kick Me” sign taped to your back, or that you’re incompetent. In fact, you’re probably extremely competent.
Second – bullying in the workplace is a lot more commonplace than people think. People who haven’t experienced it personally have at least witnessed it, more likely than not.
Third – have I mentioned that it’s not your fault?
Workplace bullying has a dynamic very similar to that of an abusive marriage or relationship, and the injury is much the same as well.
Not. Even. Funny.
Workplace bullying – or “professional personality clashes” or “office aggression” as it is euphemistically called – happens to roughly 35 to 50% of the workforce. I saw one statistic that said 80% of us have been involved in workplace abuse, as targets or witnesses. This number includes both men and women in roughly equal parts. The majority of workplace bullies are women. The majority of workplace bullies are bosses. The majority of targets are highly competent and excel at their jobs when left in peace to do so.
If you think you’re not paying the price for workplace bullying just because you’re not directly involved, think again. It is estimated that workplace bullying costs business and industry roughly $250 million every year. When workers are bullied, businesses lose through poor employee performance, sick leave, firings, resignations, retraining, and being on the wrong end of a lawsuit. Businesses aren’t going to be the nice guy and eat those costs. They pass them on to you the consumer, in higher prices, and they pass them on to you the employee, in lower pay and higher health insurance premiums.
But the toll I’m here to talk about is the personal one. It’s the toll every target has felt, and it’s the toll none of should be willing to let a fellow human being be weighed with, not if we believe we live in a civilized society. Targets have lost everything from their self-esteem to their health, careers, children, marriages, retirement funds, and even their lives. When more than half of us will deal with such poison at some time in our careers, we have to decide that it is unacceptable and call it out when we see it.
I moved from Nevada, my home state of more than 40 years, to embark on what promised to be a new life and a wonderful new career with a high-end law firm in Seattle. You know what they say about promises. I unpacked the moving van, ironed my first-day-to-work skirt, and stepped out of the elevator and into a nightmare.
Oh, my new boss was wonderful at first. She was downright chirpy, thrilled with my skills and experience, waxing glorious about how from now on they would go to my home state to find competent staff. In hindsight, that should have been a warning right there. She was behaving exactly as abusive spouses do: in love at first blush until they’ve “got” you, and then their true selves come out of hiding when they believe you are well and truly snared.
The first couple of weeks were pretty good. There was an immediate glitch when she realized I didn’t have the intricate knowledge of one software program that she had assumed I had. She had never asked, and I had never thought to mention it. Who lists what they can’t do on a resume? We agreed that it wouldn’t be a problem. We were both sure that I’d pick it up quickly. (After I moved on to an environment where I was able to think straight, I did indeed pick it up quickly.) But then other things started to be wrong. She’d have little snippy moods. She made critical remarks that stung, until I convinced myself I was overstressed and taking them the wrong way. I started having trouble sleeping. I was suffering from culture shock, moving to a posh big-city office from a hometown law practice in a rural area with five stoplights. Where I’d come from the tallest building was the three-story Holiday Inn; here I got vertigo merely looking up at the skyscrapers. It was a huge adjustment for me. But Seattle is a beautiful city and I was excited to be here, eager to get settled in and find my groove.
|My own little movie: Horror in the Highrise.
I couldn’t seem to find that groove, though. No matter how hard I tried, things got worse. For every thing I mastered to my boss’ specifications, it seemed there were two others I did wrong. I lived the 50-50-90 rule in that office, the rule that says if you have a 50-50 chance of choosing the right way to do something, there is a 90% probability you will chose wrong. I got a withering glance that clearly said I was an idiot when I was figuring out the city’s system of buses and trains. (I have never ended up at the wrong place or been late for an appointment.) I was given pointless, busywork tasks designed to humiliate and punish me for making an error. “What exactly did you do at your other jobs?” she snotted at me once, when I had one too few spaces for a paragraph indent. One space. When I overlooked sending the client a copy of some correspondence, I was shouted at. A bookkeeper came in once a week, one of those whose perfume announces her arrival five minutes beforehand, and it made me terribly sick. To allay the situation I suggested taking my lunch early on those days, and got eyes rolled at me in reply. Rolling eyes was the standard response when I volunteered anything or offered input.
My insomnia worsened horribly. More days than not I went to work with only an hour or two of sleep, if I hadn’t been up all night. It came as no surprise when PTSD reactivated and I began suffering crippling panic attacks. Desperate to feel better so I could work better, I saw a medical doctor for anti-anxiety medications and something to help me sleep, and saw a psychologist to brush up my coping techniques. Both of them, independently, diagnosed that my main problem was working in a toxic situation for an abusive woman. (I burst into tears while talking to the medical doctor, and when he asked why all I could blubber was, “Because you’re being nice to me.”) Still, just as in the abusive marriage I survived, part of me was convinced I could overcome, that I could be the stellar employee I was expected to be and that I was used to being.
It wasn’t just work I had to adjust to. I was trying to help Dream Girl adjust to a new school, to learn my way around my neighborhood, to figure out train and bus schedules, to rent my house out long-distance, to not reach for the cigarettes I’d successfully dumped, to finish unpacking, to sleep, to stay one step ahead of the cockroaches – not to mention the rats that came later, in the awful apartment we’d rented sight unseen, long distance. My husband somehow managed to find us a nice new place in the midst of my 2 a.m.sobbing about vermin and bitch bosses. Otherwise helpless in the face of my newfound hell, that was the only thing he knew to do to help me. I was miserable, and all I could think was to keep trying, stick it out, it will get better. I desperately hoped that moving to a nicer apartment with quieter neighbors would help me to sleep, at least.
It did not get better. I have previously equated the dynamic of an abusive working relationship to the dynamic of an abusive marriage, and I stand by that. I was never at work without tissues and mascara in my pocket, because it was a pretty sure thing I’d end up locking myself in a bathroom stall and crying my eye makeup off. I began to gaze yearningly at the balcony windows of the nicer offices in the suite, thinking idly that stepping off the ledge would stop all of my problems. I’ve mentioned before that bullying has cost people their lives, and I’m not making that up. People have been driven to suicide, seeing no other way out. I was thinking about it constantly. Then came that Tuesday when I once again locked myself in a bathroom stall and called a crisis line, sobbing hysterically. Later that afternoon, after yet another snippy interlude with my boss, I blurted out to a friendly co-worker in the office suite, “Has anyone ever been fired from here?” My fellow employee told me sympathetically that some did, although most people quit because of my boss’ “moods,” and told me that was why my predecessor had really left.
|The Seventh Level of Hell sure had a beautiful view, though.
And that’s when it clicked. Anyone who has escaped and survived an abusive relationship will know that clickI’m talking about. It’s that moment when the sun breaks through the clouds and the light bathes you and you know, really know, that it’s never going to change, because the situation is exactly how the person in control wants it.
That’s when I remembered the payroll records I’d seen for three assistants before me in an eight-month period. (I wasn’t snooping. I had to skim them in order to file them away.) That’s when I realized how patently ridiculous was the story my boss had given about why the assistant before me left the job. And that’s when I realized the big thing: I was not the problem.
I also realized that no matter what it did to me financially, the best thing I could do for myself and my family was to get out. That afternoon I left work and had a cup of tea where I could use the phone privately. I left rejuvenated, with an appointment to meet with a professional recruiter the following week.
Thursday came and with it She Who Marinates In Perfume. She and my boss were both standing in my work space and I was already sick from the fumes when I was asked to find a particular bank statement out of a disordered stack 3 inches thick. My eyes watering and my head pounding, it took me two tries to find it. My boss and SWMIP exchanged snarky comments about me above my head. When I found the statement the boss gave an exaggerated sigh, rolled her eyes, and snatched it out of my hand. When she fired me the next day, one of the reasons she gave, in a condescending tone, was that I “obviously lacked the skills to read a bank statement.” (Another employee there told me she was fired partly because they didn’t like the way she put stamps on envelopes. You can’t make this stuff up.)
But here’s the important part, the part I had to repeat over and over to myself so I’d get it, and the part that you need to understand too: The important part is: It doesn’t matter if I had the skills or not. It doesn’t matter if my health issues did not deserve consideration. It doesn’t matter if I made mistakes or not. Even if I was not picking up skills, even if I had health issues that didn’t merit accommodation, even if I was making mistakes I shouldn’t have, at the end of the day, it’s a matter of human decency. Nobody deserves to be treated like I was treated.
Let’s repeat that.
Nobody deserves to be treated that way.
You don’t deserve it either.
Why do so many of us fall for this? Why do so many of us believe we somehow deserve what we’re getting? I have a theory and I’m pretty sure it’s correct. Remember those self-help books that talk about the psychological concepts of power-over as opposed to power-with? I think those are the dynamics at play in the bullying drama. We, the targets, believe that the bully is coming from the same place we are. We believe that we all want a productive workforce and happy employees who work together well for the best interest of the company and its clients. Taking that view, if our coworker is seeing such a problem with us, then they must be right. Right? They’re just trying to help us be the best we can be. It’s not until who knows how long later, when we have that click moment, that we realize the bullies aren’t seeing anything from a power-with point of view. The bullies are all about power-over. They cannot care less about the client’s satisfaction or the company’s bottom line. Bullies aren’t out to help us to do our jobs better. A bully wants power and control, plain and simple, and her go-to source is you. When she knocks her target down, she’s stolen power. When she can keep her target down, she’s drunk with it.
Can we change bullies? The answers vary. I’m no psychologist, and opinions differ among psychologists. I personally think that we should never accept bullying, but it’s easy for me to say that after I’ve come out the other side. It’s not so simple when you’re too deep in something to even think straight, needing to feed your family and without a financial cushion to fall back on. I also think we need a lot more legal safeguards in place, to make it easier for targets to press a grievance and take it to the judicial level if necessary. The way things are now, bullying almost has to have a provable element of racial, gender, or sexual harassment, or blatant threats of violence, for a grievance or lawsuit to be successful. That has to change.
My story ends happily. I was fired the day before I moved to my new apartment. I balanced the box with my few office possession on my lap as I rode the train home, numb. Back home in Armpit Arms (as we’d dubbed it) I packed and I cried, in a surreal state of combined relief and terror. Thank all the powers that be, that I didn’t have to go in to that hellhole on Monday! How on earth was I going to feed my family, pay for the movers arriving bright and early? But I’m free! But…the bills the bills the bills! Keep packing, keep crying. The next day we accomplished the move. After a long day I collapsed onto the mattress surrounded by boxes in the middle of the bedroom floor, exhausted and aching and unemployed and too tired to care. I slept the sleep of the redeemed, for sixteen hours.
My nightmare was over. It didn’t matter what job I found next. It didn’t matter if I had to hustle washing windshields at stoplights; I was out of that awful place. Anything, literally anything, was going to be better than what I had just been through.
As it turned out, I had no trouble at all explaining my situation to my recruiter. Apparently my former boss has something of a reputation, and workplace bullying is getting more attention now. Firing me was the best thing that horrid woman did for me. I have skills and competence that were easy to market. I do a great job and I am a valued employee again. My boss told me so just yesterday.
My story is only one anecdote, but a lot of anecdotes add up. I hope you will read at least a couple of the same books I did, listed at the end of this post. These authors provided me a rough idea of the statistics I included above (if the numbers are wrong, it’s my mistake), and they are well worth the read. Of great value is the website of Gary and Ruth Namie, which you can find here. A lot of my information came from my wonderful therapist, who specializes in treating targets of bullying and other abuse.
It does get better. You’ve made it this far. You deserve a happy ending.
Go get it.
The No Asshole Rule, by Robert I. Sutton
The Bully at Work, by Gary Namie, Ph.D. and Ruth Namie, Ph.D.
The Complete Guide to Understanding, Controlling, and Stopping Bullies & Bullying at Work, by Margaret R. KohutHelp Within Reach by Pamela Raphael, M.A.