As soon as the words were out of my mouth, I regretted them.
My comment was innocuous enough--I'd told a female co-worker that I didn't have a lot in common with the women I shared my lunch breaks with.
It was true, but there was no judgement on my part. I hated sitcoms and didn't even have cable, so I was out of the loop with a lot of the TV show play-by-plays. And I'm not much of a drinker, which left me out of the crazy weekend stories, too. But I liked the women--they were funny and kind and a hell of a lot more interesting than eating lunch alone.
I never could have predicted in a million years what would result from that one innocent remark.
It was immediately apparent that my co-worker had shared my remark with the other women. It's anyone's guess how accurate her retelling was, but I'm thinking not much, since what resulted was a torrent of cruelty, ostracism, and pettiness that rivalled anything I'd seen in elementary school.
The first obvious result was that the women I'd shared lunch with stopped talking to me. Completely. To a one, they would not even return my hellos if I saw them in the hall. Instead they stared through me like I wasn't there.
They also started a campaign to get me fired. At the time, I had a new, temporary boss who was unfamiliar with the dynamics of our department, which was almost entirely women. In spite of the fact that he was married with two daughters, he didn't seem to understand women at all. It never occurred to him to question any of the things my co-workers said as they began to complain about me on a daily basis.
They eavesdropped on my conversations. They kept a careful record of when I left my desk and when I returned. And whenever there was a transgression--whether real or imagined--one of them went running to my boss. Since there were several of them in on this plan, I'm sure it was even more believable. After all, if several people are complaining about the same employee, there must be something to it, right? Even though they were publicly snubbing me, I had no idea I was being watched.
I'm the first to admit I wasn't perfect. The company didn't give me enough work, in spite of my frequent requests to take on more responsibility (which was viewed as complaining by my co-workers). I often came back from lunch a little late, and as the bullying from these women got worse and worse, it was difficult for me to come back at all. But I did.
By the time my boss spoke to me about the complaints, he was thoroughly convinced that these women were telling him the truth. As miserable as my work situation had become, going to my supervisor had never occurred to me. Why would I bother my boss with such pettiness? But, as it turned out, keeping it to myself worked against me.
Flustered, confused, and unable to figure out who was telling the truth, my boss asked me to email him whenever I left the office and then again when I returned. I was really angry--I felt I was being punished for no reason and treated like a child--but he saw it as a way to find out what was going on. If my co-workers reported me again, he'd have my schedule right there in black and white.
But the women weren't satisfied with that. They began to get other departments involved. If I had a meeting in another building, they would phone someone in that building and ask if I'd really shown up. I guess they didn't realize how unprofessional this made them look, but word got back to me immediately. "What is going on over there?" another co-worker asked, and I didn't know what to say. It all seemed so extreme to me.
In one of the strangest moves I've ever seen, these women used employee birthdays as a way to ostracize me further. We worked in an office where a list of everyone's birthdays was distributed to all employees, but I don't think anyone anticipated how this list would be used.
Once the women turned against me, they started going all out to celebrate everyone's birthdays. They'd plan elaborate surprise parties for other employees and leave me out of the loop. I'd be the only one to show up at work without a treat or a present. They'd spend hours decorating the birthday girl or guy's cubicle with streamers and balloons. As my birthday rolled around, I dreaded it. I knew they were going to prove their point by doing nothing. Thankfully, two friends from another department surprised me with an even more elaborate decorating job. It was a silly game, but my friends were determined not to let those women win.
Working in an office is a social event. Think of how many times you've seen companies post want ads that stress the importance of fitting in with their team. It's all about the team. Though I had other friends so I wasn't completely ostracized at lunch, being the target of such hatred from my co-workers was extremely upsetting. I'd always been able to get along with most everybody, and now it felt like someone was shutting me out of an event, giving me a dirty look, saying nasty things about me to my boss, or presenting me with a cold front in a meeting every time I turned around. It was unbearable. Still, I managed to hold on until I got another job, mostly thanks to the friends I did have.
While my experience is no doubt an extreme example, bullying goes on in almost every office in the country. And it's allowed to continue--by the supervisors who turn a blind eye to it, or who willingly let it go on because it serves them in some way. Maybe your boss is also afraid of the bully (I've seen this situation more than once), or dealing with bullying employees will be more difficult or unpleasant than simply getting the victim to change her behaviour. Whatever the reason it's allowed to exist, it is wrong. No one should come home from work in tears. No one should dread her job so much that the thought of going back there makes her sick to her stomach. And yet, there are still a lot of people in this situation.
How can you fight an office bully? I've tried a few things, with varying degrees of success.
- Stand up for yourself. For the most part, bullies are cowards. They're looking for signs of weakness. Don't cry in front of them, don't be a doormat, and never let them know they've gotten to you--they feed off that shit. If you do get into a confrontation with them, never do anything that will get you in trouble--don't swear, threaten, and try not to raise your voice. Never give them more ammunition to use against you.
- Be the fair-haired girl (or guy). If someone has it out for you, make sure you're not giving them anything to use against you. Show up early. Stay late. Keep your lunches and other breaks brief. Avoid any personal calls or hints of impropriety. Don't answer personal emails or go on social media sites during office hours. Yes, you should be doing this stuff anyways, but you need to be extra vigilant when you're being bullied.
- If you can't say something nice, don't say anything at all. While I didn't think my comment about the other women was mean, it's easy to see how it could be twisted into something nasty. Be very, very careful about what you say to fellow employees, even if you trust them. If you must gossip about a co-worker, talk to your best friend or your spouse. Leave it out of the office. People may still make up things and say you said them, but if you have a reputation for being professional, it can't hurt.
- Find allies. Whether it's other employees who are also being bullied, or friends in other departments, allies are crucial. My friends kept me from going mad. Don't use them as people to rant to about your situation nonstop--take a deep breath and enjoy their company and camaraderie.
- Tell your boss. While no one supposedly likes a tattletale, in both cases where I was bullied at the office, I suffered from not telling my supervisor what was going on. Try to be as impartial as you can, but let your boss know what's happening. She might not do anything to better the situation, but at least she'll have your side of the story.
- Document everything. Keep a written log of the bullying. You can bet your bully is keeping a log of everything you're doing wrong. Should you want to escalate your complaint, a written record of the abuse will come in handy.
- Look for a new job. It's sad but true--I've yet to see a company handle a bullying employee (or group of employees) in a way that stopped the harassment and abuse. In most cases, bullies are long-time employees. They have seniority and power, and they know it. Victims are usually new employees or long-timers who have so much stake in their pensions, benefits, etc. that they've made the choice to put up with it. But you know what? Life is short. Putting up with this kind of shit is never worth it--I don't care how much you're getting paid. As soon as you feel harassed at work, start putting out feelers. It can't hurt (as long as you're discreet).
- Be honest in your closing interview. Most companies offer a chance for a departing employee to talk about the reasons she's leaving. While it can be tempting to "leave on a good note", you're just setting up your successors for failure if you don't tell the truth. Maybe if enough people leave because of a bully, employers will finally think it's worth taking action. Maybe.
- Going to Human Resources. No offence to any HR peeps out there, but in my experience, this never helps. There's really nothing HR can do about so-called "interpersonal conflicts". This goes for union reps as well. They may give you suggestions about how you can change your own behaviour (the always popular 'blame the victim' ploy), but these are rarely helpful. And sometimes they give really bad advice, like…
- Talking it out with the bully. Take it from me, this never works. When you try to have a calm heart-to-heart with a bully, the bully will either deny she's doing anything wrong, act like you're being oversensitive, or get aggressive. I have never, ever heard of this tactic improving anything. And it tells the bullies that their behaviour is working--they're getting to you. Which is exactly what they want.
Have you been bullied at the office? Please feel free to share your story in the comments below. This is becoming more and more prevalent in today's workplace. I've learned through writing this article that there's a name for what happened to me--mobbing. What's your best suggestion for triumphing over an office bully?
If you're currently a target, please know you're not alone. This can, and does, happen to anyone.