The tragic suicide at Virginia University’s esteemed literary journal, Virginia Quarterly Review, has sparked attention in the topic of workplace bullying. Though researchers from around the world have focused on the concept of bullying for the last 25 years, only now is the subject receiving the attention it deserves from the media.
Kevin Morrissey, the man who shot himself just two hours after receiving yet another scathing email from his boss, was not alone in feeling distraught because of his work situation. Though he was diagnosed with depression, detrimental psychological effects are common in all targets of bullying. In fact, up to 77% of individuals who are bullied develop PTSD (Matthiesen & Einarsen, 2004) – the same psychological damage that plagues soldiers returning from war.
Researchers have also found that almost 7% of targets do attempt suicide, and an additional 10% of them contemplate suicide frequently (Brousse, Fontana, Ouchchane, Boisson, et al., 2008; Yildirim & Yildirim, 2007). With 70% of the workforce claiming to be bullied at some point in their life, that’s 21 million people in the United States alone who contemplate suicide each year because of things happening at work.
Not convinced? Check out documentarian Beverly Peterson’s website at http://nojobisworththis.com. She has a whole host of short documentaries about people who have suffered from bullying, and who have in fact committed suicide because they were bullied at work.
I offer these eight tips to battle the bully at work:
1. Label it. Many targets wander through their situation without really understanding what’s happening to them or why they are being treated so badly. Most of us believe that bullying only happens at school age, so when it happens in adulthood it doesn’t seem real. Calling a spade a spade, or labeling the situation, is invaluable in understanding the true reality of the situation.
2. Make the choice to not be a victim. Research indicates that survivors of bullying have a trait that “non-survivors” have: they made the choice to not be victimized, they decided they would overcome, and they took control. You can change your attitude but you can’t change the bully.
3. Be assertive with your body language and your words. When we are bullied or threatened, we tend to shrink down with our bodies by folding our arms in and looking away. This type of response gives the bully the green light to keep bullying. So you must be assertive to protect yourself. That means making steady eye contact, keeping feet firmly planted on the ground, toes pointing forward, hands on hips or down at your sides, leaning forward slightly, and maintaining a steady tome of voice when you speak.
To be assertive with your words means using the following pattern when being verbally attacked by the bully: validate what the bully says and demonstrate that you understand his or her point of view, state that you are dissatisfied with the communication style, and then offer a solution to the problem. Now you can go to HR and claim that you did attempt to solve your differences – something they will respond well to.
4. Enlist support from people who are not co-workers. You will need a support system to get through this; you cannot do this on your own. Remember, many of us assume bullying only happens when we’re children, so it might be helpful to locate some websites and literature on bullying to help your supporters understand that what you are going through is real, and it is really hurtful to you. And, avoid trying to get people on your side at work.
5. Keep a factual journal. It is important that you keep a factual journal that you log each time a bullying incident takes place. Document the date and time, where you were, what was said, what the scenario was, and who saw it happen. Also save any tangible documents you receive from the bully, including any memos, emails, evaluations, and the like. It is important that your journal remain about the facts, and not be focused on your emotions, because you will present this journal to HR (see Tip #7). Of course it can also be healthy to keep a journal about your emotions, but this isn't appropriate to provide to HR.
6. See a doctor. A doctor can help you make your case when speaking to human resources. Describe to your doctor what has been happening and how you feel. Bring in some of the literature on workplace bullying if you need to. The doctor will provide you with a note that proves you are stressed out because of your situation at work. This will come in handy later.
7. Talk to human resources. Understand that bullying at work is a relatively new concept and has only very recently become something that is on the HR radar. That means that they will not necessarily understand if you say, “I am being bullied.” They don’t know what that really even means, and they don’t have a law or a policy to tell them how to handle it (yes, bullying is legal). That means you need to approach HR in a very specific way, and while difficult, these steps will be beneficial:
- Avoid showing your emotions, and stay away from “I feel” statements. You want HR to see the bully as the problem, not you. If you focus on how you feel, then it becomes about you. If you focus on the bully’s behaviors, then it becomes about the bully’s misbehavior and unprofessional conduct.
- Stick to the facts. Present your factual journal and list of witnesses along with any other tangible documents you’ve obtained.
- Provide a solution. All managers appreciate it when their employees approach them with a problem that is backed by a solution. As hard as it will be, put your emotions aside and really think through what you need to make the situation better for you – and present those solutions to HR. Solutions might include a transfer to a new department, communication skills coaching for your team, or a request for an outside consultant to help.
8. Reframe the way you see your job. Society has taught us that we are chained to our jobs and leaving is not an option. In addition, a lot of our identity is tied up in our work because we spend so much time there – it really becomes who we are as a person. But at some point, if you have exhausted all of your options and things are not getting better, then ask yourself what your dignity is worth. Certainly your 9-5 is not worth your health, or your life. Don’t be afraid to find a new job before the situation gets any worse.