Did you know that at any given time, 10% of adult workers are being bullied on the job? Or that around 30% of us will be targets of bullying at some point during our careers?
In 2003, Pamela Lutgen-Sandvik defined a cycle of Employee Emotional Abuse (aka bullying). Here’s how that exact cycle played out in real life…
The 6 stages of workplace bullying
STAGE ONE: Initial incident
This could be anything, including being hired into a new position. The bully may be jealous, feel threatened, feel you wronged them in some way, or be experiencing turmoil in their personal life.
I believe the incident that triggered my bully was when my coworker had a last-minute opportunity to take an international trip the same week I that had taken off for a trip. He asked to switch our time off, and, after I said no, he started treating me differently.
STAGE TWO: Progressive discipline
This is the stage when abuse becomes normalized because the abuser is in a position of power, and technically behaving legally.
In my case, my coworker was eventually promoted to shift lead, and treated me like I was incompetent — overreacting to small mistakes (even those which I quickly and easily fixed without incident). Nothing I did could please him.
STAGE THREE: Turning point
This is where it gets personal. Abuse is repetitive, and events are reframed by the abuser so targets are made to seem like the problem.
When I confronted my coworker about the issues I was having, he made me feel like the bad guy with responses like, “No one else has a problem with me, so it seems like you’re the one with a problem.” I started to wonder if there was something wrong with me. I sometimes felt like I was losing my mind.
STAGE FOUR: Organizational ambivalence
The target informs management or Human Recourses, who either steps in and confronts the bully, mediates the situation successfully, or does not help at all.
In my case, it was the latter. I mentioned to the manager that I was having trouble working with a coworker, and they told me that I needed to learn how to work with people. Because most of his infractions were minor, I was accused of overreacting. I started to wonder why should I care about the company when the company doesn’t care about me?
STAGE FIVE: Isolation
Feeling alone, like there is no one to turn to. Your family and friends, at this point, may even get sick of it and tell you to stop complaining.
I dreaded going to work on days when I knew that one coworker was there. Some nights, I was so stressed I had trouble sleeping. I hated my job and wanted to quit, but had nothing else lined up. I didn’t want to say anything to coworkers, because I didn’t want them feel like they had to pick sides. At least I had emotional support of friends and family.
STAGE SIX: Expulsion
The target leaves by transferring, quitting, or being fired.
I was eventually terminated. After the initial shock and sadness wore off, I was absolutely relieved. I don’t believe I was let go on rightful terms, but part of me didn’t care. I don’t know whatever happened to him, as I lost touch with all my former coworkers, so the cycle may have restarted after I left.
So… what do you do if you are being bullied?
- Here’s a great article about how to talk to your employer about your bully: How to bust the office bully. It stresses that you prepare your story and cite concrete examples.
- For more information, visit the Workplace Bullying Institute.
- More information about the Employee Abuse cycle: The Communicative Cycle of Employee Abuse
- Want to hear from more targets? The authors of this article interviewed targets of bullying to make their feelings more understandable: Nightmares, Demons, and Slaves, exploring the Painful Metaphors of Workplace Bullying
Have you experienced workplace bullying? Did it seem to follow those stages? Did anything solve the issue?