Workplace bullying: It happens, it sucks, and here’s what you can do

Guest post by Christina
Stop bullying image from Etsy seller SVG Originals
Stop bullying image from Etsy seller SVG Originals

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?

I was the target of workplace bullying. I had been a great employee; I was even awarded Employee of the Month! After awhile, I became the person who knew the job inside and out, and could do it in my sleep. I was a little bored, but competent and content. According to the Workplace Bullying Institute, targets are usually independent, ethical, nurturing, “‘go-to’ veteran workers to whom new employees turn for guidance.” That was me in a nutshell.

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?

Speak up:

Speak to someone above the abuser or someone in HR. Put it on record. A friend in HR told me that her company conducts anti-bullying training during orientation, and that many people do not realize when they turn into “Mean Girls.” Employees have complained and she has intervened several times with success.

Get educated:

Have you experienced workplace bullying? Did it seem to follow those stages? Did anything solve the issue?

Comments on Workplace bullying: It happens, it sucks, and here’s what you can do

  1. You, guys, are great! Reading through all this (and the prayer I said before 😉 ) helped me address the issue in a nice way to my direct supervisor.
    I was just bullied by one of the people who should actually answer to me. He has been acting as if he was in charge of me (snippy/loud etc.), questioning my very instruction and reacting in a very aggressive manner to any criticism (e.g. the tone you address your boss in) for the last three months.
    Since this employee has some skills (can help with our website), he has been asked to do some extra work for us. Now, he feels superior to everybody (including me: assistant general manager).
    I have brought up this issue already in a written letter to the owner with a copy of the note this employee had left on my desk. His educational background is extremely weak and I can only assume that the job he’s having now is probably the best he will ever have (he worked for a fast food chain restaurant before). I wish him well, but do realize that for him to make it up career-wise he sees no other option than to scare off everybody he thinks he can.
    I am pretty just to my employees, give clear directions, don’t ask from them anything that I haven’t had to do myself at some point in my career, train them properly, give them the opportunity to ask questions without being brushed off, stay out of their private life (unless they need help), keep my private life out of the office, and defend my team when needed by throwing a light on their good skills when their jobs are in danger (everybody is bringing something unique to the table). I do think that I am bossy, but at the same time I work triple as much as they are and still get everything done (even the work nobody else wants to do/problem cases). I thought this is what a good boss has to do. I thought mutual respect would be the key. But…it is not.
    I do think that the owner of our small company plays a big role in it, although he has reassured me multiple times how valuable I am to him and the company. He even gave me the work schedule I wanted to work. At the same time -however- he is the kind of person how spends 100% of his time at work and can’t stay out of gossip. He is moody, and if somebody pisses him off, he will talk bad about that person in front of the subordinates, who then feel in a better position/confined in. And it is everybody’s time at some point.
    The difference between me and some of the young employees is that I can understand when somebody just needs to get some things of their chest and am not using the information against neither my boss, nor the person he was upset with. I don’t think drama should be part of your work environment. However, him trying to make friends with the young ones (around 25-year-olds) hurts me. The only other person in the management is the boss’ life partner. So nobody would try to do this with her.
    I have tried talking the the employee directly and went on to my boss after it was clear that nothing would change (I was screamed at). My boss/the owner is not very confrontational and I am sure he wouldn’t like to see anyone of us leave.
    With 35 years, I am just not sure what to do anymore to improve the situation other than to look for another job myself.
    Any input is welcome. I would love to learn one or two things from the ones here who have some experience with situations like that.
    My heart goes out to all of you who experience such a toxic environment.

  2. My bully boss just got me fired from my position of almost a year. She and I had known each other from another place of employment, where she was my boss and I was a newbie. She left that position I became the new manager, which I continued for over a year after she left.
    I eventually found out about a new manager position at another place( I wanted to leave my current position because I wasn’t being paid near enough)- long story short, the new place found out about my old boss and gave her the manager position I was trying to get and gave me the assistant position. I was actually ok with this tho a little disappointed. However, I think she knew she did me dirty and didn’t like having an assistant(she wants to be solely in charge) and she imagined I was hostile towards her and did everything she could to make my life miserable and keep me on guard and walking on eggshells around her.
    She eventually accused me of insubordination, saboutage, etc to the higher ups and we had a “meeting” which was a total farce. She actually made it a big deal that people liked me more than her?!?! Also, she brought up a time when I told her all the things I had accomplished that day(to keep her informed), but she was furious that I said all that in front of the owner. She said this as an accusation. In spite of all that, no one seemed to see how childish and ridiculous her accusations and comments were and I was put on notice.
    The next time there was a problem was over another employee whom had chosen not to interract with her anymore so she blamed me and stated that he was not to come over to our department anymore (he was higher up than both of us, so clearly she could not make that dictate)- i was in shock and went to the higher ups about this and many other issues with her. More meetings where she was allowed to verbally attack me, threaten me, and just basically accuse me of everything she could think of- the HR person did the same (they are friends). I learned later that the bosses “interviewed” several people at work about my manager and learned some really shocking things about her that I didn’t even know. Turns out she had been undermining and saboutaging me the whole time. She even screamed at another person on our staff in front of customers and employees that this employee and I had destroyed her and ruined her. Literally screamed at her and followed her while doing it. She was still allowed to stay after this while i was written up for something completely ridiculous. They give her a temporary demotion and then business as usual.
    I knew she was a ticking time bomb- and I was right. She started doing the same old criticizing and nitpicking , and then decided to just stop doing any actual work in our department and let me do it all, while she would pile on more and more. I was getting really frustrated but wasn’t about to complain to higher ups because I already knew how that would go. She was being particularly frustrating one day and I accidentally sent a text to her that was meant for a friend saying ” I am so over her and this place”- she immediately went to our boss who then called a meeting with HR and another boss- next thing I know, I’m fired.
    She is incompetent, lazy and emotionally unstable-so they got what they deserved.
    I am still really angry, but I have 2 interviews this week so far-

  3. I was hired in a company to work as a programmer.From the first day my coworkers was making fun of me.They didn’t talk to me, they avoid eye contact like i was invisible.I should cooperate with them to finish a project but i couldn’t because they were spreading rumors for me and i couldn’t pretend that everything was fine.At the end of the week the boss wanted to talk to me in his office and he asked me if everything is ok. I told him that is ok but i was very disappointed and sad from their behaviour.He told me that it was my last day and they decided to hire an experienced one.

  4. It’s sad that this is a common thing. I got hired 8 months ago and thrown into another boss area. This new bosse’s thinks he can cuss at me,have me do heavy labor even though I am not in a labor position.
    He left hasty voice mails not even realizing that he was still on. Whether HR agrees or not,they have to do something about it as I got proof. Someone mentioned HR is not on an employees side. That’s only if the HR and that boss are tight. Now days though,with jurors against big companies,etc etc. its actually too easy just win a lawsuit.
    Always document things,and have a camera ready. When I was younger I used to leave without a fight.
    Not this time.

  5. Here is my situation:
    I work for a prison in IT field. Our office is a trailer building, located outside of the fence, not inside the fence where the inmates are kept, but still we are on the “prison grounds”. There are only few of us in our office, including our supervisor. My supervisor has been bullying me, bad talking about me to my peer coworkers and manipulating them against me behind my back. It’s been like this for 18 months now, since we had a little argument, which was the trigger point. I had a bad experience in my previous job where I was abused by my former supervisor. She was trying to do everything in her power to get me fired (there was a “performance” issue, but it really wasn’t. She was known as a bad person and almost went to a court with another employee) and so I found this job where my current supervisor is bullying me and bad talks about me behind my back to my peer coworkers. Through out the time my coworkers were manipulated by him and now they believe all that he says about me behind my back, lies and half-lies, using cursed words, basically telling them that I am a bad person. I am a nice guy, polite, quiet, try to do my job the best and clients like me. My coworkers have been manipulated and they don’t work with me anymore together unless they have to. I have been recording all of the bad talks that my supervisor tells them behind my back using my personal recording device. Almost every day, whenever I am out of the office he tells them bullshit about me and on my way home or when I get home I listen to it. For instance, today he told them that he told to our regional manager (my sup. boss who is a nice guy) that I am a defensive most of the time (which is not true, I defend myself only when it is obvious he is picking on me). Also, he told my coworkers about me a confidential stuff that our regional manager told him: “Check this out guys, my regional manager told me that his former boss was abusing him, because when our regional manager was checking his references HR told him that they believed that he was abused.” My other coworker said “What???” My supervisor replied “He was like a whipping boy.” Then my supervisor kept going on talking about me lies and half-lies to my coworkers, using cursed words as well. I have all of this recorded on a voice recorder. I have recorded all of these bad talks from my supervisor through out 18 months now, even before he became my supervisor. I am documenting what’s going on for 18 months now that I witnessed or heard personally, but I don’t document the stuff that I record on my voice recorder. Here is why: Can I use my voice recordings to defend myself in this case? Obviously I don’t have a consent from anyone to be recorded. Would I get into trouble (loose job, get fired, pay a huge fine, get into jail, etc.) if I use my voice recordings as a prove what’s going on behind my back? Would court admit it in this case since I am alone against to all of my other coworkers in our office even without having consent from them to be recorded? I was even thinking to post online all of this shit or put it on a CD and give it to anonymously my regional manager, but I am afraid, because it would be obvious that it came from me, although no one could prove it. Since what I learned from my today’s recording should I talk to my regional manager about this? I think if I do then he has to follow up with this and then my secret will be out and the guys will not trust me anymore and I will really have a hell in our office every day. I have very good benefits in this job (retirement, insurance, etc.) and would not like to loose it. I’ve been working here for almost 3 years now. If I start to look for another job I would feel defeated and they would laugh at me. What’s going on is not right and my supervisor should be the one who should get fired, not me. Any advise?
    Thank you.

  6. I am going through all your cycles right now, except I haven’t been terminated (yet) LOL. There is a veteran inappropriate employee in my department that HR will not get rid of for fear of a lawsuit, so she is essentially allowed to takeover and act as horribly as she wants, despite people constantly making HR complaints and subsequently quitting w/ no notice. I always tried to remain friendly with her since she was so horrible (wow, the irony in that statement), but we of course had a falling out due to her inappropriateness, and now she does this thing where she gives the silent treatment, and tries to pretend as if I don’t exist- yet clearly she knows where I am and does know I exist. She now purposely comes by my area several times a day, which she never came by my area when we were on good terms, and is loud, obnoxious and overly-friendly w/ others while she ignores me. I think HR told her to not stand so close to my area, but besides that, she still comes over as much as she can, and follows me around but will not directly address me. I am obviously looking for another job, but this woman is severely mentally ill- it’s been difficult to handle it. She also gossips/goes on rants excessively, everything is behind-the-back- she has now somehow influenced another co-worker to not speak to me. It just sucks.

  7. Thanks for this. I feel like this is happening to me, but I’m just sticking to SOP and corporate best practices on the things I’m getting criticised for, my managers and team leader have told me to stick to that. I’ve got sick time, and I’m thinking about calling out tomorrow as I just don’t want to deal with this crap for my next whole shift. I’ve been with the place for a year and just now feel like I’m getting a hang of everything I need to know to effectively perform my job, and am getting recognized for it, other than the one person, there isn’t a coworker I don’t like and I have respect for everyone there, but this is causing me no small amount of anxiety feeling like I have nothing I can report to the superiors.

  8. Hello.
    Really glad i came across this..heres my story.
    I started with this company 16yrs ago as a broom boy.During the years i got my trade and moved my way up the ladder as people moved on or were promoted.
    About 6yrs ago they hired a worker who they were warned was a bully. so much so in his previous employment he was moved to a room on his own to stop him attacking the other workers.
    Anyhow.. first couple of years were fine other than the odd argument.
    But then it started..He would target new guys. First it was just your doing it wrong(weather they were or not didnt matter it was his way or no way).
    At the time i was the factory foreman where my roll was to keep the production flow going and the training of new staff. So this gave me the opportunity to approach him about the workers concerns. All went well he took things on board and thing came right..for awhile.
    Then i was promoted again. this time to factory manager.
    Now i was responsible for hiring new staff and dealing with staff issues..WELL!!!
    within weeks of hiring new staff, they and other senior staff approached me about this guy being a bully. My gosh i had no idea what had been going on( i guess due to me being the boss he would be fine when i was around). he would isolate workers away from other workers when he wanted to bully.
    The workers would come to me with their concerns and i would try and deal with the issues.
    But this bugger would play the game of by-passing me and going to the GM. So by the time i went to the GM with my findings it didn’t matter because he had already planted the seed the worker was wrong and he was right. I told the GM that this was not the correct procedure and that he should have stayed out of it until i had tried to resolve it.
    So he tried to resolve it by kicking me out of my office and putting my work station in the middle of the factory floor so he couldn’t run a muck . A sign i at least saw as them acknowledging there was an issue with this guy.
    5mths into this nothing had changed.. so i would sneak around and try to catch him out when he isolated staff members.. Well 2 weeks ago i got him. He told a worker he wanted something done and to do it this way..Low and behold he told him to do the complete opposite way to what it should. I let the worker do it the way the bully told him to(thinking ahh finally i can get ya).
    But the worker himself questioned if this was the right way..The bully of course said yep go for it.
    The bully then came back to the worker an hour later and said you have done it wrong and to “fark off”.
    the worker came to me said what had happened and that he felt set up.. knowing what i already knew i agreed and said yep you sure did.
    Now with this and the info i had overheard i approached the GM and said we can’t carry on like this.
    Well bugger me the bully had already been and seen the GM about it all and as far as both were concern the worker was wrong and needed disciplined. Like hell!! i stood up for the worker and said what had happened and i wasnt going to let it go.. HE SET HIM UP i said and that is bulling in a serious way.
    The next day i was called into the GM office and asked what did i think should happen. At the very least i thought a written warning would suffice and let him know that we are on to his bulling.
    Anyhow 2 days later I’m again in the GM office and told that i’m carrying to much stress and that some of my roles would be spread around to others(yes including the bully).
    Of cause i got up in arms and said that that was sooo not right “you have now given power to the bully.
    I was then pushed into a corner of the factory and cut off from all info.
    Since then i have had this awful feeling in my gut.. last night i finally came to the conclusion it was guilt.
    guilt that i knew a worker was being bullied and the company ignored it and backed up the bully.
    along with the guilt i believe part of the feeling was that for me this didnt sit well with my own personal ethics and morals.
    So went in today and resigned on the spot..informed them that they have now made it untenable for me to carry on in the company when this is their ethics as they don’t conform to mine..
    Bit of a ramble i know but had to vent.

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