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How To Survive Workplace Bullies

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If you think you left the bullies behind you, on the playground back in middle school, you’re wrong. Several years ago I researched a workplace phenomenon called ‘mobbing’. According to authors Davenport, Schwartz, and Elliot in Mobbing: Emotional Abuse in the American Workplace, mobbing is defined as an emotional assault. It begins when an individual becomes the target of disrespectful and harmful behavior. Through innuendo, rumors, and public discrediting, a hostile environment is created in which one individual gathers others willingly, or unwillingly, to participate in continuous malevolent actions to force a person out of the workplace. The word mob means a disorderly crowd engaged in lawless violence. It is derived from the Latin mobile vulgas meaning vacillating crowd. The verb to mob means to crowd about, attack, or annoy.

When I first learned about mobbing I was intrigued but I wondered how it differs from ordinary harassment. The actual difference is slight but significant enough to merit explanation. When we think of harassment we think of a one-to-one relationship where one person is the perpetrator and one other person is the target. Although the authors define it one way, the true definition of mobbing opens up the possibility for a group of perpetrators as well as a group of targets. Why does mobbing occur? There are several reasons: position or authority is threatened, power plays, control obsessions, office culture permits hostile behavior, ineffective job descriptions, inappropriate communication, low moral or ethical standards, poor supervisors, need for a scapegoat, and restructuring, mergers, or retrenchments.

There are primary and also secondary effects related to mobbing. The primary effects are somewhat obvious but the secondary effects are more subtle yet equally as devastating to an organization.  Research shows that, in a mobbing situation, people experience great anxiety that can develop into post-traumatic stress disorder. This type of trauma has a devastating effect on productivity and the victims’ emotional and physical health. Also, the victims waste between 10 and 52 percent of their time at work defending themselves and networking for support, thinking about the situation, being de-motivated and stressed. The trauma of the experience leaves the victim feeling powerless, disoriented, confused, helpless, and paralyzed.

The secondary effects of mobbing are felt by co-workers of the targeted individual and witnesses of the mobbing event. The research of Dr. Charlotte Raynor indicated that 20 percent of co-workers witnessing workplace bullying decide to look for another job. All researchers on the topic say that targeted victims must remember they have options on this situation. Here are seven actions they say you should consider if you think you are being mobbed; (1) analyze what is actually going on, (2) attempt to work it out, (3) bear with it, protect yourself, and use survival strategies, (4) plan an escape or resign – with or without a new job, (5) fight with legal means while still on the job or shortly after leaving, (6) disclose and blow the whistle, (7) engage in positive action that uses your experience to help eliminate future mobbing situations.

Other survival strategies might include building your self-esteem, learning a new skill, making plans and having faith. If all else fails, keep a sense of perspective. If you choose to seek therapy select your doctor carefully and engage someone who has familiarity with post-traumatic stress disorder. Friends and family can also help. The experts say if you would like to support a friend who has experienced mobbing, offer to work on a resume or help look for another job opportunity. Invite your friend to join you in networking activities. Call, send a card, or flowers. Recommend or bring helpful books.  Suggest activities the two of you can do together such as going for a walk or seeing a movie. Practice the helping art of presence and the most important technique, supportive listening. Finally, if you or someone you love is the target of mobbing remember the situation is temporary and there will be a way to regain respect and dignity in the workplace.

Yolanda Smith is part of the GovLoop Featured Blogger program, where we feature blog posts by government voices from all across the country (and world!). To see more Featured Blogger posts, click here.

 

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Mark Hammer

Based on survey data I’ve worked with, it is fair to say that workplace bullying is not restricted to mobbing co-workers or toxic supervisors. Some managers report harassment from subordinates. Folks who provide services to other agencies, or parts of their own agency, can find themselves on the receiving end of very demanding and aggressive clients, whom they have insufficient authority over, or “reach”, to get them to be more civil. It’s particularly problematic when any anti-harassment officers within one’s own organization can’t do anything about misbehaving bullies in other agencies.

Finally, if one serves the public directly, it is not uncommon to encounter members of the public whose first instinct is to terrorize, rather than demonstrate patience or compromise. In some of those instances, the delivery of the service – perhaps via frustratingly complicated or undecipherable procedures, or understaffed offices – plays a big role in provoking the targeted aggression of the “bully client”. As well, members of the public can feel like they are somehow demonized or falsely accused, and react aggressively.

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Mack

The students in our training classes talk about this a lot. I have personally witnessed mobbing and it is disheartening to watch. The victim is often demoralized and unsure where to go for help. Left unaddressed, it can cause stress and anxiety to the point of destroying a career. The instigator (the one-who-mobs) can often be a sociopath, which adds another layer of complexity to the problem. The book “The Sociopath Next Door” was fascinating to read, but scary: The author, Dr. Martha Stout, estimates one of every 25 people in the American workplace is a sociopath with a complete lack of conscience. These people manipulate and hurt others just for sport. Avoid them at all costs.

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Profile Photo Yolanda Smith

Mack, that sounds like great advice. Sadly, we can’t know by looking at someone if they are a sociopath but I completely believe the 1-in-25 statistic.

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Rita Vaz

What can federal agencies do to address this enormous and highly expensive problem? Will federal agencies finally address workplace bullying and take steps to protect our workforce by actually fostering a respectful and safe work environment where trust is valued? Will we finally bridge the gap between our theoretically correct workplace protection policies and our non-existent application of these policies? “The larger culture is always applying pressure, and unless we’re willing to push back and fight for what we believe in, the default becomes a state of scarcity.” Brené Brown, author in “Daring Greatly’ In it she explains that Shame, Comparison and Disengagement are components of scarcity. According to a 2013 study, the third-ranked industry for workplace bullying is public service — government. The report demonstrates the scarcity that exists in federal agencies when it states that “The most significant problem is the quality of supervision. Few managers are adequately trained. Managers lacking the interpersonal skills of listening, coaching, effective training and caring for workers tend to supervise aggressively to mask their own incompetence.” Mobbing and bully occur because of the acute scarcity of accountability. OPM (Office of Personnel Management) describes accountability as a means of performance management. An OPM webpage outlines the following positive results of practicing a constructive approach to accountability: “improved performance, more employee participation and involvement, increased feelings of competency, increased employee commitment to the work, more creativity and innovation, and higher employee morale and satisfaction with the work.”

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Profile Photo Yolanda Smith

One approach to the problem that I have seen actually comes through our EEO office. It’s not a cure-all but the goal is to re-frame the culture with kind of a ‘we are one’ stance where differences in people are valued. Highly inclusive environments leave little room for the mobbing phenomenon which seems to feed on the ability to exclude.

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Lena

I am currently experiencing this at work. Everything you wrote is true: all the time I’ve spent and continue spending defending myself, the stress, the effect it’s having on my co-workers. Mine started out as retaliation for filing a grievance, now my co-workers are scared to do the same because they witnessed what happened to me. I can’t get another job because of the hiring freeze so I’m pretty much stuck here until at least next fiscal year.

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Mark Hammer

One of the biggest obstacles to effective whistleblowing, and whistleblowing legislation, is precisely what you describe. Disclosing what one views as wrongdoing often requires everyone else in the workplace to take sides on the matter, and on those involved. And quite frankly, nobody likes to do that, so they tend to hold it against anyone who forces them into that situation, and create an adversarial atmosphere.

That’s certainly no reason to NOT disclose wrongdoing, but the legitimate fear of how co-workers can gang up on a person is a huge obstacle to doing the right thing, sometimes. Equally important, whistleblowing protection legislation generally protects people from reprisals by individuals in authority. It does NOT protect employees from peers “mobbing” them, if they perceive the whistleblower to have somehow betrayed or double-crossed them or those they view as friends. How does one defend against, or make allegations about, being systematically shunned?

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Bettyrose

I know things may seem dark at this time, however it is my belief that things happen for a reason. Maybe it is time for you to leave. I experienced something similar several years ago. I decided to plan my “escape .” I started saving my money and set a date to leave the hell-hole I was in. During that time I read an article that said ” If you can’t find a job, then MAKE one.” You have to first make a list of all the things you know how to do and the things you like or love to do. Then do the research on how to market your skills and how to incorporate. Also go to your local Small Business Administration and seek help (usually free help) about starting your business. There are many grants for women out there. You just have to ask about them when speaking with the people who help you. Good Luck!

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Nena

Lena, get counseling from your EAP to serve as documentation in case you need it. I’ve been where you’re at, and it’s a horrible place to be. I’m praying for you.

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RITA VAZ

There are a couple of options despite the hiring freeze Bettyrose because there is no internal freeze for parallel moves. Maybe you can inquire if another employee in your agency from a different program office is willing to switch places with you. Depending on how efficient your union is, maybe they can negotiate and facilitate a reassignment for you in the same location but in a different program office. The chances for reassignment are greater if you have the flexibility to move to a different location in your agency. I wish you all the best because a toxic work environment is as bad as 2nd hand smoke to your health and well being.

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Profile Photo Yolanda Smith

Lena – so sorry to hear about that. I hope you are able to hang in there. If you can squeeze in some professional development maybe it will help you stay optimistic. Meanwhile, keep the faith.

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Nena

Thank you for this much needed article Yolanda.

I experienced mobbing from a supervisor in which he created a hostile work environment through innuendo, rumors, de-moralization, and public discrediting. I used our EAP and received therapy in which I was diagnosed with PTSD as a result of this environment. My co-workers were also affected by this environment and one resigned as a result. As a Christian, through prayer, I was inclined to remain in my work environment and not resign, I stuck it out for two years until my supervisor was the one who resigned. Immediately the atmosphere of the office changed, no more hostility, no more pot stirring, no more back biting, no more rumors, and no more PTSD.

You suggested seeking legal action/counsel, in which I did, but was told by two different attorney’s that they could not prosecute workplace bullying unless it fit into the categories of harrassment based on sex, gender ID, religion or disability. Which is why this issue needs to discussed and looked at more to protect the employee.

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EMP

Nena, thanks for this response. I am experiencing the same situation and am handling it in one of the ways you did… through much prayer and belief in God. I am also documenting everything and taking great care of myself; physically, mentally and emotionally. Also, I am sharpening my skill-set by learning new things. I believe better days are ahead and this situation will change, I am also prepared to participate in any legal/administrative course of action to address the situation and bring change.

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Nena

EMP, I am praying for you and your situation. Documentation is good. I was armed with two years worth of documentation and was prepared for battle if needed. During that time my therapist encouraged me to leave my desk and take a walk and even do lamaze type breathing for my well being on the job. I also believe my faith in God sustained and protected me, and because of that my better days came, just like yours will.

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Profile Photo Yolanda Smith

Nena, thank you for sharing your experience. What I don’t say in the blog is that although I have not ever been “mobbed” I have in fact been a bystander. It was awful to witness. And today, I very much hate to hear that so many people relate to this article. I am not at all surprised that the attorneys told you they couldn’t help unless it was basically an EEO violation. I do wonder however, how they know the mobbing wasn’t based on discrimination? I don’t mean to insult but they sound a little lazy, perhaps a deeper investigation was needed? Additionally there are also other protected classes to be included as well such as age and national origin. Surely they could have entertained some reason for the hostile environment.

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Nena

You’re welcome Yolanda. My former supervisor was smart enough about the law to never make direct comments in violation of EEO. It was all directed at my work performance with no basis or credibility. I could easily assume he did this due to my age and/or religion, but no verbal comments were made to prove it. That was the issue. Nothing to prove a violation. Another issue was his yelling, screaming and spreading rumors about my work performance which is not against the law. A smart abuser knows how to get around the law.

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D.Santana

Hi, Yolanda, I am so sorry about the horrible experience you had to go thru. I myself continue to be targeted by my supervisor. I am older than her, and on several occasions, she has brought up the age issue. I have failed on at least four occasions to records her. Comments that have been made are hurtful. For Example: ” At this stage in your life who would hire you and/or where would you go”. Every day I walk into my office expecting the other shoe to drop. This past week I fell on the job doing a unit inspection and regardless of this happening on the job, and being taken to the Emergency room as a result of the fall, my sick time was used for time off.
I am caught between and rock and a hard place. Thank you for letting me share my story.

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JJ

I totally agree that workplace bullying is very prevalent. I, too, was told by attorneys that it wasn’t illegal (it may be now). After growing up with such a strong code of honor, my pride was definitely wounded by such attacks. I always called them “snipers” because you never actually knew the source and they are often very subversive in nature. Often didn’t know it was being said unless someone else told you. I can say it made me a much stronger but also a much more cautious person in the workplace.

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Profile Photo Yolanda Smith

JJ, your comments about the snipers is very interesting and I love hearing from you. You’re right bullying in and of itself is not illegal but if you are being targeted because you are in a “protected” class that is illegal. I’m sure you know those protected classes are gender, race, ethnicity, age, disability. It would have to be proven that one of these are the reasons why you were attacked. Without legal protections I feel the organizational climate is a good place to try to instill an anti-bullying atmosphere.

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Edward Stern

This is a useful article. Now, for government employees to understand what their departments and agencies should be doing about this, please look at
April 2013/1st Edition – “Violence in the Federal Workplace: A Guide for Prevention and Response” which includes psychological violence (bullying) in Workplace Violence.

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Jenny lynn

I’m a Federal employee and I was a victim of work place bullying for the very reason above in your writing. It started off as a mobbing and turned into someone fabricating an accusation that was totally false. I believe that is the environment that you described above in my place of work. The crazy thing is that the agency push innuendos for a proper environment that is not taken seriously by the leaders unto you become to believe that it’s created to appease someone or the public.

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