The experience of being bullied at work: Insights and silos

It’s a truism, but an accurate one: Experience is a powerful teacher when it comes to understanding workplace bullying. The line between those who “get it” and those who don’t often is drawn between individuals who have personally experienced this form of abuse or watched someone close to them endure it, versus those who claim to have never encountered bullying at work as a target or bystander.

For the former group, those experiences and observations form the primary lenses — intellectual and emotional — through which we understand this topic and screen additional messages related to it.

However, we also must recognize how our own experiences and observations can serve as silos, blocking us from viewing and incorporating into our understanding new information and insights about behaviors that are endlessly complex.

Some long-time readers and frequent commenters to this blog may be wondering, is he talking about me? The answer is no, it’s not about you (really!) — at least not individually. If anything, it’s more of a personal “memo to self”!

But seriously, this point applies to all of us who have drawn valuable insights about workplace bullying from direct or close secondary exposure. The lessons of our own lives must combine with the stories of others, academic research, and informed commentary to form our deepest possible understanding of workplace bullying, what it does to people and organizations, and what we can do about it.

21 responses

  1. YES David. You are correct. It is multifaceted and you are absolutely correct here. HOW do we get this done though and how do we have all these approaches looked at , sit down at the table and have some degree of change and resolution. Is, this the main Barrier here?

  2. It stands to reason that those who have experienced bullying grow to know its hallmarks and patterns, even without realizing it. (Admittedly, those subjected to extreme trauma may wind up “blocked” from describing events; but they always “know it when they see it”.) This blog posting reminds me of the various studies on facial signaling, in which researchers measure how soon a series of people can identify the emotion dawning on someone’s face in a documentary film or video. Yes, some people have a nascent talent for recognizing emotions in others’ facial expressions and body language; to them, the emergence of fury or joy is plain long before others have any inkling. Detectives and judges with “impossibly good intuition”, for instance, consistently score far higher on such tests than others in their respective professions. Then again, most people subjected to this form of cognitive research require an average of ten times longer, or more, to accurately reach the right conclusion, regardless of their histories for success in other domains. What bears vividly on this discussion is the fact that even those born with no gift for intimating others’ feelings score very high when witnessing intense emotions that have proven traumatic in their life experience. The productive employee and loving father who, as a child, lived with a “rageaholic” parent will spot the emergence of rage extremely fast, regardless of whether they are looking at a loved one or total stranger. Likewise, a person who has survived horrific or systemic persecution unconsciously learns to recognize fear or duplicity in others, even if raised in a culture where decorum suppresses public shows of emotion. To some degree, we all develop antennae for others’ feelings, but scenarios that have proven traumatic for us foster lasting and involuntary vigilance. Thus, people who have seen a bully in action bring an almost-unique level of perception to the discourse.

  3. As an operating room nurse who experienced ‘bullying” by nurses in the legislative arena as well as in the OR arena per a middle manager’s agenda, I would like to share a short article which I wrote with this site i.e. It was placed on NURSETOGETHER.COM………….

    My husband is in the hospital ……have to run……..

    Resspectfully, Helen M. French RN,BSN

  4. Your words are so true. It’s like being a parent — we think we know how we would handle it until the day comes when we have to. Sadly, all too often in the workplace and among our social circle outside the workplace, our emotional reactions are perceived as extreme, reflecting our instability, rather than predictable and normal responses to extreme behavior in unstable environments. The more society understands the processes that make interpersonal aggression in group settings possible, the less targets might be viewed as the problem.

  5. Most people could understand that it’s not too comfortable to put next year’s income on a 50-50 draw and wouldn’t risk it…but a target’s indefinite future income is placed at risk with considerably worse odds in severe cases. And that’s not even considering the emotional impact!

  6. Educated single Mom of two young children was hung out to dry and lost a great income due to two workplace bullies at once! At the exit interview I said, “so let me get this right, I have told you all of horrific things that were said and done to me by these ladies and reported it to HR and I am the one getting fired?” The big man of the dept said “Yup, and you will never work for *** again in the whole country.” All I could say was “wow”. If he expected me to cry or get upset he was mistaken. By the time I got to my vehicle, a warm, calm feeling came over me and I knew it was going to be alright.

    Thank God above I am working again, half the pay and was asked to move up after a couple of months. I turned it down. Right now, I am taking a breather, being nice to myself and sitting in a cube, doing my job they hired me for and really trying to get over the evil I endured. This may take awhile, I still dream of getting back at the she devils,

    Would I do it again? Report, send emails to myself on what happened, pay money for a counselor, cry myself to sleep. N0.

  7. Self-reflection is essential. It’s critical for me to be aware of where I am in the process of understanding workplace abuse – and, where others are in the process. If I lock myself in my personal silo of experience and understanding, I am closing myself off from additional learning – and, ultimately, from discovering effective responses to this phenomenon.

    For me, it is crucial that I suspend judgment and remain open to all points-of-view in discussions about workplace abuse. If I don’t, I will stagnate within the limitations of my own experience and knowledge.

  8. David
    Nothing is more important right now than people coming forward that are targets of workplace bullying! Unfortunately it has gone on for 25 years that i know of and it is devastating, it destroys lives and careers. The only way we are going to get a bill passed into law is to keep the awareness ongoing, employees need to keep coming forward and making government aware of what they are experienceing. As you have heard me say before, my experience was much like a prison camp.My every move was controlled and i was stalked at work and at home. I developed a post traumatic stress disorder and i am still out of work. My self confidence was crushed by daily pounding and constant criticism. I may never be able to work for an organization again. Working for myself may be the only option. But again to people that are being bullied. Step up, and expose the bully and confront them and their supervisor, and if that fails, go legal. My damage was sever enough i was able to get workers compensation and i have a lawsuit filed. Everyone step up and spek out!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  9. I agree that awareness of workplace aggression is essential. But in response to Mel’s suggestion to confront the bully and their supervisors, as much as I empathize with his experience, I think people should be very cautious about confronting anyone in the workplace because there is a very strong chance that doing so could lead to mobbing and far greater damage than any one “bully” can inflict. Moreover, the legal system is a nightmare; having been through it myself, and settled, I wouldn’t do it again. Suing an employer can be the kiss of death to future employment, and the cruely and aggression that takes place before a lawsuit is filed is nothing compared to what comes after. But that said, sometimes litigation is the only recourse to even minimal recovery, and there is a real need to help people understand how to best navigate the legal system, collect and organize evidence, and stay sane and employable through the process.

    • In response to janice comments. Thank you janice for your input. My problem was i was severely abused for 10 years. i was in a situation that leaving was not easy financially, i had young children i had to support and a mortgage, the economy is bad and jobs are not readily available. Unfortunately i put up wit it and let her get away with it. When i got sick i decided i ws going to expose her as much as possible, i was not going to let her walk free after making me suffer for 10 years and firing me for going out sick. i would not encourage employees to be afraid of exposure if they are in a severe situation, because doing so empowers the bully.If the time in the job is young i would reccomend if at all possible get out if the bullying is moderate and not tolerable, but if one is being severly abused as i was i say expose and the worst that can happen is you lose your job. Legally an employer cannot fire you for calling them on bullying. I am not sure i agree that future employment is jeopordized either, if it is than one doesnt need that employer. The longer we let bullies get away with the abuse, the stronger they become and the more people they injure.

      • I’m so sorry for your experiences, Mel; believe me, I have been through it myself, severely. But you are misinformed on one point. Unfortunately, an employer can legally fire you for accusing them of bullying. That is one of the reasons David Yamada has been working on the Healthy Workplace Bill. At present, unless a worker is a member of a protected class (by race, gender, sexuality, age, handicap or veteran’s status), and dismissal is related to discrimination or retaliation for reporting protected acts (e.g. sexual harassment) employment in most states is “at-will” meaning you can be fired without cause at any time. (I am not an attorney, so correct me if I’m wrong on this David.)

      • You are exactly right Janice on the at will employment, and an employer can fire you at any time for no reason, but what my lbor law attorney has told me is that they would have to do just that. What i was saying is an employer could not come out and say to you , that you accussed me of bullying so you are fired, becuase in new york state for example the dept of labor would not allow that, or human rights for thta matter. It is just like if there was a workplace safety issue and you brougt it to the attention of the employer and they ignored and then you called OSHA. Your employer could not retaliate for that. What they could do is as you said, just plainly eliminate you,, but these agencies, dept of labor,human rights, osha etc are not stupid, if one was terminated right after an allegation was brought forward they would put two and two together, so yes i agree they can legally fire you,but they haave to say to you i just do not wish to employ you any longer, they could not say i am retaliating , and firing you becuse you brought a bullying situation to light, Employers in new york state have an obligation to create a healthy and safe work environment, for example i was fired because the bullying caused severe post traumatic stress and the employer was not willing to make reasonable accomoddations for me to return. I have a major lawsuit against that employer and it is also why i won workers comp for my case. Thank you for your reply

  10. Even within the circle of my own workplace, I saw individuals bullied and/or mobbed experience a variety of reactions, and respond with a variety of different approaches, with a variety of outcomes. Each of us is unique and will have a unique experience. I do not know all of the particulars of even my own case!

    I can only surmise that each of us does the best we can at any given juncture, and from our own perspectives. There are no “right” answers, no sure-fire solutions…only the best you can do given the circumstances and priorities. I continue to research and listen in hope that I will be able to draw on more than my own limited experience and perspective to those who I might help…there are many many targets and I have developed a passion for looking for ways to address to this devastation.

  11. Wishing you all the best of luck, and remember that — on or off the record, as best suits your situation — there’s strength in numbers. It can be easier to jump from the burning ship, or you can heal sooner, with someone else lending encouragement.

  12. There is safety in numbers as our group of bullied and harrassed workers demonstrated this year.
    I am so tempted to name and shame the organization but must take advisement that I cannot do so publicly until matters are finalized.
    One in three workers (targets / victims) lodged formal complaints to management before the bully @ organizational psychopath was moved out of the worksite. However,the magic number before action was 10 complaints, way too many and so many employees were disgruntled.
    The benefit of having access to and making use of the Employee Assistance Program cannot be understated. The talking / writing about the situation to anyone who will listen is very cathartic. If someone wants to talk to you as a colleague, definitely make time to listen.
    When your wellbeing (psychological & physical health) is being affected, do not hesitate to visit your doctor. There are many options available for treating the emotional scars of workplace bullying, which if severe enough may be termed a psychological injury for which a worker’s compensation claim should be lodged.
    Each claim lodged does two things, one lets employer know there is a rogue employee out there and two, helps individual deal with the costs of treatment on the journey to recovery of emotional equilibrium. I know sometimes the last thing you want to do is lodge paperwork. I acknowledge this can be quite confronting but it is in everyone’s interest to do so. Make the employer accountable for dealing with the problem at all levels. Everyone will be better off in the long run.
    To anyone out there who is bravely soldiering on, stop, think and complain. You are within your rights to do so.

    • black cat i could not agree more. Even if it costs you your job, because in the long run staying in a situation like that will cost you more than your job, as i know first hand it can acost you your health and sanity. Furthermore the more bullies are allowed to continue the more power they develop and the stronger they get. They need to be exposed and stopped in their tracks. Thanks for your input

  13. There may be safety in numbers, but there is a fine line between a united group and a mob. Anytime a group forms around the purpose of expelling a person, group think and hysteria will replace compassion, insight, and rational thought. Rumors and gossip swirl and become embellished, the person’s identity is reduced to a singular brand, and their history reduced to a single interpretation. I have said it repeatedly, the bully label will not stick when it’s affixed to someone in power, but it will stick to the person who lacks organizational power, and it can destroy people. Moreover, confrontation can lead to being mobbed; no matter how kind and caring the worker who reports abusive treatment may be. Either way, these suggestions — however well meaning — are recipes for greater abuse — to the one making the report, and the one accused. As long as discussions about bullying in the workplace focus on themes of intolerance, rather than promoting compassionate workplaces, and advocate uniting the workforce against a co-worker, they will breed more toxic work environments.

  14. Speaking as a former target who was not always capable of describing the experience in the most artfully worded detail, I just want to caution everyone against telling targets how they should or should not describe the experience of being bullied and/or mobbed in the workplace. Academics, psychologists, lawyers and others who bring much insight and education into the realm of workplace bullying need to understand first and foremost that they will never comprehend the experience as fully as someone who has lived through it themselves. Similarly, even those people who have experienced workplace bullying or mobbing themselves and believe that certain other targets may be communicating in a less than ideal fashion need to take a moment to realize that others may not have recovered from the experience well enough to describe it with a less emotional tone, etc. Let the targets speak however they are able to communicate their experiences and try not to take their comments personally because without their voices, similar situations will never be fully understood or addressed.

  15. I give my opinion that the best bullies bully by stealth. They have learnt how to do it without leaving visible bruises. Only amateurs learning their trade resort to witnessed violence.

    It is my belief that hierarchical bullies (like Head Teachers) do what they do because they can. They enjoy exerting power over their subordinates and getting what they want. It is important for you to understand that they have no conscience whatsoever, and therefore are free to behave with no regard for consequences. It would never occur to them: nothing can reach them: they have no constraints on their conduct.

    Once, I would have felt pity for such glib half-people, but not now. Now I consider conscience, integrity and empathy to be what determines whether one is human or not.

    My attacker moved to my school, changing things that did not need changing, building an empire of sycophants, driving out good, experienced people and replacing them with staff of lesser quality. He removed all the old-timers who held the history, standards and traditions of the school dear, (no, not fuddy-duddy luddites, but people who cherished and knew the school, and were proud to say they worked there), replacing them with new, less experienced staff with fewer qualifications, who would be loyal only to him.

    Eventually, even the dimmest of governors started to see through the hype and self-promotion, and on he moved to the next unwitting school. The damage was done by then. My spies tell me that the school is now toxic, and the culture has altered from nurturing to dog-eat-dog.

    My bullying HT had honed his skills beautifully by the time he reached us. His need to control extended into every minute aspect of school life. Lacking empathy and conscience does not handicap the controlling bully, as they will have learnt to camouflage their actions in order to succeed. They may not be overly intelligent, but they have an animal cunning. They have learnt what they have to do to ensure they get what they want in their dealings with humans.

    Real humans cannot know what it is like to be a bullying half-person, nor to feel the despair of their targets. It is difficult to tell such bullies apart from humans as they can only be identified by their actions.

    Decent people think bullies can be reasoned with, or “stood up to” but their theatre is not the playground, and the consequences of their actions are ill and damaged people who have lost not only the job they once loved, but their health, relationships, reputations, (bullies control information) and their sense of worth.

    How could I not realise that I was being bullied? Why would I know? I am a human, and my attacker was an expert at his craft. He was glib, plausible, superficially charming; an empty suit. Does he ever think of what he did to me? I doubt it. Do you grieve for the pods you discard when you shell peas? And no, I couldn’t have fought back. I’m human and had no idea such half-people existed until I was broken. I know now, though, and that is why I post on here. It is not being dramatic to state that if you have not been targeted by a bully, then you don’t know, you really don’t know what it is like.

  16. I truly do believe that regardless of what side of the issue any one of us is on, we have one theme in common. It would benefit each person that is associated with this phenomenon to advocate for and support the emerging data that seems to indicate that there may be a correlation between employee morale and workplace performance that ultimately impacts upon a company’s outcome measures which, in turn, effect current and future marketing success.

    When we are able to approach our legislators with concrete specific data that can measure the correlation between the two variables, we have an increased chance of garnering a receptive audience. A cause and effect relationship would be preferable, however, it can be much more difficult to isolate. .

    Otherwise, all of the social justice agendas and the righteousness of the focus is going to pale compared to the budget issues that has this nation’s taxpayers and lawmakers upmost attention.

    Having said that, I so agree that unless someone has ‘been there’ in terms of being a target of bullying, I do think it is very difficult to fully comprehend the travesty of the injustice that is visited upon targets and their family and friends.

    The suffering has lifelong effects on these people’s lives, both personal, and most often, professional, as well. I, myself, am still employed at the agency where I am vulnerable to being singled out and attacks at any turn in the road.

    However, I do think that focusing on the budgetary benefits for the workplace is the surest way in which to encourage our legislators, as well as the employer sector, to step up and support this type of legislation.

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