Dealing with a bad workplace: Getting to tolerance

If national studies on workplace bullying and job dissatisfaction are any indication, a lot of people are dealing with lousy workplaces. These experiences can cause no small amounts of anxiety and stress, resulting in significant human and organizational costs.

Of course, the easiest antidote to a bad workplace is to leave it, hopefully for something better, but the exit option often must be weighed against other factors, especially in this difficult economy. Indeed, we know that a lot of people are staying at workplaces they don’t like for lack of better choices.

In terms of energy levels, these realities can leave people in a state of utter despair or recurring anger and conflict. For folks in these places, getting to tolerance is a goal worth pursuing.

What do I mean by “getting to tolerance”? It means being able to deal with the undesirable aspects of your workplace without them constantly taking you down a notch, or at least bouncing back after a bad day there. It means being able to do your job well, perhaps even with some enthusiasm and satisfaction, despite the negative aspects of your work environment. It means not taking the bad parts of work home with you every day. It also means being able to develop and weigh future options in a constructive and hopeful way.

Compared to despair or anger, tolerance is a big step up on the energy level scale.

That said, getting to tolerance often is easier said than done. None of these possibilities are necessarily ideal, but here are some potential avenues:

  • Re-negotiate, with yourself, how you regard your job and even your career. Zero in on what you like about your job. Or, conversely, consider the pros and cons of emotionally detaching from your work.
  • Create an in-house, informal support group of fellow workers who share your values and concerns. Be smart and careful about advertising this.
  • If you regard your job in the context of a career, create meaningful connections related to your profession or trade outside your workplace. Build a positive external network of people who share your interests.
  • Plan exit strategies, whatever they may be, while revisiting the “Should I stay, or should I go?” question. Don’t make it just about removing yourself from the bad stuff. Plant the seeds for potentially significant, positive changes.
  • Engage in mindfulness practices, such as meditation, to take the edge off the most stressful aspects of your work experience. For example, Thich Nhat Hanh’s Work: How to Find Joy and Meaning in Each Hour of the Day (2012), concludes with a chapter “Thirty Ways to Reduce Stress at Work.”
  • Pursue hobbies and avocations outside of work that provide meaning, engagement, and satisfaction.
  • Seek counseling or coaching if you believe that professional help and guidance may be useful.

A final point: I’m not suggesting that you stick your head in the sand and talk yourself into thinking that nothing is wrong. Especially if you work in a place where bullying and intimidation are standard operating procedures, you’ll have to keep your wits about you. There’s a sensible midpoint between willful ignorance and hyper-vigilance, and that’s probably the best place to be in a bad workplace.

I’ve been studying, experiencing, and writing about the world of work for too long to suggest that there are easy ways for people to deal with less-than-wonderful workplaces. For some, however, getting to tolerance is a worthy and achievable objective, and reaching that point may be the portal to something even better.


The references to energy levels in this post are inspired by Bruce Schneider’s Energy Leadership: Transforming Your Workplace and Your Life from the Core (2008), and insights from professional coach Kerri Myers.

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25 responses

  1. I was able to get to this place of tolerance at a school with a bully boss and mobbing culture. Specifically, I had a group of supportive colleagues. I developed a professional network and took professional development outside of my school. I continued to study and grow in areas of interest to me that were part of my identity as well as my career. My place of tolerance showed in the way I carried myself. No longer cowling, this infuriated my boss and made her seek out an unprecedented mode to have me removed. In addition, I had to watch those dear colleagues who befriended me go through a slow torture and loose their jobs. So yes be “careful” about constructing your support group. Not to be a Debbie Downer; the place of tolerance is an emotional gift a target should try to give to him/herself but it may have other consequences.

    • Torri sounds like a terrible situation. I agree building any kind of support group at the workplace will most likely trigger negative consequences for those in the group, especially if the bully is a high level employee. They have a unique talent and the venue/audience to present the target as a “problem” employee (and those who support them). Thanks for sharing.

  2. A place of “tolerance” is an interesting way of saying get your game on. As an experienced target, I can say it took me years of struggling and juggling the pros and cons of all aspects regarding my situation including contemplating suicide. I instead chose the path of finding my “tolerance”. Was it easy? No. First I had to make a conscious decision that my life was more important than any job. I then made a renewed commitment to myself, my health and my well being. With the help of a therapist I learned to take back control. How? By educating myself on what makes a bully tick. In most cases, as in mine, they are actually threatened by the target on some level. For me, my bully despised my people skills, so I made it a point to fine tune and further develop those areas. It drove her nuts. Imagine how ridiculous she looked that everyone except for her thought I was friendly, hard working, helpful and pleasant. I still lacked the confidence I needed to deal with her on a daily basis. She has a Masters in education, which isn’t really applicable in the corporate environment, but she did get the job, so I went back and got an MBA. Score another point for me. She really hated that I now had thw credentials needed to fill her job, and she didn’t. Now the real game breaker for her was when my therapist strongly suggested I put in the paperwork for family leave, which I did. My therapist named her and her bullying tactics as the cause of my anxiety and panic attacks, in addition to my physical health issues. This brought im a third party, HR. Nothing progressive happened except that HR was now aware. The family leave really helped me because it gave me control of my situation by legally granting me permission to take time off when I needed it for therapy sessions, Dr. appts, and time for myself when needed, without repercussions.
    So I agree tolerance is a place that can be reached but getting there is not easy and there is no set method of getting there. The guidelines provided on this blog and the articles are excellent suggestions and provide useful information. My opinion is each situation is personal and targets have to first find their motivation and focus on getting to their place of tolerance.

    Thank you David for providing this blog.

  3. Thank you for an exceptional column and for the equally exceptional comments thus far.

    Both Dee’s and Torii’s comments exemplify the amount of self- and other- awareness it takes to tolerate (and/or survive) work abuse. It’s not for the fainthearted. I believe it exacts a cost, even with optimal outcomes.

    I would not want people to think there is anything lacking in them if they can’t get to tolerance; or, even if they don’t have a sense of the path to take when trying. There are so many variables that need to be considered. It requires being able to step outside of the emotion as much as possible and react with insight and strategies, knowing there are no guarantees. I totally agree that each situation is personal.

    The topic of tolerance is one that could (and should) be explored in much greater detail. I think a “collective” natural by-product of employees building tolerance is systemic change – slow and building over time.

  4. I tolerated an abusive workplace for years, holding onto hope that it would improve when I promoted into another department (went from one hell hole to another and then back when I didn’t make probation) and earned two degrees.

    I was treated like a pariah and no co-workers wanted to associate with me for fear of being the next mark. Many of them participated in the mobbing. I outlasted previous targets, which made the tormentors even more determined to force me out. They used all the tricks of the trade but in classic gaslighting fashion they would deny everything. I was micromanaged, constantly criticized and ridiculed, my documents and e-mail listserv were broken into and tampered with. I was blamed for things I didn’t do, my workload was increased on purpose and I was denied the time and resources to keep up. They used this trick to justify taking away my responsibilities and reassigning me to menial duties. My desk was relocated to a converted closet and I was ignored by the rest of the staff.

    Throughout the ordeal, I suffered anxiety, insomnia, depression, bruxism, and gastritis. My doctors suggested finding another job. I held out because I knew I wouldn’t be able to find a job that paid a comparable salary and benefits. Finally after I developed an ulcer, I knew I had to leave. Financial stability vs. health, it was a tough decision.

    Safety also factored into my decision as my bullies didn’t have a conscience and were capable of getting away with anything. One bully bragged about doing malicious things to people she didn’t like. Twice my tires were flattened. I think she had something to do with it but of course there was no way to prove it. Even if I did have proof, I would have been blown off. The bullies were master manipulators held in high esteem by superiors. One perpetrator’s bullying had cost the agency dearly because she picked on targets in a protected class. Still, she convinced higher ups she was the innocent party and the claimants were simply looking for a payout. She even got a raise afterwards. This is how untouchable they were.

    I see the value in what you say David because a good job is hard to find in this economy. I think in extreme cases though it is better to be unemployed than be abused.

    • I agree that in cases of severe bullying where the target is suffering greatly, the exit strategy may be the least bad option. That’s why the stay vs. go question is so difficult in these situations.

  5. Emotionally detaching from work is a conscious decision to become a disengaged employee. For those who have chosen their work as a call to service, it is a heartbreaking prospect. It is difficult to choose to disservice your clients and undermine a mission you are passionate about, and I know I am not the only service provider who has felt that way and decided that even if emotional detachment could be achieved, it would be at the expense of one’s personal sense of morality and integrity. I do understand that circumstances occasionally demand it….how tragic that souls are being destroyed in order to maintain an income.

    A reasonable employer (or even a competent manager) would not put a competent employee in that position. The decision to disengage would include recognition that the employer is not reasonable and the management is incompetent. They would not recognize that having disengaged employees is a liability that compromises the client. The mission has already been subverted. An employee who sees this and stays has abandoned the purpose that brought her to the workplace, and replaced it with the priority need of maintaining personal safety at the expense of those she chose to serve.

    In addition, bullying rarely eases on the basis of anything the target does (other than exit the workplace, which only improves things for her). Once targeted, the usual established pattern is of escalation and eventual ejection. I can only imagine disengagement as a realistic strategy on a short term basis- and only when it also includes a decision not to fight (as right-fighting will accelerate the process of termination). It might “work” if the situation is not truly targeted bullying, but entrenched counter-productive processes and personalities that are unpleasant but not malignant. More often, there is a cycle of escalating abuse with momentum that will carry you in its own strategic direction, whether or not you chose to go there.

    Tolerance? Too costly when your mission is aligned with that your employer claims: too costly when your passion and purpose drove you there in the first place. It would be spiritual suicide.

    • Just to provide some context, the employer I left recently surveyed its workforce and discovered that 54% of employees were engaged, 24% passive, 21% actively disengaged. The percentage of passive and actively disengaged employees was up from the previous year’s results. That is a terrifying result for a healthcare employer. It’s mission-critical work, and worth fighting for.

    • There’s a difference between tolerance and emotional withdrawal. I agree that for someone passionate about their work, emotional withdrawal is a high price to pay. However, tolerance as I’ve described here recognizes the possibility, however difficult to achieve, that one can hold on to the pieces of their work that animate them while coping with the bad stuff.

      Furthermore, it’s important that we not equate “bad workplace” with “bullying.” Sometimes they are one in the same, but often they are not. The levels of dissatisfied and disengaged workers usually far exceed the prevalence statistics of those experiencing bullying, though certainly the latter is a very serious problem and changes dramatically how we look at the possibility of getting to tolerance.

      • Interesting. Where I have found information about both bullying and engagement in healthcare environments, the reported incidence of bullying is higher than the reported incidence of disengagement.

      • Kachina, I’m using overall prevalence studies. The WBI study on workplace bullying and the Gallup study on employee dissatisfaction & disengagement. The WBI study reports 7% currently experiencing bullying; the Gallup study reports some 70% currently disengaged.

    • Or self preservation at its best! One can, with the right support, stay engaged in their work product while disengaging from the bully. It’s not easy and there will be set backs, but its possible. I am living proof of that concept. So my question to you is: have you ever been a target or are you just “an expert” on the topic? I believe if you haven’t lived it, either as a target or as someone emotionally attached to a target (family member, spouse, etc.) you cannot fully relate to what it’s like. No research, no lecture and no book can possibly give you the true perspective of that.

      • Actually, my original interest in this topic was sparked by my experiences and observations as a junior faculty member many years ago. Furthermore, a dear friend endured a long-time course of bullying via her employment at a large corporation that still ranks as the worst I’ve ever seen. (This included the theft of an entire drawer full of her personnel records and notes from my university office.)

        Many researchers, advocates, and subject-matter experts concerning workplace bullying came to this subject out of personal experience or close association with a target. The research, lectures, and books to which you refer are helping to educate the public and inform our understanding of this form of interpersonal abuse. While the experience of bullying is specially understood by targets, efforts to gain wider support for the workplace anti-bullying movement will stop short of the mark if we insist that only targets can comprehend it.

      • With all due respect, my response was to Kachina’s comments regarding disengagement. I do appreciate your insightfulness and personal experiences.

      • Dee, okay, sorry for reading it wrong — I was looking at the placement of your comment in the que here, and it appeared you were responding to me.

        As for Kachina, she has consistently offered some of the most insightful comments here. I’ll let her speak to her experience and knowledge, but I wanted to say that I’ve always appreciated her contributions to these discussions.

      • David opposing positions or non agreement thrown into the mix of discussion typically opens minds to a new view if nothing else. I enjoy the blog. Find it helpful and interesting on such an emotional and controversial topic. Thank you. Enjoy your day!

  6. It’s encouraging that the overall prevalence of bullying is lower than in healthcare. The 70% overall disengagement is pretty scary, and clearly doesn’t benefit anybody. Perhaps that’s hopeful too…lots to be gained by improving workplace environments!

  7. I spent so long trying to initially resolve the problem, offering ideas to superiors to discreetly move me leterally, to another division where my work was actually more suited, and out from under the abusive reporting structure (long before it turned to full blown mobbing) all to no avail. I thought it could be a win-win for all, because a lateral move would have been a necessary operational improvement anyway, and there wouldn’t have had to be any reprimanding of the bully. I really thought this would have solved the problem without triggering a retaliation-effort, and an escalation of attacks. Despite support from our CIO, HR denied the move. And the abuse escalated to mobbing, and to a level of sheer terrorization, to the point I began officially reporting the abuse… practically begging for help. I knew my work was broad enough, and unique a combination-skillset, management really could have stuck me almost anywhere in the bureau and my job could have been modified within reason, to fit a ‘safe’ area in the bureau (meaning, anywhere outside of my division, where my abusive supervisor, and the division chief that supported her horrible behaviour, resided). I had no idea how bad it would get but I did know the danger to my career and my health if i stayed where I was. After it became so bad I realized there was absolutely nothing I could do to recrify the problem, after I eventually reported the abuse, at this point officially to HR, to Union stewards, to my Bureau Director, witnesses coming forward about the abuse, all to no avail, I took a promotion to leave the agency, knowing full well (and explaining the dilemma to mgmt at my agency) that yi thought changing agencies was a bad idea because 1) I was suffering PTSD and was not functioning well enough to start a new (first time ever in management) job… 2) my bully supervisor already defamed me to the new workplace, colleagues and my new subordinates, via ‘grapevine’ and sneaky connections, before i even had my first day on that job. I figured I had little choice but to leave the job i loved, and had to go into this new job, with increased responsibility at a time when I was suffering badly from the mobbing. Thus, I would do my best, and the new colleagues and managers would see me for who I was, and realize all the ‘crazy’ rumours are not true — plus I had a glowing reference from my former bureau director, who told my new boss that I was an excellent worker, but had a problem-supervisor; well, none of what my CIO said could stand up to the chipping away via rumours and defamation, my supervisor spread throughout that new workplace. 3) I became the new person on the job, and that put me in a vulnerable position, whereas in the prior job where bullying/mobbing was occurring, I knew my job well, and knew the org well, so I really felt the safest option for me was to have a lateral move (or even a demotion) rather than a promotion into a supervisory role in an unfamiliar agency, where people were already tipped off that they should be ‘concerned’ for how awful i will become once the probationary period was over. Well I had strong instincts telling me that move was not going to be ‘safe’ because my bully supervisor was going to stop at nothing to ensure I was ousted before that probationary period was over. And that is exactly what happened. I was sent back to the abusive agency, in the same division under the toxic division chief who applauded my abuser for how she ‘handled’ me… a ‘problem employee’. But instead of the abusive supervisor, I was moved to another unit where that supervisor was already onboard ro enable abuse by-proxy, by the bully who at this point was influencing everything down to the smallest detail, yet was in a position to continue her tactics in a way that, not being my direct supervisor, would preclude me from filing any greivances for policy, contractual or legal breaches, since now someone else who was part of the larger mobbing effort, was my new boss. They also created the position special for me, so there would be no familiar work, and perhaps most importantly, no ‘similarly situated’ employees… therefore there could be no precedent; no basis of comparison, for what is expected of me. It was a clear setup for constructive discharge, complete with charts drawn on whiteboards prior to my arrival back to this snakepit, and reassurances to the contractors in this bull-pen area, that i would be isolated as to ‘not be a bother’ to anyone. There was a complete reshifting of cubical walls and workspaces, and a huge disruption and three-ring-circus of a show, to ensure everyone was very inconveniences at my impending return. Wow. Ok. this doesnt even address this topic and i could go on forever about the horrible things that happened and the sheer helplessness and hopelessness of being once considered an excellent employee, doing everything i possibly could to navigate a safe solution and not trigger escalation or retaliation, and to always be honest and try my best, but suffering through every minute of every day as I knew I was doomed. My supporters, two of whom have been bullied out or fired since, were bullied to silence by HR during this. I was even told over and over by others I used to have solid working relationships with, that they could not speak to me ‘by strict orders of HR’… Yet i was never formally accused of any infraction. Behind my back however, it was stated boldly between managers, HR professionals, and colleagues, that i was being moved to this ‘special’ position because I falsely accused my supervisor of workplace bullying and harassment; my supervisor herself spread rumours to everyone, particularly her boss and HR, that i was planning to file an EEOC suit for ‘toxic work environment’ (none of which was true, despite i could have; however i decided very quickly upon my initial ‘escape’ that i would throw myself into healing and focus on my new job, and never look back… That decision was firm, after talking with WBI support folks, and absorbing the reality of what is important: moving on and surviving. Thanks to the bully and her toxic boss telling this lie of impending lawsuits, HR was spurred into retaliation mode. Thus, I suffered the retaliation (so common when an employee takes legal action) however, based on a lie, without even filing a lawsuit! My bully supervisor, I believe, studied exactly what would spur retaliation and escalate mobbing, and did exactly those things to make things even worse, so I could not rectify the situation, and the rumours kept growing, with HR spurring my abuser and other colleagues and managers to find anything online possible to find fault. When there was nothing amoral, or signaling a violation of my FMLA (leave unpaid, taken just after one day of being sent back) while i was out, that is when a huge influx of imposter profiles were created of me, online, including p0rn profiles that listed data straight from info in my ersonnel file, along with heinous sex interests that personally offend and sicken me, but also put me at risk of being assaulted as my former supervisor solicited sex publicly online as me, created an imposter blog of my husband, and wrote on confessions sites to make us appear to have a teoubled relationship frought with infidelity and disgusting sex behaviour with others. This grew and grew until she had more social media, email, identity mgmt, forum etc profiles as me, than I do of myself, and has used high-tech enterprise tools to automate the defamation, now putting us at risk of traditional identity theft, and even danger to physical safety, as i fear for my friends, family and anyone who gets near me trying to help, because she even implemented malware affecting my ios devices, stealing data, and spoofing callerid to others as me, and to me from others (as threats and clues, such as hints of what crime i am going to be falsely accused of, or what terrible thing she has in store for me next, what effort of mine she is aiming to thwart, so i can spend my days and nights crippled in fear trying to decypher these ‘clues’ and wondering how i can possibly get help from authorities, so I can have the right to live and heal someday, without sounding CRAZY — because without the full story, when i explain this piecemeal, it DOES sound crazy. The more I realize that, the more scared i become, and the more hopeless i feel. The employer also fears liability, so this now-cybercriminal/felon is running free to abuse us with impunity, under safehaven of a legally-liable/scared employer whom i fully believe knows the truth and is covering for her, to ensure I have no recourse; recourse the vicariously liable employer fears will reflect back on them, once the truth is known. I just wish the employer would realize I am very forgiving and just want them to help me stop this criminal before she causes any more devastation to our lives, or even causes us to lose our lives! I am not looking to ‘blame’ the employer… despite they did do all the wrong things enabling this cyberpath workplace bully to escalate to a criminal level. It should not have to be this hard. Should it?

  8. sorry my post is so long and diskjointed, with a ton of tangents and typos, missing the point along the way. Please feel free to delete it. It is just so hard for me to ever just reply and then proofread. So I bite the bullet and hit ‘post’ and rarely look at what i wrote, ever again. Normally being organized, and a perfectionist when it comes to writing and expressing myself, this dealing with trauma and PTSD, and such a wildly complex escalation of abuse, has hampered my ability to express myself concisely, and stick to the topic sans tangential ‘reliving of trauma’ that is now my life. And so the story continues… Someday i hope to share it in a more pointed, organized, understandable way. I hope for that healing required to do so, but thus far, despite being out of the workplace since 2011, the bully/cyberpath and related mobbing has continued to escalate. How does one heal from PTSD, when there IS no way out from escalating torture and increased danger, with even less support than ever (abuse that has gone well beyond workplace, but now into community resources, and globally online)?

    • I can relate Tara and wish I knew the answer to your question. It’s surreal to see these sick sociopaths thrive and get away with their evil deeds. People don’t want to believe stuff like this happens to good workers, heck I don’t want to believe it. The problem is it’s real and the damage is devastating. Wish there was a WB recovery support group for folks like us!

    • Bully are protected in the workplace as your story, mine and so many others have shown this to be the norm; however, outside the workplace now thats a different story. Libel and slander. Google it, file a police report, get an attorney, get an order if protection. Educate yourself on your rights. I know its difficult. I’ve been there and am still there, fighting the good fight, legally. Good luck I know you will make it through this!

  9. I do know that in a lot of cases of bullying a protected class can also be used to legally fight against the bully. There is a fine line there, ie. a woman getting bullied can and should keep records of anything and everything that could possibly be used as discrimination against her as a woman. The bully could yell at her about her not having the strength to do the job like a man would have or the temperament or (you fill in the blank).
    I’m no lawyer but you can see the picture and expand on it for other protected classes of discrimination like age, gender, race, sexual orientation etc… you get the idea.
    A good friend of ours won a sizable settlement in a bullying case because she pursued the age and gender card in her suit rather than going for bullying which currently is not illegal.
    By having at least some protections under the law, people are still able in some cases to benefit from legal actions.

    • Yes, and thank you. The bully in my workplace slipped up and made some bad decisions regarding work assignments and I am currently pursuing Age discrimination as a possible lawsuit. If successful, this will be my exit. Thanks for sharing.

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