Targets of workplace bullying: The stress and anxiety of figuring out what the h**l is going on

One of the most significant stressors in experiencing workplace bullying is sorting out what is happening to you. The bullying behaviors themselves are bad enough, but the process of comprehending that you’re being targeted — especially when the bullying is covert or indirect — often adds a solid layer of stress and anxiety. What the h**l is going on here? is a question that runs through a lot of minds.

I feel compelled to say to readers who are current or past bullying targets that I understand how simply reading this post may push buttons and serve as a reminder of your experience. On balance, however, we must opt for spreading knowledge as a form of power. The more we readily grasp and recognize workplace bullying, the less anguish people will experience in trying to understand their situations.

Indeed, over the years I have heard from so many individuals who reported feeling very relieved when they discovered, say, the website of the Workplace Bullying Institute or this blog. The mere knowledge that this form of mistreatment exists and has a name can be deeply validating to those who are experiencing abuse at work.

As I suggested above, the process of comprehending a situation is especially challenging when bullying behaviors are more covert or indirect. Understandably, people on the receiving end sometimes question their judgment and assumptions, wondering if their instincts are reliable. In cases of gaslighting behaviors designed to confuse or disorient a target, this result may be intentional. All too often, folks in these situations wait too long to act.

So, here’s to education and awareness about one of the most frequent and harmful forms of job-related mistreatment. While workplace bullying is not an enjoyable topic to contemplate, understanding it can be empowering and useful when the need arises.



The Need Help? page of this blog provides a list of resources about workplace bullying specially useful to workers.

In addition, I served as a subject matter expert to the American Psychological Association’s Center for Organizational Excellence, helping them develop this public information page on workplace bullying, with an emphasis on resources for employers.

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8 responses

  1. It is so true, the stress of making sense of this terrible situation. There are several off us, nurses, who left long-term employment, and had our careers derailed after the hiring of a new manager. Some of us question whether we should have ‘tougher it out’, hung in there longer. Health issues were determinates for some, the others, mental health. And, the hospital administration continues to deny the situation, despite lawsuits. Hard to feel like a respected, empowered professional.

    In graduate school, I did a paper on workplace thics, and discovered the support of this site. Thank you for your work.

    • Denise, I appreciate your comments. One thing I’d like to add in response to yours: While it’s very easy to second guess one’s actions in these situations, no one should beat themselves up over choices made or not made. Bullying situations, like other forms of interpersonal abuse, can take people by surprise, and it’s very difficult to make clearheaded decisions.

  2. I got some measure of serious relief regarding my situation when I “stumbled upon” New York Healthy Workplace Advocates and started looking at my situation through the lens of workplace bullying rather than workplace racism/bigotry, though some of my Colleagues are profanely bigoted.

    As the harassment and insults became more and more conspicuous and public, I decided I had to learn how the system worked at Hunter College, that is, the theoretical espoused in words as “Academic Freedom” and “Academic Integrity” and “Collegiality” and the realpolitic that allows the nemeses of those concepts to thrive on this campus. That learning involved reviewing University bylaws as much as possible (a very dense document, let me tell you), and ascertaining the effectiveness of filing complaints with the Ombuds Office, the College Senate, the union representing me (the Professional Staff Congress) as well as talking to and writing memos to administrators such as the Provost anddeans, getting them as much as possible on the record. Succinctly – and I can corroborate the following – is that there is an institutional problem at Hunter where for the most part bullying that takes place in my department is seen as “department politics.”

    Articles by the New York Times and the Chronicle of Higher Education about the President of the College, as well as the commentaries generated by those stories, provide some measure of corroboration when I state that bullying is an institutional problem at the College for those targeted for bulling and it is lumped other “department politics” if the target is an instructor or staff member. I have had both an union rep as well as an administrative dean say that I have to put up with the bullying.

  3. Took me a while to figure it out. Ran into another girl and I had to explain what happened to her. She was dumbfounded. It is a very poor way of doing business. A company could at least be honest and say we regret we must layoff some employees and actually feel sad about it. I have been following Minding the Workplace for about 2 years. I feel that we explain so much in detail and try so hard, but do not get anywhere. Children being bullied is ahead of adults, but I believe bullying should be combined. I cannot understand the length of time and effort it takes to pass a Bill that is so needed and so “common sense”. I have been damaged by my bullying, as I have complained/addressed many times. I tried so hard to help the bill pass, had T-shirts made, explained to many, many politicians. No one seems to this we are important. I am beginning to feel helpless. I had cards made to pass out to people explaining the Bill. I went to live talks with Congressmen. I am worn out just doing what I did and did not get anywhere! I believe it is in God’s hands and perhaps those who are more influential, stronger can help this pass. It is such a ‘no brainer”. I still don’t understand why it must be separated from harassment either. We need someone with a lot of influence to help. We talk and talk, try and try, and maybe get very slightly along. I have PTSD and was protected class, as I have always said over and over. The EEOC did nothing good for me. It was a waste of 3 years of my life. I believe I need to bow out and leave this now to people like Dr. Yamada and those with more expertise. I tried to learn all aspects, but do not have the influence or strength. The politicians who could move this along seem to care about this, but it seems nothing really happens. I am not trying to sound negative, but like you say, “What the h**l is going on!

  4. In a way, GEM, you’ve answered your own question. One reason it’s so difficult to create change is because many people have no clue just what workplace abuse is about and what it can do to people. Most of us questioned what was happening (when we were targets). This means we had little clue about work abuse. Those who haven’t been subjected to work abuse have a difficult time really understanding what it means or what it can do. So it makes sense they don’t necessarily feel the need to pay much attention to the issue or do anything about it.

    There are also various reasons people resist efforts to address workplace abuse. There are many people who have the attitude that targets just don’t have thick skin or are whiners, etc. What might may be behind this – in some cases – is that these folks, either consciously or subconsciously, recognize themselves in the bullies. This pushes the ‘defense’ buttons, i.e., denial of the problem, blame of the targets, etc.

    Personally, for me, until I experienced what I did, I always had the belief that if injustice happened, there would be a way to deal with it, be heard, etc. I was so ignorant about the fact that there is virtually no way for most employees to seek justice, at least not any way that is possible (practical) for most employees.

    Social change takes time. There are many things we take for granted today that, at one time, were thought not possible.

  5. DR: You are absolutely right. If you don’t experience bullying, you cannot feel it. Even the “Bad Bosses” movies are comedies. Remember when Connie Chung experienced bullying? Perhaps, with her being a public figure, she could have talked more about her experience. It is like the bullied person is embarrassed and they are portrayed as “weak”. In most cases, it is the bully who is the weaker person and insecure. It would have to be just the right person/group, who were bullied to get the word out, but then again, like you said, the politicians, who could pass the Bill, don’t understand, because they don’t feel how we do. The pain we experienced and still experience, does not catch true empathy of others. They may say how sorry they are for us; comparable to one who is sick with the flu. One feels sorry for a sick person, but they don’t feel the symptoms, unless they had experienced the same. When I spoke with those bullied at their job, we would cry and hug. I did tell the bullies (I had 5 bullies) that God knew who was lying and who was telling the truth; they became teary-eyed and quickly shook the tears away. My life was then made worse, because they made up more bizarre lies, collaborated by all 5, due to their own fears. My “main’ bully (supervisor) actually gets a bonus for each employee who ends up quitting. The whole reason for the bullying is simply corporate money savings. Get rid of long-term, high-paid employees, and replace them with new employees at ½ the wages. I ran into 50+ ex-employees from where I worked, who were bullied and quit; I am guessing the figure is 100+; this corporation has about 3,000 employees. When you think about it, who would want to work for a corporation with this reputation? I believe that God has a plan for the bullies and a plan for those who were bullied.

    Thank you DR for your enlightening reply.

    • I think it is ugglier and deeper than that.
      By one hand, the company gets rid of somebody but they have already somebody else ready to hire in the target’s place.
      That new person is in a disadvantaged position and “compensates” for the chance given, therefore it is an ugly form of corruption.

  6. It is 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 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, as 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 if one is human or not.

    My attacker, a new head teacher, 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 people from outside, 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 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 be unaware 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 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.

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