I have been interested in the advice currently being shared about ‘what to do when you are bullied’. Sadly most of it is idealised, text book advice, which does not take into account organisational real politik. The truth is that bullying is messy, highly emotional charged, multi-faceted and collusive.
The only way bullies can be tackled is through organisational change when heads are cool and people are open to learning. Over more than a decade I was an architect and designer in the development of an organisational wide ‘programme’ or movement to tackle workplace bullying. We explored every aspect of bullying behaviour: introducing the concepts and vocabulary which enable people to speak about bullying: highlighting the behaviours which are bullying and, over time, reducing self-declared bullying incidents.
So here is my reality check, if you find yourself bullied:
- Leave/change your job as soon as you realise that you are bullied. If you want to avoid untold stress and unhealthy negative emotion, find the strength now to change your job, if you can. The moment you realise that you are being targeted is the time to get out. The bully won’t go away nor will the situation blow over in the short term.
- Your morale and mental health. If you don’t act quickly than your own failing morale, physical and mental health will inhibit you in the future: you simply won’t be well enough to find or perform in another job, let alone perform well enough at interview to win it.
- Your performance. The bully wants and needs you to stay put. But if you don’t act quickly the bully will ensure that your performance is deemed below the level which enables you to get another job. You will be stuck. So you have a little time and must move before the first performance appraisal from the bully takes place. Remember the halo and horns effect… once you have ‘horns’ your credibility disappears in your organisation.
- Bullies work in secret: you, the target, are aware of what is going on but the bully will make sure that he or she has friendly, warm and supportive relationship with their boss, their boss’s boss and their own peers. As a lone voice, if you do decide to raise an issue, you will not be believed or worse still when the investigation arises there will be evidence of your poor performance AND no one will have a bad word to say about the boss. Your complaint will fail and the bullying will continue.
- HR Support – Business Partnering has its good side but the bad side is that the HR community is too near to management and has lost the ability, generally, to be independent. It is highly likely HR support will be for the bullying line manager. Few have the time to dig below your performance ratings and absence record. Expect limited or no support from the HR community.
- Union Support: If you are a union member, get advice very quickly: they deal with more cases of bullying in a year than you can shake a stick at. You may have scruples about unions but their advice is independent and confidential and, in my professional experience, worth having. Think about it. Failing union membership, get legal advice. It costs, but it will help you.
- Take a deep breath: if you love your job so much that you reject my advice to change your job on the double then you must look deep into yourself: are you going to complain about injustice and edge into mental ill health, take sick leave (the bully, backed by the organisation, will come after you on that one) OR are you going to find the strength to get through this? You need to decide on what outcomes you want. This is very important and helps with recovery and closure later.
- Standing up to the bully: if you have chosen the latter path (standing up to the bully) then you will be standing alone. Recognise this from the start. Colleagues and possibly ‘friends’ at work will not want to back you up. You will be lucky if they do. You will find your true friends; they have to be because you will be obsessed with what is happening to you.
- Bystanders: colleagues who know what is going on – bystanders, as they are called, are reluctant to get involved: they fear for their job and possibly becoming a target themselves. You must expect nothing from them and, although, it feels frustrating and hurtful, understand that they too are intimidated by the situation.
- Not proven: unfortunately it is highly likely that the outcome of any organisational investigation carried out will be ‘not proven’ or ‘behaviour is unacceptable but falls short of bullying’ This will incense you but organisations find it, for many reasons, difficult to identify bullies or call them out. Never expect to find out the ‘punishment’ metered out to the bully, even if aspects of bad behaviour are identified. It just will not happen for legal and organisational reasons.
Standing up to a bully in the face or organisational and colleague hostility or even indifference is the most difficult and courageous action you can take at work. In moral terms you are joining the fight against injustice and you can feel justifiably proud, whatever the outcome… but the emotional and psychological cost is huge and healing will take time.
So I go back to my original advice: change your job, get happy then come back with energy and resourcefulness to fight bullying at work on an organisation wide level, relieved that you have avoided the abyss.