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Surviving Workplace Harassment and Bullying

Please note that this post contains references to harassment and violence.

Marginalized people are particularly vulnerable to harassment and bullying at work.

Sexism, homophobia, transphobia, racism, and ableism already prevent so many exceptional candidates from finding work in the first place. When they finally get there, they’re more likely to be seen as easy targets of abuse.

Bullying can also occur at school, at home, and in other areas of everyday life. Online hate and harassment can also become channels for cyberbullying. In this post, I’ll be focusing primarily on examples of bullying at work. If you or your child is suffering from racist bullying at school, please take a look at this resource from Edutopia on fighting bullying and harassment at school.

I’ve been bullied and I’ve been a witness to many more incidences of bullying than I’d like to admit. Bullying can be incredibly destructive and damaging to the target, the organization, and even bystanders. Yet many organizations struggle to properly identify, investigate, and address bullying in the workplace.

In this post, I’ll explain what exactly is workplace harassment and bullying, and how the two overlap in organizations through forms of sexist, homophobic, transphobic, racist, and ableist bullying.

Drawing on my own experiences as a target of and witness to bullying, along with my research as a management scholar, I’ll outline some practical steps to seeking justice and finding healing.

Black woman sits on her bed in her apartment silhouetted against an open window showing another apartment block outside, looking sad and pensive, representing the emotional consequences of workplace bullying and workplace harassment
Photograph by Alex Green

What Is Workplace Harassment?

Harassment is when someone is treated less favorably on the basis of their personal characteristics like gender, race, sexual orientation, marital status, pregnancy, age, and disability.

Harassment can be a one-off action that causes offense. Examples of harassment in the workplace could include spoken or written abuse, a hostile email, or even an image or physical gesture that is unwelcome and unwanted.

The most well-known example of workplace harassment is sexual harassment. Sexual harassment can involve inappropriate touching, gestures, comments, questions, and jokes as well as sharing sexually explicit images around the office.

In my own research, I’ve analyzed with anthropologist Katya Pechenkina how a digital image created as a joke and posted in the communal kitchen constituted a form of visual racial harassment.

When workplace harassment is unaddressed over time, it can create a hostile work environment. In this culture of violence, abuse and harassment become normalized and the responsibility is usually shifted back onto employees to ‘toughen up’ or ‘quit being a snowflake’.

A hostile work environment can be extremely damaging to workers’ physical and psychological health. Anxiety, depression, stress, and burnout may become pervasive in the workplace, which can then exacerbate physiological illnesses and harms.

Although organizational effects should never be equated with the harm on real workers’ lives, a hostile work environment is bad for the organization too. Organizations with harassment and bullying report higher rates of absenteeism, turnover, and reduced productivity.

Behaviors that are not considered harassment are those that are mutually consensual, for example, when two friendly workers hug each other. However, the hug may be harassment if one party thought it was consensual and the other did not, or when the power imbalance between them is so significant that the less powerful worker felt like they couldn’t say ‘no’.

Related: How to Set and Maintain Boundaries

Black woman in a white dress leans against wall looking out a large window, looking sad, symbolizing the pain and suffering experienced with workplace bullying and harassment at work
Photograph by Edson de Assis

Workplace Bullying

Where harassment can be a single isolated incident, things can escalate to bullying when it involves repeated acts of violence and abuse.

Bullying can happen to anyone. However, research suggests that women and people of color are more likely to be bullied, and when they do, receive less social support. Similarly, LGBTQIA+ folx are disproportionately bullied, with trans workers in particular facing the worst of workplace abuse. In the United States, 90 percent of transgender individuals have encountered harassment or mistreatment of some form on the job.

Disabled workers tell a similar story. They already face rampant discrimination that prevents them from finding and keeping stable employment. When they’ve finally beaten the odds, they’re nevertheless more vulnerable to abuse at work.

In workplaces, bullying is defined and governed by the particular laws of the country and state.

In my home of Australia for example, workplace bullying is defined as when “an individual or group of individuals repeatedly behaves unreasonably towards a worker or a group of workers at work AND the behavior creates a risk to health and safety.

There are countless ways that someone could act unreasonably against a worker.

Some examples include:

  • Making harmful allegations against a target
  • Spreading malicious rumors about a target
  • Aggressive and intimidating behavior
  • Making insulting, belittling, and humiliating comments
  • Pulling practical jokes or ‘initiation rites’
  • Exclusion from workplace events
  • Withholding information from a target that impacts their ability to do their jobs
  • Putting unreasonable work expectations on a target
  • Unfair treatment, such as denying someone training or promotion opportunities

Another key aspect of the Australian definition of workplace bullying is that the aggressive behavior needs to be repeated.

That means the first time someone is hostile towards you about one or more of your personal characteristics, it might be classified as harassment, but it’s not bullying until it happens again.

An Asian woman in a hijab and glasses holds her hands over her mouth, suggesting the fear and anxiety that can be experienced by people who face workplace harassment and bullying
Photograph by Wildan Zainul Faki

Misogynistic, Homophobic, Transphobic, Racist, and Ableist Bullying

Harassment and bullying at work are closely interrelated. Misogynistic, homophobic, transphobic, racist, and ableist bullying can include any number of the general bullying behaviors listed in the previous section. However, the target might be chosen because they’re from a marginalized group or are perceived to be from a marginalized group.

Bullies may see marginalized workers as relatively more vulnerable and thus believe that they’ll more easily get away with the bullying.

Being heterosexual and cisgender are still often seen as ‘natural’ in our society, leading some people to believe that being LGBTQ+ is abnormal and deviant.

Aggression towards the target of misogynistic, homophobic, transphobic, racist, and ableist bullying could look like:

  • Making derogatory comments about your group
  • Telling jokes about your group
  • Using slurs to describe you
  • Making you feel you need to suppress your gender/sexual/racial/ethnic identity or disability to get by at work

Bullying is about power.

Bullies tend to target people who they suspect won’t confront, report, or retaliate against them.

Sometimes the bully targets workers who may be new and don’t have strong bonds with others at work as they’re easy to isolate.

Other times, bullies target people who do have solid relationships with others and who are well-liked, out of jealousy and resentment.

Targets of bullying by and large tend to be competent, likable, and kind. The target’s capabilities usually trigger the bully’s own insecurities, who then try to undermine the target in order to bolster their own fragile sense of self.

In some of these cases, there’s usually a ‘failed grooming period’ where the bully initially befriends the target. They might even position themselves as a mentor or advocate and take the target under their wing. During this period, they’ll sing the target’s praises to the high heavens.

However, there’s inevitably a moment when the bully thinks the target is slipping out of their control. Maybe the target receives a great opportunity elsewhere or shows signs of skepticism when the bully is promising them the sun and the moon. Sometimes the target will stand up for themselves when they realize they’re being manipulated or abused.

As soon as the bully feels like they’re losing their grasp on the target, they’ll flip. On Monday you’re the most promising superstar in the company and on Tuesday you’re the grossly underperforming problem employee.

Bullies take advantage of your compassion, trust, and conscientiousness and allow you to believe that their fresh hostility towards you is a genuine and reasonable response to your personal failings.

A Black woman gazes to the right with tears rolling down her cheeks, highlighting the pain and suffering of people who are victims of workplace harassment and bullying
Photograph by Alex Green

But What About Reverse Harassment?

In general, derogatory comments and jokes about a dominant group are not harassment.

There is no known history of heterosexual oppression in the world, for example. At no point in history was heterosexuality deemed a mental illness. Candidates never had to hide their wedding rings before a job interview in fear they’d lose out on the opportunity if the interviewer suspected they were straight.

A queer coworker could theoretically hurt my feelings by making fun of me for being straight, but they wouldn’t have the structural power to deny me a job, a promotion, equal pay, housing, healthcare, and the ability to safely walk down the street.

Related: 6 Practices for Meaningful Intersectional Feminist Allyship

Seeking Justice

Most organizations are bound by law to have policies and processes to address harassment and bullying.

Document the Bullying

As soon as you become aware you’re being bullied, you should begin documenting your experiences. I suggest a digital log (as it’s easy to search and sort through information later) hosted somewhere off your work computer (e.g., Google Drive or a document on your personal computer at home that is backed up or synced).

Although I highly recommend making journaling a part of your healing process (more on that in the next section), the formal documentation should stick to essential facts.

Log exactly what happened and the dates, times, and places where the bullying occurred. If there were any potential witnesses, note that down too. If there were no direct witnesses of the evidence, make a note if you dropped by a coworker’s desk shortly after and told them about what happened or even wrote an email to someone about it. This may help refute any claims later from your bully that you made your log up.

The language in your log should be clear, unambiguous, and to-the-point. Even though bullying can be an emotionally traumatic experience, the log will be more useful if it’s written in a neutral, unemotional way.

documenting workplace bullying violence
Photograph by Sarah Trummer

For example, it should read something like:

April 18, 2021 5:20pm. [Bully name] walks by my desk, stops and looks at me with an expression of disgust, then remarks “why do you always work late but you never seem to get anything done?” Before I can answer, they walk away. [Colleague name] was in earshot of this conversation.

You don’t need to write how you feel in your log. From the perspective of those who will investigate your case, emotional language can potentially distract from your account.

You should, however, note the impact of the bullying on your work and your health. For example, if a bully who withheld information from you meant that your report was incomplete or if their ongoing abuse led to anxiety and depression.

Bullying is almost never a spontaneous exercise. Your bully will likely try to make you think you’re uniquely deserving of their abuse. For example, they may claim that you’re “the biggest idiot” they’ve ever worked with or they’ve never in their entire career met “anyone as useless” as you.

I’ve heard bullies make these claims to multiple people in the same organization on the same day. When you look back through their career, you’ll also likely find a string of victims who were all told similar, if not the same things.

In their attempts to isolate you and wear you down, bullies will try to prevent you from speaking with others about their egregious behavior.

They might directly threaten you, for example, saying they’ll sabotage your career if you ever report them. Most bullies will be more subtle though. For instance, they might couch their bullying as pointing out your weaknesses and failures. Through constant criticism, bullies create an ecosystem where they gradually manipulate you into believing that you’ll come off poorly if you report their behavior.

Exercise judiciousness, but don’t be afraid to speak to people. Chances are, you’ll become good at spotting the signs of bullying in others. You might notice the workers who never come to the meetings that the bully is present. The dark shadow that crosses their face when the bully’s name is mentioned.

Listen out for the other former ‘pets’ who seemed to be lauded by the bully non-stop for months, only never to be mentioned again.

You need to be careful about sharing your experiences with people inside your organization as you never know who and what will come back to your bully. That’s not to say people will intentionally betray your trust but even well-meaning colleagues can accidentally let things slip.

I believe it’s valuable to be bold about speaking out about your experiences outside your work. Owning your experiences, naming the abuse for what it is to yourself, is a powerful way to challenge the shame that often comes with being a target of bullying.

When you learn of any cases where the perpetrator has bullied others, with their permission, also specify their names in your documentation in case they can provide further corroboration of your testimony.

Alongside your log, you need to collect any and all written communication such as emails. Back work emails up by printing them out and saving a copy to a personal cloud drive or sending a copy to a personal email account. If your bully attempts to have you fired down the track, you may find yourself losing access to your work emails and files.

Handwritten notes or vandalism to your work desk and other property should be promptly photographed and filed.

Report the Bullying

When you’re ready to file a grievance, you need to review the bullying policy of your organization and follow the procedure they outline.

If you feel safe enough to do so, confront the bully and calmly tell them you object to their behavior and ask them to stop. Do it in writing if you can so you have a written trail and document their response.

In cases where there’s a significant power imbalance, confrontation can be dangerous. Bullies may get more abusive, for example, accusing you of being insolent, disrespectful, or rude (born out of their fear they’re losing control over you). Some bullies might even get physically abusive.

In larger organizations, there will typically be three avenues to file your grievance:

  1. Your supervisor
  2. The company’s human resources department
  3. The company’s equity and diversity unit

If your supervisor is your bully, you need to go up the chain of command.

When your case involves an element of harassment, the equity and diversity unit may be brought in regardless of which path you follow.

reporting workplace bullying
Photograph by Marcus Aurelius

I’ve very rarely heard of positive outcomes for those who file a grievance with the human resources department.

Management scholars Susan Harrington, Sam Warren, and Charlotte Rayner interviewed human resource practitioners across the United Kingdom to understand how they handle workplace bullying claims.

They found the human resource practitioners typically responded in these four ways:

  • inaction,
  • denial,
  • target-blaming, and
  • management complicity.

The practitioners they interviewed downplayed the supervisor-to-worker bullying as simply cases of “inappropriate management”. This meant they could talk to managers about ”more appropriate ways” of managing without damaging their relationships with these powerful people by accusing them of bullying.

The human resource practitioner could then also present themselves as valuable business partners and management experts.

Their response protected the bullying manager, and by extension, the reputation of the organization. At the same time, it shored up the practitioner’s own status as someone who contributed to the legal and economic defense of their organization.

The bullied workers who raised the grievances suffer in this process. Their experiences of violence are denied through the grievance handling process, which reinforced the harm. By invalidating their claims, human resource practitioners evaded the time and effort of investigating their cases of bullying at all.

This is not to say that human resource practitioners are all unethical tools of organizational oppression and exploitation.

When I teach bullying in my postgraduate management classes, students who work in human resources repeatedly share their own stories of pain and frustration when they handle bullying cases.

Even when they personally tried to advocate on behalf of the worker, their own supervisors or senior managers in the organization blocked their efforts. One student of mine tried to pursue a complaint about a manager who had numerous complaints made against him in the past. However, their manager prevented them from investigating it further, claiming that the bully was too powerful.

In dominator culture, bullies are often normalized, and in some cases, even celebrated for being the ‘tough’ leaders that organizations need to drive performance and profit.

This belief couldn’t be further from the organizational evidence that bullies create hostile work environments that actually decrease organizational performance along with workers’ health while leaving the organizations vulnerable to costly lawsuits.

When you decide to report the bullying, you need to separate yourself from the outcome.

You cannot allow the final decision of your grievance to determine the validity of your suffering or your self-worth.

You need to start the healing process as soon as you become aware that you’ve been the target of bullying.

Ask yourself if fear wasn’t a factor, how would you act in line with your values?

Reporting the bullying may be the right thing to do because it allows you to advocate for yourself and attempt to minimize the harm the bully will cause others.

Note that I said attempt. You can only do what you can do. If the organization fails to properly investigate the bullying or chooses to protect the bully and their reputation, it’s not on you to ‘save’ all current and future victims when that’s beyond your power.

Secure Reinforcements

If the person or department you report to fails to handle your case in line with the organization’s policies and procedures, you need to be prepared to escalate the case to a more senior level.

However, some of the most effective help you’ll receive is from those external to your organization.

Report your experiences of harassment and bullying to your union representative. Depending on your union, they’ll likely not have to power to do anything in the short-term, but it’s important that they’re aware of bullying cases in the organization. Sometimes they can provide invaluable advice by reminding you of your legal rights and sharing how union members in the past successfully resolved their bullying cases.

You should also speak to a lawyer. They’ll advise you of the strength of your case and recommend what you should do in your role. Again, sometimes just knowing you have backup if you should need it goes a long way to restoring your sense of safety and confidence as an employee.

hiring lawyers workplace bullying lawsuit
Photograph by Sora Shimazaki

Finally, take stock of what exactly you need to do to strengthen your employability.

Rather than jumping through the impossible hoops your bully will try to set for you, get clear on the actions, tasks, and projects you could do that maximize your professional development and achievements.

Update your CV, polish up your LinkedIn profile, and cultivate hope by focusing on how you could take your talent, your skills, your conscientiousness, and your kindness to another organization that appreciates you.

Finding Healing

The most important thing I can say to you right now if you’ve been experiencing harassment and bullying is:

It is not your fault.

Let me say that again.

It is not your fault.

Harassment and bullying are not about the target.

Do not internalize the abuse. There’s nothing about who you are or what you did that somehow brought on the harassment and bullying. No one deserves to be harassed or bullied.

Seek Therapy

Speak to an experienced therapist.

Look for a professional who ideally specializes in workplace bullying cases. Without the right knowledge and experience, some counselors may inadvertently exacerbate your distress, for example, if they give off the impression that they don’t believe your story and invalidate your emotions.

Therapy can be very expensive. As a first resort, check to see if your organization has an employee assistance program that entitles you to a small number of sessions at an external clinic.

Then speak to your GP if the bullying has had an impact on your physical and psychological health. They may be able to prepare a mental health plan for you that depending on the healthcare provisions of your insurance company or government, entitle you to receive subsidies or reimbursements for your therapy expenses.

In Australia, for example, workplace bullying can qualify for workers compensation in which all your associated medical costs could be covered by insurance. You should seek the advice of your GP in order to understand your eligibility and the application process.

psychologist therapist recovery
Photograph by Alex Green

Be Mindful of Your Cognitions and Emotions

Reflective journaling and mindful meditation are just two ways you can develop your ability to begin noticing your thoughts and ’unhooking’ them from their emotional response.

A common belief in bullying is “I am worthless and deserve to be abused”. This thought might then lead to feelings of sadness, helplessness, and self-loathing. Those feelings could then affect your ability to focus and stay motivated at work. As a consequence, you might miss a deadline for a project, which then leads you back through the cycle of believing you’re worthless and deserve abuse.

The process of journaling can involve writing down all the unhelpful, negative beliefs you have about the bullying.

Say if that happens to be “I am worthless and deserve to be abused”, write down all the reasons why this statement is untrue.

For example, you could write:

  • “Before the bully, I had received positive performance evaluations at work three years in a row.”
  • “On the project I successfully completed with another team, I was praised for my contribution.”
  • “I’m a good friend and parent and my friends and family value me.”
  • “Nobody can ever ‘deserve’ to be abused.”

Come up with as many counterarguments as you can and try to be specific. Give your brain persuasive, concrete evidence that your bully is wrong. If you need to look up your emails and find direct quotes from colleagues, clients, customers, etc. who praised your work, do so.

Repeat this exercise for every unhelpful thought you have about your bullying.

friendship collective healing
Photograph by Helena Lopes

Practice Self-Compassion and Rebuild Self-Confidence

Some friends of mine like to say that we ‘hold up a mirror’ to one another.

What we mean by this is that we’re available to give one another a reality check about who we are and what we do that’s not based on insecurity, jealousy, fear, shame, contempt, or the need for control.

Can you find a close-knit support network around you who will hold up a mirror to you?

For example, if your bully shouts at you and tells you that your latest work is rubbish, can you show your work to someone else in the organization or someone who understands your industry for their opinion?

In most cases, you’ll find that there wasn’t anything wrong with your work. Or the shortcomings are easily attributed to you not having been given clear instructions or the necessary information to do your job properly.

I’ve had friends and colleagues show me abusive emails where the bully accuses them of failing to do all manner of things. Even without seeing their work, I can affirm to them that even if everything the bully said was ‘true’, their approach is unprofessional and unethical. I would explain to the target how I would broach the same subject with anyone in the workplace and help them understand that the bully’s actions are not normal or reasonable.

Above all, practice self-advocacy and self-compassion.

People around you will make mistakes. Those fortunate enough to have never experienced bullying will say insensitive things to you, often with the best of intentions. For example, they might ask you questions about your experience in a way that comes off as though they don’t believe you. They might equate your experience with benign personality conflicts like, “Oh well, some people are just not going to get along”. Or they may forget about your experience entirely and share how they had a friendly and enjoyable interaction with your bully.

You need to begin generating your own reserves of self-compassion and hold yourself with gentleness and care whenever you encounter painful triggers and reminders of your trauma.

Conclusion

Misogynistic, homophobic, transphobic, racist, and ableist bullying at work can be sadly commonplace.

Within dominator culture, hostile work environments are also often normalized, and some organizations can be particularly bad at confronting bullies (especially when they’re powerful) and following their own policies and procedures about workplace harassment and bullying.

This post has explained what exactly is workplace harassment and bullying and how they frequently overlap in organizations.

It then outlined the practical steps you could take to seek justice and find healing if you find yourself a target of bullying.

Whether you’re experiencing violence and abuse, have survived bullying, or been witness to harassment and bullying in a hostile workplace, please prioritize your self-care.

It’s critical that you take regular moments to rebuild your sense of self and find ways to cultivate joy and hope in your life.

To help you do this, you’ll be able to receive a PDF checklist for self-care when you join my newsletter, Moon Rites below.

Also, be sure to read my posts on planning and taking a self-care day and setting and maintaining personal boundaries.

Learn More

When I experienced bullying, my therapist recommended this book by psychologist and workplace bullying expert Evelyn M. Field (2011) Strategies for Surviving Bullying at Work. There are some really practical tools here about standing up to the bully and protecting yourself.

I also found it helpful to immerse myself in stories of people who have survived bullying. The Empowered Whistleblower Podcast was one that I enjoyed that host a wealth of interviews with psychologists, lawyers, survivors, and advocates.

Janet Gurtler (2020) You Too?: 25 Voices Share Their #metoo Stories

Featured image by Trang Doan

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