I have an uncanny knack for knowing when someone is uncomfortable with me; so I go out of my way to put them at ease – to encourage them and make them feel included. And I can tell you with remarkable accuracy the ones who will never come around.
Not only will they never come around, they will make it their personal mission to eliminate me.
I’m sure that sounds like a paranoid exaggeration, but I don’t say it lightly or casually. I say it with the 100 percent certainty of experience.
By about the fourth (and by far the worst) time I suffered through a nearly identical set of circumstances, I had sunk to my lowest ebb. Like too many times before, I saw the train wreck coming from miles away and could do nothing but watch helplessly. It had gotten to the point where I could predict what was going to happen, when and by which employee, though I could never pinpoint why. I had my ideas, but my ideas just seemed petty and outlandish. This time, rather than exit gracefully as I had before, I made the biggest mistake of my life. I reached out for help.
Terminated for the first time in my life, from a position I was recruited to fill and that I envisioned would sustain me until retirement, I was paralyzed by betrayal, fear and self doubt.
I knew what I had been going through wasn’t right. I knew “it” wasn’t fair. And after years of self flagellation, I came to conclude I did nothing to deserve “it”. I discussed legal recourse with attorneys, who agreed “it” was wrong…but illegal? They said I might have a case for discrimination if I were older, or maybe a different ethnicity.
Certain classes of employees are protected from “it” – harassment I endured in position after position – but no protections exist for a half Japanese, half Caucasian woman in her 40s suffering the exact same treatment as those in protected classes.
That is, until I got older. And “it” happened again.
Ah, now you have a case!
For years, perpetrators got away with the very same behavior that suddenly, because I had crossed some magical threshold, was a no-no. But a lawsuit was not what I needed or wanted. Money could never restore all that was taken from me.
"It" has a name
Then, desperately scrambling for anything that might spare me from falling back into my Groundhog Day morass, I came across a website about workplace bullying, and my whole world came back into focus.
It was like finding the key to a giant, cumbersome padlock I’d worn shackled around my neck for years. I was shocked (and oddly relieved) to learn from the Workplace Bullying Institute, I am the textbook bullying victim. And not only that, but the people who bullied me were textbook workplace bullies. Every manager who failed me was a textbook employer who, in 54 percent of cases, does nothing while the bully methodically and purposefully creates a toxic work environment; in 90 percent of cases, disbelieves the victim; or in 71 percent of cases, retaliates against the victim for reporting the abuse (leading to the victim’s termination more than a third of the time).
It's all in your head
Meh, you’re just imagining it, I always thought – and so did my husband. I mean, who can conceive of grown adults waking up in the morning, looking in the mirror and saying, “Let’s destroy another human being today”? I reasoned that if it wasn’t somehow my fault, it was all in my head.
That is, until I started recording everything. Everything. Gross, right? But I needed to know if I was blowing things out of proportion; and if I wasn’t, what I was doing to deserve the abuse. Surely I was doing something to deserve it – if it was happening at all.
I was ready and willing to take full responsibility, so I recorded every encounter with everyone, fully intending to review and adjust my behavior accordingly.
Also convinced that I must be doing something to trigger the ire of co-workers, my husband listened to that fateful meeting during which I followed corporate policy and reached out for help.
He could barely speak after witnessing it with his own ears.
“They would never treat a man like that,” Danny yelled, shaking, angry tears in his eyes. “How did you hold your composure while they treated you that way? Why didn’t you stand up for yourself?!”
Danny said he was glad he wasn’t there, because he wouldn’t have been able to restrain himself from throat punching both managers; but he knew very well why I didn’t stand up for myself, because he remembered what happened the last time.
What would you do?
Riddle me this: What would you do if you caught a group of women plotting to undermine you so your major project would fail, while mocking you and referring to you as “Miss America” (in a sarcastic, middle school whine)?
I’ll tell you how every employee manual I’ve ever read or written instructs workers to resolve conflict:
Try to work it out directly
If you’re uncomfortable speaking directly with the offender, or if the direct approach does not work, escalate to your immediate supervisor.
If your supervisor fails to address the issue, escalate to the next appropriate authority.
Go ahead. Read your employee manual. I’ll wait.
Bullies select their targets because they feel threatened by them – their skills, their likability, their moral compass and agreeable nature. Because the targets of bullies are typically self assured, professional and ethical, they have no issue with addressing problems head on when they’re aggrieved. It’s part of who they are.
But because bullies deny their behavior or intent, or flat out lie, 93 percent just keep on bullying.
In every one of my cases, when I addressed the bully directly – calmly, professionally and by the book – I was accused of (get ready for it) intimidation and bullying. Turns out it’s intimidating to be called on your bovine excrement. People do not like to be caught scheming and conniving, and because bullies are cowards who operate in shadows and present themselves as morally superior to their targets and everyone else, direct engagement is a terrifying affront to them.
So, to recap: Following the first guideline, to address the bully directly, leads to the bully making either no change, or ratcheting up the behavior in 93 percent of cases. Following the second guideline, to report to a superior, leads to disbelief of the victim in 90 percent of cases, discrediting the victim as a liar in more than half, and terminating the victim more than a third of the time.
What would you do?
Eh, get over it and find another job
I did not wake up every morning seeking to be some bully’s victim. Quite the contrary. I did everything I could to fly below the radar and be as bland and inconspicuous as possible – allowing others to take credit for my ideas, giving away my projects to avoid attention, and forgoing advancement so as not to offend. But in 82 percent of cases, bullies do intentionally set out to harm their victims. Destroying the target is as vital to them as their daily job responsibilities, and 74 percent of bullies have no problem enlisting cohorts to carry out their schemes.
First, they make the target persona non grata – the outcast no one dares befriend. Co-workers know, if you want to be accepted by the cool kids – get invited to social events, get the choice assignments – you stay away from the outcast. You’re even higher up the social ladder if you help keep her in her place.
I can’t tell you how many times I watched grown adults (most often men) turn to ice and scamper away from a friendly conversation with me the instant the bully entered the room and flashed a look of shame.
I realized the treachery of my worst bully when a coworker apologized to me for “buying in” to her venomous gossip and said, “She has a bizarre, unhealthy obsession with you. She constantly complains about you – telling everyone not to work with you or else – to the point where it’s interfering with our jobs. I don’t know what you did to her…”
I’ll tell you what I did to her. I tried to make her comfortable when she exhibited a pathetically obvious need to compare herself and her accomplishments to me. I accepted and trusted her when she assured me, “No, I’m not uncomfortable with you. It’s all in your head. I like you!” And then I told her it was inappropriate when she said that women of my age should just get out of the business because we were old and useless.
When addressed (and recorded), she feigned incredulity and gasped, “I didn’t mean you. You’re not like those other women. They’re hideous. You look great for your age,” and vowed to stop saying such disparaging things about an entire class of human beings.
In other words, she lied, again and again.
When you’re a minor local celebrity in your 30s and 40s with an MBA and experience, the curiosity factor alone gets you recruited. But much older than that, and offers for professionals at my level are few and far between. Besides, I was so beaten down by shock and betrayal, I no longer recognized my worth in the world.
Beauty to the Rescue
I started writing Beauty to the Rescue as catharsis. There is power in naming your enemy and chronicling the pain you suffered so that the healing process can begin. Perhaps the only justice my bullies will ever face is recognizing their actions in this book. Hopefully when they understand they have a title, and that there are volumes of research into what they did to me, they will realize their shadows are shrinking, and that people are on to their insecurity and desperation.
I had planned to call the book Bullies Always Win after learning all the sobering statistics that illustrate the hopelessness of workplace bullying victims. Oh, how my bullies would revel in the thought of taking me all the way down.
But that’s not how my story ends. Following is the first draft of the first chapter of my journey – Beauty to the Rescue, a book about the horrors of workplace bullying, and the discarded souls that led to my salvation.
With more than 70 percent of the U.S. workforce impacted by bullying, I know others are out there suffering like I was, agonizing over what they could be doing to deserve it. I hope that through my story, victims will find kinship and hope, employers will find resolve and direction, bystanders will find courage to protect targets and stand against perpetrators, and bullies will find some semblance of compassion for those they so nonchalantly destroy.