Bullies are typically associated with the classroom, not the office.
Well I’m here to tell you that just because you grow up doesn’t mean you leave bullies behind.
I’ve been the victim of workplace bullying in two different settings, and unfortunately, I’m not alone.
David Maxfield, coauthor of both "Crucial Confrontations" and "Influencer," conducted a study for VitalSmarts in 2014 that found 96 percent of survey respondents experienced bullying at some point in their careers.
One third of the respondents claimed this bullying was physical in nature, leaving two thirds experiencing emotional attacks that included humiliation, gossiping and exclusion.
I had to read Maxfield’s findings a few times for them to sink in.
First, I was having trouble imagining a scenario where so many people could be physically bullied.
It seemed unreal until I started reading some of the commentary the respondents provided. With new perspective, it didn’t seem so crazy.
Then, I got hung up on the 96 percent as a whole. Ninety-six percent seemed like an insanely high figure.
After all, this means damn near everyone who filled out a survey had been the target of a bully. What are the odds?
As I reflected on my own experience with office bullies, I realized the odds are actually pretty good.
I was bullied at two previous placed of employment and left both jobs for that reason.
Apparently, it’s not uncommon to jump ship when you’re being picked on.
According to a CareerBuilder study released last year, nearly one-third of all American workers have felt bullied at work, and roughly 20 percent ended up leaving their jobs because of it.
My first experience with an office bully was very early in my career. I was young, naïve and blamed myself.
I actually remember telling my now-husband that I was a little “too ambitious” at work and should have probably “toned down” my discussions about goals.
I thought my drive brought on the bully.
I should note that I work in the public relations industry, specifically on the agency side. Generally speaking, agencies have a cutthroat reputation.
I wrote off the bully's behavior as typical agency competition. She was passive-aggressive and demeaning in communal settings.
It felt like she was very clearly trying to devalue me in the eyes of others to raise her stock.
I was able to move out of that role in just a few short months, subsequently signing on with a non-agency.
My second encounter with a bully, however, was much more serious.
I had been out of the agency pool for a few years and after moving to a new state, decided the timing was right to jump back in. I accepted a job at a mid-size agency.
At first, my relationship with this second bully, Hannah*, wasn’t much to talk about.
Hannah technically outranked me, but didn’t directly supervise me. We didn’t interact much and things were seemingly fine.
After a month or so on the job, I started handling editing duties for our team, which included some of Hannah’s work.
I’d catch errors in her writing, but more frequently in her math — math that was being shared with clients. Things escalated from here.
After four or five months, there was a notable shift in the atmosphere, dramatic enough for others to notice. Hannah became generally cold with me.
She’d cut me off in meetings, avoid assigning me projects and do all she could to poke holes in my completed work. She was antagonizing me.
Eventually, I attempted to move out of our shared department. I met with my boss and then human resources to discuss opportunities with other groups.
Meanwhile, Hannah was on a mission to tarnish my reputation agency-wide.
She told department heads I’d never met that I was dramatic and difficult to work with. Not surprisingly, I wasn’t able to secure a spot elsewhere.
Her bullying had now officially derailed my career.
I was older and more experienced when going head-to-head with Hannah, so I didn’t shy away from the tough conversations.
In fact, we had a few of them. I had some directly with her, I had others with my supervisor and then eventually took my issues directly to HR.
I left every discussion feeling better about the situation and our relationship, but the feelings were always fleeting. Each time, things quickly bounced back to the way they were.
I decided to seek employment elsewhere and left the company about seven months after the bullying began.
While in the thick of dealing with these bullies, I felt helpless. I’d start my day groaning and griping about having to go to the office.
During my commute, my stomach would toss and turn. By the time I made my coffee and got settled into my desk for the day, my anxiety level would be high enough to make my palms sweat.
To give you some perspective, I’m not a shrinking violet. I’m bold. I speak my mind. I’m built for confrontation, and people don’t scare me.
But having to deal with people who make it their mission to chip away at my self-esteem was exhausting.
I decided to leave these places vs. sticking it out because I didn’t have the energy I needed to succeed anymore.
Too much of my attention and focus was being eaten up by drama.
I learned a lot from these experiences, so I guess the struggle wasn’t in vain. Here are the three most important takeaways:
1. Speak Up.
If you find yourself the target of a bully, take a deep breath and go directly to the source.
Have an honest conversation, citing specific examples of times you felt victimized.
Resist the urge to talk to others about it before attempting to clear the air with the bully.
Gossip travels fast and can add fuel to the fire. It’s never too late to have this conversation, but if your situation is nearing extreme levels, get human resources involved.
Unfortunately, when I was dealing with Hannah, I learned that our HR department had more leaks than a screen door.
The information I shared was anything but confidential. Consider the relationship your colleagues have with human resources, and pick your confidant(s) carefully.
2. Take Notes.
If you’ve attempted to clear the air and it didn’t go as planned, start taking the proper precautions.
As much as you can, document your interactions with him or her.
Email serves as a great written record, but you should also be noting (privately) the specific instances you felt picked on (when, where, who else was present).
I learned the hard way that you have no idea what a bully is capable of. Keeping a “diary” is simply a safeguard that might come in handy.
3. Karma is real.
There was definitely a sense of defeat when I resigned from these two positions, but it was short lived.
In the end, I left hostile situations and took big career steps. In both cases, not long after I left each job, former colleagues reached out to share interesting news.
As it would happen, the universe had my back all along, and both of my bullies were served exactly what they deserved.
Take comfort knowing that no one escapes karma. Eventually, everyone gets what he or she deserves.
I’ll close by saying bullies can’t sustain their behavior for very long.
If you’re currently the focus of a bully, I hope you find yourself in a safe, healthy place soon.
*Name has been changed.