For more than three years, I worked in the global resources industry in Australia, running health and well-being programs and striving to create safe, healthy and productive work environments for a mostly-male workforce. To anyone looking in from the outside, it would have seemed I was powering along.
But behind the scene my life was at its lowest point. Emotionally, I was in turmoil. I was subjected to a relentless campaign of belittlement, threats and intimidation that continued until I finally left the company, fearing for my own mental and physical health.
My bully was my own manager. His repertoire included physical intimidation (file-throwing and ‘accidentally’ bumping the back of my chair repeatedly), threats (he knew I was on a work sponsorship visa to stay in Australia and held this over my head), power trips (he was obsessed with controlling the flow of information) and a succession of tantrums, one of which escalated to the point that I was forced to hide in the office bathroom after another staff member physically restrained him from coming after me.
If you’ve been involved in workplace bullying in any capacity (as a victim, as a bystander or as a business leader), you already know how emotionally exhausting, complex and confusing these situations can be.
Getting through them takes a unique set of skills. So, let’s take a look at some of the ways you can overcome this workplace plague:
- Document everything
Keep a diary. Every time a bullying incident happens (to you or anyone else), record times, dates, lead-up circumstances, witnesses and the specific actions of the bully.
Because bullying is a pattern of behaviour rather than a one-off event, everything you can do to prove the abuse is persistent, deliberate and harmful will help. Take an immediate screen shot of every offensive email you receive – bullies have a habit of erasing their worst ones to hide the evidence.
Make sure to mention any action you (or others) may have taken to prevent or stop the bullying. If the perpetrator’s behaviour has breached company policy, violated the Employee Code of Conduct or is illegal under anti-discrimination, sexual harassment or other laws, point this out.
- Bring in the heavy artillery
When I was being bullied in the workplace, I went to upper management again and again, explaining what was happening and why my bully’s behaviour was unacceptable. I was promised action would be taken but nothing changed.
Once you’ve exhausted all options in your workplace to try and put a stop to bullying, it’s time to go outside the company for help. Depending on where you live in the world, this could mean a workplace health and safety organisation, your union, a 24-hour bullying helpline, an ombudsman’s office, an employee assistance program, the police, a workplace arbitration tribunal or some other entity.
Because bullying often causes serious emotional stress, you might also choose to contact mental health services, suicide prevention hotlines, a psychologist or other well-being specialists.
- Protect yourself
I’m often asked why I didn’t just leave my job once it became clear management was giving this bully free rein to abuse.
I stayed for three reasons: (a) I have a stubborn streak and felt that giving up would be letting the bully win, (b) my visa to live in Australia was directly tied to my job, and (c) there were people who desperately needed the work I was doing there – without me, they’d be left with no support at all.
Here are my top tips for protecting yourself as a bullying target:
- Avoid ‘private conferences’ like the plague
Whenever my bully asked for a word in private, I knew it was because he didn’t want any witnesses present to whatever shady schemes, abusive rants or whispered threats he had in mind. When interacting with a bully, try your best to avoid private conversations.
- Speak up for yourself
Tell the bully their behaviour isn’t okay – and why. Tell them with all the confidence and calm you can manage. Even if it doesn’t end up making a difference, it’ll make you feel better about yourself – which is important.
- Know your rights
Familiarise yourself with the company bullying policy, anti-discrimination laws and your legal options as a bullying target. Knowledge is power.
- Gather your work colleagues together to fight bullying as a unit
Often, you won’t be the sole victim of a chronic workplace bully. Help others with their own victimisation in any way you can and consider approaching management with your collective reports of unacceptable behaviour.
- Find ways to heal and give yourself time to do it
If you need to take a day off to cope with the trauma of bullying, go for it. Being bullied can lead to all kinds of health issues. I used Reiki healing, meditation, nutrition, essential oils, exercise, diet, psychologist sessions, massage and other methods to gradually heal the damage caused by nearly three years of relentless bullying.
- Self-educate about bullying
The first time my manager made intimidating threats against me, I was in shock. I was a positive, hard-working, enthusiastic woman in her early twenties, starting a new life in a new country and simply couldn’t grasp why someone would treat another human being that way.
As the intimidation progressed, I read every book and attended every course I could find to try to better understand the psychology of bullying and develop some strategies for self-protection.
The most important lesson learned was that it was never about me and all about my bully’s own problems.
- Become a change-maker
Who do you think are the most important people in any workplace bullying situation?
Most of us would say it’s the perpetrator and the victim but they’re just symptoms of a wider disease: a defective workplace culture. The people with the real power to stop bullying are (a) workplace leadership and (b) the bystanders who see the bullying happening or learn of it later.
More than anyone else, it’s what these people do – or don’t do – that determines whether bullying will flourish in a work environment or be stopped in its tracks. It’s that simple – someone has to step in and take a stand.
Jessica Hickman is the best-selling author of The Bullyologist: Breaking the Silence on Bullying (2019).Turning the adversity of her own workplace bullying experience into positive change, Jessica now helps others understand the complex nature of modern bullying. You can contact her at [email protected].