As I left school at the young age of 18, I remember a sigh of relief as I thought I would never experience bullying again. Oh, how wrong was I! Over 20 years later I am coming to the end of a bullying and harassment case at work. So… Bullying in Adulthood. Who knew that was going to be a thing?! I had spent much of my childhood as a shy, quiet girl, who wore thick glasses and sporting a donkey fringe. I thought keeping to myself would make me invisible, but it made me more of a target. I experienced the usual childhood bullying on a sporadic basis and it wasn’t until I was in my mid-teens (and discovered confidence) before I learnt to be loud and stand up for myself.
Whilst there is no formal definition of bullying, it is commonly described as “repeated behaviour which is intended to hurt someone either emotionally or physically”. As a child, bullying seems to be easier to identify; pushing, name calling, exclusion… Children aren’t usually as secretive about their actions as they often don’t understand the implications of their actions.
Bullying in adulthood can be very different. The bully can be stealthier in their administering of abuse, making it hard for the victim to identify the actions as bullying. They are often a ‘Jekyll and Hyde’ character; a pleasant, helpful person in the public arena, with a more sinister and controlling demeanour in a one-to-one setting.
Did you know that in 2019, a survey conducted by the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD), roughly 15% of adult have experienced bullying at work. Only half of these victims have reported the incidents, fear being reported as the main reason someone doesn’t speak up!
Am I being Bullied/a Bully?
Bullying can take many forms; verbal, physical, emotional, cyber. It doesn’t always have to be constant, but it will be repeated behaviour over a period. It could be one, all, or some of these examples, or something completely different. Bully’s will always seem to find new ways of making someone else’s life difficult.
Here are some signs that you could be experiencing bullying:
- Offensive or insulting behaviour – Using negative language about you or your work. Are you being told you’re not doing a good job in an unconstructive manner? Is there an audible *sigh every time you ask a question or make comments in meetings? Does someone from work make negative comments on your social media regularly?
- Abuse or misuse of power – This could be from someone in a place of higher power, either in your chain of command or not. Is someone refusing to acknowledge your work effort to ‘prove’ you are useless? Have you had an appraisal which wasn’t true to adversely affect your career or finances? Has, previously good, working relationships been adversely affected due to negative rumours/comments from the perpetrator?
- Isolation – Purposefully leaving you out of engagements. This could be anything from work social events, to important business meetings. Are you regularly not invited to the team coffee meeting every Monday morning? Do you often hear, ‘There was an important meeting earlier, you should have been there’?
- Undermining or humiliation – This could be in front of other colleagues or in individual settings to cause damage to your self-esteem. Has someone made fun of your work or mistakes in front of others? Or contradicted you in important meetings when you weren’t wrong? Does your manager discipline you unfairly in front of colleagues/subordinates?
- Gaslighting – usually associated with domestic abuse but is easily used in the workplace. It is an attempt to make you second guess yourself, perhaps make out you’ve not done something you were asked to do (when you weren’t asked in the first place). Or accusing you of doing something wrong when you know it was right.
- Physical – Probably not as common in the workplace compared to the playground. Do you constantly get a ‘kick’ under the table during meetings? Does the person purposefully knock your chair every time they walk past?
The problem with bullying is it can be very difficult to prove (or disprove if you are the accused). It is one person’s perception of another person’s action (whether verbal or physical). And even if you think you have evidence, it is still one person’s word against another.
What should you do?
- Talk to the bully. Most employment policies recommend addressing the situation with the accused. This can be very difficult to do but it is an important first step. Any subsequent investigation will ask this as the very first question. Sometimes, the accused won’t even be aware of the effects their actions has had. Also, it gives you a clearer picture of what is happening, whilst it also gives the accused an opportunity to change and improve their behaviour. If they choose not to, or it makes matters worse, then this will add to the evidence you collect.
- Always back up verbal conversations with an email. Send an email to the person in question clarifying the topic of the conversation, details of the discussion, and any conclusions or actions to be taken.
- Keep to the facts. Try and avoid bringing emotion into situation as it can make it difficult to express the key details clearly. Express the actions without surmising the intent or possible reasons, this may exasperate the situation i.e. ‘You said this, and it made me feel that’.
- Keep a record of occurrences including dates, times, situation, and any witnesses. The record should include as much detail as possible including how the situation made you feel i.e. degraded, embarrassed, worthless…
- Collect hard evidence such as emails, written feedback, and conversations on messaging services. This could also include screenshots of work in shared areas, or printed copies with tracked comments.
- Request the presence of a third party for formal meetings such as progress reviews and end of year discussions. If the situation is pertaining to ‘poor performance’ ensure you have hard evidence of your work to demonstrate your abilities and work ethic.
- Raise a complaint. This should be a last resort if previous challenges have gone unresolved or fuelled the situation negatively. Most employers will have a standard policy, form, and process so it is important that you know where to find these in your workplace.
If you are struggling with bullying in the workplace there are several external agencies you could reach out to for advice, or if your concerns are not being taken seriously by your employer:
- Employment Trade Union – Not sure if you have one? Check here to find an appropriate one for you.
- National Bullying Helpline
- Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development
- Government Website – Bullying & Harassment
- Stand up to Bullying
Speaking up is incredibly difficult. Especially when the bully makes you feel so small that you’ve forgotten that you have a voice. But for change to happen, people need to be brave. People need to stick together for solidarity. Remember, ignorance isn’t an excuse and it certainly doesn’t make you innocent. If you witness bullying, then it is your duty to say something. Learn how to become an active bystander so you can help others who feel like they can’t help themselves. Or for those who can’t recognise what is happening because their self-esteem has diminished into oblivion.
To quote the Three Musketeers…’All for one and one for all, united we stand divided we fall’
Thanks for reading, Fi xx