Think you might be dealing with a bully at work? Has this person turned your office into a totally a hostile environment?
The Workplace Bullying Institute defines bullying as “repeated, health-harming mistreatment of one or more persons (the targets) by one or more perpetrators that takes one or more of the following forms: verbal abuse, offensive conduct/behaviors (including nonverbal), which are threatening, humiliating or intimidating."
Reporting is especially critical for workplace bullying that's considered illegal. Bullying can indeed violate federal or state laws prohibiting discrimination and harassment in the workplace. These laws protect employees from harassment based on protected characteristics including race, national origin, religion, sex, age and disability. If a workplace bully is targeting an employee based on one of those protected characteristics, and it's pervasive, it could qualify as illegal harassment and the victim would likely be able to file a hostile work environment claim. And, if you are facing illegal harassment, you may have only a short time — possibly as few as 180 days — to file.
So how do you recognize patterns of bullying?
Bullies often focus on a particular individual and, if you're that individual, it might be hard to grasp why they're treating you differently. You might assume that you are over-analyzing the situation and that there surely was a valid reason why you weren’t invited to those Friday drinks or that weekend brunch. Likewise, you might assume that there's a reason you weren't offered a spot on that work business trip, or why you weren't included in that important meeting even though your colleagues at the same level as you sat in on it.
As for me, I've been a victim of bullies and harassment. I started a new job and didn't understand why I was being treated the way I was. At first, I had assumed I was just struggling to adjust to a different workplace. But then I discussed some of the behaviors I noticed with colleagues and they mostly just laughed it all off; they said it was all just how things were around there.
As if I was a textbook example, my health started to suffer. I used to dread opening emails, seeing familiar numbers come up on my phone and receiving requests for "impromptu meetings" with no shared agenda in advance. They all gave me anxiety and people close to me commented on how different I had become; I just didn’t seem myself, they said. I knew deep down that I was the target of a bullying situation and that, if I saw a friend in the same or a similar situation, I'd advise them to report it and get help. Why, then, was I not then taking my own advice?
Well, it's hard to take advice if you don't totally believe that you're being bullied. You may try to chalk up that bully behavior to something else and question whether you're just being too sensitive. Plus, bullying can be subtle and often has no other witnesses, and your bully will probably take every opportunity to remind you that you're being too sensitive. Besides, too many employers don't establish any kind of anti-bullying policy, so you might not even know how to go about handling it if you do believe it to be true.
It'll certainly become easier to believe when the situation devolves from harassment into repetitive harassment. Harassment is unwelcome and can sometimes be a one-off, but it is always unwanted, offensive or intrusive behavior. And when it happens time and time again, it's recognized as bullying. Your health safety become at risk and, as we all know too well from all of the harassment claims on the news lately, your career can also be jeopardized.
But because you can't turn on the news without hearing talk of sexual harassment claim after sexual harassment claim, or all kinds of workplace harassment, for that matter, too many of us have become immune to bullying and harassment. My solution to this has always been to adopt a zero-tolerance policy from the start; I was never afraid to call out bad behavior. That said, it's key to be able to differentiate bad behavior from consented behavior — even though you should always err on the side of professionalism in your workplace. Behaviors that are not considered harassment are those that arise from a relationship of mutual consent. A hug between friends, mutual flirtation or a compliment exchanged between colleagues are not always considered harassment. Consent is critical.
Also be aware that you're not alone. You're probably not the only one being singled out by that workplace bully. For example, negative comments made toward any individual about their mental or physical ability, religious beliefs, cultural background or ethnicity are probably being directed to other people, too. In other words, someone who makes offensive comments about a certain person due to their differences will most likely make the same comments to others from the same sector of society. When you report it, you help others, too.
That said, if someone’s behavior is directed solely toward you and no one else, then it’s especially likely to be a bullying situation, and it needs to be addressed immediately.
The more we can put a stop to bully behavior, and the more employers consider some sort of anti-bullying policy to handle harassment at work, the better we'll all be for it. In my case, I don't regret the decision I made to call out my bullies according to my job's anti-harassment policy and ultimately remove myself from that hostile environment for the sake of my health and safety.
Just remember: That bully at work is the weak one, not you.