When bullies go to work

The hidden epidemic of workplace mistreatment affects over a third of workers -- and is hurting us all

Topics: Bullying, Editor's Picks,

When bullies go to work (Credit: Tyler Olson via Shutterstock)

My friend Dennis* remembers the exact moment he knew he’d had enough. Enough of the “nonstop nagging and ostracizing and accusing” that had become his weekday routine. He was standing on the platform of the subway station at Union Square, leaning out toward the tracks to see if the train was approaching. “And I thought, if I don’t pull back, if I stay here like this, so many problems will be solved.”

Dennis’ tormenter? Not a schoolyard thug shaking him down for lunch money, but a high-ranking executive in one of the largest financial institutions in the country. When the mean kids of your childhood grow up, they don’t all evolve into self-aware, contrite adults. Sometimes, they just move from the playground to the corner office.

Dennis says that his problems began the day he dared to point out a flaw in his supervisor’s report during a meeting. From there, he was swiftly taken off a project he’d been immersed in and moved to one “I literally didn’t know anything about.” He was also, unlike the other members of his team, billed for taking the company’s car service after working late one night. “They told me I didn’t have to work overtime and accused me of malingering,” he says. But what sticks with him now, long after he’s left, are the sly humiliations and social ostracizations. Like when he broke a toe and couldn’t wear business shoes, he was sent up to the vice president’s office and made to show him his swollen, purple foot.

“They’d call meetings and not tell me,” he says. “I’d see them going into the conference room without me. They’d go out for lunch afterward and not include me.” His department abruptly banished office birthday parties in March, and resumed them in May. “My birthday is in April,” he explains. Unlike the guy in his department who a year earlier leaped to his death out a window, Dennis, fortunately, got out in time. By then his hair was turning gray. He was having self-destructive thoughts on the subway platform. And so even though it was the height of a recession, “I went in and I quit without having another job,” he says.



“There’s exclusion, there’s cliques — the same as school bullying,” says Cheryl Dellasega, a relational aggression expert who’s written “Mean Girls Grown Up” and “When Nurses Hurt Nurses.” But unlike school bullying, she says, the issue is still not widely addressed. “There’s a definite lack of awareness. People are very surprised when they think about these things happening in the workplace.” Yet it’s all around us –  a 2010 workplace bullying study found that 35 percent of workers say they have experienced bullying firsthand, and another 15 percent report witnessing it.

It happened to Nicole, who worked for two years in the marketing division of a fashion company. She sensed the organization might be a less than great fit when she didn’t wear makeup to work one day “and someone said to me, ‘What’s wrong with your face?’” Before long, she says her boss would “wait till I left the office, ask for changes on work, and expect them before I’d  returned.” And when she returned to the office after several days off, she says, “Then my boss really started turning on me, not giving me work. I got a written warning about my attitude. My boss would litter her emails with smiley faces, and I’d get called into the office and told that my emails were too ‘frosty.’ I was in complete shock. I’m a really tough cookie,” Nicole says. “I went to school for business. And I started to have panic attacks at work.”

For Beth, who worked for a cosmetics company, bullying stress hit her in the gut. She got off on the wrong foot when her aunt died on her first day at the job. “I told my boss I had to leave and she said, ‘Well what other days are you taking off?’” After that, she says, it got worse. “If I was leaving at 5:45, she’d say, ‘Just because I leave at 5:45, that’s not a green light for you to leave.” And when she had to take time off for surgery, her boss asked, “Can you change it? We have all these conference calls coming up; you’re going to have to do this from home.” Beth says, “When HR put me on disability, she went ballistic.”

After that, “She would yell at me in front of other people. Having worked on Wall Street, I’ve been yelled at and screamed at, but this was bullying like I’ve never seen. I got yelled at in the hallway one day and almost threw up at work.” And when Beth complained to HR, she says she was told, “Isn’t it a little early to not be getting along with your co-workers?” Beth was able to set up a safety net consulting gig and jumped ship, but the scars of the experience run deep. “I felt so rejected,” she says. “I have yet to update my LinkedIn profile because I’m so terrified of the idea of those people looking at it.”

Dennis, Nicole and Beth worked in different industries in different parts of the country. Yet in many ways they all fit the profile of a workplace target. Dellasega says office bullies tend to have an “inner lack of confidence that causes them to lash out” – something a competitive workplace feeds on exquisitely. So who do they look for in the pecking order? “The most thoroughly competent person,” says Dr. Gary Namie of the Workplace Bullying Institute. “The person is well-liked, has empathy, is ethical, and so has whistle-blower potential, and doesn’t want to get involved in office politics. They all say, ‘I loved my job. I just wanted to be left alone to do it.’ They can’t believe this happened to them. What distinguishes a target from a bully-proof person is the target thinks, it must be me.”

Part of what makes workplace bullying so insidious is that it’s so deeply entrenched in the corporate cultures where it flourishes. It’s not just one jerk — it’s a whole department of sycophants and terrorized underlings. As Liza, who works in graphic design, says, “One of my bosses likes to throw paperwork on the floor so we have to get on our knees. I commonly see a reaction of, ‘That’s just how he is,’ or ‘He’s just having a bad day,’ when an incident occurs.” Namie says this is common. “The whole group adopts the practice out of survival and fear, and over time it becomes the norm and the bullying becomes institutionalized. It’s about loyalty,” he says. “Once you start promoting people for that kind of behavior, you’ve sent the message.”

The stigma of being the unpopular kid in the lunchroom, of playing what Nicole calls the “emotional Russian roulette” of the workweek can wear a person down and wreak havoc on a person’s health. Unlike bullied kids, Namie says, “Adults are not nearly as resilient. When they’re devastated, recovery is so hard.” If you love what you do and you take pride in it, it’s traumatic to spend your days among people who undermine your confidence and tell you you’re bad at it. “Throughout every single week — sometimes every day — they would point out something wrong I’d done. And the constant phrase was, ‘You should have known,’” says Dennis. “It bothers me to this day.”

In a brutal economy, the options aren’t always as easy as simply walking out and going somewhere nicer. And the toxic workplace has been around since long before the first scribes got their butts chewed out for sloppy papyrus work. But it’s heartening that we’re beginning to make strides to raise awareness and make the workplace less toxic. “We’re focusing on prevention; we’re doing seminars on civility,” Cheryl Dellasega says. “Employers have to be more proactive now,” because “bullying impacts on productivity.” Statistics are hard to come by because targets themselves don’t always connect the dots between their absenteeism-causing migraines and ulcers and their aggressive colleagues, but Dellasega says at least 5 percent of workers say they’ve deliberately not gone in to work because of stress there.

Work can be stressful. Colleagues can be difficult. It’s sometimes easy to chalk it up to a high-pressure business or a prickly supervisory style, to suffer in silence and chalk it up to the nature of the industry. But just like school or family, your job isn’t supposed to give you headaches or high blood pressure or anxiety attacks or suicidal thoughts. If it is, there’s something seriously wrong. As Namie says, “Did you ever wake up on a weekday and say, ‘Today’s the day I deserve to be humiliated?’” And if you didn’t in grade school, why would you believe it now?

* Some names and identifying details have been changed

Mary Elizabeth Williams

Mary Elizabeth Williams is a staff writer for Salon and the author of "Gimme Shelter: My Three Years Searching for the American Dream." Follow her on Twitter: @embeedub.

More Related Stories

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 11
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Beautiful Darkness by Fabien Vehlmann & Kerascoët
    Kerascoët's lovely, delicate pen-and-watercolor art -- all intricate botanicals, big eyes and flowing hair -- gives this fairy story a deceptively pretty finish. You find out quickly, however, that these are the heartless and heedless fairies of folk legend, not the sentimental sprites beloved by the Victorians and Disney fans. A host of tiny hominid creatures must learn to survive in the forest after fleeing their former home -- a little girl who lies dead in the woods. The main character, Aurora, tries to organize the group into a community, but most of her cohort is too capricious, lazy and selfish to participate for long. There's no real moral to this story, which is refreshing in itself, beyond the perpetual lessons that life is hard and you have to be careful whom you trust. Never has ugly truth been given a prettier face.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Climate Changed: A Personal Journey Through the Science by Philippe Squarzoni
    Squarzoni is a French cartoonist who makes nonfiction graphic novels about contemporary issues and politics. While finishing up a book about France under Jacques Chirac, he realized that when it came to environmental policy, he didn't know what he was talking about. "Climate Changed" is the result of his efforts to understand what has been happening to the planet, a striking combination of memoir and data that ruminates on a notoriously elusive, difficult and even imponderable subject. Panels of talking heads dispensing information (or Squarzoni discussing the issues with his partner) are juxtaposed with detailed and meticulous yet lyrical scenes from the author's childhood, the countryside where he takes a holiday and a visit to New York. He uses his own unreachable past as a way to grasp the imminent transformation of the Earth. The result is both enlightening and unexpectedly moving.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Here by Richard McGuire
    A six-page version of this innovative work by a regular contributor to the New Yorker first appeared in RAW magazine 25 years ago. Each two-page spread depicts a single place, sometimes occupied by a corner of a room, over the course of 4 billion years. The oldest image is a blur of pink and purple gases; others depict hazmat-suited explorers from 300 years in the future. Inset images show the changing decor and inhabitants of the house throughout its existence: family photos, quarrels, kids in Halloween costumes, a woman reading a book, a cat walking across the floor. The cumulative effect is serene and ravishing, an intimation of the immensity of time and the wonder embodied in the humblest things.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Kill My Mother by Jules Feiffer
    The legendary Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist delivers his debut graphic novel at 85, a deliriously over-the-top blend of classic movie noir and melodrama that roams from chiaroscuro Bay City to Hollywood to a USO gig in the Pacific theater of World War II. There's a burnt-out drunk of a private eye, but the story is soon commandeered by a multigenerational collection of ferocious women, including a mysterious chanteuse who never speaks, a radio comedy writer who makes a childhood friend the butt of a hit series and a ruthless dame intent on making her whiny coward of a husband into a star. There are disguises, musical numbers and plenty of gunfights, but the drawing is the main attraction. Nobody convey's bodies in motion more thrillingly than Feiffer, whether they're dancing, running or duking it out. The kid has promise.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Motherless Oven by Rob Davis
    This is a weird one, but in the nervy surreal way that word-playful novels like "A Clockwork Orange" or "Ulysses" are weird. The main character, a teenage schoolboy named Scarper Lee, lives in a world where it rains knives and people make their own parents, contraptions that can be anything from a tiny figurine stashable in a pocket to biomorphic boiler-like entities that seem to have escaped from Dr. Seuss' nightmares. Their homes are crammed with gadgets they call gods and instead of TV they watch a hulu-hoop-size wheel of repeating images that changes with the day of the week. They also know their own "death day," and Scarper's is coming up fast. Maybe that's why he runs off with the new girl at school, a real troublemaker, and the obscurely dysfunctional Castro, whose mother is a cageful of talking parakeets. A solid towline of teenage angst holds this manically inventive vision together, and proves that some graphic novels can rival the text-only kind at their own game.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    NOBROW 9: It's Oh So Quiet
    For each issue, the anthology magazine put out by this adventurous U.K.-based publisher of independent graphic design, illustration and comics gives 45 artists a four-color palette and a theme. In the ninth issue, the theme is silence, and the results are magnificent and full of surprises. The comics, each told in images only, range from atmospheric to trippy to jokey to melancholy to epic to creepy. But the two-page illustrations are even more powerful, even if it's not always easy to see how they pertain to the overall concept of silence. Well, except perhaps for the fact that so many of them left me utterly dumbstruck with visual delight.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Over Easy by Mimi Pond
    When Pond was a broke art student in the 1970s, she took a job at a neighborhood breakfast spot in Oakland, a place with good food, splendid coffee and an endlessly entertaining crew of short-order cooks, waitresses, dishwashers and regular customers. This graphic memoir, influenced by the work of Pond's friend, Alison Bechdel, captures the funky ethos of the time, when hippies, punks and disco aficionados mingled in a Bay Area at the height of its eccentricity. The staff of the Imperial Cafe were forever swapping wisecracks and hopping in and out of each other's beds, which makes them more or less like every restaurant team in history. There's an intoxicating esprit de corps to a well-run everyday joint like the Imperial Cafe, and never has the delight in being part of it been more winningly portrayed.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Shadow Hero by Gene Luen Yang and Sonny Liew
    You don't have to be a superhero fan to be utterly charmed by Yang and Liew's revival of a little-known character created in the 1940s by the cartoonist Chu Hing. This version of the Green Turtle, however, is rich in characterization, comedy and luscious period detail from the Chinatown of "San Incendio" (a ringer for San Francisco). Hank, son of a mild-mannered grocer, would like to follow in his father's footsteps, but his restless mother (the book's best character and drawn with masterful nuance by Liew) has other ideas after her thrilling encounter with a superhero. Yang's story effortlessly folds pathos into humor without stooping to either slapstick or cheap "darkness." This is that rare tribute that far surpasses the thing it celebrates.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Shoplifter by Michael Cho
    Corinna Park, former English major, works, unhappily, in a Toronto advertising agency. When the dissatisfaction of the past five years begins to oppress her, she lets off steam by pilfering magazines from a local convenience store. Cho's moody character study is as much about city life as it is about Corinna. He depicts her falling asleep in front of the TV in her condo, brooding on the subway, roaming the crowded streets after a budding romance goes awry. Like a great short story, this is a simple tale of a young woman figuring out how to get her life back, but if feels as if it contains so much of contemporary existence -- its comforts, its loneliness, its self-deceptions -- suspended in wintery amber.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Through the Woods by Emily Carroll
    This collection of archetypal horror, fairy and ghost stories, all about young girls, comes lushly decked in Carroll's inky black, snowy white and blood-scarlet art. A young bride hears her predecessor's bones singing from under the floorboards, two friends make the mistake of pretending to summon the spirits of the dead, a family of orphaned siblings disappears one by one into the winter nights. Carroll's color-saturated images can be jagged, ornate and gruesome, but she also knows how to chill with absence, shadows and a single staring eye. Literary readers who cherish the work of Kelly Link or the late Angela Carter's collection, "The Bloody Chamber," will adore the violent beauty on these pages.

  • Recent Slide Shows

Comments

0 Comments

Comment Preview

Your name will appear as username ( settings | log out )

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href=""> <b> <em> <strong> <i> <blockquote>