When I watched the powerful 2012 documentary called “Bullied”, I cried in recognition, grief, anger and sheer sense of helplessness to stop it. At the end, there were memorials for children who had taken their lives because of bullying. I wanted to reach through my TV and shake those school principals and parents. I understood the victims and their sense of isolation and despair. The main difference between children’s bullying and adults’ bullying is that the more “mature” bully leaves no physical scars. After all, there are laws for that! Having worked in mental health, I’ve seen the other kinds of scars. Unfortunately, I’ve also been victim to them myself.
Years ago, I worked at a children’s charity. The Executive Director (ED) verbally abused staff. The first time I heard her scream, I thought she was injured and ran into her office. I was shocked when I realized screaming was her way of asking for a file. I was expected to intuitively predict her needs or incur her wrath. Charming!
She looked like somebody’s Grandma complete with stuffed toys in her office and cross-stitched frames with statements of kindness and love. Actually, if you are familiar with Harry Potter, she was like Dolores Umbridge with her kitten plates. Except her eyes bulged more.
This ED was revered in the community and at her church as a do-gooder. When people would come to the office to discuss making a donation, she would tearfully gush about how wonderful they were to support the children. After they left, she would call them the most ungodly names saying they were (bad word) cheap.
“Knowing what’s right doesn’t mean much unless you do what’s right.” Theodore Roosevelt WHY BULLY? According to the Workplace Bullying Institute, bullies are more likely to intimidate and discredit the stronger, more competent people and not the ones who are weaker. Their targets also have different values from their own: including ethics, integrity, fairness and collaborativeness. The payback for bullying is that, by discrediting their colleague/subordinate, the bully’s career usually thrives. This was most certainly my ED’s case.
I didn’t leave right away. I stayed because I loved the cause, got along great with my colleagues and was fearful of being unemployed again.
If you’re in that very difficult situation, here’s your toolbox:
TOOL # 1: Learn how to speak up. First I asked her to please tell me what she wanted or needed, “one thing at a time”. Her response was to look at me with disgust and question my intelligence. I repeated that I needed her to be clearer and
to remain respectful so that I could help her. The other thing I did was to firmly say “please do not shout”. She was shocked that someone would tell her “not to shout”. When she couldn’t deny what had just happened, she would dramatically grab her chest and say that she is a breast cancer survivor from 15 years ago. Then she would whimper that this was “affecting her today”.
When I spoke up, there were times that she would stop for a while; but she had more experience and endurance at bullying than I did at stopping her. Still, my small successes gave me a temporary sense of control. Bullies need silence to continue their bullying.
TOOL # 2: Find out the history of the company and who might help. During my interview, I questioned the high turnover of that position. They explained that non-profits can’t pay well enough to keep people. That was a red herring. It quickly became apparent that she had a long history of bullying. Long-time bullies ALWAYS have people protecting them and making excuses.
One of the board members, who originally interviewed me, told me that it is the fault of the employees for tolerating the behaviors and for staying. I pointed out to her that “nobody stays”. Out of curiosity, I asked this board member what was great about this ED. It turns out that she had helped them get rid of a “bad” Director who was destroying their reputation and ability to raise money. They felt “forever in her debt”. It was clear that no one was going to help the staff. Basically, the ED knew where the body was buried. When they start blaming the victim, as this board member did with me: GET OUT! The cost of staying is too high.
TOOL # 3 Learn your legal rights. It’s hard to take action when you fear retaliation. Because of that same inaction, victims of bullying may have rights they are unaware of. In my case, I believed that if I quit, I would not be eligible for employment benefits and I needed an income while looking for another job. Clearly, this woman would not give a fair work reference so I felt fearful and stuck. When my father unexpectedly died, her abuse escalated. I quit and reported her to my provincial Labour Standards with documented events. It turned out there was already a file on her from past victims and I received benefits right away. So check out free legal clinics and get informed. Two years later, a successor called me saying she had found the detailed letter of resignation I had written to the board. She wanted to thank me for validating her experience. Until she read my letter to her husband, he thought she was making stuff up. I mean come on: that sweet Grandma, devoting her life to a children’s charity – a bully? No way! She quit after we spoke and, following my recommendations, she also received all her benefits.
I also told her: TOOL #4: After leaving a serious bullying situation, take some time to heal! THIS IS IMPORTANT! Recovery from bullying takes time. Just switching jobs without getting emotionally grounded could be a recipe for disaster. Having worked as a crisis counsellor, I can tell you that there is nothing brave about ignoring your mental health. Don’t play with fire – put some emotional distance, catch your breath and heal. Do not wait for a diagnosis of a burnout, depression or anxiety disorder. You’ll transition better into a new job and increase your future successes.
TOOL # 5: Helping others can empower you. The last time I was bullied at a job, I had learned from the ED experience above. This last time, I quickly recognized the signs and I was very capable of protecting my well-being and helping other targets. Although I am no longer there, I know that I made a difference for my colleagues by supporting and guiding them. I was able to stay calm while properly alerting her superiors to her specific behaviours. Because I was calm and detailed, instead of emotional like my colleagues, people took notice. I eventually left for greener pastures, but, even after I left, she couldn’t burp without the hierarchy taking notice. When she finally left and to this day, my old colleagues remain beyond thrilled. Be a survivor – not a victim.
TWO HAVENS FOR BULLIES. A therapist I used to work with told me she could build an entire practice treating people who are victims of bullies in non-profits and churches. We have an identity attachment to our religious life or when we pick a job in support of a passionate cause. Because of the helping and/or forgiving environment fostered in these environments, calculating bullies can get away with a lot.
My life choices means I was in both these havens. I’m still sad when I think of the abuse I went through in a toxic church. I was cyber-bullied and treated very unfairly by one person in particular. I was told by others that, even though she invited me to help out “she is quite territorial”. Just like the board protected the ED in the story above, the pastor protected the bully in this church. One witness, who has also left this church, described the way I was treated as “being unjustly crucified”.
Emotionally, I know what she meant. Here’s the baseline to look for in a healthy environment: There should be space to have a voice and feel respected or move on! Do you know how to speak up? Or do you avoid those difficult conversations? Get my free 4 step cheat sheet on asking for what you want. You won’t regret it.
1. Learn how to speak up
2. Find out the history of the company and who might help
3. Learn your legal rights.
4. After leaving a serious bullying situation, take some time to heal!
5. Helping others can empower you.
We are collecting stories from people who have successfully navigated workplace bullying for a book project. Our goal is to create an anthology – a collection of stories from those who have overcome the challenges this traumatic experience brings. We are looking for true stories about your extraordinary experience with workplace bullying and how you navigated and ultimately overcame it. We are looking for stories that will touch the readers – other targets of workplace bullying – and help them discover tools and principles they can use in their own life. We are looking for stories filled with emotion, vivid images, and a clear path to resolution.
If you are interested in submitting your story, you can learn more, and submit your story, here.