Joining the work-force

How to seek help when bullying becomes part of job description

From the time Sharel Kirchgassner of Churubusco accepted a clerk job that transferred her from one state office to another, she felt something was amiss.

She wanted the job because it would cut down her commute. But she was used to a certain amount of camaraderie among her co-workers – and the other women in the small office just didn’t seem friendly.

They’d have bring-in-a-box-lunch day – and not tell her. They’d criticize her for being slow on the computer – though her performance numbers weren’t out of line. They’d “train” her to do a task, but go so quickly that she couldn’t catch on – and then take the work away from her when she had trouble doing it.

They’d berate her in front of customers, ignore her or talk about her behind her back. One day, one made a nasty comment about an acknowledged sore point: her weight.

Day after day, week after week, Kirchgassner sensed little slights and weathered what she felt were direct attacks. She tried coping by thinking she didn’t have to be chummy with her co-workers, or even like them. Just do her job. She tried endlessly to figure out what she could have said or done that would make them treat her badly.

After going to her female supervisor, Kirchgassner says, she was promised things would change, but nothing did. She tried the next step in the chain of command, but began feeling that management perceived her as the problem; she was given the option of moving to another office but her co-workers’ behavior went unchallenged.

Kirchgassner began to fear that anything she said or did might get her fired. She started dreading going to work. She couldn’t sleep and felt more and more anxious and depressed – so much so that she went to her doctor and was put on medication.

More and more confused and hurt, “I couldn’t believe what was happening,” she says. “I was a nice person, and they were being so mean to me. … I thought I was losing my mind.”

She wasn’t. What was happening to Kirchgassner was a phenomenon that’s just gaining recognition in labor and management circles.

Bullying, these experts say, doesn’t just happen in the schoolyard. It can also happen in the workplace.

And when it does, it can knock the most conscientious employee for a loop.

“The result on the person is a lot of anxiety and probably a lot of anger and a lot of fear,” says Stephen Jarrell, executive director of Family and Children’s Services counseling agency in Fort Wayne. He has seen clients who have been the targets of workplace bullying.

Jarrell says physical symptoms, including sleep or eating disturbances, are common among those who are bullied.

“Some people resort to medication or alcohol, or have, although I don’t like the term, a mental breakdown from the stress,” he says.

Many come to him for those symptoms, not recognizing that the atmosphere at work is contributing to their distress. When they do, many end up leaving their jobs.

“Life becomes unbearable,” says Janet Mitchell, an attorney and mediator in private practice in Fort Wayne who has mediated more than 700 disputes, many involving bullying behavior in the workplace.

Still, says W. Barry Nixon, executive director of the National Institute for the Prevention of Workplace Violence in Lake Forest, Calif., few workplaces have policies against bullying.

He acknowledges it’s difficult to define. No laws specifically forbid it.

“People don’t really have a good handle on what is bullying and what is just making someone do the job and what is just joking,” he says.

But the concept of bullying in the workplace “is an emerging issue in the U.S,” he adds.

“The challenge is that it’s not one of the recognized forms of harassment that everybody knows about, like sexual harassment, or harassment based on classes like age, sex or race. … We’re conditioned to think that way, but it’s not always the case.”

Generally, Nixon says, bullying involves hostile behaviors, including belittling a person or a person’s work, discounting or ignoring the person’s input or viewpoint, overfocusing on negatives, deliberately doing things that annoy the person, making unrealistic work demands, sabotaging the person’s work and blaming the person for someone else’s actions or mistakes.

In short, “it’s anything that undermines the person’s credibility” on the job, Nixon says.

Two textbook definitions are “unwanted behavior, whether physical or verbal, which is offensive, humiliating and viewed as unacceptable to the recipient” and “the misuse of power to intimidate somebody in a way that leaves them feeling hurt, vulnerable or powerless.”

One labor union defines bullying this way – “persistent, offensive, abusive, intimidating or insulting behavior or abuse of power or unfair penal sanctions which makes the recipient feel upset, threatened, humiliated or vulnerable; which undermines his or her self-confidence, and which may cause him or her to suffer stress.”

Bullying can happen between co-workers at the same level, Nixon says – indeed, he says, there’s a phenomenon called mobbing in which several co-workers gang up on a targeted employee. Or, in a particularly problematic scenario, bullying can occur between a supervisor and a supervisee.

“There’s bullying by management, but it can (also) be confused with tough management,” Jarrell says. “As the bottom line gets more and more narrow these days, whenever management makes a change or requires more hours or more work, which is the way business has to be run now, that can be perceived as bullying. The difference is (bosses) making someone work (more) because they can, or because it’s necessary to get a project done.”

Scott McAlister, director of the Allen County Bowen Center, a community mental health counseling agency in Fort Wayne, says regardless of who is the bully, the person on the receiving end needn’t spend a lot of time or emotional energy wondering “Why me?”

” McAlister “I always say ‘Until you get to heaven, you don’t know why,’ says. “I try to get them away from the ‘Why?’ question?”

Experts say bullies almost always act out of deep personal insecurities. They need to feel superior or in control. They need to make someone else feel bad to make them feel good about themselves.

As a result, bullies often choose their targets for personal, seemingly inexplicable reasons – perhaps the way they dress or the shoes they wear. Some target a person who, for some reason, reminds them of someone who has hurt them in the past.

Some workplace bullies might target someone whose “defeat” will advance an otherwise hidden agenda – for example, getting the bully a job he or she wants or avenging a previous workplace slight.

But the bitter truth is that bullies usually bully someone because they can – and can get away with it.

“The thing that I don’t want to say is that that the person who gets bullied ever invites it,” Jarrell says. “But bullies know who to bully. They sense a weakness. They bully the vulnerable, the disenfranchised, the person who’s not socially integrated, who won’t fight back.”

Few statistics on who is bullied exist. But those that do suggest that 80 percent of targets are women, while bullies are split evenly between the sexes, says Gary Namie, director of The Workplace Bullying & Trauma Institute in Bellingham, Wash.

“Women take the brunt of this,” he says, calling the bullying of women by women particularly insidious. Laws banning discrimination against women sometimes used in bullying cases don’t apply, he says, so the conduct becomes “invisible to the law.”

People who have been victimized in other areas of their lives are particularly vulnerable to being bullied on the job, McAlister says.

And, because targets often don’t recognize what the real problem is, they often wait until the situation is so ensconced it’s affecting their family life or health before they seek help.

” “Usually the person feels trapped and thinks ‘I have to put up with this,’ he says.

Still, a person feeling bullied on the job does have recourse.

McAlister says the first thing a bullied person should do is assemble a support system. It can consist not only of family and friends but also professionals such as a pastor, mental health counselor, doctor, lawyer or union representative, if applicable.

The professionals, who likely have dealt with similar situations in the past, can help the person analyze what’s going on and develop a strategy for making it better, he says.

“Generally I help people come up with some coping strategies to help them cope with their stress,” he says. Sometimes, he says, it’s as simple as getting the person to understand that “We work at businesses for the money, and we go home to people we love.”

Other times, counseling involves techniques to rebuild self-esteem.

“If it gets really intense, it may be time to look for the exits,” says Jarrell, who adds the bullied person can have a counselor help him or her develop a plan to change jobs.

Both Jarrell and McAlister, whose agencies run Employee Assistance Programs, recommend tapping such a program if one is available. Even though the programs are sponsored and paid for by employers, they say, information is confidential, unless the employee signs a waiver authorizing its release to management.

“It’s a good place to unload and vent,” Jarrell says of an EAP. If he hears the same kind of information from a number of employees, he says, he can address the situation with the company’s managers without using names.

But Namie counsels against using an EAP.

Experts say a bullied employee who doesn’t want to leave his or her job should gather documentation and witnesses – writing down what has happened and who saw it – and present the information to management. It can be a good idea, they say, to have the support system present during the meeting.

Sometimes, formal mediation services might be available to help defuse or resolve bullying situations, says Mitchell, who has worked through many disputes with U.S. Postal Service employees and those of other federal government agencies.

Mitchell offers two kinds of mediation – one whose purpose is to reach a settlement or solution and another in which employees and managers air concerns in a neutral setting.

“Usually, talking to the ones who are called the bullies, (you find that) they usually feel the co-worker is intentionally angering them, asking too many questions or being confrontational or challenging to them,” she says. “Usually, bullies don’t have heinous purposes but feel they’re doing what they’re doing in self-defense.”

Nixon says those who leave jobs because they’re bullied leave unaddressed the larger societal problem. He says employers need workplace violence prevention policies that forbid bullying and must train employees how to spot it and deal with it. One reason, he says, is that it can escalate into physical violence such as assaults or shootings.

Another reason is that some employees have sought redress through the civil courts, leaving employers who don’t deal with the issue open to lawsuits, he adds. Nixon notes an Indianapolis hospital perfusionist recently was awarded $325,000 in a case against a doctor, even though the target was employed by the hospital and not the doctor, who also was not a hospital employee.

In a national first, Namie says, he was allowed to testify as an expert that the doctor, who was alleged to have screamed and lunged at the hospital worker, engaged in bullying behavior.

The case, which is being appealed by the doctor, was brought on grounds the doctor intentionally inflicted emotional distress, according to the target’s attorney, Kevin Betz of Indianapolis.

No state or national law specifically prohibits workplace bullying, although laws have been proposed in California, Hawaii, Oklahoma, Oregon and Washington, Namie says.

Without such laws, “some employers might feel if it doesn’t affect the bottom line, so what?” Jarrell notes. “It does affect it because I’m losing productivity if I’m bullying or I’m being bullied. Management needs to get a grip on it.”

Looking back, Kirchgassner can see some things she did wrong. One day, she says, she lost her temper when she tried to confront the co-worker who had been embarrassing her in front of customers, and they both ended up with a three-day suspension.

She spent a lot of time trying to figure out whether she was being illegally discriminated against, even though none of the categories seemed to fit, and trying to find out whether she could take legal action. And she admits, she didn’t seek the help of others soon enough.

Kirchgassner’s situation initially seemed to end badly. After taking a three-week medical leave because of her mental state, she returned to work but still perceived a hostile environment. She decided to go home early, she says, and she ended up filing a police report about her co-worker’s conduct when she went to leave. In the report, she alleged the co-worker deliberately bumped her, threatened her and tried to provoke her into hitting her. She ultimately was terminated for not returning to work the next week when told to. She says she felt uncomfortable putting herself back into the same envirornment.

At one point, Kirchgassner says, she overheard a co-worker say that she had a friend who wanted the job Kirchgassner got – and she thinks that could have been a big part of the reason for what she experienced.

But the story has a happier ending. Although the 52-year-old didn’t work full time for several months, she recently got a job handling medical collections that she enjoys and is much less stressful.

Best, she has her old sunny and outgoing personality back.

“I finally got my sense of humor back and I feel I have my confidence again,” she says. “I was a mess.”


You know you are being bullied at work when:

•You feel like throwing up the night before you start your week.

•Your doctor asks what could be causing your skyrocketing blood pressure, sleep or eating disturbances or other health problems and when you reply, tells you to change jobs.

•You obsess about work at home but are too ashamed to tell family members what’s happening or feel they won’t understand.

•Days off are spent exhausted and lifeless and your favorite activities are no longer fun. You feel anxious or experience a constant sense of imminent doom.

•You begin to think you provoked the treatment.

•You aren’t trained or given time to learn the new job but nothing you do is good enough.

•Others at work have been told to stop working, talking or socializing with you.

•People feel justified screaming or yelling at you in front of others but you are punished if you say anything back.

•When you firmly confront your tormentor to stop the abusive conduct, you are accused of harassment or told that the harassment you’ve experienced isn’t illegal and you “have to work it out between yourselves.”

•Everything your tormentor does to you is arbitrary and dedicated to advancing a personal agenda that undermines the employer’s legitimate business interest.

•You are shocked when accused of incompetence, despite a history of excellence.

•Co-workers agree in person and orally that your tormentor is a jerk but there’s nothing they can do about it.

If you are being bullied:

Bully-proof yourself. Give it a name. Realize the problem is external – you did not invite or want the psychological assaults and interference in your work.

Seek respite. Work-related trauma, like other types, is overwhelming by definition. Get away, if only to seek help from a mental-health counselor.

Check your physical health. Some stress-related illnesses, such as high blood pressure, don’t have symptoms; others can be aided with medication.

Research. Talk to an attorney or workplace bullying specialist. Document what is going on. Research legal options. Put together a case about the economic influence the bully has had on the organization.

Look for a new job. Do it before you take action with the employer, if possible.

Expose the bully. Use the research to make the case the bully is too expensive to keep – don’t dwell on your symptoms – to the highest person you can reach.

Give the employer a chance. Think of yourself as the internal consultant the employer needs to deal with the bully effectively.

Don’t keep silent, even if you must leave. For your health’s sake, tell others what happened. It will help you rebound.

How to spot a bullying workplace before you take the job:

•Ask why the last person left and inquire about turnover rate in the last three years.

•Look for signs of mandated workaholism or potential exploitation – “We all stay late here;” “In your job, you’re expected to take work home.”

•Interview co-workers. Ask them about the supervisor’s performance. Is he or she better than the previous boss? Ask also about work expectations in general.

•Ask how performance reviews are done. Do employees ever get to review the boss?

•Note interviewer defensiveness. Does he squirm if you ask how fairness and respect in the workplace is ensured?

– Adapted from the Workplace Bullying & Trauma Institute – Adapted from the Workplace Bullying & Trauma Institute

Source: The Journal Gazette