Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Second in a Series: Workplace Bullying Involving Older Workers

NOTE: none of the following is to be taken as legal or human resource advice. Please, if needed, seek your own legal counsel.

Bullying--the word seems so out of place in the world of the professional, "mature" worker. It conjures up the images of the poor, hapless kid getting ganged up on in the halls or on the playground. That's one of the reasons why grown-ups are usually so reluctant to identify themselves as being bullied.

In the previous post, I mentioned someone who recently told me about her "Sunday dread," and also some of the common physical symptoms of stress related to me.

Workplace bullying can be isolating. Because of the embarrassment associated with being picked on, many people are reluctant to say anything--to anyone. There has been a movement in recent decades to encourage "assertive communication." This is all well and good, but there are certain persons (for cultural reasons or hard-wired family messages) for whom assertion would be a difficult reach. Even in 2011, we still have a significant number of females who are raised to "be nice," even at their own expense. Sometimes, even loyal friends can tire of lending a supportive ear to the bullied individual, and may begin to subtly avoid the topic--or the individual. If this person wants to spare his or her family any of the ordeal, he or she may just shut down. Depression, alcohol/substance abuse, other addictive behaviors, or explosive anger at seemingly unrelated people might provide very dysfunctional releases.

Shame is often associated with the trauma of any ongoing abuse. Aside from feeling ridiculous about saying he or she has been picked on, a worker may somehow feel that if he or she were "stronger," or "a better worker," the bullying would not happen or continue for so long. This creates a situation of emotional power for the abuser, who can change the "rules" of the "game" at anytime, so the worker never feels validated or safe. This can further feed the abuse, because the perpetrator might say, "Well, if you felt it was so bad, why didn't you say something?" The worker's feelings of credibility, along with his or her courage, erodes, because the abuser counts on nothing ever being said.

With the current job market, a worker may experience the desperation of feeling trapped with a hostile boss or coworker. These feelings become heightened in those who are older, or planning for a semi-comfortable retirement. It's not unheard of, even now, for a worker to simply surrender and quit out of despair. Scarier still is the thought that someone's hopelessness might turn to rage, and he or she might suddenly return to the workplace as one of those dangerous "disgruntled workers" one hears about in the media.

As the existence of workplace bullying gains credence, there are measures any worker can take to protect himself or herself:

1. Keep every piece of work-related documents from the time of hire, no matter how insignificant or irrelevant it may seem. Make sure the file is kept where it cannot be found by anyone else, and contents would somehow mysteriously "vanish." This paper trail can include one's hiring agreement, formal job description, performance evaluations, letters of praise from customers, copies of emails, etc.

2. Be comfortably cordial, but thoughtful about self-disclosure. One never knows how an innocent conversation about one's personal life can provide fodder for gossip or more malicious purposes. Don't ever feel pressured to offer up any more information than what feels safe, even at the risk of appearing aloof. ALSO, think carefully about what personal belongings are left in the side desk drawer, especially if there is no lock to the desk.

3. And NOWADAYS...make sure that your Facebook "friends" setting reflects who your friends really are. Be mindful of what you post, no matter how innocent it may seem. Someone who has less than honorable motives can mine the social media network for things to use as leverage.

3. Carefully observe the workplace culture. Who is "friends" with whom, and who are the obvious outsiders or scapegoats? What is the tone of the gossip? What is the overall style of management-worker relationships? Do shifts in allegiances or divisions occur, and under what circumstances? Are you ever asked to take sides--by whom and against whom?

If you find yourself being targeted:

1. Keep aware and listen to your intuition. Bullying can be as grossly obvious as being tailgated by a Mac truck, or it can be subtle and insidious.

2. Take care of yourself -- now is all the more reason to cultivate interests and friendships outside of work, to exercise, find a hobby or cause...all to keep your senses of self-esteem and mastery buoyed up. Counseling, such as EAP (Employee Assistance Program) services, can help validate and normalize your feelings during these times.

3. Keep your cool, and think long and hard before returning the enemy fire. In the meantime, document, document, document any and all inappropriate words and actions. Then, if you feel you'll get supported, go to your H.R., union representative, or management, but also be aware of the limitations and possible pitfalls of this are. Do research on your rights in the workplace, and get expert legal advice if you need it.

4. Take your time deciding if you can "stick it out," change jobs, or strike out into a venture like your own business. These are very serious crossroads to face, and ultimately, only you can decide what is right for you to do.

Next post: A personal account of bullying.

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