Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Workplace Bullying Involving Older Workers: The first in a series

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

As we boomers remain on the job--whether by choice or necessity--we can be at risk for unprofessional, unsafe behavior from our peers and supervisors.

In the past year, I have had a significant number of clients disclose that they have been targeted with workplace hostility. They report sleep disturbances, including bad dreams about work; abdominal pains, even when they see their workplace building on a day off; second-guessing their abilities, even when they were highly trained. These people can't "just forget about it and relax" on weekends, and one individual said she gets "Sunday dread," because she knows Monday is just 24 hours away.

Workplace bullying, sadly, is not strictly illegal by itself, per my internet research. It can include a sneaky undercurrent of looks, covert gestures, exclusion from group communication, instances of realizing that one's desk and work files are being rifled through, and one's efforts to serve the public are contradicted in front of the customer. Because so much is done out of the sight or hearing of management, or behind closed doors, the bullying goes largely unnoticed. There have also, in recent decades, some efforts made in corporations to conduct "sensitivity training" or "communication sessions" to help the rank-and-file workers "get along." With supervisors or Human Resource reps in the room, the participants are likely to sit, nod mechanically, (maybe) smile at each other across the table--and then it's back to status-quo in the departments.

Older workers and those who feel socially and economically marginalized are particularly vulnerable. If the bully is confronted, often he/she will deny it, say something along the lines of "Too f***ing bad, if you don't like it, just quit." And so, too often, our worker sucks up their feelings--because, as some of my clients say, "At my age, who will hire me? And I need this job!" They feel trapped, like anyone in an abusive situation. Furthermore, the longer and more pervasive the abuse, the worker's productivity and accuracy can suffer, providing more ammunition for the bully.

Sometimes, a worker will go to H.R. or their supervisors, and the first thing he or she will hear is, "Well, didn't you try to work it out with them? You know, we're in the middle of end-of-month documentation. Can't this wait?" So, a glimmer of hope of support goes out...especially when the bully finds out that the worker has tried to seek help. The abuser may feign innocence to the rest of the department, and then the worker experiences retribution.

In a day when we are trying to pull together as a nation, and revitalize the economy, the childish viciousness of workplace bullying is detrimental not only to the individual worker, but productivity of companies and the country. Let's work this out!

Next post: The personal costs of workplace bullying, and some survival strategies.

Resources: www.workplacebullying.org, U.S. Department of Labor, "The Bully at Work," by Gary Namie, PhD & Ruth Namie, PhD
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