The Suffering That Occurs When Employers Fail to Be Responsive to Victims of Bullying
Today is August 29, 2010. Five months have passed since I defended my thesis on bullying in the workplace. It was 2 months ago that, at age 61, I earned my Master’s Degree in Conflict Resolution. I am now hearing back from the individuals who so generously shared their stories as part of my research. Although they express appreciation that their stories have been told, they still feel the waves of Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome (PTSD), and as one said so perfectly, “I probably wanted to see written documentation that ‘we all suffered so!’”
Anyone who has experienced being bullied in the workplace knows firsthand that if you haven’t been there, you will probably think little of the suffering. Is it the failure to acknowledge the harm that is produced by bullying that allows bullying to go on? Not unlike the harm produced by racism or ageism, or any of the other -isms, the suffering of bullying is not forgotten by its victims and is brushed under the carpet by its perpetrators.
Even as I stood before my thesis committee, my committee chair introduced my topic, repeating his anthem that “workplace bulling is not intentional, but rather a management style.” Exactly the same words were muttered by him when I first introduced my thesis proposal 3 years before. He could not be more wrong. I think I can fairly liken the “management style” comment to genocide being a mere effort to reduce populations. Nothing could be further from the truth.
I would place workplace bullying in the same category as child abuse or domestic violence in terms of the harm done to the victims, the bystanders, and silent onlookers who support the bully by failing to support the victim. Bullying does not begin in the workplace. It begins in the sandbox with toys being taken and sand being thrown, the kindergarten classroom with teasing and baiting, the high school gym with students being shamed and embarrassed by bullies, university Greek Systems and athletic teams humiliating students during the initiation process, families, marriages, the military, and yes, it is finally all too present in the workplace.
The failure of parents and teachers to appropriately address bullying leaves children without the tools and resources to protect themselves, and certainly with the inability to seek protection from the very people they are taught are there to protect them. Just as adult bullies were, more likely than not, victims of bullying themselves, the parents and teachers who are repeatedly remiss were, more likely than not, victims of bullies as well.
As more incidences of workplace violence reach the press and media, one would have to live in a vacuum to not be aware of this growing nightmare. Due to the failure of employers to attend to the problem of bullying, lives are being lost to suicides, suicide by police, as well as being damaged by severe physical and emotional distress, PTSD, unemployment, job loss, and workmen’s compensation claims.
A union shop steward who works within the public school system, told me that he resolved many workplace bulling issues. When I asked him how, he said that he moved the victim to another location. He also said it was the only solution that had any hope of being successful.
No doubt, for the people he served there was some immediate relief from not having to report to or be in the company of the workplace bully, but what of the next victim? Workplace bullies do not pick a single victim but rather persistently seek out those individuals whom for whatever reason, they feel able to taunt, torture, and methodically destroy.
I would painfully suggest that until the fiscal losses due to workplace bullying are made blatantly apparent, the victims will remain that last consideration of employers.
The Australian Productivity Commission reported that, as of January 27, 2010, the total cost to the economy of bullying and harassment was about $14.8 billion a year….(Berkovic, 2010, p. 1)
Before I began writing my Master’s thesis, I sought the assistance of four local therapists. I wanted to be able to offer my participants an opportunity to speak to someone compassionate and knowledgeable about what they had experienced. I was opening up a can of worms: wounds scarred over, memories of cold sweats and anxiety attacks, sleeplessness, relationship problems, the inability to eat or work the physical pains of ulcers, irritable bowel syndrome, headaches, backaches, and depression. I wanted to embrace their courage and stamina. Regardless of how well they believed they fared, I wanted them to know that I had been there, too, and I did not take lightly the journey I was asking them to revisit.
In 1982, as I completed a classroom presentation to third graders on child abuse prevention, a boy walked by and waved. As he walked, he looked back and asked, “Is it okay for my dad to pick me up by my ears until they pop, when he is mad at me?” He kept walking, and I quietly asked him to come back and visit for a moment. His few words, hastily spoken, were the tip of the iceberg. I remember his face, the tone of his voice, his eyes as if it occurred today. I remember the exact words and how they were phrased.
Likewise, I remember the words of my participants: “He picked away at me every day,” “She actually went to my computer and put on a screen saver that mocked me,” “ I had worked so hard for that position and then they gave it to someone that I not only had to train, but then belittled me and made my life a living hell,” “ I still shudder and feel the pain today, just talking about it,” “She said awful things about my husband, my clothes, and my body,” “ She attacked my gender identity, my ability to do my job that I had excelled in for 5 years, “ “He lied about my work and then took all of the credit for himself”…. It goes on and on.
So, I ask myself, how do I give voice to suffering of the victims of workplace bullying? It is not enough to work toward stopping workplace bullying, educating employers and employees, and changing laws. Of course, each of those things are critical for a safe workplace in the future, but what I want to do today, in this moment, is to tell you unequivocally how much victims of workplace bullying suffer!!! Their suffering goes on long after the bullying has stopped, long after they have left the place where the harm was done, long after the sweats have subsided and they are able to sleep through most of a night. The suffering goes on for a lifetime, because it is deep, personal, persistent, frightening, anger- producing, and because there is a thick, opaque cloud of depression that lingers just outside their peripheral vision that forever reminds them that danger is as close today as it ever was.
In days gone by, victims of workplace bullies could, in the best-case scenario, find jobs elsewhere. This is not the case today in the 2010 economy. In fact, individuals are more vulnerable not only to being laid off or fired, but to being bullied and having virtually no place to go.
In honor of all of those who have suffered and those who continue to today, I give the last word to one of my thesis participants:
Reading your work reminded me of how terrible it felt back then—to go from a respected coworker to a demoralized, unhappy person. I loved my job and the work I did, and it was stolen from me by someone who simply wanted to get me out of her way. I remember being panicky whenever I saw a car like hers. ... that lasted for years. Worse, I didn't trust myself and no longer believed I had done good work in my field. I was fearful of everyone and suspected anyone I came into contact with knew how I'd been gotten rid of. Thank God for redemption! In my new work the opportunity to once again prove myself in a nonthreatening workplace—and at a much more significant level—has impacted me AND the field. I praise God every day for being so blessed to end my career on a positive note and am so grateful for this chance to prove at a greater level that my contributions are valid. The bully almost robbed me of that. Of course, I had to move 3,000 miles away to get away from her tentacles!