Bullying is an ugly aspect of childhood, but at least we get to leave that behind when we grow up, right? Unfortunately, that isn’t always the case. Workplace bullying isn’t talked about as much, but it happens all too frequently. Others in our lives can become Demons of Distraction who interfere with our productivity and success. If you’ve ever had a bullying supervisor or co-worker, you are all too aware of the ways in which this type of Difficult Person can sabotage all of your workplace interactions. In my upcoming book, Actions Against Distraction, I discuss those who engage in persistent, offensive, intimidating or insulting behavior. This may include teasing, gossiping, work interference, humiliation, threats and verbal abuse.
What is particularly shocking is that, according to the Workplace Bullying Institute (WBI), no U.S. state has yet enacted any law that protects workers from this type of bullying. Current “harassment” laws only address discrimination based specifically on civil rights status such as race, gender or recognized physical disability. This means that a person who is randomly singled out for abuse often has a difficult time seeking legal redress.
I have seen this happen to some of my clients, especially those with a “hidden” disability. They may never have been formally diagnosed with attention or learning conditions—or they may choose not to disclose that sort of disability because they fear negative repercussions. However, they need to use certain coping strategies to succeed. Julian, for example, is a college student who landed an internship at a renowned law firm. He is extremely intelligent but has auditory processing problems. He was assigned to a high-powered, smooth-talking attorney who couldn’t spare a moment for Julian until he was speeding down the hallway toward his next court date. Then he would force Julian to tag along at his heels while he barked a rapid-fire list of orders at him as he retreated. Naturally, Julian would only get about half the message. Later, the attorney would become irritated and berate Julian in front of the other lawyers in the firm, who snickered when he cracked, “For a supposedly smart kid, you sure are slow on the uptake.”
If an employee requires some extra time to learn a new skill, or needs to ask and repeat more questions than the average worker in order to master it, this can be seen as deficit or vulnerability by colleagues who are particularly judgmental or aggressive (or who have their own vulnerabilities). A bullying boss may “know better” than to harass someone in a wheelchair, but feel perfectly free to label a person who processes numbers more slowly or makes spelling errors due to dyslexia as “stupid.” There are also plenty of employees who have no chronic disabilities but who also become more vulnerable when the economy is bad, when technological change happens too quickly or when there are personal problems at home. Workplace bullies will take advantage of any kind of power imbalance.
How you deal with a workplace bully depends in part on the type and severity of the abuse. WBI recommends first recognizing that the situation is not your fault: “The source of the problem is external. The bully decides how to target and how, when, and where to harm people. You did not invite, nor want, the systematic campaign of psychological assaults and interference with your work.”
If you feel that you can safely confront the person who is causing you problems, here is a procedure that you can follow, from Actions Against Distractions:
- Use your logic and problem solving skills to prepare a script that includes the following:
- Visualize and describe the situation.
- Write out the feelings and thoughts you want to express.
- Specify what you want.
- Talk about positive and/or negative consequences and specify a goal.
- Rehearse your script. “Practice makes perfect” works for social skills, too. Plan, write notes, and schedule times to practice. Consider working with a colleague or friend, or using an audio or video recording as a practice aid.
Julian was able to do this. He asked to speak with the attorney privately. He told him, “Yes, I am smart and capable, but I’m completely new to this work and I am sometimes slow to take in everything that you’ve said. I need to take my time to write down and clarify your instructions. I want to do a good job for you, and I would think that you’d want this, also, since it would benefit you more in the long run.” By focusing on the potential of getting a better “product” or outcome, Julian succeeded in winning some changes in his supervisor’s behavior. It wasn’t a perfect, happy ending, but at least the attorney never again chastised him in front of others at the office.
This “Daily Muse” contribution to Forbes Magazine provides some helpful tips for dealing with electronic bullying. If workplace bullying becomes so severe that your health and well-being are threatened, you may need further assistance, such as the services provided by Workplace Bullying. Ultimately, as WBI says, “Employers control the work environment. When you are injured as a result of exposure to that environment, make the employer own the responsibility to fix it.”
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