February 26, 2009

That Jerk at Work

Harassment, intimidation, credit-stealing, sabotage...
Here's how to handle workplace jerks with inquiry rather than reactivity.

Years ago, several of my co-workers and I were bullied out of our jobs in a departmental reorganization. Rather than being upfront about the need for change and easing us out, our supervisors badmouthed us to the higher-ups...excluded us from meetings and projects...withheld information that was essential for us to do our jobs...then blamed us for not doing those jobs. We were subjected to sudden, unscheduled, very negative performance reviews. I saw people who had formerly supported me watch helplessly or withdraw from contact for fear of losing their jobs. In one particularly unsavory incident, my boss's boss called me into his office on my birthday—which was also the day before I was leaving for two weeks' vacation—to tell me that he was putting me on a month's probation. Bon voyage!

After ten years of stellar performance reviews, promotions and substantial raises in salary, I didn't see this coming. Neither did my colleagues. Most of us who were let go in that purge didn't stay in the business. One had cancer, another had AIDS; though they were able to work, the intimidation took its toll on them and they quickly went on disability before they could be fired. Others burned their bridges and went on to entirely different fields.

I reacted to the incidents with extreme hurt, anger, immaturity and victim mentality. I went to HR with a chip on my shoulder. I gossiped in and out of the company, seeking to save my reputation while smearing that of my supervisors. I fought—I mean really, really fought—for a severance package, exhausted myself in doing so, and never really appreciated what I received, which was considerable. After leaving the company, I went freelance, vowing never to work in a corporate setting again...which wasn't a peaceful stance, seeing as I dealt exclusively with corporations for the next ten years. While I told myself it was a blessing in disguise to leave the company I'd grown up with, I didn't believe it; it took years to get over the hurt, resentment and insecurity I felt. I said I was sprung from prison, but I was enslaved by traumatic thoughts and memories.

Today, my experience would be recognized as workplace bullying: repeated actions of aggression or intentional intimidation aimed at a co-worker, employee or group of employees. Bullying can look like public humiliation, blame, lies, swearing, shouting, practical jokes, exclusion, excessive monitoring, unwarranted criticism, provocation, or biased remarks or treatment based on race, religion, gender, sexual orientation, age or appearance. It can happen between a supervisor and a direct report...between individuals or by one or more individuals towards a group. Workplace bullying can be so deeply entrenched as to be part of an organization's corporate culture. Incredibly, in most cases other than overt physical, sexual or discriminatory harassment, it isn't even illegal. While some companies have a zero-tolerance policy towards workplace jerks, it can be difficult to document and prove that someone's behavior, no matter how obnoxious, impedes upon another's health or safety.

There are many practical steps you can and should take to protect yourself from workplace bullies; I won't go into this, as that information is widely available elsewhere. In the meantime, if you are suffering due to the behavior of a jerk (or jerks) at work...whether or not you take legal action, try to resolve the problem directly with the bully, or leave...you owe it to yourself to meet your stressful thoughts with understanding so that you can take care of yourself and respond in the most appropriate, effective way for you, remaining objective and sane without invalidating what is happening.

Typical Thinking Traps and How to Spring Them

How do you respond to bullies? Do you hate them? Fear them? Are you aggressive right back? Defensive? Do you seek revenge, overtly or covertly? Do you feel defeated? Invaded? Do you doubt yourself? Punish yourself? Complain to others? Rally the troops? Do you tell yourself it's not happening, or that it is happening but there's nothing you can do about it? (I did all of these things.) None of these are "bad" reactions; they're understandable. Just notice how it feels when you react in this way.

If you are ready to discover your own truth and take back your life, I recommend filling out a Judge-Your-Neighbor Worksheet (available at TheWork.com) on the bully. Be as petty and judgmental as possible; get your "ya-yas" out. You won't get far having a tantrum at the office, but you can safely have one on paper.

As you do The Work on the workplace jerk, notice and write down any underlying beliefs, such as, "He crossed a boundary," "I want her to suffer," "I am powerless," "I'm not good enough to keep this job." Hold these underlying beliefs up against the four questions and turnaround of The Work; they are the core beliefs that, unquestioned, may leave you vulnerable to further bullying. Notice if there are any patterns in your life and your relationships beyond the workplace that seem similar: "My mother crossed a boundary." "I want my husband to suffer." "I am powerless over my situation.""I'm not good enough to be a father."

Imagine yourself in the presence of the bully without your stressful beliefs. Notice their behavior. Notice how it feels not to take it personally. Notice how you go about doing your job (or updating your resume) from this place of clarity. Notice how you keep a factual diary of incidents to submit to your boss, or discuss the bullying with the HR department, or talk to the bully alone, or hand in your resignation, without perpetrating more violence on anyone...especially yourself.

Imagine seeing the workplace bully for the first time, without your story. Look into her eyes. Look at his face. Hear his words as he takes credit for your ideas. See her face as she delivers the unfair performance review. Notice the sexist, racist, homophobic remark. Knowing that they cannot ultimately touch who you know yourself to be, what do you see and hear? How do you treat them?

Turn the thought around. Have you ever been an intimidating, offensive, unreasonable, fire-stealing jerk? Given what you knew and what you were struggling with in your life, were you doing the best you could at the time? Could it be that the bully is doing her best as well? In seeing this, even just one per cent--in opening your heart and mind just a tiny crack--you might realize that you have never been destroyed by another human being. Of course, you don't condone the behavior of the workplace bully; but perhaps you won't carry him around inside of you wherever you end up next, whether it's down the hall, down the road, or light-years away.

©2009 by Carol L. Skolnick. All rights reserved.

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