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November 9, 2010 > Counseling Corner: What to do about bullies at work

Counseling Corner: What to do about bullies at work

By Anne Chan, PhD, MFT

Does your boss yell at you, perhaps lacing his invective with choice swear words? Does she sabotage you indirectly, like giving you the silent treatment, or directly, like criticizing you in front of others?

Workplace bullying refers to actions by an individual or a group that target, intimidate, and/or humiliate an employee. Bear in mind that not all bullies are bad bosses - co-workers or supervisors from other departments might be bullies as well. Nor are all bad bosses bullies - your boss might be incompetent, stupid, or socially inept, but awful as these qualities are, they don't necessarily mean that he or she is a bully. Workplace bullying is ill-defined, but if you have terrible dread and anxiety about work because of your boss' or co-worker's extreme negative actions, chances are you are suffering from the actions of a bully. According to a 2007 Zogby survey commissioned by the Workplace Bullying Institute, a staggering 35 percent of workers globally reported experiencing bullying in the workplace.

Bullying is technically different from harassment and discrimination in that the latter is illegal and there are laws protecting those who are harassed due to race, sexual orientation, gender, disability, marital status, HIV/Hepatitis C status, religion, national origin, and military status. Examples of harassment include racist jokes or sexist comments. If you are being discriminated against or harassed at work, seek the advice of a trusted mentor or someone in human resources who will maintain your confidentiality and can give you guidance on your specific workplace rights that protect you. Another possible option is to file a charge with the United States Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (http://www.eeoc.gov/employees/charge.cfm).

Bullies at work are psychologically not that much different from the playground bullies of your school days; they might not use their fists as a tactic, but they share similar strategies and motivations of intimidation and abuse of power. According to the Workplace Bullying Institute, most workplace bullies are men. Here's the twist though - women can also be bullies, but they tend to target other women, whereas men are more egalitarian and tend to bully both sexes equally.

Although California was the first state to introduce a "healthy workplace" bill (AB 1583) in 2003, the bill has yet to pass. To my knowledge, there are currently no California laws protecting employees from workplace bullying. Unfortunately, bullying is not illegal - there are few laws protecting those who are bullied at work. Even if there are no laws protecting you, there are some concrete steps you can take to protect yourself and your sanity:

- Recognize that you are being bullied and that you are not the source of the problem (even if the bully continually tells you that you are).
- Get help for your mental health - lean on trusted friends and mentors to guide you through these times. It is not weak to ask for help; in fact it is the smart thing to do when dealing with an irrational and unreasonable bully.
- Do positive things for your mental health, whether it's seeing a therapist, pursuing passions outside the workplace, or exercise.
- Maintain a paper trail. Keep detailed records of bullying incidents, recording when they occurred, the nature of the event, and the names of witnesses present at the time. Be sure to keep any evidence of bullying such as e-mails, letters, and time sheets.
- Document your contributions to the department or organization; keep track of your productivity and efforts.
- Contact your employee assistance program or human resources department and inform them of what is going on.
- Watch your workplace actions; bullies will take advantage of any slip-up or mistake you make to add to their arsenal. Do your job and do it well so that they cannot possibly make any sort of case against you.
- A must-read resource is "How to Bust the Office Bully," a document prepared by Arizona State University that provides helpful and practical strategies.

Repercussions for the bullied can be severe, and range from depression and lowered self-esteem to sleep and digestive issues, as well as generalized feelings of anxiety and stress. Sadly, those who are bullied might suffer these symptoms even when they are away from work. It is not surprising if their weekends are filled with stress and anxiety because they dread going to work on Monday. Even if they quit their jobs, they might still suffer stress reactions from their trauma. Should someone you know be suffering from post-traumatic stress, please urge them to see a licensed psychotherapist for help. These psychological injuries can be as damaging and profound as physical ones. Because of the lack of legislation protecting workers from workplace bullying, it can be difficult to get help when one is at the mercy of an abusive boss. I am fully aware of how tough the economy is right now, yet I should also point out one possible option if all else fails - actively look for another job if your health is at risk.


Anne Chan is a career counselor and licensed psychotherapist in Union City. She specializes in helping people find happiness in their careers, lives, and relationships. She can be reached at (510) 744-1781. Her website is www.annechanconsulting.com

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