This post contains ad hoc advice about my experience of dealing with abuse in the workplace. I should emphasize the anecdotes I talk about have all occurred at companies and universities that I have previously worked at, and none of them pertain to where I currently work.
Collaborating with other people in an amazingly creative act (via computer programming in my case) which can be an immensely life-fulfilling experience, transcendental, forging a deep connection with other human beings to create something new and meaningful in the world. The thrill and electricity (quite literally in my case) never diminish over the decades.
But as Depeche Mode has said, “People are people, so why should it be / You and I should get along so awfully?” Some of the darkest and lowest periods of my life have been when someone at work has taken a dislike to me and acted on it. Workplace bullying is a very serious and common problem, yet we don’t fully acknowledge how widespread it is, and the devastating harm it inflicts on its victims.
Isolation, humiliation in front of your peers. An abuser will try to isolate and separate you. They will exclude you from meetings, withhold information you need to do your job. They will emphasize how you are different from the others in front of your peers. Not as good as them. They will hold others up as an example of what you should be able to achieve, but can’t. They will separate you because you are a woman. Because you are not white. Because you are not like them. They will try to separate you from the people that could offer you support. Once separated from the pack, you are easier prey. Don’t let them draw that line in the sand; you can bake that silicon as you wish and cast your own die. Usually the people being separated from you don’t don’t want to have this line drawn between you and them, but they are also under the power and influence of the same abuser. In my experience, achievements and concrete results count for a lot and speak volumes. If you can somehow continue to work with others and demonstrate results, present demos and ship features, then those accomplishments are hard to argue with. Fight subjective condemnation with objective deliverables and achievements, as much as that is possible. In my experience, overall, the people that eventually get respect are those that can do, can code, can design, can implement, can debug, can build, can analyze, can ship, can collaborate, can quantify, can report and say what we should do next. That’s a lot more power than those that can only condemn.
Support. When you’re isolated you need support. Talk. Talk to your friends, family, colleagues. Don’t withdraw from your social circle. Seek professional help, if you feel that is what is required. Abuse disorients you but, by talking to others you trust, you can find your anchor again. Try to widen your social network at work. This can help you draw strength from a wider group of people who are your allies, and who share your view that what you are going through is not OK. And if things get untenable, your network is your way out of a bad situation, by moving to another group at your company (not so applicable at a university).
Sometimes it can help to talk to someone who is not close to you; this might make it easier for you to express some of your concerns or issues, when you would struggle to talk about them to people who know you well. That can be very valuable.
Gaslighting. Your abuser will say to your face things that are totally untrue, in direct contrast to the facts about what has happened, inverting the sense of conversations and agreements you’ve forged beforehand, inverting reality, saying this never happened (when you both experienced it together) and so on. They will try to mentally abuse you into doubting what you know to be true. I have low self-esteem, which makes me particularly susceptible to gaslighting, and I tend to go along with the narrative that the abuser is right about my inadequacies. The key thing to know about gaslighting is to be aware of when it is happening, and to let your abuser know you are not accepting it. Do not engage in an argument to defend and correct your position. If you must say anything, state the fundamentals of your reality. It is an axiom, it is not up for discussion, and that is an immutable truth, and you don’t care if they believe it or not, it is the rock you are anchored to. A simple thing that might be useful is to keep a log or Google doc that acts as a diary where you record events as they occur. This acts as supporting evidence for your own perception of reality. It really is frightening how much bullies can make you rewrite so much of your own reality, doubting so much of what you used to think was true. Things get ugly when you are gaslit in front of your work colleagues. Some of them will recognize the gaslighting for what it is, others will lack context and take the dressing down at face value. I don’t have a general piece of advice about what to do here, other than perhaps the opposite of what I am inclined to do: keep your cool, go on to demonstrate behaviour that contradicts the gaslighting, use The Palace argument that “recollections may vary”. The abuser wants to create a “hostile environment” to make you leave. However, when things are intractable, the best thing might be to just walk away.
Keep your cool (it is not easy). Anyone who knows me knows I am a hot-headed emotional person in the way that I communicate with just about everyone. However, this has not served me well when dealing with workplace bullies. My often emphatic and emotional outbursts about the injustices I have endured just alienated other people that I thought would understand and become my allies. This leads to fundamental tension between calling out bullying behaviour at the moment when it occurs, and deciding to keep your cool (and then letting the bullying incident pass without comment). Sadly my own experience has taught me that it is better to grit your teeth and keep your cool, but then follow up individually with each other person present at the incident to try and unpack how they experienced what happened and to try and communicate how it felt for you.
Human Resources. At first I thought that HR were on my side. I learned the hard way that in many places the role of Human Resources is to protect the company from the employees, not the other way around. I once had an abusive manager who was a terrible bully. I complained about him to HR, quoting very specific incidents. More fool me. As a senior person in the company, the system was behind him, and my account was not believed to be true, no measures I knew of were taken against the abusive manager, and I ended up leaving a company I loved, a company I loved working at and had put so much of my life and soul into. I still feel angry to this day about this episode, I still wish I worked at that company, but I have learned my lesson. In many places, HR does not have my back. And I’ve gone on to experience similar things at other companies. My advice is to be very wary of approaching HR to resolve interpersonal issues.
You will learn who your true friends are. When your abuser is someone in your management chain, then you will sometimes find that co-workers, who you thought were your friends, your support system and who understood you, are now on the side of your abuser. Many people are happy to be casually friendly, but when something threatens their performance review or promotion opportunity you will quickly find out who your friends really are. If you are going to fight against the system, then there is a good chance that you will have to do it alone. I learned this lesson the hard way. There is a big difference between a co-worker and a true friend. And I say that as someone whose close friends are all people I have met through work.
Insecurity. Why do other people behave so badly, especially in the workplace? In my own limited experience often the root driver of bad behaviour is insecurity. Others will feel insecure about your capabilities, experience, connections, whatever. And they will punish you for the insecurity they feel. Although there is little you can do to address other peoples’ insecurity, it can be useful to understand what is driving their otherwise inexplicable and irrational behaviour. It’s not you, it’s them, and you are just a trigger for them. If you can understand the root reason for the abuser’s behaviour, that might help you develop some coping strategies.
I’ve talked about other peoples’ bad behaviour towards me. However, I’m no angel, and I’ve often let other people down with my substandard behaviour. All I can offer is my heartfelt apologies, and a hope that I have learned from my mistakes and that I will not repeat and inflict them on others.
Outreach does not work. Several times I have tried to reach out to my abuser to try and diffuse the tension, try and understand the situation from their perspective, to see if there is some kind of delicate truce we can form. In my experience this might seem to work at first, but whatever the forces that ignited the situation at the outset will just restart the abuse soon as the other person feels threatened by you, is under pressure from elsewhere, or some other reason which makes them snap to grid like before. Unless the underlying issue is resolved then history is destined to repeat itself.
Therapy. I’ve ended up in therapy as “part of the process” of how HR deals with conflict in the workplace. It was a time consuming and emotionally traumatic and demanding process. It turned out to be totally useless for me. It felt as if the company was just covering its legal liabilities. I am sure therapy for workplace abuse works for many other people, but it did not work for me, and I would not do it again. Sadly, the only way you can escape the emotional torture is by moving to another group or leaving your company. Unfortunately the incentives are often designed to keep your abuser in place and displace you.
Escape. As much as we want to believe the formally declared corporate culture and anti-harassment policies will prevail and the right thing will happen, the reality is the company is often going to back the high-performer bully or professor with lots of funding that is targeting you, and at the end of the day your only sane option will be to look for work elsewhere. Stand your ground and fight. If that does not work, do not stay and continue to suffer. Move on.
Perspective. Please take care of yourself, your family and your friends. Draw power from those that love you, and have no truck with those that don’t.
This is not intended to be a general comprehensive guide about how to deal with abuse in a corporate or university environment. There are many books and online articles you can read about that e.g. How to Confront a Bully at Work, in the Harvard Business Review. This is a very personal perspective based on my own experience.
If you don’t know anyone once or twice removed that you can talk to, then you can talk to me. Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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