While most of you may not agree, assertiveness is a skill we all have in common from the day we are born – in my opinion. No, seriously!
Remember when you found yourself needing your nappy changed? What did you do? Sit there and be quiet about it? First of all, you probably don’t remember that far back (fair play if you do), but you cried and made a point of getting attention from a parent or guardian. You asserted yourself.
As a young child, you were fearless in your expedition to explore the world and experience new people, places and things with the wonderment of the first encounter. Fear, wariness or cynicism hadn’t yet had a chance to cloud your enthusiasm for life. Whether you were lively or docile, when you wanted to explore something new you adopted an assertive approach.
Why am I telling you this? There are so many variants in personality – introversion and extroversion for example. Regardless, we have all been born with assertiveness; it has been circumstances that have diminished it as we grew up. The main cause of losing our inherent assertiveness and confidence is, unfortunately, other people.
Schools (aka Bullying Incubators)
I experienced bullying that lasted for most of my teenage years at school. It was a twisted blend of verbal and physical abuse that I was conditioned to bottle up, as some sort of “rite of passage” that every young lad had to go through – just part of school life, man up. The burgeoning world of social media was introduced in the form of Bebo those days, and it gave my bullies yet another way to attack me when I thought I was safe at home.
Like many schools, mine had an anti bullying policy that I soon realised was more to tick a box to keep themselves right, than out of regard for the safety and well-being of people like me.
I bottled up every word until my own sense of self-worth was so low that I became suicidal.
I witnessed many other cases of bullying at my own and other schools of people I knew, including some that went on to complete taking their own lives. It’s something I’ve spent a fortune of time and money on in various forms of therapy and only began to recover from in the last 3 years. I’m now 26. School bullying has a lasting impact, believe me.
I’ve yet to find any evidence that schools do anything substantial to protect pupils from bullying. The bullies grow up getting away with it. This results in a huge problem – workplace bullies.
Bullying in the Workplace
Workplace bullying is sadly all too common. Over a third of UK workers have experience bullying. Many employees are too scared to talk about it, thinking it may affect their career progression or reputation among colleagues. Some organisations will list anti-bullying policies in their company handbook, but like some schools, this has little practical impact on bullying and provides little support for victims.
I have been the victim of workplace bullying. Things I have had to experience include:
- Singled out for humiliation in front of other colleagues (and customers)
- Excluded from relevant work meetings and social events
- Hurtful comments on my personal appearance
- Highly unrealistic targets and irrelevant, “dogsbody” workloads followed by harsh, aggressive criticism
- Dismissive comments on not only my job function in general but my ability to fulfil my duties
- Aggressive, sarcastic responses to requests for help and guidance
- Nasty rumours spread about me behind my back
- Snide comments about where I’m from
Don’t get me wrong. I’m up for a bit of craic and banter – no problem, I enjoy it. I have a pretty thick skin compared to my teenage self (due to seeking help and working on my personal development and mental well-being as I have matured). Where it crosses the line is the tone, the relationship with the colleague and the attitude towards me.
The difference between workplace bullies and school bullies is that, as an adult, I didn’t tolerate it – not for long anyway. It did bring me back to the school buses, the hallways, the PE changing rooms with that same feeling of being ground down.
It affected me so much I fell into a deep depression and attempted to take my own life.
It may have taken therapists, counsellors, life coaches, family, friends and the more positive work colleagues, but I’m an assertive man now and I have learned to respect myself too much to tolerate bullying anymore. I spoke up for myself and addressed the problem head on. I built up my confidence. I recovered the assertiveness that was nearly totally ground away from me.
So What Did I Learn?
I took a lot of steps to address my workplace bullying problem and I can tell you that it hasn’t been a problem that’s come up since. I learned a few things that I wanted to share in the hope that it may help you deal with a workplace bully.
1. Meet up With Them
This might seem daunting, but believe it or not, you’re likely both adults (even if they aren’t behaving like one). Ask them to meet to discuss a project. Book some time with them away from the office madness, even if it’s still on the premises. Alternatively, you could go out at lunchtime with them to grab something to eat.
The point is – address the issue with them. Let them know you’re not happy – in a calm and measured way – by talking to them about why it’s bothering you. I have found on one occasion that the person didn’t realise they were making me uncomfortable – assuming it was banter – but apologised anyway. While their style of banter wasn’t something I was used to, we actually got to be good friends after that. Sometimes the bully doesn’t even realise they’re bullying you and it can be a simple fix. Other times it may not be so simple, and you might need some help.
2. Call it Out
As someone who was bullied severely at school and absorbed the notion from others to “bottle it up” as if it was a rite of passage, I strongly recommend raising the bullying with your HR department, Line Manager or someone you trust to help you take action against the bully.
- Talking to a colleague you trust and have a good relationship with can help you vent your frustration and get some form of comfort from their support. They may meet the bully with you and assist you to address the situation. I haven’t personally needed this but I have been that support for a former colleague.
- Your line manager may be there to delegate tasks and review your work when required but they’re also supposed to be a supportive figure, a mentor and leader that you can bring up concerns with in confidence. They may be able to use their authority to help address the issue directly, with the bully’s manager. They can help you raise your concern with HR and meet to resolve the issues in a professional manner. In reality, it’s the luck of the draw if you have a supportive line manager and someone responsible for HR that takes their duty of care for staff seriously. I have had experience of both supportive and totally passive, distant individuals, and it makes a big difference in how the problem is dealt with.
Even though your main concern is your own personal well-being, it will help your case in seeking support, to align it with an identified impact on the business. This may include your ability to perform your job well, the financial cost of your dip in productivity and happiness at work or the cost of having to replace you and retrain someone. This will show that you’ve considered the matter seriously and should engage them in taking you seriously in return.
3. Minimise Contact To the Essentials
It might seem a bit cold, but workplace colleagues aren’t there to be your friends. They’re employed – just like you – to do a job for the organisation. You are contracted for a certain amount of hours in a day to be there and deal with your colleagues.
If you have the unfortunate task of having to liaise with your workplace bully to accomplish a task, keep it strictly professional. You don’t have to ask them what they did at the weekend, who they think is going to win in tonight’s Champions League match or where they got their new shoes. You don’t even have to sit with them at lunchtime. Do what you have to do to exchange the information required to do your task and then leave.
4. Walk Away
Have you been In the midst of a loud, aggressive, overly critical rant – aimed at you? Whether it’s face-to-face or on a conference call with a colleague or client, get up, and say “I don’t like the tone you’re using with me. I’m going to come back when you can speak to me with respect.” Or, at least, I recommend something along those lines.
One of the worst things we are conditioned to believe is ‘the customer is always right’ and it’s easy to forget that customers can be workplace bullies too, especially recurring customers.
The emotional labour expected to listen to angry and unfair verbal attacks launched is too much – no matter what. It’s ridiculous to expect to absorb so much of that – on a daily basis in some jobs – and not have your mental health suffer as a result. Don’t take it. If you have been taking it, don’t take it anymore.
5. Look After Yourself
While work is somewhere we spend a lot of our time, it’s not where we spend all our time. We need the money to pay our bills but there are more hours in the day, in which you are entitled to have a life! “I know, try telling my boss that!”, I hear some of you saying. I’ve been there too.
Go home on time. If you are asked to stay on after contracted hours, claim overtime for doing so. Don’t fall into the trap of being bullied into staying late all the time.
The owner of the business may never really switch off, but you have to, for your own good!
Go walking, cycling or to the gym. Meet up with friends. Spend time with your family at home. Have a beer and watch the football at the bar or with your feet up. Volunteer for a charity. Go on a date. Do a skydive or a backflip. Live. Your. Life.
A workplace bully (as unpleasant as they are) can only affect you at work. You’ll deal with them, but you can address that botheration during the time you’re actually paid to do it. It’ll be another task on your to-do list when you’re back in work. Don’t let them seep into the rest of your day.
I used to come home exhausted and dejected from the hangover of that day’s workplace bullying and lose sleep over it. I sought all the help I possibly could to look after myself and teach myself to value myself again. I even went for reiki, massages and mindfulness sessions to bring my value back into focus again. I still do.
I continue to run and exercise when I can, to blow off steam, clear my head and look after my physical well-being. My mental well-being is going strong as a result too. I’m enjoying life. I’m actually enjoying work too, most of the time!
If all else fails, get out of there. At the end of the day, it’s just a job! There are other organisations that are looking for someone like you and know how to make you feel more valued and welcome than you’ve been used to.
I have found a happy work environment at the moment, one I appreciate all the more, having experienced horrible, toxic environments that I didn’t know how to fix or when to quit.
A high turnover of staff is often down to a bad boss. Some people have more resilience and resolve than others, but most need to stay and tolerate a toxic workplace because they need the money that comes from the job until another one becomes available.
When it is your boss that is the bully it becomes more difficult to deal with it. I have encountered this personally and witnessed friends going through the same thing. All of us took the assertive decision to move on. This is something that can be raised with another manager in the organisation, someone further up the hierarchy or someone in HR. They can help you address the bullying boss and properly reprimand them for this type of behaviour. The cost of high turnover can be massive for any organisation and it’s surprising how often bullies get away with keeping their job and reputation intact whilst getting away with bullying countless talented people out of the company.
7. Employment Rights and Legal Advice
I haven’t resorted to this and don’t intend to, ever, but an extreme option is to seek legal advice from an employment rights lawyer about starting a tribunal. If workplace bullying has been severe, considerably affected your health or your employer has abandoned their duty of care then it may be time to legally take your workplace bully to task.
I hope that you have gleaned something useful from my words and that you have picked up on a piece of advice that could help you address the problem of workplace bullying. It has to be eradicated. Taking an assertive, proactive approach to handling workplace bullying will help us all when we go out to work.
Imagine what we could all accomplish with an assertive approach within a pleasant working environment.