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Office Life

This is how I finally confronted my office bully

According to the Workplace Bullying Institute, bullying is actually four times more common than sexual harassment in the workplace. It’s also an issue that affects both women and men.

The thing about workplace bullying, however, is that it’s not easy to spot, especially given our cultural norms. For example, when I received a series of passive-aggressive emails that undercut me professionally and personally, I initially brushed them off because I was told the sender was “difficult.” At the time, I didn’t recognize these messages were inappropriate — but now, I know I was dealing with a workplace bully.

Too often women ignore or dismiss belittling behavior in the office. As women, we are conditioned to be nice, to not make waves, to submit to authority. The tide is turning, however. With the rise of the #MeToo movement and #TimesUp campaign, women across the U.S. (and the world) are speaking up about sexual harassment — and putting an end to it.

We can speak out to stop bullying, too. That’s why I’m sharing my story.
I wonder sometimes if this would have happened to me if I’d been a man. Or if I wasn’t so young. Or lacking in self-confidence.

The starting point

Let’s back up a little so I can set the scene. When I experienced workplace bullying, I was starting a new job — one that required me to work directly with this colleague. Let’s call him D. We weren’t in the same department, but D played a key role in the projects I managed. He was 20 years my senior; I was in my twenties. His work was often late, which made my work late, too. This started to become a problem, so I started trying to hold D accountable for deadlines.

That’s when the bullying began.

Rather than own up to his tardiness, D belittled me via email. Once, he said he’d told my office bestie that it was a “big mistake” I’d taken this job. Other times, he’d find a way to twist a situation and blame me for his lateness. Most of the time, he was just rude, dealing out backhanded compliments with practiced ease. Communicating with him made me anxious. My confidence plummeted. I started thinking maybe what he told my friend was right. Maybe I wasn’t cut out for this position. D’s words had me wrapped up in a major case of imposter syndrome.

The strangest thing of all? This harassment only happened over email. We rarely saw each other since we worked in different departments.

Blame it on socialization or inexperience (or both), but I couldn’t say for sure what was going on. I knew in my gut that something was wrong. I dreaded our interactions. I think I endured D’s bad behavior for so long because I’d come to believe some of the hurtful, condescending comments he made. He’d been actively intimidating me — and it had been working — but I was too naive to see it.

How I stood up to him

One day I got an email from D that really made me mad. I was pretty certain what he said was out of bounds — this wasn’t in my head. I went to my supervisor and told her everything. Then I asked for help. “You’re not going to like this answer,” she said. “Why is that?” I asked. “The only way to stop this is for you to confront him,” she said. “You’ve gotta call him out.” Wait, what?

Surely I’d misheard her. I figured she’d step in or send me to HR. Instead, she wanted me to talk to him. I told her I couldn’t confront him — it made me too uncomfortable. “Next time D sends an email like that, forward it to me,” she said. Inevitably, a few days later, the next email arrived. I forwarded it, thinking my supervisor would finally step in. Instead, she urged me to call him immediately and tell him to stop. That was not the answer I was hoping for.

I sat at my desk, palms sweating, and thought. I thought through what I needed to say, how I would say it, and before I could back out, I picked up the phone and dialed D’s number. When my coworker answered, he seemed startled. “D, this has to stop,” I said. “Your emails are disrespectful and unprofessional. You can’t speak to me that way.”

“OK,” he stammered. “OK,” I said abruptly. Then I hung up the phone. My hands were shaking, adrenaline pumping. I felt stunned. The person who spoke on the phone sounded strong, confident and calm — nothing like the disorganized, in-over-her-head woman D made me out to be. I liked her a lot. I wasn’t sure what the outcome of our conversation would be, but I was sure of one thing: I’d summoned the courage to confront my bully and in doing so, I rediscovered my voice.
I’d summoned the courage to confront my bully and in doing so, I rediscovered my voice.

What happened next

The bullying stopped. The emails became polite. My working relationship with D improved. Work became pleasant again, and I began to thrive. I thanked my boss for pushing me to be courageous and to take a stand for myself. The experience was a turning point in my career. After I spoke up to D, I wanted to speak up more. I became more assertive and engaged in meetings and conversations. My confidence grew and I embraced my new role.

I wonder sometimes if this would have happened to me if I’d been a man. Or if I wasn’t so young. Or lacking in self-confidence.

I know that I’m not alone in this experience‚ and it’s not my fault I was targeted. Forbes columnist Liz Ryan believes there’s only one reason bullying occurs in the workplace. “People will bully and try to intimidate you in the business world if their spidey sense tells them that you are someone to be reckoned with — someone to take seriously.”
While workplace bullying is often directed at one individual, it hurts everyone. “Research has shown that emotions in the workplace are contagious and that negative emotions are some of the most dangerous,” said Brandon Smith, a workplace therapist. “When bullying occurs in the workplace, people experience fear and heightened anxiety.” This lowers employee morale and in extreme cases, it causes high-performing workers to change jobs.

If you think you are being bullied at work, I urge you to take action. Start by talking with your supervisor or someone you can trust outside of the office. Document evidence of bullying for your records. Identify what is hurtful to you and how you would like to move forward. The next time a bullying incident occurs, confront your bully immediately. If the bullying continues after that, it’s time to talk to HR.

My biggest takeaway from dealing with my office bully? There is nothing more powerful than standing up for yourself and summoning your voice.

This article first appeared on Career Contessa.

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