It happens every day, as if by clockwork. You dread the elevator ride up, because you know your least favorite colleague will be in the cubicle next to yours when you step out onto the floor – ready and willing to badger you about your looks, job performance, and how badly you embarrassed yourself in the previous day’s meeting. Before taking this job, you thought that your experience with bullies ended as soon as you left middle school recess behind. Unfortunately, though, adult bullying is all too prevalent in the professional world.
According to statistics provided by Everyday Health, a full 41% of surveyed American workers admitted to being bullied over the course of a year, with 13% of respondents noting that the abuse occurred on a weekly basis. If these numbers are taken to be representative, we have an enormous problem on our hands – one that we aren’t talking about nearly as much as we need to. But why don’t we discuss it, if frequent workplace harassment is such a common issue? Part of the problem may lie in how we associate bullying with childhood; those who are mistreated at work may feel humiliated and unwilling to admit that they need help as adult targets of harassment. Others may be too afraid of retaliation to step forward, or think that the issue will blow over if they ignore the problem. After all, they might reason, bullies get bored eventually.
However, keeping quiet and allowing bullying behaviors to continue is the last tactic that a beleaguered victim should take! Left unchecked, adult bullies can mistreat their colleagues, friends, and even family members on a continual basis. Like childhood bullies, adult abusers often have low self-esteem and belittle others to make themselves feel powerful; they will not curb their behaviors unless someone holds them accountable. Unlike children, however, adult bullies rarely resort to physicality when they dominate. Instead, they use subtler, spoken forms of manipulation and harassment such as: demanding their victim purchase food or items with no recompense, rolling their eyes whenever their target attempts to talk, gossiping about a specific coworker when they aren’t around, or being overly critical of another’s actions and appearance. With the rise of Facebook and Twitter, some victims are unable to physically escape harassment or confront anonymous abusers about their behavior. Regardless of whether it occurs online or in-person, bullying ultimately leads to poor work performance, low self-esteem, and even depression on the victim’s part.
As adults, we aren’t able to call a teacher over to stop a bully – but we can stand up for ourselves and our friends when we experience or witness harassment. If you find yourself a target, document everything that can prove you were mistreated. Print out screengrabs of inappropriate emails or texts, and keep a journal noting the date and time of all in-person incidents. Once you compile your proof, file a complaint with HR or, if the harassment takes place outside of the workplace and you feel as though you are in danger, with the police. Try not to confront the bully directly if you can avoid it; while doing so may feel validating, becoming emotional will only give the bully more ammunition against you in the future. If you truly need to face them, make sure that you have a trusted friend or ally with you for support when you do so.
Significant change starts with a single, small step. As Megan Kelley Hall, co-editor of Dear Bully: Seventy Authors Tell Their Stories notes in an article for Jezebel, “Bullying is sustained by the silence of those who witness it but say nothing.” It can feel easier – safer, even – to turn a blind eye to a friend or acquaintance’s suffering and keep to ourselves. But it only takes a single voice to break the silence and hold a bully accountable for their actions; before long, more will join your protest. Stand up for your friends and colleagues by refusing to participate in snide workplace gossip or targeted harassment. Bullies rely on silence – so speak up when you see someone mistreated, and end the bullying culture!