It was May of last year when I was first bullied at work. Caught completely off guard, I really didn’t know how to respond. I guess I’ve been fortunate in that I haven’t had to deal with a bully before (I don’t count my teenagers), but that lack of experience clearly had me at a loss. The 40-year-old woman was about to get married (her first) and I quickly justified her behavior to pre-wedding jitters. When Jane returned from her honeymoon, she was even crankier. I had just been called to jury duty, so again, I quickly justified her crabby attitude to the fact that I was looking at an unexpected two weeks out of the office at one of the busiest times for Jane.
As it turned out, I was out of the office a whopping two days not two weeks. I thought that would make Jane happy, but it didn’t. For most of the summer, she regularly stopped at my desk to rant and rave about how dissatisfied she was with the quality of work my team was doing. Honestly, I don’t think we could have submitted “perfect” work; Jane would have found something wrong with anything we did. Her complaints were unreasonable to me, and I tried to tell her that. Wrong move. I explained the situation to my oldest daughter, Kate—a high school teacher—to see if she could offer me some insight for dealing with a bully.
As things escalated, I talked about it with my manager. I didn’t want him to get caught unawares if Jane decided to rant to him. Sure enough, she ranted to him about mid-August, when I took a week off to prepare for my daughter Rose’s wedding. My manager pretty much blew off Jane’s complaints and told me to do so too.
Truly I tried to dismiss Jane’s rants, but they only intensified. Looking back, I realize now that she didn’t get the response she wanted from me or my manager so she notched up her attacks. In early October, she harangued me so badly at my desk one morning that another co-worker heard it. He came up to me later to ask what was going on. He was shocked and he urged me to talk to my manager again. I did, but the tables turned a little and I think my manager saw me as a whiner or complainer. I was smart enough to know I needed to just shut my mouth and do my job.
But Jane kept up her attacks and I was feeling pretty desperate. So I started to chat with others about how cranky Jane was. Some agreed Jane was pretty difficult to work with, others didn’t say much. Through it all, I realized I was the only one being bullied. It was so disheartening. The job I really enjoyed now became a sort of torture. I had to muster up courage to go back each day. And each night I spent hours trying to figure out what I had done to Jane and what I should do to get this to stop. My husband was a great listener, but the best he could offer was, “Don’t take it personally.” How in the world do you not take bullying personally? Jane’s attacks were aimed at me, no one else.
I’m guessing word got around to Jane that I was making comments about how cranky she was. Or maybe Jane was getting so much satisfaction that she wanted to share it with someone else. Whatever the catalyst, Jane took on a cohort. And now I had two bullies. I was so grateful for the Christmas and New Year’s holidays. I had a little more than a week off of work and did everything I could to replenish my self-esteem.
The second week of January our business relocated to a new building. As the cubicle gods shined on me and gave me the premium spot in the building, Jane and Barb found themselves without private offices. They were not happy campers. Barb went so far as to bring in a magnetic board, essentially building a “wall” where there wasn’t one. The imagery was not lost on me. And frustrations with all the change only caused Jane and Barb to heighten their bullying. It came at a time when my manager was tied up in meetings for the better part of two weeks and not engaged in daily events. Jane and Barb were asking a lot of questions in emails, painting a bleak picture of the work my team and I were doing. I fought to keep my composure and stay professional as I answered their questions. Emails were forwarded to my manager and he was beginning to buy in to the fact that maybe my team and I were not putting forth our best effort.
So it was, last Monday, my manager called me in to his office first thing and asked me to shut the door. Immediately he started asking some tough questions about exactly what was going on with me and my team. I was shocked at his tone of voice. His words were telling me he had sided with Jane and Barb, and I couldn’t take any more. I started to cry. Wow! I don’t know where the tears came from and I was mortified. I was so embarrassed that I had lost my composure. I was angry at myself, which only caused more tears to flow. And then my manager softened his voice and tried to show me compassion, and that caused even more tears. I wanted to just slink away and never come back. Unfortunately, I need this job. I tried to defend myself and explain what was going on, but I think the tears were too much for my manager. He was as eager to get me out of his office as I was to leave. I went to the rest room and spent a few minutes composing myself, taking deep cleansing breaths, and convincing myself that I would survive the day. It was one of the roughest days I’ve ever had on a job, but I did survive. And for the rest of the week, I did everything I could to smile, cooperate, and collaborate. I was determined to show my boss I was capable in my job despite what Jane and Barb were stating in emails.
And then, the “big slip” I kept praying for happened. Near the end of the day on Friday my manager asked me to send out an email to Jane, Barb, and two others. I was given a very specific message to deliver and I pretty much used my manager’s words verbatim. I sent the email to the four individuals and within about a minute or so, Jane “replied all” with one of her rants. It was vicious, disrespectful, and inappropriate. Finally, I had the first proof in black and white. I forwarded Jane’s reply to my manager with the brief note, “FYI.” I cleaned up my things and headed out, for the first time in a long time with a little lighter bounce in my step. Later that night, I checked my work email from home. I never do that, but curiosity got the better of me. Sure enough, my manager had replied to my email with the statement, “Wow! Is she crabby???”
I spent the weekend contemplating how best to respond. I bounced ideas off my two best friends and my husband. On Monday morning when I got to my desk, I replied to my boss with the simple statement, “This is typical.” No embellishments. And he replied with a statement about how he agrees Jane’s behavior was uncalled for. About an hour later, my manager and I attended a weekly meeting with Jane and Barb and others. He sat beside me, silently showing me his support. And as the day progressed, I sensed a change in the air. Jane and Barb were nowhere in sight. In fact, Jane was hunkered down at her desk, quiet as a mouse. Today, the two of them were even more subdued and avoiding me like the plague.
For the first time in nearly a year, I feel the tides are turning. Is this all behind me? Unfortunately, I don’t think I’ve seen the last of the bullying. I have no way of knowing for certain, but I suspect Jane was spoken to about the disrespectful and incorrigible language she used in her email to me on that Friday afternoon. I don’t know a lot about bullies, but common sense tells me that Jane now sees me as an even greater threat. The best I can do is smile, cooperate, and collaborate some more. And wait, as patiently as I can, for Jane to slip again.