The Bully

There wasn’t any specific reason why I took a mental trip to the past, and yet there were a thousand reasons why. Usually I avoid thinking about any of the abuse I suffered, but sometimes thoughts just creep through like a spider moving in and out of a crack in the floorboards.

My ex-husband was a master at it. His bruises went deep to the soul but they left no marks on the surface. He worked the graveyard shift and I used to silently count down the hours until he would leave for work. I treasured my nights without him at home and I dreaded his nights off. After a while I used to dread any hour he was home when I or the kids were awake. I never knew when he was going to blow so I would run scenarios through my head. If he blows today, this person is off work and we can go there. Plan B. Plan C. Sometimes all the way to Plan F. The girls and I got so attuned to his body language that we knew he was going to blow before he did, and we could give ourselves a little lead time to get to a place of safety.

Once you learn to read that body language, you can’t turn it off unless you close your eyes. So without even thinking about it, you find yourself reading it in others who exhibit it. Perfect strangers even. Once I was grocery shopping and encountered a man who was oozing anger so silently that he was odiferous. Instantly I became ill and had to run outside to vomit in a garbage can. I so desperately wanted to go back and talk to his wife, to find out how I could help her break free. But I didn’t. I understood all too well that if she was in his presence, she could not be approached.

Several months ago I encountered another bully, an influential person who liked his ego to be stroked often. It bothered me to have a bully rise to the top and be in the brightest spotlight of all, caught on video nearly every day and appearing in my living room on the evening news. I watched in horror as he mocked a disabled reporter. Even more horrifying was watching others defend the bully, trying to tell me he wasn’t making a mockery of the disabled person. I watched the bully knowingly lie, escalate falsehoods and advance conspiracies, manipulate a mob, and incite violence. He called others names to their faces. He publicly falsely accused others of breaking the law. He was disrespectful to his wife in public, caught twisting her arm to cause pain. And she, like the woman in the grocery store, silently spoke just as loudly with her body language. Even my grown children could hear their body language. Sadly, many people could not hear it or would not.

And now it appears some people, some very smart and conniving people, played with that bully, manipulated that bully, to the point that now the bully is desperate and paranoid. On one hand, it’s a welcome sight to watch a bully get a taste of his own medicine. But on the other hand, there is no escaping the fear of what is to come when he blows.

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The bully is back.

About two years ago, I was the daily target of bullying at work. It was pretty awful and I couldn’t get support from my manager. Then one day Jane “slipped” and put her bullying in writing. She pulled back and didn’t bother me much after that.

Late last week word went through the office that Anna had put in her two weeks’ notice. Anna joined our company about two years ago and everyone liked working with Anna. She always smiled, always said “Yes, I can”, and never complained. Turns out, she was the perfect target for Jane.

I had no idea Anna was being bullied. She never complained, never said a bad word. I was so relieved that I wasn’t being targeted anymore that I never gave it a thought, never imagined Jane was bullying Anna. I naively thought Jane had learned to behave more appropriately.

On Monday of this week, Jane grilled me in a meeting that I facilitate with about a dozen or so people attending. Some are on the phone, some are at the table with me. This week Jane was seated across from me at the table and she went off on a tirade about how the meeting is a waste of time because it’s so poorly facilitated. She asked if anyone else agreed with her. Not a single person spoke up. But that didn’t stop Jane from ranting more, essentially repeating everything she had already said. When she paused for someone to join in with her rant, I spoke and told Jane that I find the meeting to be efficient and effective for its purpose but I was open to suggestions from anyone for improving the format. Jane shut her mouth. No one else wanted to add anything (do you blame them?) and the meeting adjourned shortly after.

Later that afternoon I received a phone call from Dan. He had been on the conference call during the meeting and he wanted to know why Jane had been ranting. He thought perhaps he had missed something since he was on the phone, not attending in person. He found her behavior inappropriate. I agreed. On Tuesday, a woman who had attended Monday’s meeting in person, pulled me aside to ask why Jane had “gone off” in Monday’s meeting. She too thought Jane’s behavior was inappropriate. And then she proceeded to share with me a conversation she had had with Anna the week before. And that’s how I came to learn that for the last two years, Jane has been bullying Anna.

I feel so bad. If my manager had paid more notice when I first complained more than two years ago, would that have saved Anna from being bullied? Would Anna have stayed in the job? Or is she such a bright star that she would have moved on to a better opportunity no matter what?

Jane bullied me in Monday morning’s meeting. She bullied me again on Tuesday, but to a lesser degree. Wednesday was Anna’s last day and she spent nearly two hours in an exit interview with HR. Is it possible HR listened a little closer to what Anna had to say?

Jane didn’t say a single word to me today. I wonder what tomorrow will bring.

Work Bullies

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.