WRITTEN BY ALICIA KOCH, FOUNDER OF THE LEGAL BELLETRIST
Linked article: Workplace Ostracism: Tackling the silent office bully
When I think back to my school days, I recall kids taunting other kids because they had braces or freckles or perhaps their skirts were too long. But I recall, quite traumatically, how I was teased. Relentlessly. All because I wore a hearing-aid in one ear.
Kids thought that meant I had a mental disorder. That I was in some way mentally slower than them. Not that I couldn’t hear. It was cruel. I wasn’t invited to play with others, I was ostracized and made to feel ashamed. Like there was something inherently wrong with me. So much so that I refused to wear my hearing-aid going into High School, rather relying on lip reading.
Something I still do to this day. The coping mechanism just stuck with me.
But that was on the playground. And I had hoped it would stay there.
But it didn’t. It just happened differently as I got older.
Before adults think that they are immune to being bullied and that bullying is simply “part of being a child”, think again. Because it extends to the workplace too.
According to a 2017 survey by the Workplace Bullying Institute, 38% of Americans are bullied or witness bullying, 61% of Americans are aware of abusive conduct in the workplace and 60.4 million Americans are affected by it.
And those are staggering numbers.
According to ACAS in the UK, workplace bullying is behaviour from a person or group of people that is unwanted and makes you feel uncomfortable. It is harmful, often targeted behaviour that may be spiteful, offensive, mocking, intimidating or ostracizing. It can also be in the form of verbal, physical, social or psychological abuse.
At a high level, the effects of bullying can be anxiety, depression, low self-worth, feeling intimidated, having low morale, feeling hopeless and stressed out. In addition, bullying can affect the business: resulting in poor work performance, high levels of sick leave, valuable employees leaving the business, and a hostile environment that can trickle down the ranks of the workplace becoming obvious to customers and business associates alike. The result? A detrimental impact to their brand and business reputation.
But it extends beyond that too.
The wider implications of bullying
In an article titled Bullying is systemic, even working from home, bullying in the workplace is identified as a systemic problem related to the actions and reactions of an organisation (which is often deep rooted in the core of a business). It also affects the individuals involved, as well as all those who witness the behaviour – the so-called “bystanders”.
Whilst bystanders may be willing to actively help and support the target, it is more often than not very difficult for them to stand up against the bully. Often they themselves fear retaliation from the bully, may fear losing their own job or may believe that they do not have enough “organisational authority” to intervene.
In some other instances, the bystander might either ignore the bullying or frame it as “normal behaviour”, especially when it is recurrent within the organisation without consequences or without the perpetrator being held accountable.
Importantly, the organisation’s response or lack of response to bullying in the workplace is critical. Where there is no accountability for bullying in an organisation, it can quickly become an entrenched problem. And when this happens, there are ramifications not only for the employees but the business’s bottom line – unhappy staff are not productive staff.
With COVID (and the resulting lockdown), there is an increase in remote working blurring the lines between work and home life. As a result, digital bullying and discrimination (aka cyber bullying) has become a major challenge. Workplace bullying is now happening from afar – leaving no visible scars, going unreported and, as a result, not showing up in statistics.
Even worse is the fact that bullies can reach their victims at all times of the day due to the increased use of and reliance on technology to communicate. Seemingly expecting employees to now be available 24/7.
According to the article Cyber bullying in the workplace during remote working, examples of cyber bullying include –
“frequent interruptions during virtual meetings, unkind emails and repeated and excessive emails from managers. Some employees may “hide behind their screens” and not uphold the usual standards expected of them”.
The situation of workplace bullying is at an all-time high and is a dire situation that needs to be addressed. Concerning is the fact that with most incidents going unreported, the only solution for some victims is to simply leave their jobs.
But it is important to note that whether an employee feels excluded or otherwise bullied by colleagues, it does not matter whether that behaviour takes place electronically or in person.
The emotional turmoil to the victim and risk to the business remains the same.
Bullying – This is not a “sticks and stones” situation
Whilst we already know that workplace bullying can take many forms including verbal abuse, offensive behaviours, unjustified criticism, singling someone out for the wrong reasons, excluding employees, or embarrassing or humiliating them. There are others too.
Let’s unpack this a little –
Verbal bullying – this could include mockery, humiliation, jokes at another’s expense, gossip, or other spoken abuse like calling someone worthless or insinuating that they are not worth their pay, even telling them to go back to law school just because they disagreed with the decision of the CEO (happened to me);
Intimidation – this could include threats, work sabotage and interference, stealing or taking credit for ideas; spying, or other invasions of privacy. Anything to make you feel “small” and insignificant;
Social exclusion in the workplace like cold-shouldering or ostracizing (something we discussed in our article Workplace Ostracism: Tackling The Silent Office Bully) can leave you feeling like you are not liked, trusted or respected by your colleagues. And this affects your confidence, taking an emotional toll on you and how you see yourself fitting within an organization,
Passive aggressive behaviour – when a colleague or manager harbours negative feelings towards you but expresses them indirectly. In other words, they don’t say what they mean. They may be angry, jealous, or upset, but they mask their emotions through indirect hostility. And this can make you feel confused. Bewildered even. Almost like you are going insane because the “bully” hasn’t actually said what they mean – it’s all done through intonation! Did they say what they mean or do I need to read between the lines?
Unjustified criticism – this could include wrongful blame, harsh and undue criticism without a reason as to why;
Unwarranted retaliation – sometimes just talking about the bullying can lead to accusations of lying, further exclusion, refused promotions, or being excluded from important work meetings or emails, and
Institutional bullying – this is when a workplace accepts, allows, and even encourages bullying to take place. This bullying might include unrealistic performance goals, expected and unrealistic overtime, or singling out those who can’t keep up (not worth their salaries) –But how do you *really* know if you are being bullied?
But how do you *really* know if you are being bullied?
Again, this is not a “sticks and stones may break my bones but words can never hurt me” situation.
When made to feel like a social pariah, you start to wonder whether being bullied is your own fault. Whether you deserve it. Whether you imagined it. Especially when the bullying has been consistent and subtle over a sustained period. You might start to doubt your own sanity or convince yourself that the behaviour is actually OK. That it is warranted.
Maybe you are told to “grow thicker skin” that these actions are entirely normal and that “you are too sensitive” (again, this happened to me). Continuous doubt creeps in.
Is it actually you? Your fault? The answer to that is simple: NO!
Here are some examples of actions that could amount to bullying:
1. You may become completely ostracized. Co-workers might become quiet or leave the room when you walk in or they might simply ignore you
2. You might be intentionally left out of office culture, such as chitchat, parties, or team lunches
3. Your supervisor or manager might check on you very often or ask you to meet multiple times a week without a clear reason as to why
4. You may be asked to do new tasks or tasks outside your typical duties or outside your skill set without training or help (even when you request it)
5. It may seem like your work is frequently monitored, to the point where you begin to doubt yourself and start to experience difficulty when trying to undertake your regular tasks
6. You might be asked to do difficult or seemingly pointless tasks and be ridiculed or criticised when you can’t get them done
7. You may notice a pattern of your documents, files, other work-related items, or personal belongings going missing
8. You may be ridiculed, told you cannot handle your work, need more training but then not told why
9. You could be purposely misled about work duties, like incorrect deadlines or unclear directions
10. There could be continued denial of requests for time off without an appropriate or valid reason why
11. You could experience threats to your personal standing – for example, nasty comments about your physical appearance or personality
12. You could also be told not to bill working hours, so that someone more senior than you can take the rewards
13. You could be the victim of targeted practical jokes.
These incidents may seem random at first. But if they continue, you may worry something you did caused them and fear you will be fired or demoted. Thinking about work, even on your time off, may cause anxiety, fear and stress. Affecting your health physically, emotionally and mentally.
Bullying in the legal profession
Unfortunately, the legal profession is not immune to bullying.
In the article Make it stop by the Law Society Gazette in Ireland, the following was set out –
“research has shown that legal professionals who generate high profits for firms are sometimes tolerated, despite their bullying behaviour, displaying immunity from firms’ anti-bullying policies. This feeds in, significantly, to organisational culture and is noticed and felt by employees at all levels in the workplace”.
In fact, the International Bar Association (IBA) has published the initial results of a global evaluation (the “survey”) into the wellbeing of the legal profession. This survey undertaken from July 2020–December 2020, garnered responses from more than three thousand individuals and over 80 legal organisations, including bar associations, law societies, in-house legal departments and law firms.
The survey confirmed that lawyer wellbeing is a cause for global concern –
“The wellbeing index scores gathered from the survey data (based on the World Health Organisation’s WHO-5 indexing methodology) demonstrate that lawyers’ levels of wellbeing are below the global average in every regional forum. Although they may differ in manifestation, no one jurisdiction has a monopoly on these issues
Stigma is a major problem: 41 per cent of respondents said that they could not discuss wellbeing issues with their employer without worrying that it would damage their career or livelihoods
Awareness about local and international wellbeing support and services available is low, and, in many jurisdictions, wellbeing support or services do not currently exist: 22 per cent of respondents said that no wellbeing help, guidance or support was in place in their jurisdiction
A large disparity between the number of institutions that say they have wellbeing initiatives in place (73 per cent), and the extent to which those in managerial positions are offered any sort of wellbeing training (16 per cent).
Findings show that experiences of bullying are widespread in the legal profession, with half of the women and a third of men reporting experiences of bullying victimisation. In 57% of cases, the bullying episodes were not reported by the targets”.
There is clearly (and still) a crisis in terms of mental wellbeing in the legal community. Globally.
One surprising finding from the IBA survey however, is the fact that the majority of legal participants in the survey have found healthy coping strategies (compared to previous years), including meditation, yoga and a healthy diet, as opposed to the use of alcohol or recreational drugs as a means of coping.
So what is the solution to workplace bullying?
Bullying can have significant and serious effects on physical, emotional and mental health. So, whilst leaving your job or changing departments could end the bullying, this isn’t always possible. Or the correct solution. Because the actual impact of being bullied can last long after it has stopped.
Unfortunately, there is not a one-size-fits-all approach here. Often each individual may require their own set of coping mechanisms and remedial actions.
BUT the following can be considered as starting points (at least) –
1. Try your best not to react emotionally – bullies take pleasure in emotionally manipulating their victims. Try responding instead. Responding is different to reacting. When you respond you have prepared for the outcome in advance. So, begin with the end in mind. What outcomes would you like to see?
2. Evaluate the situation objectively – properly evaluate the situation objectively to see if the situation is actually bullying (remember proper constructive criticism is not bullying)
3. Know your workplace policies – Be aware of your rights and your workplace bullying policy. Familiarise yourself with the reporting procedure and follow it if needed
4. Know your legal rights – Do your own research. Learn about inappropriate behavior and any legislation that may be of assistance. The more you know, the better your chances of successfully dealing with the situation are
5. Document your situation thoroughly – Start collecting as much evidence as you can. This includes keeping a dairy of events to help paint a clear picture of what’s been happening. If you need to recall particular events, having a reliable record will add credibility to your claim of bullying. If you have one and they are approachable (and presuming they are not the bully), go and talk to your HR manager
6. Seek help or guidance – talk to someone who you can trust. Don’t ignore what has happened or is happening. If you are struggling to cope or don’t know where to start, contact Braving Boundaries who will be able to not only support you as you go through this process but can also provide you with actionable targets and goals that can help you deal with and get over being bullied
7. Look after yourself – maintain a healthy and balanced lifestyle outside of work to help you cope with the stress you are experiencing at work. Work out, get a good night’s sleep and eat a healthy diet
8. Know your limits – if the situation cannot be resolved, consider your options for leaving. Don’t expect to change the bully overnight. Real behaviour change is difficult and it takes time. You have no control over the person’s willingness to accept that they have a problem and to work on it. You can only do your best to manage the situation. In the worst-case scenario you may decide to leave your job or be prepared for a long hard fight with the person bullying you
What is the takeaway?
Bullying is not OK. In any situation. No matter the environment. Or your age. And it has no place in a business that wants to be successful.
Whilst many companies claim to have a zero-tolerance policy, bullying can sometimes be hard to recognise or prove. It therefore makes it difficult for managers or HR departments to take action.
Other companies may not have any policies about bullying in place at all.
We are of the firm belief that all workplaces should have a policy on bullying explaining how it should be handled. If your organisation needs guidance or assistance on how to develop these policies, Coaching Advocates, a practice dedicated to helping modernise the way law firms and corporates work, may be the perfect place to start.
Taking steps to prevent workplace bullying can benefit organisations and the health of their employees. If you have been bullied or are being bullied, know you can safely take steps to combat the bullying without confronting the perpetrator.
And always remember to take care of your own health first!
About the writer, Alicia Koch, Founder of The Legal Belletrist.
Alicia, an admitted attorney with over 10 years PQE, and now a legal writer and researcher, has established The Legal Belletrist to assist companies (in different sectors) to write well-researched articles that speak to each company’s core business, enabling growth and commercialism.
Click here to visit The Legal Belletrist website.