For many women, organisations are not safe places. Not only are they more likely to be bullied by a man, but also by another woman. For many this bullying leaves indelible scars, ultimately impacting their long-term view of their future career progression. Forbes research suggests as many as a third of women leave the workplace for one reason or another with 24% indicating straight dissatisfaction. Certainly my sources cited bullying as a major influence. With all the challenges both professional and financial that women face, staying at home with the kids (74%) becomes an attractive option to those in untenable situations.
The pace of social change in the last 40 years seems to have left women, despite outstripping men academically, feeling uncertain on how to progress once they enter the workplace. With so-called high EQs, we think they intuitively know what to do, but all indications suggest they don’t. If they act like men, they’re damned. If they act like women, they’re damned too. This results in a maelstrom of confusion. Annabel Kaye reminded us that many bullies are not even aware of their behaviour and there is also a noticeable gap between management and political rhetoric and the realities of organisational life.
A further aspect of my research indicated that the support strategy many victims received from coaches generally focused on the healing process: restoration of confidence, letting go of anger and moving on, as well as responding with emotional intelligence. This is all essential, but all the women I was in touch with, without exception, went on to leave their organisations. The research also indicated that HR professionals and line management, despite paying lip service to ethical workplace practises, tend to respond only to hard facts and official complaints. So it seems that something is missing from the traditional process and that other more practical dimensions need to be added.
In the early days most victims I spoke to felt confused and intimidated by what was happening to them and quite often waited far too long before seeking support, sometimes many months down the line .
Creating an early, time bound, goal – related action plan is key and the earlier the better. If there is a gut feeling over a reasonable period of time that something isn’t right – then it probably isn’t…. somewhere. So investigate. Treat this sensation like any other malaise. A pain in the shoulder, a sore foot, a stomach ache. Would you sit there feeling increasingly debilitated by a physical symptom without investigation? No. Highly unlikely. We can’t sit there and wait for someone to step in and rescue us either – all indicators suggest that this is unlikely to happen.
Defining the context is necessary now. Facts talk. Finding out the guidelines for bullying behaviour in your geographic region, sector or company is a must. Do these companies have a grievance process or a written policy on respectful workplace practises? These are your benchmarks, so establishing what they are and being familiar with the content is important. Knowing your rights and precisely when they are being transgressed is also more empowering than “feeling” bullied. It also will tell you if the line has been crossed into harassment which is legally defined. If this is the case, seek legal and psychological support immediately.
Evaluation of personal performance is next and being clear that all aspects of performance and presence in the workplace are up to scratch. Somewhat contentiously, I actually don’t think that because a person feels bullied, that it necessarily means that they are. I received enough emails from managers, both men and women who struggled to cope with “emotional meltdowns ” from female employees. This is something we women have to work on. So try and get into business neutral.
Evaluation of where this treatment lies on this benchmark spectrum is now important. Be realistic and neutrally objective.
Keeping a log of the incidents is one of the most significant things that can be done at this point. What is being established is a pattern of inappropriate or unreasonable behaviour. Most companies have formal channels for communicating performance or job related issues. This is another benchmark. Is the communication stepping outside these channels? If it is, times and dates should be noted. In addition to putting things into context for the victim, an audit trail and timeline for any future grievance or legal process and constructive dismissal is also being established.
Asking for detailed qualification is one sure way of deflecting verbal abuse and criticism in a calm and business neutral way. A common theme was that criticism was often emotive, imprecise and colloquial. Phrases including, heat and kitchens, stepping up, getting in the zone, knowing the door/score etc were commonly used. Counter that with specific questions” How do you suggest… ”
Paraphrasing is another great technique for reaching an understanding ” Have I understood correctly…” Confirming that in writing is essential. We have also learned that there is no point engaging with a bully head on. This is what they love, to bait a victim until they lash out inappropriately or get upset, especially if they have an audience. Then they really have a case against the victim. Somewhat incredulously, I have heard horror stories about computers and email accounts being hacked by bully bosses (as well as lockers and desks). Without seeming too “Nancy Drew” like, I would suggest sending a blind copy of any correspondence to a secure private email account and keeping a hard copy in a safe place outside the office.
As an ex – corporate HR professional if any employee comes with a dossier of documented instances of abusive or inappropriate behaviour, they know they are obligated to investigate it. They also know there is a potential law suit waiting in the wings. The victim’s fear is of course is that any action will make things worse. If it does, note any further instances of inappropriate behaviour, because this now is really crossing the line into harassment.
There are always solutions and it’s up to us women to find them. Combining traditional coaching techniques to restore confidence, self-esteem and general healing is vital. But there also needs to be a focus on strategies to highlight these issues within organisations in a way that will allow victims to be heard. Decision makers will not only be forced to take note, but to act, before it’s too late for all parties.
Why? Because no one else will!