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When Bullies Go To Work

The hidden epidemic of workplace mistreatment affects over a third of workers -- and is hurting us all.
 
 
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My friend Dennis* remembers the exact moment he knew he’d had enough. Enough of the “nonstop nagging and ostracizing and accusing” that had become his weekday routine. He was standing on the platform of the subway station at Union Square, leaning out toward the tracks to see if the train was approaching. “And I thought, if I don’t pull back, if I stay here like this, so many problems will be solved.”

Dennis’ tormenter? Not a schoolyard thug shaking him down for lunch money, but a high-ranking executive in one of the largest financial institutions in the country. When the mean kids of your childhood grow up, they don’t all evolve into  self-aware, contrite adults. Sometimes, they just move from the playground to the corner office.

Dennis says that his problems began the day he dared to point out a flaw in his supervisor’s report during a meeting. From there, he was swiftly taken off a project he’d been immersed in and moved to one “I literally didn’t know anything about.” He was also, unlike the other members of his team, billed for taking the company’s car service after working late one night. “They told me I didn’t have to work overtime and accused me of malingering,” he says. But what sticks with him now, long after he’s left, are the sly humiliations and social ostracizations. Like when he broke a toe and couldn’t wear business shoes, he was sent up to the vice president’s office and made to show him his swollen, purple foot.

“They’d call meetings and not tell me,” he says. “I’d see them going into the conference room without me. They’d go out for lunch afterward and not include me.” His department abruptly banished office birthday parties in March, and resumed them in May. “My birthday is in April,” he explains. Unlike the guy in his department who a year earlier leaped to his death out a window, Dennis, fortunately, got out in time. By then his hair was turning gray. He was having self-destructive thoughts on the subway platform. And so even though it was the height of a recession, “I went in and I quit without having another job,” he says.

“There’s exclusion, there’s cliques — the same as school bullying,” says  Cheryl Dellasega, a relational aggression expert who’s written “Mean Girls Grown Up” and “When Nurses Hurt Nurses.” But unlike school bullying, she says, the issue is still not widely addressed. “There’s a definite lack of awareness. People are very surprised when they think about these things happening in the workplace.” Yet it’s all around us –  a 2010 workplace bullying study found that  35 percent of workers say they have experienced bullying firsthand, and another 15 percent report witnessing it.

It happened to Nicole, who worked for two years in the marketing division of a fashion company. She sensed the organization might be a less than great fit when she didn’t wear makeup to work one day “and someone said to me, ‘What’s wrong with your face?’” Before long, she says her boss would “wait till I left the office, ask for changes on work, and expect them before I’d  returned.” And when she returned to the office after several days off, she says, “Then my boss really started turning on me, not giving me work. I got a written warning about my attitude. My boss would litter her emails with smiley faces, and I’d get called into the office and told that my emails were too ‘frosty.’ I was in complete shock. I’m a really tough cookie,” Nicole says. “I went to school for business. And I started to have panic attacks at work.”

 
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