Over the past three years, I’ve witnessed two of the women closest to me – my sister and, recently, my mum – fall apart because of workplace bullying.
In the case of the former, my sister outperformed the salesmen (yes, all those in sales were men) in her agribusiness. She built processes to support effectiveness and efficiency. And she queried missing stock, which hit home with one of her (male) managers.
The net result was a series of incidents that broke her little by little until she literally couldn’t function. Her husband took her to the doctor, because she was unable to stop crying. Her General Practitioner, to her immense credit, supported my sister with counselling and guidance, refused to allow her to return to work, and gave her the strength she needed to resign, recover, and start healing.
In the case of the latter, my mother – who was headhunted for her role a number of years ago on the basis of her knowledge, experience and wisdom in her industry – has been persistently worn down with inappropriate KPIs and bullying on the basis of her age.
The other week, my mum spent several nights after work in tears. She was beside herself, thinking about how she was “failing”. She sought my editorial advice, because her manager was disciplining her on the basis of her spelling, in a system that doesn’t have a spell-check, and in a workflow that does not have a quality assurance step.
It was heartbreaking to see my own, strong, mother unable to talk about her situation without tears. To her credit, she has also sought help.
Both of these ladies would be horrified that I’m writing about them, because they’re both strong, proud, hard-working women.
Like many workplace bullying victims, both my sister and my mother are women with strong work ethics. They strive to improve the workplaces in which they work, and the lives of their clients. They take enormous pride in their jobs, always going above and beyond in terms of time, attention, and output.
In reflecting on why I haven’t been in this situation, despite some truly awful bosses, it’s because I have a far lower tolerance for bullying and bossiness.
While it’s an admirable trait for some, it’s also challenging when you’re so willing to stand up for yourself that you’d rather tell them to f**k off than to put up with substandard relationships or situations. My dad is the same; and in fact, it makes me wonder if the fact that dad and I are entrepreneurs has something to do with it.
It’s a tough call for many women.
On the one hand, you know you’re good at your job, and you believe that doing good work ought to result in good things. On the other, if it doesn’t result in good things, you feel that you have to stay in a job in order to support your family.
Both situations are often untrue:
You must advocate for yourself if you want to see good outcomes. And you must be willing to back your own values and throw it in – if what you advocate for isn’t being upheld – and then solve the next problem (income) afterwards.
You might say, hey Leticia, that’s easy for you to say: You’re an entrepreneur.
Sure, you can say that. But the last time I resigned on the basis of what we’ll call ‘a cultural mismatch’, I had $1200 in the bank, debt to pay off, and No Freaking Idea. I’m a Doer, but even so Lady Luck has been in my pocket for a large portion of the past 7 years.
Why I am telling you all this…
I have seen people supporting posts on LinkedIn over the past six months that say ridiculous things like, “She’s not bossy, she’s a leader”.
These posts are supposed to be supportive of girls in leadership, of leading to managerial and power positions.
Well, let me tell you something:
If anyone is bossy, they’re not a leader.
They’re a bully in the making.
Standing up for yourself is one thing. Bossing people around is another. The former is a leadership quality; the latter is a bullying quality.
Leadership requires empathy, vulnerability, and the ability to cultivate community. It requires the ability to step back from your own desires so that you can allow other people to shine. It requires you to encourage those who are unable to support themselves to do so. This means standing up for your own values, and standing up for the values of others in your team, even if it makes your own life difficult.
Bossiness on the other hand is just being a prick. It is telling people what to do, it’s getting snappy and horrible when they don’t do what you tell them to, and it is dressing people down because you don’t like something about them.
Bullying comes out of bossiness.
Followership and loyalty comes out of leadership.
Make sure you don’t mistake one for the other; because if you do, then you may find yourself unwittingly contributing to the types of situations that destroys the mental health of others.
Are you being bullied at work? Step one is to back yourself and seek help
And if YOU are someone who is at the mercy of a workplace bully, whether that is a colleague or a boss, I have a message for you:
Bullies like it when you see yourself as a victim, without a pathway. But you do have the strength to back yourself, and you will be proud of yourself for doing so. A job is just a job; you can do anything for money. But your self-respect is priceless. Going and getting the support you need in order to help you do this is a sign of strength. Talking about your situation is the first step, and I encourage you to see your GP or call Beyond Blue for help.
Edit, 27 Oct 2020:
Since first publishing this post on LinkedIn, I’ve had people reach out to me telling me that it resonated. These people (like my sister and my mum) were so overwhelmed that they didn’t know what to do in an attempt to (a) handle the workplace, or (b) understand their own rights.
5 Things to do if you are a victim of workplace bullying
- Keep a diary.
This is the most critical and important step. Write down what happens when it happens. Be aware that, if you ever seek legal action, magistrates take a very dim view of retrospective notes – which are notes created after the fact. Evidence is at-the-time or as-it-happens; it isn’t recorded later. Things to record include: Conversations, meetings, emails, phone calls, letters, any documentation or decisions. Record dates, times, names, summaries and outcomes.
- Learn what is reasonable management action, and what is not.
You can find this at Fair Work Australia. Their Anti-Bullying Benchbook is an outstanding resource.
- Follow your workplace’s due process.
This will vary depending on where you work. It can be daunting and difficult; but if you do everything right and they don’t reciprocate, then ultimately that is better for you than for them!
- Seek help from a health practitioner of your choice.
You may be entitled to sick leave or, if your anxiety and stress is strong enough, stress leave. Both are paid (the former if you have leave available; the latter under a Work Cover claim, which has different requirements and consequences). Be open and honest about how it affects you and the rest of your world: Bullying can affect your physical wellness, your relationships with friends, partners, and children, your willingness or ability to participate in sports and hobbies, and much more besides. In extreme cases it can lead to suicide. Seeking help is a sign that you’re standing up for yourself, so be strong and proud that you can back yourself the way you need to. Happily, many practitioners will work with you so that you can find a way to move on more easily.
- Become familiar with your rights under Australia’s OHS&W regulations.
You might not be aware that Australia’s Occupational Health Safety & Welfare regulations were federalised a few years ago. This means that the regulations apply nationally, though the penalties may depend on your own state’s workplace safety regulator. Among the Standards is a requirement for every workplace to provide psychosocial safety. You’ll find codes and guides at Safe Work Australia, including guides written for workers like you.
- Talk to your state’s safety regulator.
Bullying is illegal. If your workplace is not working with you to resolve the problem, seek help from your state’s safety regulator. You may be able to request an investigation into your workplace’s practices. You’ll find contact details for every regulator on this page.
- Seek legal advice.
My final piece of advice to you is this. If you’re unable to find your way through the maze on your own, seek legal advice. Australia is filled with compassionate, talented, and skilled personal injury lawyers who are deeply invested in helping others. Take advantage of free initial consultations to learn whether or not you have a case. If you do, you can then discover what it will cost you. Remember, though, that taking an employer to court can cost much more than just money: It may require you to “stay attached” to the issue for a long time, to relive painful situations over and over again, and potentially to be cross-examined in court. ‘Costs’ are more than money.