"I was bullied at work"


It's easy to assume that bullying doesn't happen in the workplace because adults are expected to handle matters in a mature and civil way, but the reality is that it does. 

In an article for HuffPost UK, Sophie Gallagher and Rachel Moss report that "bullying can stem from personal insecurity, stress or past experiences and because of this, those who are displaying bullying behaviour may not realise how much their actions are affecting others." When people in authority are bullies, they may see their actions as an extension of their position of authority, however their actions tend to do more harm than good.

Clinical psychologist, Jaco van Zyl, finds that "after relationship problems, workplace bullying is one of the more common experiences among clients who seek psychological help. 

He adds that it presents itself in problems "ranging from stress disorders to mood disorders and failed bullicide attempts. In addition to psychological distress due to recent or current incidences of bullying, some of my clients present with psychological distress as adults due to being victims of bullying as children or adolescents."

"Among adults, some 27% have reported being victims of abusive behaviour in the workplace, and as high as 40% have reported being victims of cyberbullying," Jaco explains.

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Human resources (HR) manager, Patricia Mathuloe notes that it is "difficult to recognise bullying in adults as much as it is with teenagers. Bullies know how to act innocent and act like victims of the circumstance. They don’t regard themselves as bullies and will [often] expect people to be on their side."

The obvious signs of bullying, as Patricia observes, include continuous threats and possessive behaviour from the bully. They may want to control and manipulate you, and sabotage your work; and they tend to ignore or undermine your knowledge, and embarrass you in front of everyone. 

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We spoke to two women who have experienced bullying at work

Khensani was bullied during her internship:

There have been a lot of instances during my internship that made me question whether I wanted to be a doctor. I was bullied heavily as a child, all the way from primary to high school so when it happened again at work, I was gobsmacked. I have a few cases here and there, which are quite common. When you get to be an intern, a lot of responsibility shifts.

You stop being a learner but [you become] someone with the full responsibility of taking care of an entire human being. That comes with having seniors who basically hand you their work and go home early and leave you alone to struggle with not only their work but yours as well. If you don't do the work, because you're out of time or it is late and you have to go home, you get [reprimanded]. You get labelled as the lazy doctor, the one who no one wants on their team. When you complain to the HOD about how your particular team is being unpleasant to you, then you're in real trouble because who wants to work with someone who complains?

Seniors bully you into doing their dirty work. You are after all trying to get a signature so you will do what you do not want to in order to get that signature. I have been yelled at, shoved, threatened, humiliated all for the sake of a signature. I mean one doctor wanted us to make coffee for him every morning because his department was doing us a favour by teaching us.

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Cassandra was bullied at work for reporting a sexual harassment incident:

I was sexually harassed at my previous job. When I reported the matter, the case was dragged because it was against one of the senior managers. He put his hand up my skirt and touched my vagina. The whole thing was on camera yet people kept pressuring me into changing my mind about the report. After I reported it, I felt bullied by the women I worked with because they were like, "but it was just a touch". The women attacked me for reporting the matter and they would say that I shouldn't have reported it because I am a woman and these things are supposed to happen; my body is supposed to be touched whether I want it to or not. 

During the whole case, I sort of lived in fear. Every time I went to work, I felt worried. I would sit alone and I would worry about what people were saying behind my back. I would decide to just sit alone, especially when the two girls I considered my friends weren't there. Sometimes I would just have my lunch with the people from other companies who didn't know me. This was very hard because almost half of the people where I worked knew about the case and labelled me "the girl that laid charges". For a month before I left the place, I felt unsafe, I would even have nightmares about the whole incident and what happened.  

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Patricia says that "bullying is often unnoticed as there is no law governing bullying. Bullies are extremely good in reading their targets, at manipulating the situation to make themselves look good, and at controlling the target. Often they are good at changing the truth and painting the wrong picture. It becomes even worse if the bully is someone in a senior position."

"These kind of cases are hardly reported due to fear of victimisation and dismissal. In my experience, I have had employees report senior managers for bullying them using the anonymous reporting line," says Patricia.

What to do when you're being bullied at work

Familiarise yourself with the policies at work that deal with bullying 

Some organisations are open about these kinds of issues and they would have an anonymous reporting line to report issues of victimisation/bullying or intimidation, says Patricia. The way that the report will be handled depends on the culture and policies of your organisation. You need to check with the human resources department at work.

Take note of the incidents that happen and get witnesses where possible 

Patricia advises that you make a record of the bullying incidents that happen. She notes that bullies are manipulative and can easily change the situation to make you look bad, therefore it is important that you get the right facts and have actual evidence of your situation. "Check with colleagues following incidents if you are being rational in your experience to avoid wrong suspicions," she advises. 

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Report it to it the relevant people

Once you have gathered enough evidence to prove this person is bullying you, you need to report that matter to HR and/or senior management. If you are with a union, raise the issue with your union representative, Patricia suggests. There are instances where you cannot do anything. In such situations, confide in someone you trust and seek advise on how to manage the situation.

Take care of your mental health

"Do not isolate yourself or engage in self-denigrating/self-destructive behaviour," Jaco advises, "as this will weaken your inner resources to take your stand against a bully." Low self-esteem is often a risk-increasing factor in being a victim of bullying, he says; so it would be best to seek professional help in the form of psychotherapy, counselling or life coaching, to increase your own self-esteem. 

Watch below: the four workplace bully types 

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