Workplace blues: Harassment.


I so rarely share anything “personal” these days it seems – here at least – and in most parts of my life. It seems easier to just go along getting along, if you know what I mean. By complaining, we just end up dwelling further on the thing which irked us in the first place. And so I don’t, very often, complain in public. Who wants to hear me rant anyway? It gets so very tedious.

But I’m compelled to write today about a harassment situation at my work that has been going on for almost two and a half years now. That’s me being harassed by a co-worker if you can believe it…..  And no, the irony of the union rep (working to become a certified mediator) being subject to harassment is not lost on me.  It just goes to show that all the tips and techniques in the world are no match for one of the most insidious forms of bullying – shunning.

You see, back in August of 2010 I had to ask my co-worker (let’s call her Lois, since it’s a name I associate with no one in the real world) to stop verbally attacking me during a situation that got inexplicably heated at work. She wanted to prove to me she was right about something – something I had already conceded  I could not remember – by emailing me articles about a gruesome set of serial killings which took place in my neighbourhood over a number of years. I asked her not to email them to me (the case disturbs me to my core), and instead she kept going on and on about them until I asked her to stop. In fact my exact words were, “I need you to stop this. Right now. Please stop.”

Since that time she has only spoken directly to me on one occasion, and only so she wouldn’t appear to be unreasonable in front of our co-workers.

So imagine this. You sit beside someone at work, see them every day, and they suddenly refuse to speak or look at you. When you contribute in a staff meeting, that same person sighs loudly, rolls their eyes, or sometimes even gets up and looks out a window. When you speak to your co-workers who sit in the same work area – at normal levels of interaction in our environment – that same person indirectly shouts to be quiet because you are interrupting their work,  and then goes to all your other co-workers and complains about you being “too loud”. When you join a group of colleagues chatting or working together, this person leaves the group. When you encounter them in the elevator, they look through you. Instead of holding a security door open when you’re three feet away from it, they let it swing shut.  Oh, and let’s not forget the gasps of mock outrage emitted every time you say something this person doesn’t agree with (this includes times I have been on the phone giving union advice to people).

So that. For two and a half years.

Fortunately she moved desks close to the one year anniversary of it beginning – this after accusing two colleagues of “being on my side” among other things. On a happy note, her relocation to another part of the office allowed me to move someone else from my team into our work area, and now our corner is quite snug and happily shunned by Lois, even as I still experience some of the above behaviour on a regular basis. Mostly I’ve been able to let the last year go by without it affecting me too much.

I believe it’s a situation in which filing a complaint with management won’t help, and having watched Lois over the years, I don’t believe she is capable of engaging in meaningful  conflict resolution. (We once had a supervisor who requested a mediation around their working relationship, and rather than taking her up on is, Lois went around the office badmouthing her and spreading some pretty nasty gossip.) Mostly, I’ve just been waiting for her to retire, which I am hopeful is sooner rather than later (she’s a good twenty years older than me).

The reason I’m writing about this now? Because I’ve been triggered this week, and it’s reminded me how painful a situation like this really is. How destructive to the self-esteem, emotional well-being, and professional confidence a single individual can be!

Triggering event? The staff Christmas luncheon Lois took it on herself to organize. When I suggested over email that the chosen venue was too expensive for me because it included a cab ride and I’m broke at the moment – she said “we’ll vote then. majority rules” as if it’s ever appropriate to have an office staff vote on whether someone can afford to do something or not. I attempted to thwart the vote by declining to attend the luncheon, but still she pressed the issue in our staff meeting yesterday, to which my co-workers cast their eyes down and for the most part mumbled that they agreed with her choice. Uncomfortable, yes. But less so for them, than for me.

You see, this particular thing wasn’t about me, but at the same time when I requested accommodation (something more in keeping with previous staff luncheons which have totaled $20 or less), she turned it into an instance of how I was wrong and how everyone else would side with her. And that’s a sick game I will do anything to avoid. (It’s a little reminiscent of always being wrong growing up, and I have little emotional defense for it.)

The worst part about it all? I am sure some of my co-workers are aware of what’s gone on, and yet almost no one has acknowledged it. Only the folks who sit closest to me (those accused of being on my side) have even commented on the bizarre and insulting behaviour over the past 28 months. And thank goddess for them!  At least they can reflect back to me that I’m not crazy or over-analyzing.

Years ago Lois used to come to me with gossip about other people in the office which I would always ask her not to share with me. This was a point of contention between us for a long time until she stopped “confiding” in me the secrets or assumptions she had made about other people. I suspect this was one thing underlying my eventual shunning, and it’s something I don’t miss at all. But my point to bringing it up is – the only way to stop the office gossip/bully is to tell them directly that what they are doing isn’t on, rather than humoring them in hopes they go away.

I think in my circumstance people assume that because I am adept at conflict resolution and play a vital role in my workplace in supporting the problems of others, I must be strong enough to handle it, or somehow impervious to insults of others. But really, I’m a human with regular feelings, no matter how good I am at putting a good face on things. And I’m like most other people – self-conscious, triggered by particular behaviours, and falsely stoic in my workplace  (my professional experience has repeatedly demonstrated that the most stoic people are often just at the surface of bursting….)

To underscore: this situation has been tremendously painful, partly because we are somewhat trapped in our work environments (especially in this economy), and short of leaving my workplace I haven’t found much of a solution beyond putting up with it and hoping Lois will eventually get bored with her game, or retire, or something. And I suppose I am writing this to add a few points to the discussion about workplace bullying and how it is best addressed:

  • shunning is a form of harassment
  • bullying has real effects on people, even adults
  • it’s up to all of us to confront bullies and create positive environments for each other
  • management can rarely help us because interpersonal bullying is difficult to pinpoint and prove – however, managers and supervisors do have a proactive responsibility to address situations when they arise
  • even if bullying is difficult to prove, it doesn’t mean it isn’t happening or that the victim of it isn’t experiencing real impacts – taking time to check in (without getting into the details of the situation or taking sides) is one way to support them.

And for the record, I am fine. Really, I am. But my week would have been a lot better if not for the nonsense that has transpired – and since being triggered, I know it’s going to be a couple of weeks before work feels okay again. I won’t be participating in our Christmas lunch this year – partly because of the money, but partly because I can’t go and fake that everything is okay in our office when for me – it is absolutely not. It will be again. But right now? No.

I’m not so great at “being the bigger person” when I’m feeling anything this acutely. I’m not so great at seeing the other side right now either. I’m just hoping to get through the next few weeks before holidays without letting it get to me more than it has. Sometimes that *is* all we can do. 

6 thoughts on “Workplace blues: Harassment.

  1. I know. It all seems so petty and childish. High-school taking sides and forming cliques. Yuck. Thanks for the love and prayers! I am determined to re-festivate myself next week 🙂

  2. This sounds awful–I’m so sorry you have to go through this all the time. But I think it’s really great that you chose to share your experience. It’s an important topic.

    I’ve got my fingers crossed, hoping this person retires soon!

  3. Hey there, I totally agree with your conclusions. I have never seen a harassment complaint that actually resolved the issues and mended the workplace. It’s unfortunate that there are so many negative, immature, and nasty people out there.

    I have experienced similar experiences and I know how hurtful it is. I still have scars. I worked with someone who wouldn’t even *look* at me. Emails were awful — no matter how diplomatic and even friendly mine were, the responses I received were short, rude in tone, and very disrespectful. Any time I tried to be supportive my efforts were viewed with suspicion and increased hostility. This person, and a few others, went on a spree of what can only be classified as unabashed character assassination. I never knew what exactly I had done to incite such behaviour.

    The conclusion I came to is that there are some people in this world that are negative, sick individuals. They thrive on conflict, they get a charge or feel powerful when they hurt others.They are threatened by smart, sassy, positive women. It’s a sad truth that doesn’t make it any easier when you’re on the receiving end.

    I tried to have empathy for the person, tried to think about how miserable it must be to live that life, to walk around with a black storm cloud directly overhead no matter what the weather. It helped a bit but there were always triggers, as I know you understand.

    I hope things get better. Soon.

  4. Hey Joanna

    Thanks for the comment and sharing this story. Somehow when this stuff is going on, I tend to attribute it to myself. Like I’m a faulty adult or something. But having done workplace advocacy for a long time, I’ve come to realize just how often this nonsense is taking place, not to mention that many people think that simply ignoring a co-worker they don’t like is acceptable. I’m not sure where we got to a place where “getting along” in the workplace isn’t a shared value, and that many people seem to feel that their individual comfort or happiness trumps an entire office worth of other people’s feelings. We live in a bit of a culture of that I suppose.

    Fortunately for me the university has a meeting for my next-semester class during the staff lunch tomorrow, so not only do I have an excuse to miss, I actually have somewhere better (for me) to be.

    Oh! Work! At least you got out of your situation and are doing something more fulfilling and more within your control now. Looks like that’s been going well for you since you opened (FB stalking).

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