Surviving Workplace Abuse
Three targets who took action
As we spoke over Zoom, Emilie Dewaal* appeared calm and intellectual; carefully choosing her words. Though Emilie had arguably the best experience of the people I spoke with for this article, her bone-deep exhaustion radiated through the screen.
A little over a year ago she was hired for a dream job on a new UX team for an online healthcare company. Susan, her manager, had only been there for 3 months herself and was building the UX team up from scratch. It wasn’t long before Emilie felt something was off. At first, she says, she chalked her uncomfortable interactions up to the storming and norming of new teams. But when she realized that she wasn’t the only one feeling Susan’s toxic put-downs, Emily decided that she needed to take action.
As a new employee, and a young woman she knew a lot was at stake for her. “How to do it was so important,” says Emilie. “I didn’t want to just walk in and say, this person is a huge problem and you have to get rid of them. I also didn’t want to come across as a little snowflake.”
After careful thought, Emilie decided to speak with Susan’s manager, Doug, the Vice President of Product. Even though she had had only good interactions with Doug, Emilie knew she might be volunteering to be a sacrificial lamb. Fortunately, Doug was receptive. “He was really glad I came to him, he said it was really brave of me to do.”
What followed was a best-case scenario in corporate America. Emilie was given a five-to-six-week timeline that included a review of Susan’s work, and checking in with her other direct reports. In the meantime, Susan continued to manage her team. “In the aftermath of that conversation, things got more problematic. The team was holding their breath. One teammate told Doug he was going to quit.” Shortly after her review, Susan was let go.
“I would say the way the situation was handled was 40% good. They did a good job of taking the problem seriously but it had to get pretty dire first. And I can still see the effects of all the things she did to me and other people on the team. We weren’t left in a great space or given resources to heal or come together.” The new team limped along, losing members and struggling to find a new manager who could pick up the pieces.
While Emilie felt comfortable reaching out to Doug, many people don’t have a higher-up who they trust. Kathy M*, an associate professor of Pharmacy and Health Services didn’t, so she did what most of us would and went to HR.
Following her instincts as a researcher, Kathy had collected months of evidence of abuse. The then 50-year-old professor had been screamed at, blocked from advancement, and even had her hand slammed in a door. When she presented her situation to HR, she was told clearly “there’s nothing we can do.”
Part of me wasn’t surprised, I hear stories of the failings of HR from career coaching clients all the time. But still, wasn’t this a huge part of what HR was supposed to do?
David Miller* an HR veteran of 36 years (including 5 years heading up the Employee Relations department for a large national credit card company) was willing to speak candidly with me, provided that we obscure his identity. He walked me through what happens when a complaint is brought to their department. “We begin an investigation, based on the information provided, we look for whether or not there were any witnesses to your situation. We look at emails, teams messages, the type of information we can assess. We might read someone’s performance review, we’ll meet with the individual accused of the allegation, and then we’ll make a recommendation.”
David’s disillusionment with his field was clear, as he highlighted the many ways HR didn’t work.
Often witnesses won’t talk for fear of retaliation, David says. “I’ll reassure them, we have a policy against that, and if that were to happen we would take severe action, but those are just words. On a couple of occasions,” David said “I was not able to fulfill that promise.”
“If the allegation is true, we recommend a certain course of disciplinary action up to and including termination, but it’s up to the manager to decide what action they want to take.”
And when it comes to high performers or people in senior positions being accused of bullying, their managers look the other way, David tells me. “If these individuals are otherwise great at their job unless things get so off the charts bad, like multiple lawsuits against the company, management won’t take the matter seriously.”
“One employee, for example, it took about 13 complaints before the management took action.”
In a 2012 instapoll conducted by the NWBI, when 372 respondents were asked how effective HR was at resolving workplace bullying complaints in which there was no illegal discrimination, only 1.9% reported that HR stopped the bullying fairly and completely for the target and that justice was achieved.
What about other forms of justice for people who have suffered emotional and psychological abuse at the hands of their employers? Entities with such an uneven amount of power over someone’s future and livelihood must surely be overseen by someone?
Some cases of workplace abuse are illegal, those that are based on a person’s membership in a protected class (based on race, gender, disability, etc.), says Jerry Carbo, attorney, legal expert, and President of the National Workplace Bullying Coalition. But most, like Emilie’s and Kathy’s aren’t. And in those cases, Jerry says “typically I’d have to turn people away, I’d have to say there’s really nothing I can do for you.”
That’s when Jerry introduced me to Sharon Campbell, a self-described fighter and scrapper, whose situation was not based on a protected class, but still was legally actionable. “Only 5–7% of targets pursue their claims to the level [Sharon] has,” Jerry said. “I have a stack of paperwork three feet high,” Sharon said as she walked me through the last few years of her life.
A 47-year-old mother-of-two, Sharon’s genuine affection for her students, adults with disabilities, and special needs, shone through. “For 15 years I went to work every day looking forward to it. I used to joke with my students” Sharon laughed, “They even used to call me mom.”
In 2013, her feelings about her job changed, as she became a target of a couple of administrators. “I called them Muffy and Buffy,” says Sharon, “they were part of the mean girl group, mind you these are women in their 50’s and 60’s. They were acting like they were in high school.”
At first, Sharon ignored the administrator’s efforts to make her life difficult. “I don’t have time for nonsense at work, I just sucked it up.” But she explained that the pressure built over time. One day she was berated in front of her students, and the dam broke. She found a corner and began to cry uncontrollably, shaking and experiencing chest pains. She would eventually be diagnosed with a panic attack, adjustment disorder, and PTSD.
For Sharon, this was only the beginning. Over the next few years, Sharon would be fired, fight a lengthy legal battle with the school district, be reinstated with back pay, only to be placed in a situation that resulted in severe, long-term physical injury. “I have 12 ruptured, bulging, herniated discs. I have a chord impingement in my leg, I struggle with sciatica in my left leg, and carpal tunnel in both my wrists” all direct results of lifting and moving the bodies of large adults, without the support she should have been given by the administration.
When it comes to workplace bullying, few have the fortitude and strength Sharon found. Most people quit.
According to the 2021 NWBI report, 40% of targets reported quitting, and an additional 12% were terminated and 15% were transferred.
But there are many situations where a target doesn’t want to quit, or can’t. In those cases, Dr. Craig Malkin, Clinical Psychologist and lecturer at Harvard Medical School offers some alternatives. In his book Rethinking Narcissism, Malkin proposes the theory that there is a spectrum of narcissism. On one end are people who are extremely averse to attention, in the middle are people who are healthy, and on the other side are the extreme narcissists. (You can take an online version of his test here, to find out where you are on the spectrum).
Disrespect and bullying in the workplace are often a result of extreme narcissism, Malkin proposes. “The lesson from the research is that [extreme narcissists] only slide down the spectrum when they’re reminded of the importance of their relationships. Change doesn’t come from telling them off for being too success-driven, ruthless or manipulative; it comes by showing them the benefits of collaboration and understanding”. In his book, Malkin offers strategies for how targets can nudge their bullies to be more empathetic and compassionate which I won’t get into here, but it’s definitely worth a read for anyone trying to have a career in corporate America.
Malkin also reminds us that “the organization, not the individual, bears responsibility for the problem. Bullying demands a systemic and legal intervention, and it’s not your responsibility to stop it; it’s your employer’s”.
While I completely agree, this brings us back to the problems we’ve already run into.
Fortunately, people like Kathy have elected a systemic approach to action, using her research background in collaboration with the National Workplace Bullying Coalition to develop more accurate workplace bullying surveys, which will help to pass the bills like the Dignity at Work Act.
Until we insist that our government see psychological and emotional abuse in the workplace as illegal, and create oversight for the organizations handling of these situations, it appears unlikely that they will do it themselves. To join the Kathy’s, Emilie’s and Sharon’s of the world, lending them our energy in a fight for systemic change, we might consider supporting the National Workplace Bullying Coalition and sign their petition to pass the Dignity at Work Act.
*Names and identifying details have been obscured to protect the privacy and livelihoods of those involved