-oneIf it hasn’t happened to you, a colleague probably did, because bullying happens a lot. I am reminded of a childhood incident a few years ago. One day, while I was doing a freelance job, I got a call from a colleague who was sitting next to me five minutes earlier. In a whisper, she asked me to come to the elevator, where she giggling met me with a male colleague. ‘Are you coming for lunch? Yes, I just couldn’t ask you because Thomas was sitting across from you. And we really don’t want to come with Thomas.’ I was obviously in a scene of bad girls landed. Only came ‘You can’t sit with us’ now not from two teenage girls, but were two full-time working adults. Late twenties, early thirties. The explanation that Thomas was not allowed to come along was ‘because he is annoying’. And after a moment of silence on my part: “Oh, and he’s racist too!” Why? Unfortunately, Gossip Rita and False Vincent couldn’t explain it. If you’re wondering how gossip – or gross accusations – get into the world… Bullying behavior has no age. Hair-pulling and pushing in the school yard at best give room for underhand consultations in the open office landscape. In 2017, more than half a million people were harassed at work. According to a study by TNO, even more than a quarter of all workers are sometimes confronted with bullying, exclusion, gossip, laughing or other annoying behavior that you don’t exactly work for every day during their entire career. Bullying is therefore the biggest form of unwanted behavior in the workplace.
It often doesn’t take a detective to find the culprit. Don’t worry, in fifty percent of cases it is the manager, according to the same TNO survey. Eva (29) can talk about it. She worked in the webcare department at the head office of a supermarket company. Led by a man who is highly flammable to say the least. ‘It always went on eggshells around him. Comments from his manager, he responded screaming to us. There was no room for personal problems. When my grandmother died, he got mad that I was crying at work. He favored his girlfriend in the ward, as did ‘her group’. On the other hand, he called me on the carpet for the most trivial things and immediately threatened me with dismissal. For example, when I used an exclamation point in a customer response. How dare I. An argument ensued, and in the weeks that followed he kept a close eye on me. He let everyone watch on the big screen.’
Fabienne’s employer also took childish behavior to a new level. ‘If I had started trying to lose weight, he would hold a piece of chocolate in front of me saying ‘oh too bad, of course you can’t’.’ Worse was his suspicious behavior. During the nine years she worked for him as a designer, her employer questioned everything she did or said. “At one point he even hired freelancers because he didn’t think I was good enough. The atmosphere was always heavy. If you didn’t follow along, you were thrown up and blacked out. I resisted and he didn’t like that. Colleagues who worked less intensively with him also saw what a jerk he was, but hey, he’s your boss too, right?’
In films, the bully is often big and strong, the victim is portrayed as small and timid. Very stigmatizing. Nevertheless, psychologist, psychotherapist and EMDR therapist Heinz Freese, who treats many bullying victims in his practice, sees a clear ‘perpetrator and victim profile’. The bully is almost always someone with narcissistic, borderline and/or antisocial traits. He cannot bear feelings of guilt, shame and inferiority, and there is practically no empathy for others. Narcissists are often leaders. It surprises some people, but leaders can have different motives. You are caring and really try to help others. The other elbows upwards from narcissistic movements to a leadership position. The victim is almost always someone who is afraid of making mistakes and is easily manipulated. The bully reacts to that’.
“When my grandmother died, he stayed angry that I cried work’
“Anyone can become a victim of bullying, even someone who is confident and has a say”
It happens more often to some people, I discover on inquiry. For example, a former fellow student ended up in bullying situations at three large companies. In one company she was ostracized by colleagues, in another she was the outraged person on whom her manager vented her frustrations. Easy to manipulate? That’s not how I would describe her. How is it possible that one seems to be an easier target for bullies than the other? With that question, I contact Laura Willemse, chairman of the voluntary organization Bullying at the workplace. And thus I am immediately guilty of the most common and persistent fallacy. “We always look at what the victim must have done to be bullied. But anyone can become a victim. Also someone who is confident and has a word ready. We say of someone who is being bullied: ‘They are insecure or can’t stand up for themselves.’ But what we see is that it is precisely the profile of a perpetrator.’
Willemse has held courses from his foundation for about four years. She mainly helps the management and upper echelons of organizations to look at bullying behavior differently. And that is needed. Sometimes it’s not just one department, but an entire company that stinks of rotten culture. Then things go wrong at the top. Or as the psychologist aptly says: ‘A fish starts to stink from the head. If the top boss thinks money is the most important thing, it trickles down. On the layers below, similar people will be put in leadership positions. They don’t want to treat people too well either.’ When you look at it that way, the solution to a safe place to collect your monthly salary seems clear as day: more diversity on the floor. Because the more homogeneous the group is, the higher the bullying behaviour. Willemse completely agrees. ‘But where most companies talk about diversity, practice is more fickle. Men choose men more often ‘because they identify with them more easily’. Certainly in the case of ‘equal fitness’.’
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Get out quickly
My earlier example of Thomas not being allowed to eat lunch seems harmless. Nevertheless, it is actually a sign of a toxic work atmosphere. If gossiping, laughing at, and excluding a team or part of it is accepted, you’re also more likely to question any chuckles or knowing glances between colleagues. I noticed that I increasingly dreaded the weekly team meeting where another colleague and my manager would laugh behind their hands for reasons that were unclear to me. do they care about me? The work environment wasn’t the only reason, but it certainly played a role in my decision to quit this job early. An environment can become less secure very gradually without you immediately noticing. It’s a sliding scale. Willemse: ‘I compare it to domestic violence. The black eye doesn’t get slapped on the first date either. Very slowly, norms and values fade. It starts with a nasty comment. Someone is shocked, including colleagues, but no one does anything. After that it goes from bad to worse. This affects the whole group. Not only the victim, but also colleagues suffer.’ Continue. Now it’s Piet from planning, but who will be next? Maybe you.
‘You get more and more stress and less sleep. And finally the day comes when you call in sick’
A toxic job consumes you in the long run. More stress, less sleep. And finally the day comes when you call in sick. People who are bullied are absent three times as often as colleagues. Freese: ‘Someone who has been bullied for a long time always ends up sick and suspicious. EMDR and psychotherapy can help redefine bullying when there is a lot of trauma. It helps to understand that it is not you, but the bully. Boosting self-confidence also helps. This way someone can recognize the situation more quickly next time and possibly get out of it.’ Fabienne also eventually suffered a burnout. Even then, her employer tried to hold on. Then he would say things like:
‘If you quit your job, you no longer have any income. Then you’d better work here’. During my reintegration, he forced me to call every day at 8:30 for three months for no reason. Finally I left. After me, another colleague came home sick. She also resisted and was an easy target after I left.’
If there is no support from the person above your supervisor, it is difficult to do anything about your bad situation. For the victim, sometimes leaving is actually the best and even the only option, Freese agrees, even though it can feel like giving up. ‘Going off on your own might give you a bad feeling, but there’s no point in arguing against it. You can try to gather allies as a last step. If enough people are bothered by one person, you can make a fist together and make it clear to the manager’s manager. If this doesn’t work, you better look for the exit.’ Eva raised the bullying behavior of her manager in the supermarket company with the temporary employment agency that sent her out at the time. Nothing was done. ‘The forced move to another team – which he had also very cunningly arranged – finally gave me peace of mind. He was fired a year later. Apparently there were several complaints. Still, I left myself. The fear of doing something wrong was deeply rooted. Even at the next track I kept walking on eggshells and so went again. I have now closed it and I have a very nice job where I am fully accepted.’
Unfortunately, ‘toxic workplace’ does not appear on the vacancy on the site. And it is also difficult to find all your future colleagues on Insta and release your fire of questions in a DM. But asking about turnover figures for a department during your job interview is possible and says a lot. Willemse: ‘And don’t ignore your gut feeling and pay close attention during your trial period. How are colleagues’ initiatives handled? It is significant. Does the company only focus on production or is collegiality at least as important to the boss? Does your manager only look at your individual performance or does the team result also count? And is your manager also open to constructive criticism?’ A free step-by-step plan can also be downloaded from Bullying on the Work Floor website.
Lianne Kooistra (39) is an editor and copywriter. Since her move from Amsterdam to Rotterdam, she lives with her boyfriend and two cats in a do-it-yourself house. Still, you’ll spot her more often in a sports suit or with a karaoke microphone in her hand than in her work clothes.
photography Tom ten Seldam, styling by Daphne Weersink