The toxic workplace
Workplace bullying is an issue which has been well-documented since the 1990s, but that doesn't make it any easier for the victim to bear. Straightforward bullying, where one person (usually, but not always a manager) makes another's life a misery, either by verbal aggression, belittling the individual, or making it impossible for him or her to do their job by issuing unclear or contradictory instructions, is easy to identify.
There is another form, usually practised by groups of people who are at the same level of seniority as the victim. These people, like pack animals threatened by a predator, seek to exclude the victim by ignoring them, excluding them from social gatherings or even everyday conversation, and not passing on necessary information. This situation usually comes about because the victim is either more competent than the bullies and they are afraid of being shown up, or is simply different from them in some way.
When the economy is shaky, a form of paranoia can take over workplaces. Companies have to cut staff, which means that each worker has to fight for survival. This can lead to another form of workplace toxicity - the rise of the workplace informant. In a totalitarian state people will inform on their neighbours in the hope of being spared arrest themselves, and this is a miniature version of it. If person A tells the manager that person B spends too much time on the Internet or making personal phone calls, theoretically person B will be the one to face the axe when cuts are made.
What can the bullied person do? Conventional advice has often been to speak to someone in the human resources department, but HR professionals are part of the management structure and however sympathetic they may be to the individual worker, are answerable to those who pay their salaries and are thus limited in what they can do. Keeping a diary of bullying occurrences can be of use, not only because the individual has written evidence should matters escalate to disciplinary/grievance procedures, but because the very act of writing can be therapeutic and give the employee a clearer view of what is going on.
Counselling provides the employee with an opportunity to offload their feelings about a toxic work situation and think through whether it is worth holding on to a job which makes them miserable and stressed, perhaps to the point of illness. If they decide to leave, the counsellor can work with them in looking at options for other work. If they decide to stay and fight they are going to need an enormous amount of support, which a counsellor can provide, staying with them as they try to negotiate a way to a more acceptable position at work. And if, as sometimes happens, the bullying victim is eventually dismissed on trumped-up charges, the counsellor will be there to work through all the inevitable feelings of rage, fear and despair and hopefully, help them towards a more positive state of mind.
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About Barbara Lee
Barbara Lee is a counsellor in private practice in South London. She has in the past had first-hand experience of workplace bullying and this is an interest of hers.