Bullied At Work And Getting No Support

Question to Ask the Workplace Doctors about discrimination and bullying:

I am a 52 year old Caucasian female who is being bullied at work by a “family” of present and former students who happen to be African American. I bring up the race issue ONLY because as a final bit of revenge against me this family reported me to our EEOC and implied I was a racist as they said I treated them differently. This is after I had to ask the local sheriff and our security to have them leave the library because they were taunting and bullying me and I stood up and would not take it anymore. I have worked for this local community college, in the library, for more than 11 years part time. After being bullied by the mother for years and now the oldest daughter who was a student and possibly even an employee last year, I contacted my superiors for he help. I did this only after they brought a group of 6-8 to terrorize me in the library.

They called the sheriff and basically implied I was harassing them. They called my employer and said they filed a police, court, sheriff, college security and EEOC report against me for harassment. My bosses then implied that I was a liar and that this “family” were paying students and they were going to do nothing to help. I was at fault for no reason at all. Management had HR involved and is now ordering me and the other library employees to “sensitivity training”.

Incredible! I am being bullied by this group and now my fellow employees and I have to go to sensitivity training because they complained and are of a different race then I am. Everyone I work with at the library is scared and act like I have a disease because these people are black and troublesome and they do not want this to happen to them. The summer is over and this family is coming back to school. Since they have been treated so great they are back in groups (up to 6 in a group) to humiliate me and get away with it. My fellow employees run away and I have no protection (security does not want to get involved and the Vice President said I must call only college security for help if only absolutely necessary).

I can not afford a lawyer and everyone says I have no case and I must bow down and allow them to do anything to me and just take it and then maybe they will go away I am told. I am told it is my fault because I let them do this and that I am weak and have no guts so I must be at fault. I do not know where to turn. I need this job and I am scared to death. I am a single mom. Can you please advise me I can not sleep and I do not know what to do. Thank you

Signed, Miserable At Work

Dear Miserable At Work:

I’m sorry this situation seems so hopeless to you. I hope it will be resolved soon, in some way that allows you to continue to work at your job and find some peace about it. Or, as challenging as this sounds right now, it could be that you will need to choose between continuing to work there or finding other work where you are not so frightened and unhappy. Sometimes such a decision has to be made if you’re not in the right place for your temperament and style and if you feel you can’t get the help you need for your concerns. You don’t state the specifics of what has occurred but it is apparent that you are about the only one who sees it from your perspective.

Your managers, coworkers, the Vice President and security staff apparently do not view that things are as severe as you say they are. That doesn’t make those people correct, but it does mean, realistically, that you may need to accept that what you consider bullying may not fit the description that others have of it. Or, that there is something else going on that leads them to think you are partly responsible for the concerns. You indicate that may be the case.Consider some of these thoughts as you decide what you want to do:

1. Avoid using the label of bully and bullying for behavior you don’t like or that bothers you. Instead, describe what people do and how it makes you feel. That way, those who you ask for help know exactly what you are dealing with and what parts of it they can assist you about.

The problem is that the term bullying means different things to different people and has been misused and overused. Sometimes it is used merely as an unpleasant label for a boss or coworker who isn’t liked. Sometimes it has no specific meaning, except to say that the other person is consistently unpleasant and rude.I was in a group discussing bullying just a few months ago, when the facilitator said, “If someone thinks behavior is bullying, it is.” What a ridiculous statement that was. It encourages people to accuse someone without any proof and to give someone else a mean label; which is its own version of bullying.Many of us confronted that incorrect statement and the facilitator agreed that it wasn’t accurate. But, she said, she says that to clients as a way to help them feel that they are believed and supported. That is how we create victims of people who are capable of responding effectively to problems, if they can learn the skills for doing it and gain the willingness to do it.I think you would benefit from developing a new way of talking about this situation. You work in a educational facility and are apparently doing a job that involves professional level employees. Challenge yourself to get beyond the emotion and be able to talk about it in a way that is accurate and factual rather than emotional and imprecise. At the same time you may find that developing a controlled feeling about it will help you develop better ways to respond.

2. Pinpoint the behavior of those who have bothered you and write some clear descriptions of those actions. For example, if you say that the group of five people, all taller than you, surrounded you, pushing you into a corner and leaning over you while several at a time say things like, “Why can’t you do your job right?” “We’re going to get you fired” “You better watch your back.”, THAT would present a much clearer picture of what has happened than merely saying, “They surrounded me and bullied me just like always.” On the other hand, if the correct scene is, “I told them to quiet down or they’d have to leave. They said they didn’t have to because they were paying students. So, I told them they were disturbing others and they didn’t have the right to do that and they should leave immediately. They laughed and said I couldn’t make them leave”, THAT presents a clear picture too, but one that doesn’t present you as well.It would be helpful to write a list of specific incidents, if you haven’t already done so. Be carefully accurate as to the actions, words and tone of those who are bothering you.

You may need that list sometime anyway.In the meantime, having such a list can help you take some of the emotion out of it, when you can see that a negative situation was one distinct event that had a time frame. Other, more positive things happened that day and you only had that one event that was negative. You had good interactions with four employees and hundreds of students and you only had bad interactions with one employee and five students.

3. Once you have written your list, see if you can find some commonality for all of them so you can be aware of it and ready to stay focused mentally during those times. Is there a triggering event that has created much of the animosity? Is there a way to avoid the event, move away from the people or bring in someone else to assist? Or would it be rather interesting to stay and allow it to happen and simply keep working through it?

4. You have worked there for quite a few years. It’s easy to get so involved with work that you lose sight of your job description and what you are expected to accomplish. Ownership of the work can quickly become being so immersed in it that you become possessive or obsessive about it. If you can’t put it away mentally when you go home, you probably are over-involved with it personally.

You say you are an assistant and that you don’t work full-time. That means you are not solely responsible for very many things unless your manager has directed it. You aren’t responsible for the actions of patrons and your authority is limited for telling them stop doing things or for making them leave. You will be far better off letting other employees or your manager handle people with whom you know you have had conflict. I would imagine you have been told to leave the people with whom you’ve had conflict alone and don’t go into the areas where they are, unless you have no other choice. That is good advice. Ask your manager if you can wait until they’re gone to go to that portion of the room, for example.That isn’t giving in or giving up, it’s finding a way to work when there are client with which you don’t deal well personally. That kind of responsible avoidance is a necessity in many jobs. Say a civil greeting if that is appropriate, but don’t correct them, order them about, tell them what to do or otherwise get involved with their behavior. If it’s so bad they damage something or disturb other patrons, your manager can deal with it. If you witness activity that concerns you, tell your manager once, then move on with your work. If they start talking to you rudely or start aggressively surrounding you, simply go away from them. Don’t run away frightened and call security; it isn’t to that level. Just move away and go do something else. If it is very, very bad, write a memo to your manager documenting what happened and ask her to maintain a record of the events.If you don’t engage the group or individuals with words, facial expressions or actions, they are not as likely to feel they can be justified in taking you on verbally.

5. Your work environment is in a public setting, not an isolated one. You’re safe physically and can make yourself more safe mentally and emotionally. You say you are frightened, but apparently after several years of this situation you are still keeping your job and have not been harmed physically. This most recent allegation that you are being discriminatory is apparently the worst that has happened. You may have already attended the training required by your manager. If not, go to it with the approach that you are going to be the most interested student there. Keep the perspective; which is the truth; that it isn’t punishment. It’s a way for your employer to respond to a complaint without completely agreeing that the person complaining is correct.

6. One thing that will really help you is to leave other employees out of the conflict. Don’t go to them with comments about patrons or coworkers. Don’t try to solicit their support. The only time they should be involved is if they are a direct witness to something that you can show was criminal behavior or behavior that was so out of control as to be harmful to the work or the library.Especially avoid getting them involved in your conflict with the coworker. Talk to your supervisor about it, but not to them.

7. One thing is clear: What you have been doing hasn’t achieved the positive results you wanted. Apparently you should do something else instead. That “instead” is what is tough to figure out sometimes. But hopefully, just putting all of this in perspective will be helpful.I mentioned earlier about staying focused on work, and I’ll end this lengthy response by repeating that advice. You have tasks to perform that probably can keep you very busy all the time you are there. Stay within those tasks and do your job in an excellent way. Over time this will calm down a bit and become part of history. People come and go and other employees will have their own dramatic situations. Keep your eye on the goal: To be effective, perhaps to be promoted or get a full time position when you want it, or just to get a very good reference before you move on to someplace else.I’m hoping that you can drop this worry and concern for awhile and not pick it up again. I believe you can avoid it if you will let yourself be a strong person who has a job to do, while acknowledging that there are challenging people to work with and to work around. Stay above all of that mental noise and keep moving forward.Best wishes to you. If you have the time and wish to do so, let us know what happens.

Tina Lewis Rowe

Tina Lewis Rowe

Tina had a thirty-three year career in law enforcement, serving with the Denver Police Department from 1969-1994 and was the Presidential United States Marshal for Colorado from 1994-2002. She provides training to law enforcement organizations and private sector groups and does conference presentations related to leadership, workplace communications and customized topics. Her style is inspirational with humor.