The True Cost When Bullies Rule the Workplace
There are many benefits to psychological safety in the workplace, namely women’s mental and physical health, opportunities for on-the-job training, and potential for long-term earnings.
I just finished reading The Fearless Organization by Amy Edmundson. It was a compelling read about the importance of creating a culture of psychological safety within a workplace so that great things might happen.
And don’t get hung up on the phrase “psychological safety,” as I did when I first read it. This isn’t about handing out participation trophies and making sure that no one gets their feelings hurt. This book goes way deeper than that, explaining why psychological safety is important not only to the employee, but to the company as a whole, and sites examples of serious mistakes being made because employees were too fearful to speak up on airplanes, in hospitals, and at NASA!
But the example that jumped out at me was that of the experience of Susan Fowler at Uber, who went through “a strange, fascinating, and slightly horrifying story” while working at the well-known start-up. She was harassed and bullied and after she left the company, Susan blogged herself to fame, inspired other women to tell their stories, and eventually petitioned the Supreme Court to consider her experience when reviewing employment contracts.
What Happens When Women Are Bullied At Work
Reading Susan’s story led me to ask what happens to women who are bullied at work, especially when it comes to their finances. I found the answer that I was looking for in the article “Sexual Harassment and Assault at Work: Understanding the Costs,” by Elyse Shaw, Ariane Hegewisch, Cynthia Hess for the Institute for Women’s Policy Research.
This is what I learned:
Sexual harassment has negative effects on women’s mental and physical health. Harassment can lead to depression and PTSD, and symptoms can last for many years after the harassment.
Women experience reduced opportunities for on-the-job learning and advancement as a result of sexual harassment. Harassment can restrict women’s access to important and necessary on-the-job instruction and mentorship from more experienced workers.
Women who suffer sexual harassment are forced into a job change, unemployment, and abandonment of well-paying careers. A recent study finds a high correlation between harassment and job change: Eight in ten women who experienced sexual harassment began a new job within two years after experiencing the harassment (as compared with just over half of other working women). The study found considerable financial stress as a result of such job change, highlighting likely long-term consequences of harassment for earnings and career attainment. Harassment contributed to financial strain even when women were able to find work soon after leaving their previous employment. As a result of harassment, some women may leave their field entirely.
Once is happenstance. Twice is coincidence. Three times is enemy action. --Ian Fleming
My Story, Part One
These three findings resonated with me because I have experienced workplace bullying not once, by twice, in my career. The first incidence was my first job out of college. I was a newly-minted college grad ready to take on the world. I signed up with a federal volunteer program and got ready for my year of service. I was assigned to a community service center at a university, and I felt like it was a good match for my skills since I had managed the volunteer center at my alma mater for my work-study job.
My boss seemed harmless enough when I started my position. He took me out to lunch, spilled food on his tie, and then drove me around town to meet staff at the various organizations where the college students might spend their volunteer hours. I got to know these staff and began to form ideas about how to improve and enhance operations at the university.
Well, Boss did not like that. I stopped getting invited to off-campus meetings. My job functions were restricted to fetching the mail and making photocopies. After a while, I realized that Boss was listening to my voice mails (this was back in the pre-internet, pre-smartphone days). I changed my voice mail password. Boss confronted me behind the closed door of his office and made me tell him the password. I did, but one final voicemail had already come through – one inviting me to an off-campus meeting. I erased it but it was too late.
That evening after work it was drizzling rain as I was walking across the parking lot to my car. Boss ran out of the building to catch up with me. There, in the rain and after work hours, he shouted and spat at me for disobeying him and for accepting the invitation to the off-campus meeting (he didn’t know that I had already turned it down). He threatened that I would “never work in this town again.” The next morning I arrived at work to find a letter firing me had been pushed under my office door.
My Story, Part Two
The second incidence of workplace bullying was 12 years later. By this time I had my master’s degree and my career was on track. I was paying off my student loans and even had a mortgage. I was recruited to work for a national nonprofit to run a nation-wide program. Oh, and I was offered pay 50% higher than my then-current salary. I was thrilled to have this opportunity. I packed up my office, bid my wonderful colleagues adieu, and started the next chapter of my glorious career.
The problems started slowly. My Boss had never done the job I had been hired to do, so there was no training. I got the lay of the land for the national network and started dreaming up what exciting things might happen. But the program was underfunded, and developing the relationships across the country necessary to grow and develop a new program would take time and money. That December I met with Boss in his office and he shared with me my performance goals for the next year, which he had taken the liberty to complete himself.
“These are not realistic,” I remember commenting. “Don’t worry,” Boss replied, “They are merely placeholders so we can see how we are doing.” A bit wary but still new to the organization, I reluctantly signed the form.
Fast forward three months. It was the end of March and I was called into Boss’s office behind closed doors. Since December I had been working on getting things off the ground despite not having all the tools I needed. Boss calmly stated that I had not made my first quarter benchmarks and if I could not get on track by June 30th I would be fired. I was shocked. I had been set up.
I left that job on June 21, one week short of my fire date. I jumped into a short-term position at the same salary but without any employee benefits or job security. What else could I do?
What got me through those two traumatic events:
Female professional friends met me for coffee or a meal to lend an ear and offer support
The boss of some good friends of mine offered me a job in that same town where I had been threatened that I would never work again
A former boss of my husband became my mentor and coach for the 3 months while I planned my departure from the national nonprofit, offering me needed concrete and emotional support
Another seasoned professional became a second mentor to me, talking with me and eventually securing my short-term position so that I would avoid being fired a second time
What you can do if someone you know is being bullied at work:
If you are a Friend: Be supportive and offer your ear for her to process what is happening. My Bosses were so skilled in gas lighting me that there were times that I wasn’t sure what was happening. Attentive and emotional support works wonders.
If you are a Co-worker: Speak truth to power. As my kids have learned in school, be an Upstander when you see bullying taking place. Unfortunately in my cases, there was no one brave enough to stand up for me. In fact, when I went to HR to report my first Boss, the staff person told me, “I will tell you in confidence that you are the third person to have reported this man, but frankly, there is nothing I can do to protect you.”
If you are a Bully: Just stop. And examine what you are doing in the world.