I’ve been employed for two years in a stressful customer service position in a large company. Most of my co-workers are pleasant and hardworking despite all of our extreme workloads and the stringent performance measures our supervisor places on us.
Up until three months ago, I’ve had a supportive supervisor. Corporate management suddenly and inexplicably fired him and replaced him with a new supervisor. This new supervisor has been allowed free rein to intimidate and bully me. He barks at me, stands over my shoulder, and seems focused on catching the slightest infractions for which he can publicly belittle me.
I seem to be his primary target, as my co-workers lay low to avoid his attention. As a result, within seven weeks I developed extreme anxiety that required medical treatment. After one particularly harsh confrontation, I had a frightening panic attack, which sent me to the emergency room.
I went to human resources and explained that this man’s bullying behavior was impacting my emotional, mental and physical health and asked for help. I got none.
When I reminded our HR officer that I couldn’t work if I was having panic attacks, she gave me a Family Medical Leave Act form to fill out for anxiety-related absences. She also said that the other employees seemed to be handling everything “fine.”
The stress of his constant bullying has affected my work life and ability to do my job. The new boss is, of course, tracking my mistakes. What do I do now?
You’re not alone. According to a recent study of 3,066 U.S. workers conducted by the Rand Corp., Harvard Medical School and the University of California, Los Angeles, nearly 1 in 5 workers state they endure a hostile or threatening environment at work, which can include harassment and bullying. Nearly 55 percent of those surveyed state that they face “unpleasant and potentially hazardous” conditions.
As an employee confronting what you see as a hostile environment, you have six alternatives. You can vote with your feet, and many do. If you choose to stay, you can “lie low” or talk with your supervisor and see if you can change the dynamic. You can examine yourself and ask yourself the question your HR officer’s response implied: What leads your new supervisor to target you — and why do your co-workers seem better able to tolerate him? You can ask HR for help or jump the chain of command and reach the ear of a senior manager.
If you choose one of the last two strategies, do it early. Far too many victims wait until they’re a mess before blowing the whistle on a problem supervisor. As a result, they come across as angry, frustrated and emotional, thus appearing as much of a problem as the supervisor.
If you decide to make a case to a senior manager, act before the hostile treatment takes too great a toll on you and arm yourself with substantiating documentation. You can’t expect a senior manager to act based on your opinion or anecdotal information.
While you have your panic attack as evidence of what happened to you, both HR and senior management may wonder if the problem stems from your sensitivity and not the treatment you received, particularly given they valued your supervisor enough to promote him. You also need to decide how to handle the frequent assumption that the problem is only a personality conflict and not bullying.
Finally, your HR officer may have made a critical mistake by not following up on your complaint — and you may have grounds to sue or seek the help of a regulatory agency.
For example, perhaps your supervisor targets you due to your membership in a protected category, such as your age, sex, race or religion or because you’ve engaged in a protected activity such as voiced safety concerns.
Even if your HR officer thinks this isn’t the case, she may want to investigate to be able to protect the company should you get fired and sue for wrongful termination.
© Dr. Lynne Curry is author of ”Beating the Workplace Bully” and ”Solutions” as well as Regional Director of Training and Business Consulting for The Growth Company, an Avitus Group Company. Follow her on Twitter @lynnecury10 or at www.bullywhisperer.com.