Battling office bullies

By Courtney Sherwood, Columbian freelance writer

Published:

 

The anguish strained his voice as he described the past five years. He used to love this job. Then the new boss came along.

Each incident, on its own, would have been bearable — his office rearranged when he stepped out, the strange looks, rude comments, weird notes.

“I tried to ignore it,” the man said. He successfully sought a new supervisor, changed his work routines to avoid his tormenter. But after 20 years with the same Vancouver employer, he’s looking for a new job. “I don’t want to quit,” he said. “I’m at my wit’s end.”

I agreed not to name this man because he’s afraid of retaliation. “I try to solve it but I can’t. I’ve been professional, stayed away from her, but I don’t know what to do.”

Most employers condemn sexual harassment, racial taunts and mistreatment of people who are members of legally protected groups — if not out of decency, then to protect themselves from lawsuits.

Bullying is trickier.

Some victims in Washington have brought claims of “outrage” — similar to what other states call “intentional infliction of emotional distress” — against their employers.

Winning those cases can be difficult, even in extreme situations, said Linda Frischmeyer, employment law attorney at Vancouver-based Landerholm, Memovich, Lansverk & Whitesides. Courts rarely punish teasing, rude comments or occasional pranks — bad treatment has to result in tangible employment action, like a demotion, or must be truly outrageous before the court will act.

But conversation, intervention and introspection can help.

Conversation, because sometimes a quick word is all that’s needed. “Many times, the person who is telling jokes thinks it’s all in good fun,” said Tracy Peterkin, president of TJ & Associates of La Center. Just telling the bully that he or she is causing hurt feelings — or asking a trusted colleague to do it for you — may be enough to nip it in the bud.

If the harassment continues, it’s time for intervention. Often, toxic bosses act out of fear and poor emotional intelligence, according to Laura Crawshaw, head of Portland-based Executive Insight Development Group. Coaching can turn bullies into better leaders, as long as your office takes the issue seriously.

Introspection gives victims insight into the severity of their situation. “We all tend to overperceive things that affect us, and we perceive them to be more evil than others would see,” Frischmeyer said. But sometimes things really are awful. A perceptive friend or a mental health professional can provide valuable perspective.

Still suffering? “Getting Even: The Truth About Workplace Revenge and How to Stop It,” co-authored by WSU Vancouver professor Thomas M. Tripp, may help. And check out the Work Place Bullying Institute, http://workplacebullying.org, which offers advice for victims, expert phone-based counseling, and a Web forum where victims can lend one another support.

Even if they’re not likely to be sued, employers should also take workplace bullying seriously. An emotionally healthy office isn’t just good for our souls. It’s good for the bottom line.

Courtney Sherwood is The Columbian’s business and features editor. Reach her at 360-735-4561 or courtney.sherwood@columbian.com.<I>