What happens when you're bullied at work and nobody has your back? Lee Suckling outlines your options.
Bullying is a reality for one in five workers in New Zealand, and I've certainly been bullied a couple of times in my career.
Just using the word "bullying" sounds like the actions should be intentional, explicit, and able to be documented. It should be preventable, reprimandable, and tackled by experts.
But that's not my experience. Bullying in this way is easier to identify if somebody is writing an independent report on your office culture or you have an HR department. What happens when you're bullied at work and nobody has your back?
When you're in a small business where there are only a handful of employees, no formal management protocols, and nobody in charge of human resources, being bullied at work can leave you too isolated and afraid of negative career repercussions to do anything about your situation.
All of the bullying I've experienced has been in workplaces of only around five people. What's resulted is slow emotional manipulation by a senior who held power over me in the office.
During my most recent experience on the receiving end of professional bullying, I sought advice from government-run employment bodies, independent anti-bullying services, union websites, and so on.
What I found was unhelpful if you work in a very small company. Most of the websites simply link to other websites like WorkSafeNZ and the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment (MBIE) for advice. Much of this feels like it's in the interest of employers so they can prevent bullying, not to help the victims understand and do something about a current problem.
Information provided for current victims of bullying won't tend to apply in a small business situation. When you troll through the Q&A threads on the Citizens Advice Bureau's website, for example, (https://www.cab.org.nz/search/bullying%20) after you're advised to talk to your employer, trade union representatives, health and safety officers, and so on.
This doesn't work if your employer is the bully who you must continue to work for, you have no union, and nobody in the business has any HR responsibilities outside of their job description. When you work in a place with only four other people, it's unlikely there will be a dedicated human resources expert in the room. Especially if you don't work in an office environment, e.g. you're a tradesperson, or work in retail or hospitality.
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Of course, there are other external options. You could go to a lawyer if you had the money, or you could lay a complaint with the Human Rights Commission (HRC). In doing anything like this, however, you – the target of bullying – will be left uneasy at work no matter what. You will probably want to leave regardless of outcome.
For example, imagine if you had a lawyer or the HRC administer your case within a small company, and it went in your favour. The interpersonal discomfort in returning to your workplace would be too much to take. How could you sit at a desk two metres from somebody you filed a formal complaint about – someone who still retains power over you – and be happy or feel emotionally safe at work every day?
You can't, which is why many people who experience workplace bullying in small businesses withdraw their labour and find another job. The adage, "people don't leave jobs, they leave managers" rings very true in these situations.
There's a failing in our society's current model on this issue. All victims of workplace bullying are left to wonder, "Am I being bullied, or is it all in my head?" The onus is on the target to prove something with a vague legal definition, provide verifiable examples, and perhaps feel the need to link their case to a negative personal outcome (e.g. a breakdown in mental health). All of this is made more confusing and difficult if you work in a small company without any support in these areas.
In my noted case of bullying, I confronted my bully – a superior – because there was nobody else to go to. I was told I was overreacting, my examples weren't quantifiable and overtly based on my feelings, I was twisting other examples to "play the victim", and I was generalising from one negative experience and forgetting about all other positive support being given.
The end result was something none of the official bodies tell you how to handle in anti-bullying. I had to suck it up, eventually quit the job, lie about the reasons I was leaving, and then pretend nothing was wrong so I could still get a good reference.
Bullying is unfair and happens to too many people working in small business. Yet as far as the victims can tell, there's not much we can do about it. It appears we will have to move on while our bullies stay in their positions of power; able to emotionally abuse whomever takes our place.