To address the recent lull on this blog, I’ve been stewing on this post for a while. It needed some time to develop.
When we speak of bullying these days we typically frame it around the experiences of children. Kids getting bullied at school, kids getting bullied online, kids getting bullied in social groups; these are our automatic frames of reference for the topic of bullying. We don’t talk about adults being bullied despite the fact that it happens at work instead of school, online, and in social groups. For the purposes of this post I do not mean sexual assault or harassment; although adult bullying does include these tactics and offenses.
There are plenty of working adults who desperately need to keep their jobs either for pay or benefits. These folks are easily bullied in the workplace, especially when the bullies are direct superiors, because they lack any kind of leverage to defend themselves or blow a whistle. They feel trapped by the need to preserve and protect their employment so they silently endure managers who bully them. A slow systematic grinding down of their defenses erodes emotional health and job performance, which typically leads to even more bullying. The crushing pressure to produce good work in a hostile and unhealthy work environment coupled with a critical need to avoid unemployment is powerful poison.
I call it a poison because it directly affects an individual’s ability to sustain a positive job search and thereby find a way out. It is awfully hard to present oneself as confident, competent, and an ideal candidate after months or years of coping with perpetual bullying. Folks become the proverbial whipped dogs, reeking of desperation to escape, and unwittingly telegraph their damage to potential employers. Passed over for new jobs they need they are forced back to their abusers over and over, all the more demoralized and hopeless. It is a cruel, vicious cycle that can and will push people to the point of breakdown.
It is not necessarily the young and inexperienced who make the easiest prey. Professional bullies know that the older we get, the harder it becomes to change jobs. It is also not the bad employees who are automatic targets. Professional bullies know that good employees will feel the cuts deeper because they believe they’ve earned respect and trust that they will be valued for their service and dedication. In truth, good employees will sacrifice far more than bad ones and will take far more abuse. All the accumulated positive peer reviews, stellar performance evaluations, perfect attendance, and client satisfaction will make good employees feel insulated by constant compliance and less likely to recognize bullying when it begins. Worse, years of conditioning to be team players make them less likely to be the lone voice of dissent.
I remember it like it was yesterday. I had been quietly trying to make a career change for many months. After a restructure of the company I became increasingly uncomfortable with a management style which made people feel bullied. I have had enough experience with bullies to know that once placed in a position of power, the arsenal of a bully can double or triple. A bully’s need to have his or her authority validated every ten minutes becomes a demand, and woe to those who fail or refuse. The benefit of this experience meant I could play along and let the bully feel the things he/she needed to feel while working on a peaceful and professional exit strategy. But the temporary toleration of the low-level bullying began to manifest in physical unwellness.
A stress rash broke out on the inside of my arms. I began losing sleep. Headaches. Mental and emotional exhaustion. I wasn’t the only person being bullied so my conscience began to bother me that I was enabling the suffering of others as well. I drove home in tears every day for a solid week. No matter how well I kept it together at my desk, my wellness was in distress. Finally the day came when I was caught in the crosshairs of the bully. I couldn’t manufacture enough deference to suit; couldn’t sidestep or redirect. My bullied brain interpreted this escalation as the bully’s new pet project — to break me.
I was one of the good employees; I knew my spotless history might be protecting me from a wrongful termination scenario; they had no transgressions to hold against me, no documented negligence or malfeasance or grievous errors. In order to can me without compensating me they would have to push me into unprofessional behavior or trap me into a violation of policy. The push was relentless and more importantly, it was public. If I reacted or retaliated everyone would see and hear it. Not only would I go down in flames, I would be humiliated and used as an example.
One by one everyone else in my department bailed until I was the only one left. Naturally my workload burgeoned with no help until I was overwhelmed and in crisis, trying to do it all with no sympathy or support. When I asked for help from leadership above the bully’s head I was ignored. The bully punished me for this by delegating additional pressure tactics to others until I felt surrounded and bombarded; bullied by a gang following its leader. The pressure was unbearable. The leader suggested I do something illegal for a short-term fix to a problem I could solve legally in ten days. The leader said we couldn’t wait ten days — it had to be NOW — and suggested we could go back and fix it later after the crisis was abated. That’s when I knew it was over.
There was no way I’d break the rules and do the illegal deed; they knew this. Even if I was willing (or could somehow be convinced) I knew they’d fry me so fast and hard for it. My choice felt limited to:
a) quit, or
b) defy the bully’s authority and judgment.
I chose b. I said No, knowing I would have to endure the backlash, which would likely include disciplinary action for insubordination and/or failure to deliver a more timely solution. The bully denied trying to coerce me into illegal action and turned up the heat. I still had not found another job at this point. I didn’t want to leap without a net.
I had a no-win decision to make. I could let myself appear to be broken, collapse in tears and/or take my licks, let the bully have satisfaction, and then possibly enjoy a period of relief while the bully moved on to a different project (someone else). I could use that relief to accelerate my job search and then get the hell out. It made the most sense to leave on my own terms, more or less. But my conscience still bothered me. I’d be leaving a bully in power to torture my replacement, and so on, and so on, making me complicit. I felt torn and battered, with no good option.
It took another six months but I did get out. I moved on to a healthier employment situation. During the exit process I tried to be honest about why I left and gave my predictions that more good employees would be driven out of the company if there was no intervention. My hope was that losing me would get the attention of the leadership and perhaps no one else would get bullied. I had no idea that the bully was following orders and all the earnest spilling of my guts wouldn’t change a thing.
After some time went by I recovered. I also began some research, following stories similar to mine back to their sources and studying the corporations involved. I did not learn anything good. Accounts of professional bullying like mine were not isolated cases. They were not an unfortunate oversight in management or an aberration in the American workforce. It is a bonafide business component in corporate management (the unscrupulous kind, of course). This is deliberate, especially when profits have stalled or plateaued. Executives are taught these methods and they filter down to lower levels of management by design. The point of it is to weed out the classically “good” employees who cannot be driven like indentured servants; they cost companies money because they are not disposable, they’ve earned too many benefits, and they just won’t leave, dammit.
I used to complain about the revolving door of new hires and marvel how anyone could stay in business when staff turned over every 90 days or so. They stay in business because they adopt the same business model as a company which employs migrant workers or day laborers, modified from day labor to three-month or so labor. Hire the minimally skilled, pay them so little they are guaranteed not to stay very long, offer them benefits for marketing purposes but make the benefits so bad they are essentially useless, work the crew until they quit, and replace them promptly. Most important of all — get rid of anyone not aligned with this principle.
The restructure that seems to happen all of a sudden, out of nowhere, without warning? That’s the point. It is designed to create instability and prompt discomfort. There is generally an outflux of staff immediately following the change. That staff will be replaced with bottom of the barrel new hires. Any traditionally valuable holdouts will have a slew of new policies and procedures with which they must immediately comply. Every new demand will be delivered with a threat of consequences and constant hand-slapping for missteps. The bullies are appointed and compensated for deliberately uprooting the seasoned mainstays who demand working conditions commensurate with their work ethics. The strong workforce our parents raised to take pride in good work, loyalty, and professionalism is obsolete.
Learning this truth was a heavy blow to my illusions of the grand old American way. The idea that the people who built this country’s great companies are no longer qualified to run them because they are too good hurt my patriotic heart. Disposable employees work in other countries, not this one. Employers who ferret out loopholes to keep legal forms of slavery in operation are sordid tales of other countries, not this one. Right? Don’t bet on it. Confronting this reality also helped me find a way to forgive the corporate bullies, because I realized how truly terrible their own circumstances must be for them to find such a gig attractive, necessary, or even reasonable.
My previous posts on topics of helping job seekers are written from the perspective of how things used to be, not how they are. I might tell you not to wear jeans or yoga pants to a job interview but the truth is that if you are interviewing with one of these corporations, they probably will hire you anyway. I might tell you not to walk in to meet a hiring manager flossing your teeth, eating fast food, carrying an infant, or using street slang on your resume, but the truth is it probably won’t matter. You are probably exactly what these kinds of corporations are looking for, and when you walk out on them in three months they’ll find someone just like you to take over the job you spurn. If I help you present yourself better to one of these corporations I might be keeping you from getting hired. They don’t want better. They want cheap, easily disposed, and easily replaced.
In light of this I won’t be writing any more posts about how to get an interview or get hired. I realize now that they simply do not apply. I believe in standards that are obsolete. I would be coaching you for a bygone job market seeking values which are obsolete. Corporate America needs something different these days. If I want to stay relevant I have to accept this reality. Occupational Wellness moving forward will be modified as personal/professional financial wellness and physical, mental, and emotional wellness on the job, in working relationships, and throughout a work week. Everything I know about getting a job or getting an interview is dying out with pensions and 30-year retirement parties.
I will not, however, assimilate to the new world order. I will continue to resist professional abuse with the same fervor we are obligated to resist domestic abuse, child abuse, elder abuse, animal abuse, environmental abuse, substance abuse, and abuse of power by government. People are not disposable. They are not revenue tokens. They should not be enslaved by an economy which coerces them into crippling debt so they are forced to work for corporations who pay bullies to manage them. As long as I still have a choice I will still choose Wellness before wealth; People before profit. Someone make a note to put it on my tombstone.
Here lies an American worker and taxpayer who died believing companies should be filled with people who are well and owned by people who champion wellness. Old-fashioned. Outdated. Obsolete.
So be it.
It’s a brave old world.