Workplace bullying: the politics of the playground hurt as much when you’re an adult

By Beaut.ie | November 1 2012 | 54 Comments

Bullying and suicide are receiving a lot of coverage in the news at the moment. I think we’re all aware of the dangers of school bullying but I was really struck by the forcefulness of some tweets that mentioned workplace bullying during the screening of Tuesday night’s Bullyproof.

As adults we’re often too ashamed to admit we can’t cope with the hurtful behaviour of a colleague. Just this week in the UK the police are investigating claims that BBC reporter Russell Joslin committed suicide following harassment and bullying by a female colleague.

I know only too well that sense of shame and humiliation that bullying can evoke. I was bullied out of my first job. It was a small company and one of the guys who had recently undergone a very messy marriage breakup decided to take his anger out on me ­ the only female working there. Overnight he froze me out, stopped talking to me, slammed doors in my face, made comments as I went past.

It was awful, and I didn’t know what to do, I was only 18. What made it worse was everyone knew he was doing it and no one made any effort to stop him. Eventually I broke down and told my boss I was leaving, he persuaded me to stay a few more weeks because he knew of a job opportunity for me in another company that was starting up.

In legal terms things have improved hugely since then as finally employers have a duty of care towards their employees, but that doesn’t completely prevent bullying from happening in the workplace. The subtle things are often the hardest to challenge: ­ leaving one person out of a lunch date, “forgetting”  to tell someone that everyone’s going for after work drinks, the personal comments that are defended as “only slagging”.

What you can do
If you are on the receiving end of bullying, please don’t stay quiet, don’t tolerate it. Talk to someone and then tackle it. Complain to your boss, and if it’s your boss who’s bullying you, go up the chain of command. Keep going until something is done about it. And if you are in a workplace where it’s happening don’t stand by in silence. Saying nothing, isn’t the same as doing nothing, if you say nothing you tell the person bullying that their behaviour is acceptable, and you tell the person being bullied that they’re worthless. We can’t expect children to behave with care towards their classmates if we the adults aren’t doing it ourselves.

I work with children in schools to address bullying and part of our success is getting the “silent majority” to see that they hold the power. It’s rare for anyone in school to bully alone, and it rarely happens in secret; getting the children providing the “back-up” or “audience” to change their behaviour has a positive impact on the bullying.

Bullying is a serious problem that we have to address properly. If we fail to tackle bullying behaviour at an early developmental stage we ensure that the next generation grow up believing that this behaviour is acceptable, and we increase the likelihood of it reappearing later in the workplace, in our communities, and in our homes.



Patricia runs Sticks & Stones and she’s too modest to tell you all that she recently won an European award and that¹s on top of an award she already won in Dublin! I was shocked when she told me they don’t receive any government funding at all. If you want to support a great anti-bullying initiative in schools you can buy one of the fab Pride watches
that Dragon Den winner Jason O¹Reilly has created for Sticks & Stones. They’ll make great stocking fillers and support a really important cause.

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54 Replies to "Workplace bullying: the politics of the playground hurt as much when you’re an adult"

  • jen says:

    I know all to well what bullying in the workplace can do you to. I was at the receiving end of a very vicious girl all because I was hired in a role above her that she felt should of been hers, she made my life a living hell & what made it worse was management didn’t care & the other staff knew all about it but because they weren’t been affected they sympathized but were powerless to stop her.

    Every day I left work in floods of tears, I got so sick & lost 2 stone in a short period. I eventually got the strength to approach the recruiter who got me the job & she had me out of there within days.

  • Principessa says:

    Thanks for posting this Aisling, and thanks for your lovely post-script x

    Jen, that sounds awful. When we’re adults we think we should be able to cope so we very often suffer on in silence. I’m really glad to hear you’re out of there.

  • Marty says:

    Well done on thinking to contact your recruiter Jen, I would never have thought of that. Great tip for others that might be feeling they don’t know what to do.

  • Fair play Principessa (and Aisling) for your work and for highlighting this.

    I myself have been subject to bullying in the workplace and while on a college placement. Both times it was my superior (who was supposed to be teaching me) doing the bullying, and both times I had no way out as something was on the line (my grade for the project, no other job during the recession). It changed who I am. I went from being a bright, confident, outgoing young woman to a shy introvert who prefers to hide her light under a bushel.

    I’m so glad that attention is being drawn to the more insidious types of bullying, like you mention ““forgetting” to tell someone that everyone’s going for after work drinks, the personal comments that are defended as “only slagging””. This is often the worst kind of bullying, that leaves you second-guessing people’s intentions and doubting yourself. It’s also very hard to challenge without being labelled as overly sensitive and disruptive.

    I can’t say much more other than thanks for posting this, so so much.

  • Amelie says:

    Great post – thanks for bringing this up!

    Currently I am being bullied by the owner of my company. He is the top boss so there is nowhere I can turn – we have no HR dept. I get on great with everybody else in work, it’s just this one person. It’s not personal though as apparently he has bullied many people in my position before and forced them to leave.
    It’s very hard sometimes but I just have to take it on the chin as I have no other employment opportunities at the mo – have been looking for more and a year and nothing has come up.
    For people in a similar situation to mine, where they can’t get out, I would suggest to confide in friends and family. They have helped me a great deal and even just being able to have a rant when I get home for the evening helps me de-stress. Thank of how much stronger you are than the bullies and you will come through in the end. Try not to take your work home with you and plough all that negative energy into something positive or creative, like looking for a new job :)

  • Shygirl says:

    It really is terrible the way some people carry on. They must not realise or care that they could be really upsetting someone or breaking their confidence. Its not easy, but what you’ve got to remember is that bullies are miserable in their own lives, and thats why they act like that.

  • Shygirl says:

    Its very hard not to take things to heart, like being delibrately (?) being left out of something or being singled out in front of a group. I’ve been bullied but in some ways its made me stronger.

  • Atkin says:

    I’ve been in my current job for almost a year. I work alone but there is a group of 5 (including me) that meet for breaks. At the start of the year we all would message eachother for breaks, meet in reception and go together. Now, I get no message at break time, no warning that they are going for a break and have been totally excluded from other events eg birthday lunches, one girls’ engagement party. Its not as if they all know eachother for years, two other girls only joined two months before I did. I’m trying not to take it personally, but there really is no other way to take it!

  • Principessa says:

    Thanks Kat. I know what you mean about it changing you.

    Amelie, I’ve done some work in conjunction with occupational psychologists with workplace bosses who have been accused of bullying. Often they don’t realise that the very behaviour that made them a successful business man/woman doesn’t make them the best people manager.

    Do you know if any one of the people who left tried to tackle him about his behaviour? These days between constructive dismissal and the cost of recruitment most (sensible) bosses don’t want to force employees to leave. Do you think he realises his behaviour is upsetting you?

  • Shygirl says:

    Atkin, they just sound like a shower of bitches pardon the language. Are they really the sort of people you’d want to be friends with? I’ve been through that too, but they weren’t a particularly nice or genuine group. There was a lot of talking behind each others backs,etc. You know, the usual!

  • Atkin says:

    I know what you mean shygirl. I don’t want to be friends with them, but someone to have lunch with would be nice. eg I was at the Electric Picnic in September, not one of them asked me how it was! I know I can be blunt here sometimes, but I swear I’m not like that in real life :D

  • littlesis says:

    Great post, ladies. Definitely something that needs to be talked about more, it’s a very common but silent occurrence.
    My heart breaks for that poor little girl in Ballybofey.

  • Atkin says:

    Oh littlesis, I can’t even think about it. Patricia, I have bought two of those watches. Great idea!

  • Shygirl says:

    Thats about them Atkin, not about you. You just have to work with them, its just your job its not your life. I know thats easy to say, i don’t always practice what I preach.

  • joanne says:

    A lot of bullying happens in the public sector as well I think where it is near impossible to get fired.Unfortunately there are a lot of sociopaths out there that end up in very high positions that they should never have been put in the first place. I work in an area where HR isn’t accountable apparently (their words) systematic bullying has taken place here over the years, all started by the main boss unfortunately.

  • Atkin says:

    When you’ve no other friends Shygirl, its hard to take.

  • amelie says:

    Hi Principessa,

    I have approached him on a number occasions with both formal and informal meetings or called him up on when he is cursing and screaming at me. First I went down the calm friendly route as in ‘I understand your frustration but it is not acceptable to speak to me in such a manner. I will happily take constructive criticism, if you feel that there is areas that I need to improve but you speaking to me as you are get us both nowhere’ – that didn’t work at all so now I just walk away!

    I don’t think he realises the extent that it gets to me sometimes. I have thick skin but it still gets to be if I’m not at my best mentally anyway. I don’t know how to approach it or diffuse the situation other than what I have done.

    I even called a meeting before and had a witness with me. It’s one of the hardest things to do is face your bully!

    I just write everything down now, with a time and date. It’s all I can do for now. I am afraid to seek outside help (he won’t allow a union) incase I loose my job!

    Do you have any advice? It would be much appreciated!

  • Sandybee says:

    I worked with three girls (there are 8 people in total) and we (4 girls) used to all go out for lunch on a friday. To be honest it became too much for me to go with one particular girl and she was constantly negative, very opininated and constantly talked about work. Eventually just myself and another girl used to go for lunch, I’d hate to think that she thought we were bullying her. The other girl used to go out out her own.

  • Shygirl says:

    Amelie its illegal not to allow a union I think.

  • Sandy Beach says:

    I had a friend who did not get on great in her job and took a case. I think it was through a union, but it’s so long ago the name of it escapes me. I too looked into joining same. In any case there doesn’t have to be a union organised where you work, you can join one as an individual, if that makes any sense.

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