8 Steps to Surviving Workplace Bullying and Salvaging Your Reputation
Some 29 percent of Americans have experienced workplace bullying or mobbing -- 37 percent if we include witnesses -- according to 2017 data from the Workplace Bullying Institute, a leading nonprofit. I’ve seen it in my own practice and community. Bullying happens everywhere, and if you haven’t personally become a target, you probably know someone who has.
Despite the growth of workplace bullying, many of us aren’t sure what constitutes bullying/mobbing, as opposed to harassment or workplace discipline. Few know the powerful and liberating truth that we can repair our brand and reputation after workplace bullying. We can restore our confidence, too.
Defining bullying and mobbing.
I define bullying as an inappropriate form and use of power and aggressive behavior that unfairly singles someone out. Bullying serves no purpose other than to demean, strip away confidence or humiliate. Bullying takes place privately or publicly. Workplace mobbing takes bullying to a higher level and includes multiple parties. When a target gets bullied, and a group follows with ridiculing, slandering, undermining and heckling the person, we see mobbing. Not defending the target -- during and after the act and if they leave the company -- also serves as mobbing behavior.
As a specialist in managing reputations and personal branding, I routinely hear from clients all over the world seeking help in repairing their brand after becoming a target of extreme bullying or mobbing. Some work for well-known companies. Some are high-profile professionals in their community. Sometimes, the bullying against them winds up in the news. In all cases, big and small, and in every region, here are the steps I take to help the targets of workplace bullying repair their precious self-esteem, livelihood and reputation.
Step 1: Separate the emotion from the reputational impact.
When you become the target of bullying or mobbing, you feel everyone around you sees everything. Many of my clients feel like they’re under a microscope and that everyone believes the untruths the bully or mob says about them. To counter this feeling and distinguish any reputational damage, separate the inevitable feelings of shame, self-doubt and lack of confidence from the actual impact to your career. When looking at workplace bullying through a reputational lens, ask yourself, "Has this experience impacted my ability to secure desired opportunities? Am I being shortchanged on key opportunities?" To me, that’s what reputation is about.
Step 2: Don’t compromise your work.
If you’re in the thick of the bullying, consider whether to step up your game to avoid getting fired. If you gave 100 percent before, then maybe give 150 percent after. Be sure your work product does not get called into question.
At the same time, when coaching clients who have been the targets of workplace bullying, I caution them to ensure they don’t permit any firable offenses to happen. I’ve seen clients, subjected to terrible bullying, want to pull back and do less to “show the employer a thing or two.” But if you then leave the company, you’ve provided the bully/team justified evidence that you weren’t up to par.
Step 3: Have context.
When someone is bullied, and their reputation is damaged, often they’ve not provided an adequate context of their values and goals to help them rebound. Ideally, having a strong personal brand protects us from bullying and mobbing. Being perceived as valuable -- and building a strong brand around that -- can deflect negativity and help remind our audience that we all make mistakes sometimes. We’re human.
Whether your bullying takes place online or in person, focus on what you can influence -- your reputation. You’ll feel empowered and deflect the impact on your confidence and brand.
Step 4: Know when to cut your losses.
Hopefully, we learned to stand up to bullies in the schoolyard. Yet, when it comes to our workplace, we believe it can’t actually be happening.
As adults, we must remember that we can’t change another person. We can influence and inspire them, but we shouldn’t set out to change them. One client of mine faced the option of fighting back, staying quiet or leaving after workplace bullying, which lasted a few years. Even though I knew, for him, it felt like quitting, I suggested leaving the company. In his case, the bullying was deep and entrenched in the company culture, and he wasn’t motivated to make it his mission to remove toxicity from that organization. In his case, leaving best protected his happiness, confidence and reputation. I am certainly not saying to lie down if you’re a target of a hate crime. In those cases, don’t walk away. Explore legal recourse.
Step 5: Move slowly vs. impulsively.
While you’re in the thick of the bullying, it’s more important than ever that you stand strong in your values, and keep your head held high. Recognize that bullying and mobbing have the potential of becoming quicksand, swallowing up your sense of identity, self-confidence, independence and positive outlook. As with quicksand, sudden movements can pull you further down into the problem. Immediately seek help if you feel a loss of control or purpose.
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Step 6: Resist leaving an industry.
While changing employers may help how others view you, I don’t recommend leaving an industry you love and in which you’ve had a solid, positive experience up until now, unless something life-changing occurs. Not every company in your industry has a bullying culture. If you have established a credible reputation within an industry but experience a negative workplace, changing jobs can be seen favorably. This move shows you are confident enough about yourself and your abilities that you won’t tolerate toxicity. Remember, if an organization’s culture is toxic, you’re probably not the first bullying target.
Step 7: Solicit referrals and endorsements from allies.
To help preserve and rebuild your reputation, ask allies to speak well of you to a new boss/employer/prospect. You may find, if the bullying case reaches the media and becomes public, colleagues reluctant to publicly say the company or boss treated you wrongly. These employees may fear they will become the next target or lose their job. But carefully find allies willing to endorse and protect your brand in other ways -- through a phone reference, for instance.
Step 8: Resist retaliating, no matter how tempting.
Revenge can be a natural, human response to becoming a target. Some clients want to go to investors and speak ill of the boss and employer who targeted them. I advise holding back. Revenge does not effectively repair your personal brand and reputation. And in many cases, efforts to tarnish a boss or company will backfire and make you look even worse.
Here’s how you might feel satisfied, less angry and help repair personal brand and confidence:
- Write a detailed, unfiltered letter/email to the bully/mob. Purge every angry and resentful idea; however, don’t send it. Instead, put it away someplace. Review it in six months and see how you feel.
- Avoid Glassdoor. While online review sites could give you the emotional outlet of venting about the bullying behavior you endured, the service becomes entirely misused by individuals making outlandish claims about companies. You might feel vindicated, but more likely, you’ll feel better writing the review, saving as a Word document, then, seeing how you feel. Writing anonymous bad reviews about an employer won’t help rebuild your personal brand.
- Succeed and rebound. One client of mine lost her public affairs role when her boss and team mobbed her and made up lies about her work to have her fired. Her upbeat personality clashed with the curmudgeon boss who’d missed out on getting promoted. Her experience and skills trumped his and provided a threat. While writing scathing letters to expose the bullying crossed her mind, ultimately, building her own successful business and sharing those successes on social networking sites served her best. The mob noticed each post, and she proved them wrong about her competence.
Hopefully, you will never be subjected to workplace bullying. But if you do, these recommendations will help you plot your next move and ultimately preserve something critical to your career success and personal legacy -- your personal brand and reputation.