A recent survey conducted by Zogby International for the Workplace Bullying Institute found that 35 percent of American workers — or 54 million people — have faced harassment at work, while another 15 percent have witnessed it happening.
And, sparked by the tragic endings of a string of bullying cases over the past few years, the Healthy Workplace Bill — legislation that aims to provide legal protection to those who feel they have been physically or psychologically abused at work — has recently picked up speed in states like New York, Nevada, Massachusetts, Vermont and Illinois.
The issue of workplace bullying is, indeed, one that many workers face on a daily basis. But if you find yourself in an abusive situation at work, there are ways to get out of it.
Here, four workers share the stories of their bullying, and what they ultimately did to end it.
1. “I’ve dealt with a few managerial bullies, but the worst was Mike. I heard him bragging once that every waitress who had ever worked for him had cried because of him at least once. He thought it made him tough.
One night, I was making desserts during an extremely busy shift. Mike approached me after I had delivered the desserts and began to berate me about how I had not yet cleaned up my mess — I just nodded. Later, I approached him. I told him that although I was very busy and afraid that the ice cream would melt, it is part of our job to clean up spills as soon as they occur and it wouldn’t have taken that much more time. I apologized, and told him it would not happen again. I thought that by showing him I wasn’t going to be pushed over, but that I was also mature and responsible, I would come out ahead. Mike turned and walked away without a word.
I eventually complained to our district manager about his rudeness and bullying, and she said that she knew he could be ‘a bit difficult sometimes’ but that he produced great results. She promised to have a talk with him.
Then, two weeks later, a customer made a complaint against me. My manager at the time told me that her complaint was completely unfounded, and both of us had worked together to try to please her. My manager told me not to take it personally. The next day the woman came back while Mike was on shift, and as soon as she mentioned my name, he took her to a booth and sat her down for a talk. The claims this time were more wild than the night before, and I can only believe that he goaded her on. He then left work to visit the owner, presented the complaint and asked that I be fired.
I suppose I could have fought for my job, and probably won. The owner didn’t know my name, but he knew my face because I’d served him before, and he’d never had reason to complain. It was also my first and only complaint from a customer ever in over a year of employment. But the other managers were too cowed to stick up for me on their own, and I decided I would rather not work with Mike anymore as it was.
When he sat me down to fire me, I calmly told him I quit, then took my final paycheck and left. His face, so happy when I sat down, was red with anger, and he glares at me whenever I happen to choose to eat there. He never made me cry, but it was miserable working under him, and most of my fellow waitresses would agree.” – Dionne*; Hollister, California
2. “I had this experience while working on an academic journal at a university. My boss had a faculty position, which she viewed as a carte blanche for verbally beating up on her subordinates. And I wasn’t the only one who experienced her peel-the-paint-off-the-wall tirades.
However, I was the only one to quit my job without having another one to go to. Not only that, I also left the city in which the journal was located. I caught a one-way flight across the country, got on my bicycle, and pedaled more than 3,600 miles in three months. It was as positive an experience as working for this boss was a negative.
If I could ever talk with that lady again — and quite frankly, I’m not really interested in doing so — I would thank her. Because quitting that job and leaving that city were two of the most positive things I have ever done in my life.” – Martha; Arizona
3. “My first employer was a bullying, sadistic manipulator. The workplace was a 10 person ad agency, run by a husband and wife team, who always played good cop bad cop. My position was as an entry level copywriter.
During my eight months at this horrible place, I was physically threatened, made to go pick up dry cleaning, wash the boss’s car and other humiliating tasks. I later learned that our phone lines were tapped, when I discovered a recorder attached to the phone box in a hidden supply closet. The owner would lie to us about our co-workers, so we wouldn’t make friends and ‘plot against the agency.’ I was ‘fired’ eight times — each time the wife would play good cop and make sure I didn’t lose my job.
He often said ‘I like my employees young, married and in debt, because then I own them.’
Most of the people I worked with, my art director partner and a couple of younger account executives were all very close and we relied on each other. We all talked outside of work and relayed stories. We all understood the game and counted on each other for honesty and support. Since the owner’s wife also oversaw the HR function, there was no court of appeal.
In reality, we actually were all young and in debt and needed work at a time when entry level positions were very hard to find. But I still ended up quitting. It was the only way out.
To this day, it bothers me to talk about many of the things we endured.” – Bill; St. Louis, Missouri
4. “I had a very bizarre bullying experience, when I was a university student. I worked for a small alarm company and I thought the relationship I had with my manager was a good one. We used to have lunch together, coffee, etc.
One night, she asked me to go shopping with her. I was chatting with a saleswoman, asking for a smaller size in a skirt. When I turned around, my manager was behind me, with a weird look on her face (later, I surmised it was because she was upset that I had a smaller dress size than she did — I know, super weird, but it’s been the only explanation I can think of).
After that night, my work environment became almost intolerable. She became very rude and snappish, angry if the clients asked for me (instead of her). As soon as I would walk into the office, she would stand up, go into the boss’s office and lobby for him to fire me.
I endured — what else could I do? I couldn’t leave because of school — I needed the job. So, I tried to ignore her, but that didn’t help the embarrassment/anger I felt every time she criticized me.
Eventually, I found out she was leaving and thought, ‘thank God, I only have to endure this for a little longer.’ I was promoted and given her title, so her behavior worsened. Then, during a staff meeting my boss said they would have to let me go because my job and school hours conflicted.
After the meeting, he called me into his office and said, ‘Look, what I said in there, it’s not true. We’re just going to let [the manager] believe this. She’ll be gone in a couple of weeks, and after that you can come back. We’ll work around your schedule.’
But it was too much for me. I had endured this woman’s rude comments, nitpicking over my work, snide remarks about my clothing — and now, my boss was taking her side and asking me to submit to a fake firing — a totally humiliating act — just to appease her. We got into an argument — he acknowledged her bad behavior, but just excused it. I guess I thought if I’d ever brought it up to him, he would have taken my side. To know he’d known all along and excused her behavior was too much. I gave my two weeks and left.
If I had to do it over again, I would have schooled myself on my rights as an employee and I would have documented everything she did. Employees really do need to know what their rights are.” — Natasha; Edmonton, Alberta, CA
Most of the workers that we talked to who faced a workplace bully ultimately left the abusive environment, which is often the best decision in an extreme situation (your mental and physical health should always be your top priority). However, there are other options if you really feel that you can’t quit your job, or if you think the situation can be bettered. Check out the Workplace Bullying Institute for more information on dealing with on-the-job harassment.
*Last names have been omitted to protect privacy