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How to Deal with Office Bullies

How to Survive in an Office with Workplace Bullies

Q: Hi,

My name is "Edie." I am 51 years old. Last May I started working as a medical assistant for a local podiatrist. Unfortunately, although I learned a lot and loved every minute that I spent with the patients, my co-workers took the time and effort in every way possible to let me know they didn't like me nor accept me as part of the group.  I am very outgoing. They went as far as broadcasting every single mistake I made and some that I really didn't do and "tell" on me to the doctor that I was working for, keeping to themselves important information about patients, coordinating wearing the same scrub colors on specific days (and not letting me know) and yelling at me because I went to work (on my own time) on a Sunday morning. And there was a lot more!

As you can imagine, it was extremely difficult for me to concentrate on what I was supposed to be doing because I was always worried about them making fun of me or undermining me as much as they could to make themselves feel good. I am a very passive/non-violent person with an outgoing personality. I don't stand up for myself because of bad experiences and outcomes in the past. I actually dreaded going to work. I’m writing you about the whole situation because it sounds to me like what is called "bullying" and should not be accepted or allowed in a workplace or anywhere else.

The end result of all this was losing my job based on the so called "mistakes." I do want to make clear that I made mistakes (we all do!) and took full responsibility for them. This is about how everyone responded to the situation and how it was handled. Needless to say, the doctor believed and did pretty much everything they said and wanted without not even discussing with me. I was, and still am, devastated and angry with them but also with myself too! And nowadays it’s very difficult finding employment.

M question to you is what I can do about it and most importantly, how can I avoid or prevent this scenario from happening again?

Sincerely,
"Edie"
 

A: Oh Edie. Don’t you wish we could all just flip the transitional switch from "middle-school" to "grownup" at the same time? Unfortunately, there are people in this world for whom the "new girl" still looms as a threat who might bump them from prime position at the lunch table (Fortunately, their tendency to congregate as a gossiping herd makes them easy to spot in office corridors).

Sounds like you missed the memo on "fitting in." It happens. Some businesses are more entrenched in tradition than others. While many staffs welcome a novel perspective, others will view a newcomer as the proverbial straw that might force them to bend a little. Your vim and vigor may have contrasted with your fellow employees’ resolve to maintain the status quo in a "there goes the bell curve" kind of way. While the boss/doctor may even have appreciated your fresh voice, he’s running a team. And players who don’t fit a team’s strategy will be released in favor of overall corporate success.

While I can’t definitively declare your unfortunate situation to be "office bullying" from your email alone, the important thing is that it felt like bullying to you. At times, you felt singled out, excluded and ridiculed. While it’s normal to look forward to our weekends, dreading the workday is a signal for change. While the circumstances of your dismissal undoubtedly sting –because change always feels better as our own choice- focusing forward is the right thing to do. 

So… what can you do “next time”? Be yourself, Edie. Always be yourself. But be yourself with both eyes open and a view to merge rather than trail blaze. A new job is a multi-tiered and multi-directional investment. Understand that the opportunity to create a positive impact will grow out of the relationships you build over time. The enthusiasm of an unknown but “very outgoing” personality may threaten a previously quiet office, prompting a protective stance. To avoid facing another chop block defense, be sure to give new connections some gelling time before attempting to call any plays.

Approach your next job as a learning opportunity first. During training, observe the office culture. Even if it appears antiquated, it predates you and holds value for those living in it. Effective change comes from within. You must become part of the environment before attempting any informal office remodeling. After you’ve earned trust and know your co-workers as individual people rather than as a collective “them,” it will be easier to engage in a one-to-one sort of way. And this will help you all work as one team rather than from opposing benches.

Brush yourself off, and give that internal spark a quick puff to keep it going strong, Edie. You’ve just graduated from a terrific learning experience that will help you start out on the right foot next time around. Good luck.


If you have a question for Heather, email her at Heather@heatherdugan.com and maybe she'll answer it in her next column!