A snide comment, a patronising remark, a withering look: it sounds like the childish behaviour of kids in the playground, but it happens daily between adults in the workplace too, and can have damaging consequences.
The phrase brings to mind questionable, Ally McBeal-esque American court cases, but 'office bullying' as a serious problem in the UK has come up more and more in conversation with friends recently. Personality clashes do happen, and not getting along well with certain colleagues affects us all; there may be times, though, when what we interpret as 'not seeing eye to eye with' might actually be 'being bullied by'.
Too quick to share the blame and ashamed by the reality of being picked on, we look to rationalise and normalise bullies' behaviour. If we don't manage to convince ourselves that it's a mutual dislike, we look inwards for a problem within ourselves. Seeing other people in the office get along so easily with this consistently unpleasant person causes us to ask, 'What's wrong with me?' I can't count how many times a close friend and ex-colleague asked this question of me, and each time I replied, honestly, 'Absolutely nothing. This is not about you.'
And it wasn't. Just like at school, the passive-aggressive, undermining and spiteful behaviour found in offices is almost always rooted in insecurity and jealousy. This kind of bitchiness is difficult because it can be hard to pin down and prove, but it's not the only type of bullying. Occasionally, it's a case of bullies taking out their job stress on the person unfortunate enough to have asked them a question, sent them an email, or dropped a pen near their desk. It's no excuse - the ability to control a short fuse is justly expected of adults.
Sometimes it's more obvious. A highly successful, attractive and intelligent friend of mine, who works in advertising, told me recently about an instance in which she was running a meeting. No doubt intimidated by her, after the meeting, two of the attending men began talking about the fact that she was probably wearing pink jeans because she was on her period. Seriously? It's 2013 and there's that level of open, aggressive, shameless sexism? It's unbelievable that it happens, but more unbelievable that it is not immediately stopped and punished.
Office bullying can affect interns, treated carelessly and made to feel insignificant by those who were interns just a few months before, now desperate to validate themselves and feel important, through to CEOs, hammered daily by pressure from 'the Board' to achieve the unachievable. None of it is acceptable. If you feel like it might be happening to you, speak up for yourself - you're definitely not alone. Diplomatically calling people on their crap - whether there's a problem here, whether they would like to share anything with you, whether their face just always looks like that (okay, perhaps not that last one) - will force them to articulate if there is something specific wrong, or back down when they realise they've been rightly confronted. Alternatively, speak to someone senior to you who you trust, and work out the best way to resolve the situation together. Don't suffer in silence.
What's worrying is that we all have the potential to be accidental bullies. Think about this: have you shaken your head or sighed in frustration at somebody, spoken in condescending or clipped tones, or cut someone off in a meeting? Is there someone at work who just annoys you for no reason, and you can't help but let it show? You don't know how much damage it could be doing - a roll of the eye to you could be a night's sleep lost for them. Although we're all human, it isn't okay to accuse or belittle a colleague because of personal issues; we should hang them at the door with our coats.Suggest a correction