Workplace Bullying Is A Crime

By Tanya Hallet

You know, every time I see the word ‘bully’ in print, it triggers a punch -in- the -gut reaction for me. I was bullied horribly at school. And while many people think this is just a ‘school’ issue, recent reports of people suiciding because of bullying at work are increasing. And people are alarmed. How does this happen? Does bullying really affect people this badly? Surely bullying can’t make people feel this helpless and hopeless?

Believe me, it can.

I was bullied at school. I’ve also been bullied at work. I am high achieving, with opinions, I am not afraid to speak out against things that are unjust, unfair, unsafe, wrong or discriminatory. And you know what? At different points in my life, I have been targeted mercilessly for it.

It started for me when I was in primary school and continued throughout high school. I was harassed in nearly every class, called names, and often targeted by groups. I remember one day I was changing for PE in the toilets and one of the school’s worst bullies broke down the door and behind her, all the other girls were laughing. I was furious and said “If someone has the door closed, it means they want privacy. Why are you so desperate to look at me when I’m changing?” The bully took great delight in this reaction and spat back “Oh yeah, I’m desperate to look at you and your flabby, white thighs.”

There was a group of boys who were relentless too. They called me every derogatory name under the sun, they made fun of me when I answered questions in class, imitated my voice, snapped my bra straps. One of them even run his hand up my leg sometimes to see if I had shaved my legs and if I dared to have stubble, I would be jeered at again. The response from multiple teachers was “Oh Tanya, boys will be boys. At this age, saying I hate you is the same as them saying they love you.”

Ummm…No. And what a great way to prime women to accept violence and abuse from males from young age and see it as ‘love.’

At about 13, I started to cut myself. My wrists, my arms, my inner thighs. I would try and cut as deeply as I could and bleed as much as I could. When I was nearly 15, it got so bad I even wrote suicide notes beforehand, explaining that I always felt like an outsider, and I couldn’t deal with the pain of being tormented anymore. My friends saw the cuts, intervened quickly, school counsellors were involved and my mother, who is wonderfully trauma informed told me “If you don’t stop this ridiculous nonsense, I’ll put you in an institution.” Very helpful. NOT!

The school had some more sense and referred me to a school psychologist who helped a bit and luckily, I had some fantastic friends who helped me through this time. The bullies were reprimanded and even though they still enjoyed the comments here and there, it was significantly reduced. I believe the deputy principal who was very empathetic had threated a few ring leaders with suspensions and expulsions and this was enough to scare them into toning it right down.

Everything those bullies said and did, stuck. It has taken me years to learn to challenge the thoughts the bullies put there and learn how to argue with them.

And when I entered the workplace, I got to experience it again. The bullying made me feel sick on the drive to work. I had nightmares and trouble sleeping. I felt so depressed or incredibly anxious. I would sit in the car in the car park and feel sick about going inside. I was diagnosed with anxiety shortly thereafter.

Its hard being the person who speaks up when things aren’t being done right, or safety is being compromised, or you are challenging people to do things a different way because evidence suggests it will work. Its hard being the one bucks authority because you know ethically and morally what you are doing is right even though it might mean “not staying in your lane.”

You can be great at your job, well liked, innovative, hardworking, caring, sensitive, smart and efficient….and you can still be bullied.

Bullies don’t target you because you aren’t good at your job, they do it because you are. They do it because they are threatened by the confidence you seem to have that they don’t.

Here are some of my classic experiences:

  • Being told by mangers, leaders, co-workers your ideas are no good and then see them passed of as a whole organisation initiative later down the track.
  • Having a colleague spread lies about you or twist what you have said and tell your superiors about it.
  • Having private emails between you and a colleague suddenly CC your manager, even when it wasn’t relevant to them.
  • Being approached just after being sick in hospital and being asked if you really should be entitled to a new contract next year.
  • Being reprimanded for no reason and told off in front of your colleagues.
  • Having your work schedule changed so you are forced to spend less time with your pre schooling aged children.
  • Being told after you were assaulted at work that is was your fault and that you need to work on your de escalation strategies.
  • Being told that you are not allowed to report a workplace assault to the police as it can be dealt with in the workplace.

There are so many more examples. And many other people have different ones. The common thread here is that bullying is a massive psychosocial hazard, and it presents great psychological risk to victims of bullying. It routinely results in anxiety, depression, PTSD and in even more tragic cases, suicide. Bullies know the negative impacts on the psychological well being of their victims, they have probably spent their entire lives either being bullies or being bullied themselves.

Its not unsurprising that people who experience bullying in the workplace may also be triggered to remember their childhood experiences. People who experienced racial bullying as kids can find it particularly distressing when they experience it again in the workplace. I think there is even a reluctance by workplaces to run training on bullying as it can be confronting and triggering for some people. After all, I’m sure many people found themselves either a bully or a victim of bullying at some stage in their life. This uncomfortable reaction people have to the subject of bullying will also never improve if we can’t have open and honest conversations about it. When we know better, we do better.

What if the bullying is reported and then nothing is done? Well, the psychological damage to the victim is incredibly shaming and traumatising. You have effectively sent the message to the victim that the bullying is ‘their fault.’ You sent the message that they are not worthy of empathy, basic respect and or human kindness. You have sent the message that they do not matter.

The people out there who are knowingly bullying others in the workplace shouldn’t be allowed to get away with it. People who bully others aren’t just cowards. They are making a deliberate attempt at shaking someone’s confidence and damaging their mental health. They are effectively criminals in need of punishment and rehabilitation. And the victims? They need trauma informed care and mental health support so that no one else tragically takes their own life because they were bullied at work.

Workplace bullying is a crime.