Workplace Bullying is a Work Problem: 9 Tips to Deal With It

personal-injury-bullyThis week a colleague of mine was lied to by a co-worker in an effort to coerce a change in plans. He also accused her of stealing, something so serious it’s a wonder she wasn’t rushed to HR by security. But she wasn’t. That’s because what was said to her was part of a pattern of bullying that goes back at least 24 months.

Sadly, bullying doesn’t just happen in our feral middle school years when everyone seems to behave badly. For many, it continues into adulthood, flourishing in offices, meetings and break rooms. The Workplace Bullying Institute defines bullying as threatening, intimidating, unwelcome behavior that occurs over a period of time and is meant to harm and control individuals who feel powerless to respond. The fact that there is a Workplace Bullying Institute indicates how badly we treat one another.

Nationally, some 75-percent of American workers witness bullying, with 47-percent reporting as victims. In the museum world–which is still waiting for a serious workplace behavior survey–we know from our 2018 Gender Discrimination Survey that 66-percent of museum workers responding experienced being talked over and having their opinions and ideas go unrecognized; however, there’s a lot more to bullying than those two topics.

Like its cousin, sexual harassment, workplace bullying blossoms in a work environment that chooses not to stand for anything, meaning it has no workplace values which it asks staff to follow. As hideous as workplace sexual harassment is, it’s prohibited by law. That’s not the case with bullying, particularly if your bully is clever enough to divorce bullying from gendered stereotypes, meaning your bully isn’t only targeting young women, but is instead an equal-opportunity jerk.

But enough background, what I really meant to write about was how I admire my colleague. She held herself together–fortunately there was a third party present–and displayed neither her anger nor her pain in front of her bully. Nor did she cave and concede to what the bully wanted. She’s a strong person, not a frightened, wilting flower, and contrary to the memes and metaphors in films and novels, it’s strong staff members who are frequently bullied. So…. if there’s a bully in your museum workplace, what should you do?

If you’re a leader:

  • Recognize what bullying does to your workplace culture: It creates a toxicity that’s quick to take over. And if you don’t stop it, you’re part and parcel of that toxic culture. Maybe you got into museum leadership with loftier aspirations than arbitrating personnel disputes, but understand your inaction costs your museum money. Why? Because bullying victims quit. And before they leave, they take sick days and time off for therapists, because coming to work fills them with dread. That costs your organization money too. Bottom line: happy staff are productive and creative; bullied staff are fearful and angry. You choose.
  • Acknowledge how important trust is: If, as a leader, you let a staff member come to work every day vulnerable and unprotected, they will cease to trust you about everything because they see your museum or heritage organization through a scrim of injustice.
  • Remember this isn’t about you: Do not impose your own narrative and biases on your staff’s experiences. If you’re a 50-year old white woman, you have no idea what it’s like to be a 24-year old woman of color or a Latinx gay man. Respect what your staff tells you. It’s likely you haven’t walked in their shoes.
  • Acknowledge bullying as a work problem: Talk about it with your whole staff. If you and your HR department don’t feel comfortable discussing workplace bullying, find someone in your community–a counselor or therapist–who specializes in bullying in group settings and have them talk to staff.
  • Work with your staff, board personnel committee, and HR to create a museum values statement: Discuss what norms your ENTIRE staff want to live with and draft your values statement. Are you eye-rolling? Well, imagine how much easier it would be to speak with the staff bully if you had a values statement. Your workplace is a community. And a collectively agreed-upon set of norms that’s in the employee handbook, there for all to see, defines acceptable community behavior.

If you’re a staff member:

  • If you’re witnessing behavior, but not reporting it, you’re enabling it. Talk to the victim, tell them how uncomfortable and distressed you are for them, and that you hope they’ll report it, but if they won’t, you will.
  • If you’re a victim, marshal your personal resources: Do you have access to a therapist or counselor? Do you have friends and family who are good listeners? Make sure you know how your workplace expects you to report bullying.
  • Know the rules: Understand the policies and procedures that govern your museum or heritage organization. Know where they are written and how to access them. Is there any mention of bullying? If yes, how are those situations supposed to be resolved? If there are no instructions, and you’re charting unknown territory, use the Workplace Bullying Institute Resources to help make your case in the strongest manner possible.
  • Does your organization have a values statement? If yes, has your bully violated any part of it? Every state has a different take on bullying. Know the law (if there is one) where you live.

Bullies are everywhere. Sadly, working in a fancy museum with a huge endowment doesn’t guarantee anything except you likely have access to an HR department, and working in a small one only guarantees you know the whole staff well, not that there isn’t a bully among them. Preventing bullying, like so much else about creating humane museum workplaces, depends on all of us. We need to be kind, empathetic, to support one another, to look out for one another. You’re not just a curator, an educator, a media specialist, an exhibit designer, you’re also a colleague. When one of the team hurts, you all do.

Joan Baldwin

Image: johnhain / Pixabay
In Post Image Credit: WilliamCho / Pixabay
https://www.dandalaw.com/personal-injury-of-workplace-bullying/


One Comment on “Workplace Bullying is a Work Problem: 9 Tips to Deal With It”

  1. cheriewhite says:

    Great post, Joan! Workplace bullying is something that needs to be address and too often, it isn’t. About ten years ago, I worked at a nursing home that was rife with bullying. And I was bullied there, along with a few other people. Because I’d already been bullied in school, (all bullies pretty much use the same tactics, only adults are more stealth), I knew how to cover my tail. I kept documentation of the bullying, records of all my completed work, and other evidence neatly in a CYA file. It also helped that my supervisor had an open mind and looked out for his employees.

    Eventually, I was able to walk away from the job with confidence and on my own terms. Sadly, many others weren’t as lucky. During the three years I worked there, I saw so many innocent people get terminated because of the intense hatred the bullies had for them.

    Thank you for addressing something that isn’t talked about enough!


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