What To Do When Someone Is Out To Get You At Work
The modern workplace is a jungle of millennials, baby boomers, egos, pacifists, narcissists, hoarders, and much much more.
We all know it’s better to be nice than mean on some intellectual level. But “mean” is a broad term including manipulative, selfish, and punitive which can all be witnessed in characteristically nice people. So mom’s advice to “just be nice” is not so simple in the modern workplace.
Before we dive in, I think it’s important to consider why some people are mean at work. The answer is simple: because it works. People who choose to behave this way see results. Recognize any of these subliminal tactics?
- Pretending not to hear questions or requests
- Overpromising then under-delivering
- Inciting gossip or rumors about other people
- Setting up others to fail in order to look like the hero
- Having “lunch” with your boss’s boss without telling your boss
- Chronically showing up late to the same meeting
Of course all of this also boils down to being human. We have all been guilty of one of the above at some point in our lives. However, how managers address or not address these actions is the difference between a collaborative vs. toxic workplace culture.
I knew an assistant who claimed sexual harassment against different bosses at multiple companies…against men and women. Sexual harassment is real. And to witness such an important tenet being superficially abused this way was heartbreaking.
Everything we do is either an act of love or a cry for help.
There is no silver bullet. Bullies come in all shapes and sizes. The only sure way out is to stand up for yourself and keep your eyes open. Ultimately, the more compassion you can have for the person attacking you, the easier it is to reframe the situation and make the right decision for yourself. It’s not easy.
Marianne Williamson said, “Everything we do is either an act of love or a cry for help.” Meditating on this helps me get in the right mindset to figure out the appropriate next steps in any situation. It takes a lot of energy to hate someone, despite how good it feels. And, at the end of the day, what does it really get us? We inevitably become less productive, more irritable, and tired. In short, the mean person sees results.
1. Step Away
When you sense that you are being bullied, the first step I would recommend is to seek professional counsel from an external party. Your friends will always be on your side, but you need a read on the situation from a higher plane. It is very important that this is somebody outside the company. Give them the permission to tell you if you are being too sensitive and hopefully they will. Take heart that they don’t really know you – for better or for worse – it is only one data point, but the first step in getting out of your own head.
Secondly, do everything in your power to relax and get a good night’s sleep. Walk through the local park, go to a yoga class, wander into a church or synagogue. The goal here is to get a wider perspective on life.
After at least 24 hours, revisit the situation mentally and try to distill the situation to a single issue. Why is this person upset? Is there any reason to apologize? Are there ways to suggest working together?
4. Find Common Ground
Speak directly to this person if possible. Their behavior is childish, but the more you can act like an adult – the more they should step up to the challenge.
You will get the most mileage from a face-to-face interaction, but there are always exceptions to this rule. A well-crafted email will also go a long way. The key here is to stake common ground, like “I want us to be able to work together”, “I feel something has been lost in translation”, or “I feel like I’m missing a signal. Can we talk?” With any interaction, focus on a solution that you can both agree on going forward. Be measured and talk slowly. Unless the person is a total monster, they should care about the relationship. And if they don’t? I never said monsters don’t exist.
A common question at this point is whether or not to approach human resources. While tempting, my general recommendation is to abstain. Any human resources person will admit that their primary job is to minimize risk for the company, which may or may not mean gaslighting you in the process. Do not give them the match. Repeat steps 1, 2, and 3. Then seek consolation and advice from people who have actually been where you are.
5. Change What You Can
I knew a senior manager who could not speak to a person who complained against him because of the potential for it to look like retaliation. He took the opportunity to request an office transfer to Los Angeles. It was approved. There is real psychological stress in being targeted at any level.
Every person has a claim to retaliation, not just the complainant. So don’t let this emotional terrorist co-op your rights to a safe workplace. Especially if you didn’t do anything wrong to begin with. And even if you did, you have a right to make mistakes. If the situation is beyond repair, take a few vacation days and hunt for a new job. You deserve to work someplace that will value you as a human being.
It’s important to think deeply about whether this is an organization that you can continue to work for. Earning a living is very important, but not more so than living itself.