When brainy go-getter Nicole*, 28, accepted a position at a trendy beauty start-up in New York City, she thought it was her dream job. “The company promoted itself as being progressive,” says Nicole. But her work situation devolved quickly and became more Mean Girls than The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants.
Early on, when Nicole wasn’t dancing at a company party, a White coworker said to her, “You’re Black. We hired you because you could dance.” Other colleagues laughed. “I always thought that if this type of thing happened I would come back with a response, but I went to the bathroom and cried,” Nicole recalls. “I had never experienced those types of comments—racism—so blatantly in a work setting before.”
Nicole reported the incident to her immediate boss and her complaint got laddered up to the CEO. Although her superiors feigned remorse, she says, “That was the beginning of the end for me in the company.” The bully got promoted, found out Nicole “told on her” and escalated the bullying. During staff meetings, Nicole says her ideas were met with coldness; the bully rallied other coworkers not to associate with her; and more negative remarks—this time about Nicole’s naturally curly hair and clothing—ensued.
Even management turned sour, setting her up for failure by assigning impossible, vague projects. And despite Nicole’s management of million-dollar accounts, she recalls work review meetings being filled with nitpicky, unfounded accusations. “They were systematically trying to push me out without actually firing me,” says Nicole.
If any of these instances sound familiar, you’ve likely been a target of bullying on the job. The Workplace Bullying Institute (WBI) describes workplace bullying as threatening, humiliating or intimidating behavior that negatively affects a colleague’s work tasks. “It’s a form of nonphysical violence where the abuser’s on the payroll,” says social psychologist and WBI cofounder Gary Namie. “At most workplaces, physical violence isn’t tolerated, but emotional violence is.”
According to a 2014 WBI survey, 54 percent of African-Americans reported being affected by workplace bullying. “The top reason for targeting is the superior technical skill of the target. If you’re the best and brightest, you’re a threat,” says Namie. “Perpetrators are trying to compensate for a trait or ability they lack.”
So how do you protect yourself against a bully? Follow these tips on how to make the best of a bad situation.
“At most workplaces, physical violence isn’t tolerated, but emotional violence is,” says social psychologist Gary Namie.
WHEN YOUR BOSS IS THE BULLY: “Find another manager who is at least two levels above to relay what’s happened to you,” says Namie. “Tell the story in terms of fiscal impact. Does the bully stifle creativity to where people aren’t speaking up in meetings? What losses did the bully cost, in terms of turnover or absenteeism?” But note, this may not work in all environments. Like Nicole, who resigned and is now at a job she loves, “if you’re in a small firm, it’s better to leave,” says Namie.
WHEN YOUR COWORKER IS THE BULLY: “Keep a record of the incidences and who else was there to witness it,” says Namie. Then compel management to intervene. The impulse may be to go to HR, but many targets don’t have success stories with these reps, Namie observes.
WHEN YOU WITNESS BULLYING: “Say something. Doing nothing is not a neutral act,” says Namie. “There’s power in coworkers banding together against the bully. Break the silence.”
WHEN YOU SHOULD TAKE LEGAL ACTION: After dealing with a manipulative manager, Andrea*, 44, a government employee, polled her colleagues, many of whom had experienced the same behavior. She then connected with an attorney who worked pro bono, and filed an Equal Employment Opportunity Commission complaint. Andrea says her job—where she still works today—”did a systematic training across the board, all managers, to change the company’s culture.” Andrea’s case isn’t the norm, however—whistle-blowers often sacrifice their careers to change the culture of an organization.
WHEN YOU SHOULD LEAVE: Christi Monk, 46, felt like a new manager at her banking job was trying to sabotage her, so she cut her losses. “I would have stressed myself out trying to prove something to him when his plan was to get rid of me,” says Monk. After she left the company, Monk called the HR department anonymously to check her record. A representative told her, “We let Christi go due to poor performance.” Because she was proactive, Monk got the misinformation corrected.
*Subject’s name has been changed.
Alene Dawson is a Los Angeles Times contributor. Her work has also appeared in Glamour and Elle. She’s currently finishing her first book.
This article originally appeared in the June 2015 issue of ESSENCE magazine, on newsstands now.