How To Deal With Workplace Bullies

I remember a time when I was working at a digital agency in Cape Town, it was just after a messy breakup so in many ways I was ready for a new start in life. The setup was awesome, good coffee, lunchtime treats and huge jars of candy for when you needed a pick-me-up during the day. However, I had colleagues from hell. Correction, my female colleagues were from hell. 

Most of you already know that I’m a country girl from Springbok situated in the Northern Cape of South Africa. Not that this ever bothered me (it did bother them) since that just instilled an eagerness in me to stay updated and on point with whatever’s happening elsewhere. And it has always been like this for me. My coworkers (2 females from my own race group) just assumed that this was my first time being and living in Cape Town, how wrong they were.

But how do you go and tell strangers to listen up, and then list all of your past accolades and successes? That’s just so childish and also none of their business. (Like, straight out of school I wanted to pursue a modeling career (I’m 1.78 m) therefore I moved to Sea Point where I lived for almost 3 years. )

In any case, they made fun of my country girl accent, gossiped behind my back and basically made my life horrible. Going to work every day, sensing the glares and dealing with patronising remarks really killed my enthusiasm. Now, I’m sure many people can relate to this, when you’re different whether it’s your looks, accent or race, people will always try to make that an issue (like they say, in the land of the blind the one-eyed man is king) and basically use it against you. As if it is a weakness that needs to be fixed?

I never sat with their clique during lunchtime because, hey this is not high school. I kept to myself most of the time firstly because I’m an introvert and secondly because the type of work I did there did not require me to make small talk. Also, we all used Skype Chat messages to send work-related information back and forth. 

So, one day after lunch one of them made a really stupid and hurtful remark. She asked me something and when I responded she said; “Oh did you hear the sheep from the farm just spoke?”. Now, I shouldn’t feel bad about this at all because, I’m an educated, attractive and well-mannered lady that knows her worth, however even educated, attractive and well-mannered ladies feel vulnerable sometimes. Especially when you’re in a new city, far from your loved ones and in an unkind work environment.

The nasty remark, a sheep from the farm, what does that mean? According to my understanding, it must’ve meant that I was behind in terms of my general knowledge, because you know small towns are slow and there isn’t much happening here. There’s also the assumption that everyone that resides in small towns must be on the stupid side too.

Yes, around this part of the world, the countryside and small towns, we may not have huge shopping malls but did you know that also means that we have fewer choices to make and therefore we live a simpler life? Which is absolutely amazing, if that’s what you’re after. Quiet, safe and at peace. This doesn’t mean that I’m criticising city life, I love the fast-paced energy when I’m visiting and on holiday. 

Isn’t it funny, we get mad when Americans assume that lions run wild and live among us, yet we do the same to our own people? It’s amusing and ridiculous and if there’s one thing that I’ve learned from this experience then it is to not to be so fucking quick to judge and assume. 

Back to my story… Can you tell that I was really livid and that it still bothers me? I was fuming with rage and the worst part is, I did nothing. Now I grew up with an abusive father, who would be so jealous that after school when my mom came home (she’s a teacher) he would be in a rage, well because somehow in his sick mind she would cheat during school hours, imagine that?

Occasionally my dad would also make a huge fist, put it in front of my nose and tell me something like “smell this” - all which instilled a paralyzing fear within me, fear that I still struggle with at times. Fear to stand up for myself, like I had to in this situation.

When she spoke to me like that I could feel the shame and then an intense desire to get up, right there in that open plan office and beat her to the floor, punching her in the face and where after I would take my bag and leave to never, ever come back. However, thinking back on it, I behaved like what may appear as very grown up. 

The intense madness came over me and left, I kept my calm. I remember saying something like; “I don’t know what’s going on here” whereafter I just carried on working. Later I found out that they posted an image of me over on the agency’s Instagram page with the #plaasjapie, a derogatory Afrikaans term for someone that lives on a farm. Such high school silliness really, pathetic much?

I shouldn’t make such a big deal out of this some would say, but this was a bad experience for me and today I’m speaking out on behalf of others who might be going through the same thing, bullying. Women oppressing other women and general workplace bullying.  

  • How females bully. 

Offensive comments, gossip, and verbal abuse are some of the tactics used by female bullies. They may use friendship or allegiances to belittle their target. Sometimes they’ll even play one person against the other in sneaky subtle ways. 

  • Why females bully.

Female bullies don’t believe in sisterhood, their fear of failure or desire to dominate is stronger than their concern for another’s pain. It’s also unfortunate that due to heightened job insecurity, bullying in the workplace is actually on the rise.

  • The consequences.

I didn’t stay long at this agency, my then boyfriend and now husband was also adamant to rekindle our relationship. So between that, my work schedule and the bullying it was really hectic and I somehow felt guilty when I left because I was really fond of my boss as he was a kind and generous man.

Which makes bullies costly employees as they also undermine company productivity. Under different circumstances, I might have stayed, especially when I think about the investment and in-depth training I received. In fact, thinking back I should’ve just talked to my boss about the situation. 

  • How to deal with bullying.

In most cases, victims simply leave taking the scars with them and nothing is resolved. Which helps no one, now does it? You have to find the courage within yourself and disarm the bully and you have to act fast.

  • How to disarm a bully.

South African labour law protects you against bullying, so if you approach your employer and he does nothing, you can lay a charge against the company. Yes, there’s a lot of shame around being bullied (like why can’t you just stand up for yourself or don’t be such a loser) but you have to acknowledge it and speak out. I made such an easy target because of my reserved nature and past experiences, but you have to break out of that spiral.

Also, confront the bully. Ask her why she’s behaving in such a way and let her know that you’re unhappy and that it’s interfering with your productivity. I remember asking the woman this question upon which she denied her damaging behavior, which made me feel even more patronised.

Thereafter, if the bullying continues you can lodge a complaint to your employer or Human Resources Manager if there’s one in place. Like mentioned before, they are legally obligated to act on it and there should be a hearing. 

If your situation worsens or organizational culture is not conducive to disarming bullies, then you can contact the Commission for Conciliation, Mediation and Arbitration or visit www.ccma.org.za - they will help you launch a formal grievance in which all parties will be called outside the office for mediation by an independent body that abides by constitutional laws against bullies.

In conclusion, if we don’t learn to handle affirmative action, racial and cultural diversity better, bullying and dicriminations such as this will just get worse. Find the strength to speak out.

Image - My Own                                                             Source - Psychologies Magazine

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