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How Workplace Bullies Push Whistleblowers to the Brink

07/21/2015 04:59 EDT | Updated 07/21/2016 05:59 EDT
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Insubordinate man with zipped mouth

Raise your hand if you've ever said the following:

"I'm being bullied at work! I just need to get the evidence to management and they'll take action!"

You may think you have an "evidence" problem. But I hate to tell you that today gathering evidence of bullying is not a problem. The latest smart phones and wearable technology make documenting abuse easier than ever.

In a truly toxic work environment, however, the moment you try to share even the most compelling evidence of harassment, you become the problem.

(Ask me how I know.)

Owners and managers that tacitly support the aggressive tactics of a workplace bully -- particularly the "rainmakers" who bring dollars into the business -- may see an employee with proof of bullying as a clear and present threat to the bottom line.

Just like a mafioso who senses there's a "rat" among his crew who might be feeding evidence of criminal wrongdoing to the police...

The easiest and most expedient move is to eliminate the possibility this evidence of abuse will come to light.

Yet in the office, unlike in the mafia, directly "eliminating" the individual (off the face of the earth) isn't an option.

The only way to give the whistleblower a pair of "concrete shoes" is to create unbearable conditions on the job -- such as assigning onerous tasks unrelated to the job or enforcing obscure codes of conduct -- until you sink to your lowest point and either quit or refuse to cooperate.

Your "insubordination" gives your employer the perfect excuse to dismiss you for "just cause."

There is a moderate risk that the employer will be accused of constructive dismissal, but for the most part it's still "above board."

When this doesn't work, particularly if the evidence of bullying is so compelling it could force the company to part ways with its "star," the bully may try to take things in his or her own hands.

This is where the bullying against the "rogue" employee escalates.

The type of brutal bullying behavior I'm talking about? A malicious brand of hate shaming called hazing.

Now I'm not talking about campus antics like your boss forcing you to down six cans of beer in three minutes flat, run laps around the office building with war paint on, or chant the company mantra until your throat is raw, or any other "frat house" initiation ritual.

Nothing like that.

I'm talking about the dark side of hazing. Specifically, a private, organized gathering of a bully and his or her followers where the intent is to systematically strip you of every ounce of dignity you have left.

Here's how Vera, a client of mine who prefers I not use her real name, described her humiliating interrogation to me:

"It was 3:30 p.m. and I was taken into a boardroom without being told why. I was told to wait. After about ten minutes, I thought 'enough of this b.s.' and I got up from my chair and made my way to the door.

Just as I was just about to leave, four people from the office staff made their way into the room. 'Sit down', my boss said to me. 'But I need to go...' I replied. 'Sit down!' she repeated.

I took my seat and didn't have a clue what was going on. It was very disorienting. At that point, everyone around the table, one by one, started telling me everything they didn't like about me.

It wasn't just about the work I did. It was about how I dressed, my accent, the food I ate... An assistant I once considered a friend told me I smelled bad. My face turned hot with embarrassment.

One person after another, really laying into me, telling me how lucky I was to have the job I have. How I better shut up because I was putting their job at risk. That I better watch my back.

That, right there... was my breaking point, I burst into tears and pushed my way through the chairs to get to the door. I never went back."

The first time I heard Vera recall this story to me, my jaw dropped. I'd read about "struggle sessions" like this taking place during the Cultural Revolution in my World history class, but here? In Canada?

But her story checked out. And amazingly she wasn't the only one in her company who reported being hazed this way.

When I heard about this, my instinct, my intuition was to ask: how unlikely is a monster in charge going to get caught when the participants themselves are either rewarded, silenced or removed?

The latest Workplace Bullying Institute study (2014) might provide a clue.

It reveals that only two out of 10 employers take action against a bully who overtly (or in the case of "red zone" bullies, covertly) badgers, berates, and intimidates co-workers behind the scenes to the brink of psychological collapse.

Meanwhile close to eight out of 10 of those who are targeted by these sociopaths are either fired or forced to leave the job they once loved.

So what can be done? That's the big question...

Unfortunately, most of the evidence of harassment in the workplace you gather -- in the form of audio or video recordings, is inadmissible for disciplinary procedures.

In fact, in many cases even admitting you've collected this type of information can be grounds for dismissal.

Taking your case (and your evidence) to an ombudsman, a Human Rights office or injury lawyer where it's safe to disclose what happened may be your only remedy.

Until legislation bans this barbaric behaviour, however, it's time to question what really goes on behind closed doors during "disciplinary" procedures.

Have you experienced something similar at work? Share your comments and stories below. Let's get the discussion started!

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