“Sometimes people are bullied because they can’t fight back. This can happen to people who are weaker, physically, than their opponents….
But just as often, people are bullied because they won’t fight back. This happens not infrequently to people who are by temperament compassionate and self-sacrificing — particularly if they are also high in negative emotion, and make a lot of gratifying noises of suffering when someone sadistic confronts them…It also happens to people who have decided, for one reason or another, that all forms of aggression, including even feelings of anger, are morally wrong….
Naive, harmless people usually guide their perceptions and actions with a few simple axioms: people are basically good; no one really wants to hurt anyone else; the threat (and, certainly, the use) of force, physical or otherwise, is wrong. These axioms collapse, or worse, in the presence of individuals who are genuinely malevolent. “Worse” means that naive beliefs can become a positive invitation to abuse, because those who aim to harm have become specialized to prey on people who think precisely such things.”
Excerpt from “12 Rules for Life, An Antidote to Chaos”, by Jordan B. Peterson
Perhaps you’ve had the misfortune of being abused by a workplace bully in the past and let him get away with it. Even worse, you tried to correct the situation by complaining to your employer, but management turned a blind eye to his behaviour and they blamed the situation on you. Having been through this, you don’t want a repeat of this unpleasant experience and are seeking guidance in case this situation arises again.
Or perhaps you’re fresh out of school and are embarking on your career. However, they never taught you how to deal with workplace bullies in university. And in the back of your mind, you feel you need a practical guide to deal with the potential hazard of having to work with an abusive asshole.
An aside: there are assholes of both genders. But for the sake of expediency, I’ll be using masculine pronouns in this article (i.e., “he”, “him” and “his”) in referring to assholes/abusers.
PROLOGUE: FACING REALITY
First and foremost — my advice only has value if you are able to face and accept reality. And the reality is this: some people are just born morally corrupt and obtain positions of power and influence.
This isn’t a cynical view; it’s a realistic view borne out of my 25 years of work and business experience dealing with assholes as well as diligently observing them in the workplace. I’ve also made observations about their victims and how they’ve dealt with abuse.
So while I’ve worked with many kind, wonderful and decent people in my career, I’ve also run across my share of assholes, and dealing with them is what this article is about.
Now you may disagree with this. You may believe that all people are born fundamentally good and when they turn out bad it’s due to their upbringing or social environment. You may also think that you can appeal to their better nature (as if they actually had one). You may hope that if you’re patient enough, they’ll eventually redeem themselves. Well, if that’s the case, I have a bridge to sell you.
But going forward, let’s assume that you’ve accepted the reality that there are bad people in our midst who get their kicks in harming others. Once you’ve accepted it, then you will be motivated to take the necessary steps to fight back against the bullying and mete out justice against your abuser.
I’m also going to assume that you’ve attempted to communicate with your abuser and deescalate the situation between the both of you, but it hasn’t worked. Maybe it’s emboldened him even more.
With this prologue out of the way, here’s my standard disclaimer before we proceed to the meat of this article:
This is an overview rather than a complete analysis. Every individual’s situation is unique, so before applying any of these suggestions, consult with your legal adviser.
Now that my disclaimer’s out of the way, here’s my guide for dealing with the asshole in your work life. I’m going to place the following advice (in no particular order) into 2 categories: Defensive Measures and Offensive Measures.
DEFENSIVE MEASURE #1: DON’T COMPLAIN TO HUMAN RESOURCES
I strongly advise that you don’t complain to your employer’s human resources (“HR”) department, particularly if your harasser is in a position of influence or power within the company.
Although HR ostensibly exists to support employees, the reality is that when HR steps in to deal with a workplace harassment issue, its job is to protect the employer, not the employee. Therefore, if your harasser is a high-performing asshole that is valued by your employer, chances are your HR complaint will actually make things worse for you. Because you’ve shared your thoughts with them about the harassment, this information could be used against you by your employer if they take his side. Which brings me to my next suggestion…
DEFENSIVE MEASURE #2: DON’T TELL ANYONE WHAT YOU’RE THINKING
Here is some expert advice from the Godfather, Don Vito Corleone:
When you’re dealing with harassment, do not under any circumstances tell anyone at work what you’re thinking. Don’t discuss your harassment situation with any work colleagues and don’t make any comments about your harasser’s professional competence or character.
Keeping a poker face when experiencing harassment may be particularly difficult for people with little emotional control, but it’s necessary. If your harasser and your employer elicit an emotional response from you, you may unintentionally reveal your intentions in dealing with the harassment. You want to keep them off guard.
Employers are wary of being sued and if they clue in on your intentions (for example, taking legal action), they will use every measure against you to invalidate your accusations.
With that being said, for the balance of this article, I’m going to assume that your employer is taking the side of your abuser. Now, what measures can your employer possibly take against you in order to protect this asshole? Read on, dear Reader, read on…
DEFENSIVE MEASURE #3: REVIEW YOUR EMPLOYMENT RECORD AT HR
One obvious tactic an employer can use (or abuser, if he happens to be your manager) is to tarnish your professional reputation. They can refer to any negative performance reviews in your HR file as a counter offense. Therefore, it’s prudent that you obtain a copy of your file and review it thoroughly. If you have an impeccable employment record, then great. If not, then you should anticipate that any blemishes in your record could be used against you.
DEFENSIVE MEASURE #4: DON’T USE THE OFFICE TO COMMUNICATE TO THE OUTSIDE
Do not use your company’s computer or telephone system to communicate to the outside. For example, if you’re scheduling a consultation meeting with an employment lawyer, do it on your own personal smartphone or laptop (with your own data plan). The number one reason is that under most employment agreements, your employer has the right to review any communications you made using their equipment. The second reason is that your employer may be able to (legally) surveil your e-mail communications or phone conversations.
DEFENSIVE MEASURE #5: REVIEW YOUR OFFICE COMMUNICATIONS & SOCIAL MEDIA
Have you e-mailed any semi-offensive jokes to your office colleagues in the past? Were you engaged in heated e-mail or phone conversations with colleagues or customers during a bad day at the office? Perhaps you’ve exchanged some unflattering gossip about your superiors with your colleagues?
Maybe you posted some racy photos of yourself on Instagram or Facebook and shared them with some work buddies? Perhaps you’ve tweeted some controversial political views on Twitter in the run up to the last federal election?
I think you get the gist of what I’m saying here: all these can be used against you by your employer to besmirch your personal character. Therefore, you should review these thoroughly in anticipation that they may be used against you.
OFFENSIVE MEASURE #1: WATCH HIS EVERY MOVE
Watch your harasser’s every move — what he says, what he does and whether he’s harassing other employees. And if he is, find out who they are — you may need their assistance further down the line. When he’s harassing you, make a note of any witnesses to the harassment. Keep a detailed journal of your observations.
So now you’ve reviewed your HR file (Defensive Measure #3), reviewed your office e-mails and social media (Defensive Measure #5), and made a journal of your abuser’s every move (Offensive Measure #1). Keep all this information in a file and in a safe place; it will come in handy for what comes next.
OFFENSIVE MEASURE #2: CONSULT WITH AN EMPLOYMENT LAWYER
Review your situation with an employment lawyer and show him the information you’ve collected in Defensive Measures #3 and #5 and Offensive Measure #1. It’s also important that you have your lawyer review your employment contract for any restrictive covenants that may prevent you from disclosing the details of your abuse to any outside party.
If you have witnesses to the harassment or documented evidence like emails, texts, etc. and there is nothing that your employer can use against you after reviewing the information you collected DM #3 and #5, then a lawyer may conclude that you have a strong case against your harasser and your employer. In that case, a lawyer will usually recommend that you settle with your employer under terms that will be favourable to you.
On the other hand, you may have done some things that you regret which may have been documented in DM #3 and #5. Your lawyer may suggest that these can be used against you by your employer in settlement negotiations. And if settlement negotiations fail and you decide to sue, they may be used against you in the attendant legal proceedings.
In any event, both you and your lawyer will have to weigh the risks of each option (i.e., settle or sue) and the costs versus benefit of each option.
OFFENSIVE MEASURE #3: GO ON PAID LEAVE
Being harassed or bullied can be a psychologically scarring experience. As such, you should consider meeting with a medical or mental health professional to assess your health. If your employer has a policy of paid leave or a short-term disability policy, then by all means take full advantage of it. Under Canadian employment law, an employer cannot terminate an employee for being on leave or for the underlying reason for it. Other jurisdictions may have similar employment laws.
This will give you an opportunity to take a break from your harasser while you’re still getting paid. Moreover, it will make the asshole look bad in the eyes of your employer since it should be obvious by now that he was the cause of your health issues which are now costing the employer money and lost productivity.
“Let us realize the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
This is a noble sentiment, but justice does not happen on its own. Sometimes the arc of the moral universe doesn’t bend towards justice unless you make it bend. And that requires courage, discipline and hard work.
Moreover, you have a moral obligation to face your harasser and any employer that may be facilitating a poisonous work environment. It’s bad enough that you are a victim yourself, but what if he goes on to harass other people because he was emboldened by your inaction?
It is therefore with great hope that I’ve imparted you, dear Reader, with the knowledge necessary to find the strength and courage to bend the arc of your universe towards justice.