How Not to Handle Workplace Aggression: My Story
All too often, on-the-job bullies act with impunity while their targets are the ones who are punished.
Although the circumstances surrounding the murder of Yale graduate student Annie Le won’t be fully known until her case goes to trial, authorities say her death was the result of workplace violence. The Associated Press reports that Le’s coworker and suspected killer, Raymond Clark III, was considered by others at the job site to be a “control freak” who believed the lab where he and Le worked was his territory.
The Le tragedy reminds me of an experience I had with a coworker when I was in college. I’ll call him “Jack.” We both worked for a government agency where I was a student worker and he was a full-time employee. Initially, my job was data entry, but only a couple of months after being hired, I was put in charge of a large project. I was getting great reviews from management and had a lot of friends in the office.
Imagine my surprise then when all of a sudden, in front of all of our coworkers, Jack threatened to beat me up. Actually, I think he threatened to kill me, but I was so traumatized that my mind went blank. I still don’t remember the exact words he used. What stunned me even more was the fact that I really didn’t know Jack, who worked on a different side of the office in the computer room.
I immediately reported the incident to my supervisor, as did one of my other coworkers. My supervisor’s response? “Just stay out of the computer room.”
Avoiding Jack didn’t help. When I would pass him in the halls, he’d whisper “bitch” under his breath.
I reported the threats again to my supervisor. She refused to do anything.
Frustrated and afraid for my safety, I asked if she knew what I had done to offend Jack. She didn’t know, nor would she ask him. I asked my coworkers if they knew why he was threatening me. Nobody had a clue. The only thing Jack and I had in common was the computer printer, so in my misguided attempt to make sense of his insane behavior, I figured he did not like the way I handled the printouts.
But the reality is workplace aggressors, like Jack, don’t need a logical reason to bully. According to the Workplace Bullying Institute (WBI), they bully because they are the ones who feel threatened.
To make matters worse, bullies are rarely disciplined for their bad behavior. According to a September 2009 WBI study, doing nothing to the bully is the most common employer response (54 percent). By contrast, 37 percent of bullying targets who report being abused experience retaliation, which can include escalated bullying, ostracism from the group, suspension, demotion or being transferred.
In my case, I was transferred to a different department with a different supervisor, which, in the long run was a better career move for me. Still, I heard from my friends that my former manager fought my transfer and wanted to have me fired. If I had stayed, I would have been out of a job or maybe even physically assaulted.
As I write this editorial, I’m conflicted as to whether or not I should share my experience with you. Obviously, unlike Annie Le, I’m very much alive. In light of what appears to have happened to her, however, it feels appropriate to talk about what happened to me. I don’t know if Yale did anything wrong in Le’s case, and her suspected killer is presumed innocent until proven otherwise. That said, research shows that workplace aggression is still being swept under the rug.
What are you doing to stop it from occurring on your campus?
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