Overcoming Harassment in the Workplace


In the past few weeks, I have been following the story of Harvey Weinstein; the famous now notorious Hollywood producer behind many notable movies like “Shakespeare in Love”, “Gangs of New York”, “Pulp Fiction”, etc. Many women and men have come out to talk about being sexually harassed or violently and unprofessionally treated by Harvey Weinstein. Due to this whistleblowing he has suffered grave consequences resulting in career and reputation damage.

When I read his story, it reminded me of my own history of harassment, which was not sexual but professional. I could relate with the way many of those who have come out to voice their painful experiences felt. I was harassed and victimized professionally for many years. It was the worst period of my professional career. Many of us think harassment is only sexual. Harassment is, according to James Shaheen, “Any type of behaviour that makes you feel intimidated or offended could be construed as harassment – and is unlawful under the Equality Act 2010. There are many forms of unfair treatment or harassment, and these include:

• Spreading malicious rumours about you
• Treating you unfairly
• Picking on you
• Undermining you regularly, even though you’re perfectly competent at your job
• Denying you opportunities for promotion or training for no reason

I had a boss whose sole pleasure was to victimize me, treated me very unfairly, picked on me constantly, undermined me and made my subordinates and peers rude to me, delayed my promotion and denied most members of my team promotion. Despite the fact that the unit I headed was doing a very good job, we were the most disadvantaged when it came to promotions. The only way we could escape the bad treatment was to leave the organization. Within six months, 3 senior staff members, myself included left the organization.

The sad part for me was that the organization failed us. Everybody saw what was going on, but kept quiet and allowed him to make us miserable. Going to work was done in trepidation, and it was draining. The worst part was that this was an organization that prided itself on having strong values on respecting the individual. And the organization had such a good system that that kind of behavior was not supposed to fester but it did. Everybody knew what was going on. They knew we were being victimized, not rated properly, not treated right, but they all kept quiet.

I am sure many of you have been in similar situations. The first advice I will give is that nothing lasts forever. This too shall pass as it passed for me and my colleagues. But the question is how do you overcome and manage such a situation. Indicated below are some tips from me and Dr. Michelle Callahan to help you cope.
Don’t get emotional. I know this is easier said than done as I know how depressing and debilitating victimization can be. But learn to stay calm and rational to diffuse the situation.

Don’t blame yourself. Acknowledge that this is not about you; it’s about the person victimizing you. Don’t lose your confidence, or think you are incapable or incompetent. They are usually beating you at a mind game or have ego problems with themselves, it not based on your actual work performance or anything you have done. Most of the time, your offence is in their mind or a function of their background.

Do your best work. The victimizer’s behavior will seem more justified if you aren’t doing your best work, or if you do things like come to work late, take long lunches, turn in work late, turn in poor work etc. My victimizer had a problem catching me in the traps he set for me. The first thing was that my work spoke for me, the second was each time he tried to trap me, it was a step up for me.

Build a support network. Instead of allowing the victimizer to make you retreat, work on building your relationships with your coworkers and superiors so that you have support and the person doesn’t turn them against you as well (although he will try and may be successful).

Document everything. Keep a journal (on your personal computer or in writing, but never leave it in the office) of what happened (and who witnessed it) so that if you need to escalate this problem you have the information you need to make your case. Keep emails and notes. I learned to document and to save most of the harassing mails he sent to me to my husband for safe keep, and there were lots of nasty mails that were sent to me.

Seek help. If you think you’re being victimized, it’s time to start talking to others who can help you manage this situation. Try a mentor, advocate, seasoned/experienced friend, even a legal advocate who specializes in bullying and inappropriate or discriminatory behavior in the workplace. Tread lightly when approaching your human resources department. They work for the company, not you, so you have to be careful about what you share depending on how well liked and supported your victimizer is within the organization.

Get counseling. It will help you deal with the stress, especially if the situation is already affecting your physical and mental health. You have to take care of yourself.

Stay healthy. Maintain a healthy and balanced lifestyle outside of work to help you cope with the madness at work. Work out, get a good night’s sleep and eat a healthy diet. I was always stressed and bad tempered, it was only after I left the job that I realized that all of my bad moods and bad temper was caused by the stress I was going through because of the situation. My temperament made a 180 degrees change in the opposite direction and the first people to bring this change to my attention was my family.

Educate yourself. Learn everything you can about harassment, your company’s policies on inappropriate behavior and occupational law regarding this kind of experience. The more you know, the better your chances of successfully dealing with this situation.

Don’t expect to change the person victimizing you. Real behavior change is difficult and it takes time. You have no control over his willingness to accept that they he or she has a problem and to work on it. You can do your best to manage the situation, but it’s really the company’s responsibility to be observant and responsive to the needs of their workers and the general work environment. In the worst-case scenario you may need to leave your job or be prepared for a long hard fight with your victimizer. I chose to leave.

In conclusion, according to James Shaheen, “the workplace should be somewhere you can rely on being treated fairly and with respect – not somewhere you dread going every day because you feel bullied or victimized”.