Kerry Patterson is author of three bestselling books, Influencer, Crucial Conversations, and Crucial Confrontations.
Dear Crucial Skills,
I just left a job I loved because I am older and the young team I worked with never seemed to accept me. Unfortunately, even when the manager said I was a victim of new employee hazing, the problem was not addressed. Since I made the choice to leave, would it be appropriate to write a letter to the administrator? I don’t want to be seen as a disgruntled employee but it is a hostile environment and some of the young girls working at this office are scared. Do bullies always win?
I have to admit that when I hear the word “bully” it makes the hair stand up on the back of my neck. Like many boys growing up (I was small for my age), I faced bullying at every turn. I had friends who didn’t take a single shower after PE during their high school years because bullies would snap them with wet towels and otherwise harass them.
Clearly, bullying has found its way into the corporate vernacular. While the government continues to enforce harassment laws, many employees are beginning to wonder if certain actions that aren’t necessarily inspired by gender, race, or belief biases, but still seem highly inappropriate, should also be prohibited at work. These “below the waterline” behaviors include actions such as making false accusations, glaring, discounting others’ ideas, backbiting, gossiping, constantly criticizing, giving people the silent treatment, making impossible demands, etc. All are examples of not treating people with the respect they deserve.
As leaders, it’s important to make it clear that all forms of disrespect, dishonesty, and lack of teamwork are not permitted at work. Perhaps it’s time for companies to begin talking not only about harassment, but social abuse in general—giving specific examples of unacceptable behavior that fall under the rubric of bullying. To get a feel for various forms of bullying, visit the Workplace Bullying Institute.
So, what’s a person such as yourself to do about the bullying you experienced—and in a letter, no less?
Start by thanking the administrators for giving you a chance to earn a position at the company. Explain that you’re sorry it didn’t work out but are grateful for the opportunity you received. Point out what you enjoyed and admired—the leaders need to know what’s going right as much as what is going wrong. Then, tentatively bring up your concern. You’re not calling for action in your case—you’ve moved on. However, you are concerned about others’ experiences at the company. Explain that, at first, you wondered if you were simply being hypersensitive to taunts and insults, but when you mentioned it to your supervisor, he or she confirmed that you were experiencing common hazing.
Now you’ve laid the appropriate groundwork that allows you to talk about the actual hazing and bullying. Present your information, as if talking to a jury. Stick with the detailed facts. Realize that statements that contain your judgments or conclusions—”I was hazed and bullied”—provide a framework for the discussion but not the details required to make the destructive practices go away. While your conclusions let others know how you felt, they lack any information about what your coworkers actually did. To help others eliminate bullying, you have to describe the exact behavior you saw and experienced.
Think of yourself as a novelist and describe several poignant interactions—complete with the script. Include the verbiage along with the tone of voice, posture, body language, etc. Describe the insulting words and expressions that were leveled at you. Then, once you’ve detailed an instance or two, thank the administration for taking the time to review your concerns and wish them the best when it comes to their efforts to eliminate a problem that, in your view, is still causing grief to lots of people.
In closing, I hope by now you’ve found a healthier place to work—one where employees treat each other with dignity and respect—maybe even take special care to help new people feel welcome. And thank you for having the courage to talk about a problem that often goes unmentioned and consequently continues to plague thousands of people every day.