November 27th, 2015

Let’s Talk with Kalola: Attorney Bullies

Seek advice for your dilemma. Write to Kalola.

Dear Kalola:

I was a legal assistant with a well-respected legal organization for a little over four years. The bullying occurred primarily in the last three years and very intensively in the lastnine months. I was let go during the summer.

I was treated by the lead attorney and staff attorneys as if I was inferior. Although everyone in that office made mistakes, mine were the only mistakes that were brought to light. Each small mistake was blown into a huge mistake and was used to threaten my job. Sometimes I found out I wasn’t even the one who made the mistake.

My co-workerswere very clique-ish and juvenile. There were many whispered conversations behind closed doors. I was definitely not included in that clique and was isolated psychologically and physically. I was told not to talk about my family, while everyone else in the office was free to talk at length about theirs.

I was treated rudely by the supervisor and all my co-workers (five total). They told me I asked too many questions. I have worked in the legal field for over 18 years and have never worked with any attorneys who did not want to communicate with their support staff. Also, I was asking questions because the tasks were often poorly written, hard to understand, and incomplete. They refused to look at my Outlook tasks to see how my workload was before they assigned a large task claiming that they were too busy.

In the end, I believe that two of the attorneys were trying to get me to lose my temper and/or quit my job. One would assign me tasks, complete them herself, and then “forget” to tell me, wasting a lot of my time while I was already under pressure. Another would show up in my office several times a day and chastise me for some small error (that I may or may not have made) or yell at me for some small problem and then turn on her heel and leave my office before I could respond. I was treated differently in that it was a huge deal if I used any vacation or sick leave, while everyone else in the office called in sick leave weekly for any little ailment and were often paid for hours they were not actually working. I think this was behind the bullying. I got the feeling they thought I was going to expose them, which I had not planned to do.

I tried to talk about the problems I was having with the supervisor, but eventually stopped when the conclusion to each conversation was everything ended up as my fault. I was thinking about going to the HR department when I was terminated. I was also starting to think about looking for another job. The official reason was that I “made too many mistakes”. When I asked what those mistakes were, I was told “I don’t want to argue with you.”

The termination was very cold and impersonal. A few days later I received a termination letter (with typos) that still did not tell me what these mistakes were. To this day I do not know what these mistakes were, how they effected the office or client, or even find out if I did make the mistake.

My termination came as a huge shock to me. Although I was unhappy, I thought if I just did my best they couldn’t get rid of me. And I needed the income. The first few weeks after being terminated were really rough mentally and physically. I isolated myself in self-doubt and depression. In the first few days I called the crisis line but there was only so much they could do. I was smoking way too much and having trouble eating. I’ve lost about 15 pounds. My stress level made it hard to sleep and I’ve increased my over the counter sleep aid. I was terrified at first to interview because of my damaged self-confidence and trying to figure out how to tactfully tell potential employers “why” I lost my last job. I’ve used the resources at Worksource to get some questions answered and help brush up on my job search skills.

I see now that I was much more stressed and angry in my last job than I thought. I’m nicer now to family, friends, and strangers hat I know I am not bullied anymore. I spent the last three years being short-tempered after a long day of being treated rudely and walking on egg shells. I know my family and friends can see a difference in me now that I’m getting back on my feet.

I believe I lost my job due to office bullying. I never believed in the term before, but I now know how real and damaging it is. If I would have done anything different, it would to realize that office bullying does exist and acted differently (document abuse situations, look for a new job). Thanks to the support of family and friends, I’m doing better. Instead of waking up each morning in terror of “what am I going to do?” I wake up grateful that I’m not a target anymore. I haven’t landed on a new job yet, but I have lots of good experience, a lot of job applications out there, apply for everything I can and have been on several interviews. In fact while writing this I received an email scheduling a promising interview tomorrow morning. I know I have the chance to work in a happier, more respectful work environment. I deserve to be happy again.

If I could say anything to another abused worker, it would be to realize office bullying is real. Research it and be prepared to deal
with it if it happens to you. If it ends with a brutal termination, as it did with me, give yourself a little time to take care of yourself. Eat, breathe, sleep, and understand how important the healing process is. Reach out to friends and family, but realize not everyone will be able to be there all the time. Don’t get stuck – get moving on your job hunt and build back your confidence. The best revenge is to move on to something better with your head held high.

I was impressed to find the Workplace Bullying Institute website. It gave me hope that I’m not crazy and this problem truly exists. I am excited to see that there is an interest in proposing legislation that will address this problem. Targets should have some recourse in office bullying.

West Coast Worker

Dear West Coast Worker:

Thank you for taking the time to write in and share your workplace story. I hope that your story and personal advice will resonate with workers in a similar situation. You are helping others by sharing your experiences.

Heinz Leymann’s definition of mobbing: “Psychological terror or mobbing in working life means hostile and unethical communication which is directed in a systematic way by one or a number of persons mainly toward one individual. … These actions take place often (almost every day) and over a long period (at least for six months) and, because of this frequency and duration, result in considerable psychic, psychosomatic and social misery.” This definition is taken from an article, “Mobbing and Psychological Terror at Workplaces” published in Violence and Victims 5 (1990), p. 119-126,

You were mobbed, ganged up on by your supervisor, the attorneys you worked for, and all of your co-workers. This occurred over a three-year period of time. It is probably for the best that you didn’t discuss your family or personal life with your co-workers. These people were not your friends and should not be privy to information about your personal life. In a less than friendly work environment, it is in the worker’s best interests not to give personal information that can be used against the worker via gossip and innuendo.

You were employed for a little over four years. You were bullied for three of those years. During the last year that you were employed, you must have had a gut feeling that the job would end sooner than later. To be let go/released/terminated from the job seldom feels good. It would have been in your best interests to have started a job search once you realized the cards were stacked against you. The best scenario is when a Target or bullied worker can leave a job because they have found another job. There are few reasons to hang in there in a bad working situation once the job begins to affect one’s health, relationships, quality of work, and overall well being.

You state that the employer terminated you due to the mistakes that you made. You will get little or no satisfaction by insisting that the employer be more definitive in the reason(s) why you were let go. The bottom line is that the employer gave you a reason. Your employment was at-will unless you had a contract that stated you could only be released from employment for good cause, or if you belonged to a union that had a collective bargaining agreement and the union was willing to go to bat for you, etc.

According to the National Conference of State Legislators (NCSL), “at-will employment means that an employer can terminate an employee at any time for any reason, except an illegal one, or for no reason without incurring legal liability. Likewise, an employee is free to leave a job at any time for any or no reason with no adverse legal consequences.” The employment relationship is considered to be at-will in the U.S. with the exception of the state of Montana where the employment relationship can only be terminated with good cause outside of the worker’s probationary period.

Each and every workplace is different due to the dynamics of the workplace and the people who work there. The introduction of a bully to the working environment can quickly change the atmosphere of the workplace especially if that bully is a supervisor, a manager, or higher-level employee. There is no level playing field when a bully is in control of the working situation.

Staying too long in a bad working situation can affect working relationships as well as relationships outside of the workplace. Stress and anxiety can take a toll on the worker’s health. Lack of sleep, feeling depressed, being on edge, smoking too much, losing weight are not signs of good health. Please see your doctor and share with your doctor what happened to you at work and how it has affected your health. Tell your doctor what medications, health supplements, and over the counter medications that you are now taking. It is not a good idea to increase sleep medication without first discussing with your doctor. Smoking … well, it is a choice and an expensive one which down the road could cost you your life. It would be helpful to talk to a licensed mental health professional about what happened to you in the workplace, the reason(s) you were given for why you were terminated, and how it has affected you.

It is good that you are brushing up on your job search skills. Despite what happened to you, you appear to have a positive attitude and that is a very good thing. Do not dwell on what happened to you at your former job. Look now to your future.

If you are unable to find a job consider registering with a temporary employment agency. A temporary job will help you to keep up your job skills which will deteriorate over time if not used.



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This entry was posted on Friday, November 27th, 2015 at 12:39 pm and is filed under Let's Talk with Kalola. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

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