by Christine Schnake
Recently, I found myself the target of a campaign of bullying. What makes my situation unusual is that I am not a high school student, far from it as I am well into my fifties. On the outskirts of what I believed where bullying mostly existed, I thought I was safe.
The backdrop of my experience was the workplace. I have worked for most of my life and while I have sometimes found myself in uncomfortable positions with a fellow co-worker it always seemed to reach a resolution.
I have personally witnessed bullying and I am ashamed to say that I can recall at least two occasions when I was a participant. One memory is elementary school when I unwittingly sported a badge with the acronym I.H.J.S. distributed by the two most popular (and beautiful) students of the sixth grade. Posters adorned the walls and a number of the faculty also wore the homemade buttons. The meaning we were told was “I’m Happy Jesus Saves”… the reality is that it was a bullying campaign with a title: I Hate John Smith. After the discovery of the true meaning I continued to wear the button. I was a part of enormous prank led by the “cool” kids. I didn’t know John Smith personally and was not aware of the crime he had committed to earn such negative attention and truthfully I didn’t care. However, over the years, that boy has haunted me and I have attempted to locate him to offer my apology, but with the name John Smith my efforts to date has not been successful.
The second was how I treated the younger sister of my best friend, Betsy. The difference in age was about eighteen months, which was enough to resent their mother’s insistence that Kate be included. I showed my disdain through snarky comments letting her know that she was not wanted. As we grew older and our pool of friends overlapped it was natural for Kate to be a part of our social circle. Once I gave birth and worried about how my own child would be treated by the world I examined my own treatment of others. I wrote Kate a letter apologizing for any moment of pain or discomfort that I had inflicted on her. I tried to assure her that she had done nothing to merit my inexcusable behavior and that I will carry the remorse of my actions to my grave. Although Kate’s response was to assure me that it hadn’t been traumatizing and that she carried no ill will towards me, Becky confided that she did appreciate the letter and, in fact, always carried it with her.
I am sure there are many other times where I was unkind or hurtful to someone who did not deserve my negative attention. But other than these two instances I cannot remember participating in another sustained campaign to annihilate another person.
I had be the target of mean spirited ridicule in my youth. As the daughter of two genetically hirsute parents I inherited the misfortune of having a soft noticeable down covering my face and body pre puberty and a dark covering post. It was more pronounced because of my fair skin and was detectable at a fair distance. My father had many opinions about hair removal. He believed that removal would only exacerbate its growth so I was not allowed to shave or tweeze. My mother helped me by supplying a bleaching agent for my face and I wore woolen knee high socks (the taller the better) and long sleeves no Marker the season.
I was often taunted with “wolf” or “ape” girl. Kids made fun of long sleeves and socks during the summer. I did not raise my arms when I swam lest someone detect my armpit hair. I remember the negative attention. I remember hating it and often crying about the lack of support from my parents and the cruel words I was subjected to, but I also remember that it seemed to ebb and flow. I was not the prime target every day. I’d weather a storm and afterwards there would be some relief, at least until another adolescent comedian came up with a new way to point out my difference in a fresh creative barrage.
During my adult life I have never been interested in entering the popularity contests that oftentimes go on in the workplace. Few are the co-workers that I have formed relationships with outside of work hours. I feel that there are not enough hours to spend with my family and friends so it is not often I add to my small circle.
My recent job was as a support position in a company that provides therapy services. Demanding, but I enjoyed it. I am a pleasant person. I love to make people laugh and I enjoy light conversation. I am not uninterested in others personal lives, but I have difficulty retaining the details, remembering birthdays and avoid lunch outings.
There are missteps in my history at this company. The most notable was with a young colleague who was scrutinized by a large number of employees who were convinced that she was not working full-time but claiming she was. I have an HR background and I knew that if this were, in fact, true that it would be grounds for termination. I felt some pity for this girl as she was very young and had shared a heartbreaking story shortly after arrival about her mother who was a teacher. Valerie attended the school where her mother was employed and had an altercation with a student who was in her mother’s class. Her mother took the side of the student.
In relation of the story the pain this caused was evident.
When I was hired, four and a half years ago, I was a department of one, but there came a time that the addition of another person was necessary. When the second position became open a woman from another department showed interest and as her position had many similarities to our open position she was transitioned to us in January.
The new position for Gina presented challenges. More complex than her previous position she had great difficulty grasping procedure and we covered things over and over until the sound of my name from her lips almost made me cringe. Despite the constant need for my assistance in order for her to complete tasks I maintained my composure and tried to explore various ways to help her in the learning process.
I heralded her successes and downplayed her failure, perhaps a mistake. I never shared my disappointment in her performance with anyone and continued to be optimistic that things would improve over time.
I didn’t realize it at the time, but a jealousy towards Michelle began to fester within Gina.
My attention and positive comments to Michelle ignited an anger within her which resulted in outbursts of epic proportions. Festering anger often becomes unreasonable and Gina could not effectively communicate why she was angry just that she was and that she was convinced that Michelle and I had purposely targeted her to get the result. No less than three times an outrageous attack was aimed at Michelle and me. Delusional allegations delivered at a high volume left us both unnerved.
Following these outbursts Gina related her perception of the exchange throughout the office. We had provoked and attacked her. Soon it became apparent that Michelle and I were being alienated. It followed that we were excluded from office gatherings, ignored by some, glared at by others. Activities supported by the company (pumpkin carving and costume contests hosted by the Fun Committee for example) we were not included. No one called out abusive names or threats, but the disdain for us was obvious and pervasive.
No one within the department was speaking to each other.
The torment delivered was not limited to the women. One co-worker, Jack, a middle aged over weight want-to-be athlete and charter member of the fun committee who imposed his opinion and life narrative on the office at an alarming volume joined the fray against me. In addition to death stares that he aimed when crossing my path, reported me to HR. He overheard a conversation between me and a young man, Ernie, in the next department. I had purchased several pizzas to support his daughters dance troupe. On the morning of the “incident” I greeted Ernie, who made eye contact and quickly turned away. Did my check bounce? Was he now a part of the isolation tactic that was being employed? I had to know. I approached Ernie and asked if there were any reason he did not respond to my “good morning”. He assured me that he had and I immediately thanked him, relieved, and blamed the misunderstanding on my poor hearing and apologized for the confusion. Apparently Jack thought I was aggressive and met with HR to discuss.
I reached out to our manager, Emma, who was located offsite, who reached out to her manager, Mark, and our HR representative, Craig. A meeting was scheduled to resolve this issue and get the department back on track. We met in a small conference room on the scheduled date and time. Our manager attended via computer but the department head, HR, Gina, Michelle and I were present in the conference room. Mark threw out a question; Gina took the floor and began spewing nonsensical statements. Her stress was obvious and you could see her frustration escalate. Suddenly she stood up and ran from the room and left the office for the day.
Despite her departure we did discuss events and a theory was launched by Craig that Gina’s frustration probably stemmed from her not feeling that she had no ownership of specific tasks. No one addressed the inappropriate behavior. No course of action was set. Nothing felt resolved.
Having no understanding of why this was happening, or what I could have done to merit the ire that had been launched at me I left the office each day and cried. I described the events of my day to my husband and son while crying uncontrollably. I went to bed each night barely able to sleep ruminating on the situation wondering… is this karma for what I had inflicted so many years ago? It was the first thing I thought of when I woke and as I drove to work the knot in my stomach grew and grew until I reached my desk. I braced myself for what the day would bring. The silence, the stares, the offhanded comments meant for us that was delivered in a way which did not invite response.
I was in pain. Real pain. My life had become a living hell and I was at a loss for what to do.
Then Gina attacked again. While sitting at my cube I attempted to have a private phone conversation with my husband using low tones and covering my mouth while speaking into the mouthpiece. Gina, monitoring my conversation was able to discern the word “bullied”. On either side of the offending word were no clues as to whom or what I was referring to. I think the statement in its entirety was something to the effect of “I feel like I am being bullied”. This general description could have been attributed to many things… but this triggered Gina who stood in my cube and had another outburst of how she was the one who has been bullied for many months.
I reported the incident to HR and Craig seemed to be of the opinion that by speaking in low tones on my phone I was inviting review of my call. Gina had done nothing wrong. I walked back to my cube knowing which team HR was on.
Michelle, unable to work under the hostile conditions any longer tendered her resignation. She shared her notice with me. It outlined the events and the company’s inability to resolve conflict. Michelle pointed out that we had been victims of a smear campaign and that no one could work under the conditions that have allowed to worsen.
Michelle left the following day. Now I was really alone.
I had hoped that after some time others would see what was happening and throw some support my way. There were two instances when I was approached and the message was that they were aware of what I was going through and they apologized that they could not get involved. Both had been victims of a similar situation and were not ready to jump into the fire. Another instance, I returned to my desk to find a lovely note. It was almost like a life jacket and I carried that note with me to remind me that maybe I was not deserving of the torture that had yet to recede.
Sadly however, I was most disappointed by one woman who I had truly considered a friend. We did not socialize outside of the office but after nearly five years we had supported each other through trying life events, celebrated successes and family achievement. She was a devout Catholic who was very active in her church and often espoused the teachings of Christ at every opportunity. I imagined her to have the number to God’s red phone. Yes, she was the last person I would have expected to turn her back on me. I realized her stance when she quickly shut me down after I approached her about the situation. When she did have an exchange with me it was awkward and distracting as she appeared to be more concerned she would be “caught” while extending a kindness to me. Knowing that this was not friendship and these communications hurt more then helped I relinquished her of any obligation to acknowledge me. She appeared relieved and this left me to imagine Christ himself sporting a #TeamGina t-shirt.
That weekend after sobbing non-stop my husband finally declared that I needed to quit. He couldn’t continue to witness me in the agony that had now gone on for two months. I called Emma, and through my hysteria I begged her to help me. Perhaps I could work from home, maybe move my desk to another area, something, anything.
That call to Emma, however, set the ball in motion. Soon I was being bullied by the department head, Mark, to identify my last day of employment. His plan was to assign an off-site employee, best friend to Valerie (the girl who had kept questionable hours three years prior) the task of restructuring our department in preparation of my departure. Her reputation was unpleasant and as she was not known for her integrity I knew this did not bode well for my future. Emma, as punishment for not adequately handling the situation, was no longer managing the corporate department.
Did I feel any relief the end was in sight? No.
Part of the terms for my resignation I asked that no one be told I was leaving but I am sure that this did not happen. I trained everyone, as much as I could, on my job responsibilities. I was aware that Gina had been told she would be completely retrained on her job by Kate (the new department leader) and she would be expected to perform.
That Friday, two days later, I received a call from Emma who told me that Gina had resigned as of 5:23 p.m. of that afternoon.
So here I am, convinced no one will want me and still hurting from one of the most painful experiences of my life. I know that there are countless instances of bullying that have had more tragic outcomes than the loss of a job. People have taken their life to escape the unrelenting pain from people or persons intent on damaging their soul.
I believe my weight and age contributed to my employment search lasting six months. I did finally land softly at a small company owned by a former business associate who was excited for us to work together again. I know that bullying does not always make sense and there isn’t a formula to prevent one from being a target, but I conduct myself differently now. I am reluctant to share of myself and I will not listen to negative banter about anyone. I still cry when I relate my experience.
I continue to have a relationship with Emma (my former manager) whom I love like a sister and do not fault for her inability to protect me and Michelle (the temporary and fellow victim) who has become a wonderful friend.