I’ve heard targets of bullying at work blamed for ‘instigating’ the bullying by irritating the perpetrator, not being good enough at their job, or not standing up for themselves. All this makes it the target’s job to stop the abusive behaviour! As I used to say, when working as a trade union official, dealing with members working in film and television, “I don’t care if you are the worst clapper loader ever; everyone has the right to be treated with dignity & respect as per the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.”
The problem with self-assertiveness training is that it also makes the target responsible for ending the bullying by being assertive. This, as an answer to bullying, is top-down and probably constructed by people who have not been bullied as adults. To build solutions that work, you have to understand the problem from a target’s POV as it is their reactions to provocation you’ll need to help them change.
The only thing I accuse targets of is being a bit too nice; generally, they want to give everyone the benefit of the doubt – which perpetrators will exploit. Whenever someone is ‘successfully’ bullied, they gain another layer of self-doubt. The more times someone has been bullied, the more likely they will be bullied again. The sound loop they’ll have running somewhere in their head is I’m not worth standing up for?
When dealing with targets, I’ve had more ‘Yes but’ conversations than for any other type of case. A bully’s ultimate aim is to get their target to take responsibility for the bully’s behaviours. Once they have achieved this, coaching the target to stand up to the bully is impossible. According to targets, Everyone else has the right to be treated with dignity & respect, but they might just be the exception! Targets will even make excuses for the bully. So, the first job I have to do is to ensure the target understands that they have human rights; nothing they have ever done or will ever do negates that, then I have to get them to apply those rights to themselves and their situations.
Usually, the first question I ask a target is how the perpetrator behaved just before the bullying began. This can show how the perpetrator groomed them, so they’ll spot it next time. I take them through all the types of grooming bullies and harassers use so that should anyone try to groom them in the future, they are prepared with a polite but effective response, rather than just being shocked and speechless.
Sexual harassers almost always use the same three forms of grooming: shock tactics; this is more common than you might think. The perpetrators say something explicitly sexual quietly to the target that, if challenged, they could say it was a bad joke or deny they said anything. Suppose the target looks shocked but stays quiet. In that case, the harasser may then employ the other two grooming methods: gradual encroachment of personal space while pointing out the potential benefits and detriments of the perpetrator’s influence on the target’s career. A successful response usually goes, ‘No, that is not acceptable, do not behave like that again with me.’ Often ‘No!’ is enough.
If the harasser starts to touch you inappropriately, touching you without your consent, and that includes unwanted kissing it’s sexual assault. You should treated it as such: screaming, hitting, kicking, biting – whatever is necessary. Please find the clip I use of Harvey Weinstein grooming Melissa Thompson on the front page of my website: https://bully-proofing-coach.com/. It is the most useful film that had Weinstein’s involvement! It’s not explicit; nevertheless, don’t watch it if it could trigger you. You’ll also find there the script of what was said and what was meant.
Harassers know what they are doing is wrong. I’ve been lucky enough always to have had solid boundaries where sexual harassment is concerned and have confronted it very assertively, even aggressively. No one ever complained about my reaction because they knew what they were doing was wrong; when I’ve seen these men subsequently, they have always been particularly respectful!
Sexual harassment, in my experience as a union official working on cases, never gets better on its own. You have to confront it, and the sooner you do this, the more successful the outcome – what can be termed a minor infringement can quickly escalate. I think Melissa Thompson’s clip of Weinstein illustrates this brilliantly. To be clear, Melissa Thompson isn’t doing anything wrong in this clip; only the harasser is responsible for the harassment. I want potential targets to learn by watching Weinstein’s behaviour; harassers aren’t very original, his behaviour in this clip is par for the course. I want potential targets, of whichever gender, to work out what they will do when this happens to them. It is preparation to challenge abusive behaviour that can keep people safe.
Bullies like harassers almost always know that what they are doing is wrong. They do not want to get caught, so they assess potential targets by grooming, for example, doing a lesser form of what they ultimately intend – teasing someone or using microaggressions to test what the potential target might tolerate; they can always claim ignorance if challenged. However, when challenged, perpetrators rarely repeat or escalate their behaviours.
The first form of grooming I spotted was when I had two separate cases in the same week where the perpetrator pressurized their target to apologise for something that was not their fault; once the target apologised, the bullying began. I went back through fourteen years’ worth of cases, and there was grooming, which, when unchallenged, was followed by bullying that left the target in dread of the perpetrator. I have been astounded at how quickly the targets fall apart. I think this is because the bullying and harassing behaviour at work takes the target back to similar unresolved experiences they had as a child: that sickening mix of fear and shame, compounded by the fact that the target is now an adult. So, when a company argues that its grievance policies protect employees from bullying – it’s not true. I have yet to meet anyone being bullied or harassed who wanted to rely on a policy. By the time a target lodges a grievance, it’s too late; the damage has already been done.
A bullying and harassment policy can help set standards, giving examples of what is and what is not acceptable behaviour – is very important for targets as it gives them something to compare with the treatment they’re getting. The easiest way to prevent bullying and harassment is to make explicit that all workers are responsible for preventing toxic behaviour and that targets and witnesses should report incidents that don’t meet the standard set. Also, departments should hold role-playing – so that no one can claim ignorance concerning inappropriate behaviours. Giving senior management junior parts in the role-playing can be instructive, a reminder of what it’s like to have no power, and giving junior workers senior parts gives them the experience of dealing with management in the wrong.