About half of all workplace harassment cases filed are for retaliatory behaviour. What often keeps victims of harassment and bullying from filing formal complaints in the first place is not a lack of evidence or fear that they won’t be believed. As we see in the cases coming out of Hollywood, corporates and politics, bullies and harassers are often well known. What keeps victims from filing formal complaints is the fear of reprisals.
Retaliation can take many forms, from negative performance reviews to failing to offer professional courtesies that all other staff members receive. The point is to retaliate without looking like they’re retaliating. Operating in this grey area can make retaliatory behaviour hard to identify since it toes the line of what’s appropriate in an office setting. It takes strength and courage to be able to continue to go to work, do your job to the best of your ability, and remain vigilant against renewed attacks.
Some people, like Lorraine Segal, a tenured English professor, spent decades battling retaliatory behavior. Such behavior aims to make you either withdraw your complaint or give up your position. For people like Lorraine, who spent years to get that coveted position, backing down and walking away is not an opinion.
So what do you do if you’ve filed your complaint and find yourself on the receiving end of retaliatory behaviour?
First, recognise that retaliatory behaviour is another violation and can be filed in a second case. The law is on your side. Second, decide whether its’ retaliatory behaviour or simply a personal conflict. Don’t make the mistake of seeing monsters everywhere you look. It is entirely possible that you simply don’t understand the dynamics at work in the office.
Also, don’t be surprised if more seasoned employees feel as though the harassment you endured is just part of the cost of working for this organisation. They may have endured similar treatment and been told to simply “suck it up.” Much like new brides who are abused by their in-laws only to subject their daughter-in-laws to the same abuse later, this kind of cyclical acceptance of harassment happens in the workplace as well. Most notably in the military, where unofficial rites of passage can and do result in serious injury or death. Remember that nothing changes until we do and protecting the code of silence that often accompanies workplace bullying and harassment will only lead to more harm and an emboldened bully.
Third, record and report everything. Workplace bullying and retaliation will escalate if you do nothing. According to the Workplace Bullying Institute based in Anchorage, Alaska, retaliation escalates because bullies can’t stand to be exposed. Even if they did little or nothing to hide their behaviour before, they aren’t willing to accept criticism or censure because of it.
Look for patterns of behaviour rather than individual incidents. Sudden shifts in assignments, protocols or routines directly following your filing are red flags. Be vigilant and above all, don’t stop going to work and performing your duties to the best of your ability. You may ultimately decide to find a new job. But until then stick to your work ethic and follow procedure fastidiously.
Workplace bullying, and harassment may seem childish, but it can have serious effects on your mental health. We shouldn’t take harassment or retaliation lightly. It is not “paying dues” or any such nonsense. Across the globe, there have been many cases of suicide due, in part, to workplace bullying and harassment. Unfortunately, we tend to think of these cases as mainly mental health issues and ignore the very real effects of hostile work environments on our psyche.
What do you do when your workplace environment begins to take a toll on your mental health? We’ll explore this more in the next part of this series.