Conflict Remedy Blog by Lorraine Segal
Bullied or Mobbed? The dangerous search for vindication
In the 9 years since I left my own toxic workplace, I’ve coached and consulted with people in all stages of being bullying or mobbed (bullied by a group). Some are actively being bullied at their current workplace, some have just left or are in the process of leaving, others are dealing with recent trauma while still others are trying to heal and pick up the pieces months or years later.
Many people who are being or have been bullied or mobbed crave an apology and want their workplaces publically called to task. It is a perfectly human and natural desire. So often what has happened to them has been blatantly wrong and downright evil.
Bad Institutional Behavior Here are some examples from my clients’ experience:
- At Carla’s workplace*, they tried to make it look like she had stolen from the company to set her up for being fired and arrested. It was retaliation because she had filed a union grievance about a lack of overtime pay.
- At a midsized company, Jonathan, an HR professional was treated badly because he was African American and gay.
- At another workplace, people hacked the e-mail account of Leticia, a project manager, and sent out bogus meeting invitations to perpetrators who ostracized her and lied to her on a daily basis. At yet another workplace,
- Tiffany was given unsatisfactory evaluations and let go from a contract teaching position, simply because she tried to stick up for her special needs students.
- At a prestigious college, Eliana, a tenured professor was attacked and belittled primarily because she was different and brilliant.
For people who care deeply about doing a good job, who are highly principled and used to being successful, these lies and attacks are devastating. These bullied workers desperately and deeply want the organization to admit what they did was wrong and to suffer consequences for their bad behavior.
There is no law against being stupid or cruel.
People sometimes consult lawyers and try to file lawsuits or proceed with other grievance processes. I know people who have spent a lot of money they couldn’t afford, even exhausting their life savings, trying to pursue a legal remedy. The problem is that it is still difficult to make an effective legal case around bullying. As an anti-discrimination attorney my union hired when I was being bullied at my workplace told me, “there is no law against being stupid or cruel.“ Although there is more awareness these days about bullying, many cruel and stupid behaviors are still at least technically legal, or, if not strictly legal, in a gray area.
Some people who have suffered in this way completely lost themselves in the quest for vindication. Their wounds never healed and they never worked again. I even know people who filed lawsuits and won, but it didn’t necessarily fix their pain or change the negative culture of the institution.
A Pyrrhic victory?
And as I learned from my own experience, and as I have shared with many clients, at some point you may have to decide which is more important— vindication or your own well being. Or more bluntly, do you want a Pyrrhic victory even if it destroys you?
In my own toxic workplace, they were never going to admit what they did. They had done it to other people before me, and continued to do it to people after I left
I respect and support the right of everyone who has been bullied to make their own decision about what to do. They have to find their own path to a peaceful heart and resolution.
But I do tell all of them my opinion—that the best vindication is to go forth and create a beautiful new life for themselves rather than remain enmeshed with the perpetrators. Letting go of grievances, no matter how justified those grievances are, gives you space and opportunity to move towards healing and joy.
*All names and details changed to protect confidentiality.
She is a consultant and trainer for County of Sonoma. And, at Sonoma State University, she is the curriculum designer and lead teacher for the new Conflict Management Certificate program. Ms. Segal was recently named one of the top 30 Conflict Resolution experts to follow on LinkedIn. She is also a contributing author to the forthcoming book, Stand Up, Speak Out Against Workplace Bullying.