It was a beautiful moment. After being shoved and pushed and taunted time after time, Daniel finally confronted the kid responsible for his misery. Although he didn’t use words, Daniel was still able to dispel what had been months of bullying… with one hard crane-kick to the face.
Ok, this isn’t a true story; it’s actually the finale sequence of the beloved movie Karate Kid with Ralph Macchio and Johnny Lawrence. Nevertheless, we’ve all wanted—at one point or another—to have a Mr. Miyagi in life to teach us how to effectively defend ourselves.
In the playground or at the workplace, physical violence—even martial arts—is not the answer. And, yet, the urge to provide an adequate defense against bullying often manifests in the same vengeful, violent thoughts.
Unlike the playground, however, bullying in the workplace involves a structured obstacle to proper revenge: a professional hierarchy. Reporting the abuse of a boss has far more consequences to the employee than when two adolescents complain to a teacher.
In addition, it can be difficult, during these moments, to distinguish “tough love” by a mentor and actual misconduct.
“There can be a very thin line between a bully and a leader,” writes Whitney Johnson for the Harvard Business Review Blog.
“In business, bullies are would-be leaders who, rather than use their talent for assessing strengths and weaknesses in the service of their team and their company, instead look to construct an uncontested fiefdom.”
Anybody can be a victim.
“Whether you are a young professional seeking out a mentor, an entrepreneur looking for a co-founder, or mid-level employee in search of a superb senior manager, you are vulnerable to the manipulations of workplace bullies,” continues Johnson.
But, once you’ve identified a problem, there are systems in place for managing abuse dolled out by a colleague or a supervisor. At a law firm, you alert Human Resources.
Unfortunately, victims of workplace wrongdoing have an additional vulnerability—believable storytelling. Narratives by abuse victims are often (and rightly) impassioned and subjective. For example, between genders, men abusers can accuse women victims of being “too emotional.”
When a person has been egregiously maltreated, however, it’s hard not to take it personally.
So, how can you preserve a sense of professional integrity in the workplace and still punish the perpetrator?
Sarah Tracy, director of Project for Wellness and Work-Life at Arizona State University, designed eight ways to report abuse in the workplace in a way human resource managers will take seriously by analyzing real-world narratives told by bullying victims.
Three of the most important are as follows:
1. Be rational
Unsurprisingly, Tracy found that victims who expressed events in a linear fashion were most likely to be taken seriously by HR.
She suggests employees write out the story ahead of time, starting with the critical incident, and then bullet pointing each subsequent detail. Write down every incident in chronological order.
Be concise, specific, and rational. If necessary, write down the whole story and then sit on it for a day. Then re-read your account. Filter for pettiness.
2. Provide consistent detail
Next, bring your bullet-point list to your HR meeting. It’s vital to be consistent with your story. Make sure you can tell and retell the same story without embellishment or changing events—even the most minor.
If necessary, practice your story by going over the events in your head. Then, tell it a few times to yourself out loud.
If there is physical evidence of the abuse, make copies and bring it to the meeting, as well.
3. Emphasize your own competence
Finally, if you are a competent employee, your story will gain more credibility. So, highlight any positive performance reviews or other career successes.
Explain what efforts you went through to end the bullying behavior before reporting it.
Then, explain—rationally—that you are reporting the incident because the bullying curbs your own performance and happiness at the firm. Successful businesses realize that bullying is not only a legal liability, but also a reason businesses lose valuable employees.
Credible victims are calm, restrained, and sympathetic.
Going into a meeting with HR enraged, visibly upset, or with inconsistent stories about the abuse will not be taken seriously. In these cases, the bully wins.
“The tragedy in all of this is that the bullies I’ve encountered could be incredible leaders—they are smart, charismatic, even alluring. When narcissism trumps the collective good, you are dealing with a bully,” laments Johnson for the HBR Blog.
“A bully will always try to pull you down in order to push himself up. If you find yourself with a ‘friend’—a colleague, a manager, or boss—who consistently tells you ‘you can’t,’ take a closer look at what’s in it for him or her.”
Ultimately, confidence in your own work product and yourself as a person is the best protection against bullies. Try to make sense of their behavior and confront it first.
And when all else fails, skip the round-house kick and go straight to Human Resources. Guaranteed—in the legal world—challenging a person’s professional integrity hits hard.
In the end, to effectively report workplace abuse, be disciplined about your approach and leave emotion at the door. Wax on, wax off.