Can lockdown give victims of bullying a break?

The #NotJustNCVO hashtag on Twitter, inspired by a recent report into bullying at NCVO, is compelling reading. It has walloped me with an emotional punch and brought many of my own unpleasant memories of bullying and harassment to the surface. I’ve had enough experience of bullying in our sector to last me a lifetime, the culminations of which led me to the edge of a breakdown.

Happily, things have got much better for me and I’m now enjoying work as a fundraising consultant. Like most other fundraisers, I’ve been working from home since March, but because I was doing this anyway, the change hasn’t felt as dramatic as it does for others. It has made me reflect, however, on the impact that lockdown might have on toxic workplaces and the impact of the worst perpetrators.

I’m sure there are plenty of terrible impacts. People might be feeling more isolated than ever before.

However, if I were working for an abusive employer now, how might lockdown give me new coping strategies?

Workplace bullies operate on the margins of formal structures

I’ve experienced bullying and toxic environments in more than one job. Some of these situations arise through incompetence, laziness and a desire to please the boss. I’ve noticed, however, that the most devious bullies take pains to exert their power outside of the formal structures of meetings and emails.

Looking back, I can see how one manager went to great lengths to avoid witnesses and written evidence. During our supervisions she’d tell me, angrily, to stop taking notes. I meekly complied, assuming this was some clever management technique to improve my memory. I’ve concluded it was nothing of the sort: it was simply a way of avoiding accountability.

The worst things she ever said to me were said in a meeting room behind a closed door.

I eventually learned. I made sure never to close her office door when I had a meeting with her; we were in earshot of other desks, and this seemed to help. I wrote up notes as soon as I’d left the room. In my final few months at that job, I actively avoided speaking to her at all. I don’t think she even noticed, even though she was my manager and ought to have been scheduling regular catch-ups. In this case, her avoidance of accountability worked in my favour.

The structured, opt-in nature of Zoom calls could potentially help victims. It could be much harder for a manager to take you to one side and intimidate you with the force of their presence. And if they’re bad at remembering to schedule catch-ups? Maybe you could also conveniently forget.

Workplace bullies create cliques

Perhaps I’m naive, but I’ve frequently been astonished when colleagues have opted for defending terrible, harmful people and decisions over the wellbeing of their staff. I suppose lots of managers like a quiet life. I also think that there is a tyranny of “niceness” in our sector which hides healthy conflict under a coating of passive-aggression and pits colleagues against each other. I’ve met plenty of flying monkeys in my time.

Obviously, if you’re working from home you can’t possibly know which Zoom meetings you’re being left out of, but on the plus side, you’re not forced to watch everyone go out for lunch together without inviting you. You won’t hear those strategic background conversations which are intended to make you feel small. Those opportunities for clique-building have been stymied.

Workplace bullies mess with your sense of reality

It took me a long time to realise that I was a victim myself. Even now, memories of conversations come back to me which I only see now were hurtful and offensive.

Some environments are so toxic that you can’t fully appreciate how bad they are until you’ve had a chance to step away and gain perspective.

I hope working from home has helped some victims to do this. Maybe now, you’re appreciating the break from a poisonous office environment. Maybe the #NotJustNCVO hashtag has prompted you to rethink some of your recent exchanges with colleagues. Has someone said something to you that made you feel an enormous sense of shame? That’s wrong. That should never happen at work. Look at it again.

Are there changes we can advocate for? I have some ideas.

And keep a diary. Of everything.

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