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What I learned about workplace bullying from working in a Christian organization

And what I learned from secular organizations about protecting victims

It was my dream job. I was still young and inexperienced, not that long out of school, and I had never had a job before that fully utilized all of my skills. I had also never worked in a Christian organization before. To me, that was one of the best parts of the job. I got to integrate my faith into my work – to pursue my passion and my principles at the same time, to talk about theology with politicians and about politics with Christians, to feel like in some way, my work was part of the long moral arc of the universe, bending towards justice. I was naïve and idealistic. But I poured my heart and soul into that work.

And then the bullying started. A change in management of the organization meant that I had a new boss. I had a great relationship with my old boss, who had been a wonderful mentor to me. I expected that kind of relationship to continue with the new boss, but I knew that I would have to step up and provide some guidance as he transitioned to a new role in a new organization. So, a few weeks in, I helpfully reminded him in a staff meeting that we needed to prepare a work plan for the upcoming Board meeting. He lost his temper and berated me for trying to undermine him in front of other staff. That was the one and only time he ever apologized for his behaviour – after, of course, I had burst into tears.

I had never before been yelled at in a professional setting, and I didn’t expect it to happen in a Christian organization.

I didn’t know how to react or what to do. Unfortunately, that incident set a pattern which continued for the next two and a half years. I would say things that I viewed as helpful or innocuous, only to be yelled at and accused of trying to undercut him. I would turn in work that I was proud of, only to be belittled with withering criticisms. I was scolded in front of colleagues and board members. I was rebuked in one-on-one meetings. My attitude was negative. I was not constructive. I was not helpful. I was not a team player. I was a poor communicator. I did things I wasn’t supposed to. I didn’t do things he expected me to.

 
 

By the book
It reached a point where I felt like I was walking on eggshells all of the time. I never knew what was going to set him off. I never knew how to please him, how to turn the relationship around. I hardly dared to speak at all around him. I cried constantly – at work and at home. My health suffered. My relationships with colleagues, family, and friends began to suffer. I was very sick, I was very anxious, and I was very alone.

But this was a Christian organization, so I went by the book in trying to deal with the situation. First, I met privately with my boss to say that I found his behaviour upsetting. That just confirmed in his mind that I was a troublemaker. Then I spoke to a colleague, who was also having some issues. Together, we worked to bring in a mediator to lead all staff through some sessions on communication. But in an all-staff session with the mediator, my boss insisted that there was no problem with communication in the organization; the only problem was me.

Finally, I went to the Board. But the Board insisted on seeing this as a personality conflict. All we needed was more mediation, to work on our communication styles, to practice having “difficult conversations.” Well-meaning Board members assured me that every conflict took two parties to create, so I needed to work on identifying how I needed to change in order to fix the situation.

When I returned from a six-month maternity leave, I sent an email to the Chair of the Board literally begging for the Board to do something to protect me at work. I was anxious, I was scared for my health, I was miserable, and I hated going into work every day. The Chair of the Board simply responded with an email saying it was my responsibility as an employee to follow the direction of my boss and the Board expected me to do that.

No one left to suffer alone
Six months after returning from mat leave, I finally got the protection I needed – I landed a new job. I left feeling devastated at how my dream job had turned to ashes. I had no self-confidence. I spent months on the new job learning to trust my instincts again, learning to believe that the work I handed in was competent, that people would not yell at me if I voiced an opinion – even a contrary opinion, that I could be a valued member of a team.

I learned something else from my new job too. It was a unionized workplace, and every few months my colleagues and I would hold a “workers’ meeting” over lunch. We would all take turns sharing about our work, our workload, and our relationships with managers. Shop stewards would take notes, and then hold a meeting with our managers to discuss any concerns and offer possible solutions to deal with them. I used to smile sometimes at what would upset my co-workers. “These people don’t know what a real dysfunctional workplace is like,” I would think to myself.

But elsewhere in the organization, I saw firsthand how the union worked to protect those who were victims of workplace bullying or other unprofessional behaviours. No one was left to suffer alone – they always had the support of an advocate from the union. The union and the employer together would reach a solution. Sometimes it was a compliance agreement, dictating how the manager would address the behaviour and what the employee’s responsibilities were in turn. Sometimes it was a recognition that the relationship couldn’t be fixed, and management would work to find the employee a position elsewhere in the organization. Managers weren’t perfect – but there was at least a mutual recognition from the union and the employer that certain behaviours were simply unacceptable.

After a number of very rewarding years in that position, I have now moved on to a new job, working for a labour union. I work in the research shop, but I have co-workers who serve as Health and Safety Officers. Their job is to help workers defend their rights and to work with committees of workers and employers to ensure that workplaces are safe, healthy places.

Safe workplaces
From my new co-workers, I have learned that every person in Canada has a legal right to a safe workplace. A safe workplace does not just mean an environment with no physical risks. It also means a workplace that is free from bullying, harassment and other forms of discrimination. The Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety defines bullying at work as “the assertion of power through aggression.” Yelling, constant criticism, belittling, taking away responsibilities from someone without cause, intimidating and isolating someone are all forms of workplace bullying.

I have also learned that in situations of workplace bullying, mediation is completely inappropriate. Mediation is about creating a win-win scenario, in which both parties feel like the outcome is acceptable. But for bullies, there can be no win-win. They can acknowledge no problem with their own behaviour; the target is the problem. So for victims, mediation can often be a forum for continued abuse.

An employer that wants to take workplace bullying seriously needs to implement practices and procedures to prevent it, ideally in the form of a written policy that includes penalties for infractions. There also needs to be a confidential way for employees to report harassment or bullying, with a clear process for handling complaints, and a commitment to prompt action when complaints have been validated.

Unfortunately, in the Christian organization I used to work for, there was an assumption that everything could be handled collegially, because we were all Christians. Even I believed it. In fact, when I went to see a therapist in the midst of my woes, the therapist stunned me completely by stating bluntly that she thought the situation was unsolvable. She said my boss’s behaviour was about his need to dominate and therefore he would probably never change and the only course of action was for me to leave. To me, that solution sounded so unChristian. Surely no situation was unfixable, with enough prayer and effort and good will.

Now, five years later, I see how right my therapist was. I wish I had had the wisdom then to believe her and take her advice immediately. It would have saved me a lot of trauma. I also wish the organization had taken my predicament seriously. I deserved a psychologically safe working environment. Unfortunately, the best of intentions to handle things in a “Christian way” couldn’t give me that.

Related Story from CLAC: 
Confronting Bullying

Names have been withheld in this article to protect privacy.

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