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When I was small, I remember children kicking another child’s carefully constructed sand castle – each one taking turns disintegrating its structure. A grownup scenario of this occurs (at work) when bullies are permitted to abuse their peers on a serial basis – the equivalent of having your persona diminished, and the shards of your accomplishments kicked in your face.

Imagine if there were no system of justice: and each day you were required to see the person who assaulted you, and silently deal with the effrontery of their self-righteous exultation.

Because some companies do not consider bullying serious (and, there are currently no respective laws to protect workers), it’s considered a crime without culprits. Abusers are free to erase your reputation and to replace it with one of their own choosing. I’m reminded of the movie The Forgotten, in which each successive phase of Julianna Moore’s past appears erased. Correspondingly, the folklore surrounding the Philadelphia Experiment alleges that shipmates who materialized after the ship “disappeared” appeared either mangled or mad.

Organizational attempts to make others “invisible” may have similar outcomes. Targets learn to pay their opinions low value, and to give deference to more dominant players. Nickeling and diming you to death with their nonsense, bullies eliminate your presence until they are the ones who predominate. They denigrate you to the point where you don’t have the defenses to mount an assault (or to fabricate a cover story). The worst live with the maligned as if nothing were amiss, and justify their behavior when the opportunity appears. Unfortunately bosses are bamboozled by bootlickers (and, the prospect of additional behind the scenes information). That’s why they don’t see bullies’ insipidness upfront.

Secondary bullying is the aftermath of the main event. It consists of the bully:

  • Trying to convince others they’re correct by defending their behavior;

  • Smiling and engaging targets in small talk as if nothing had happened;

  • Gossiping in an attempt to convince coworkers of your “unworthiness;”

  • Setting the stage so that others feel comfortable (and welcome) in co-taunting the target;

  • Chronic invalidation when targets present an idea; and

  • Mean-spirited policing of others’ behavior.

Many work in a system that’s geared to support the abuser and to punish the smeared party.

How can coworkers improve the lot of a fellow human? How can they help someone feel good about themselves? Your boss’s job (and that of your coworkers) is to create conditions which enable you to shine. A positive culture that encourages personal growth, the contribution of every person, and consequences for company bandits is crucial to maintaining equilibrium. If threatened with censure, bullies will fold like a deck of cards.

Related article: What’s behind the rise in workplace bullying?

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All viewpoints expressed by Jackie Gilbert are her own, and not of her employer.

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