Workplace bullying is, unfortunately, a common issue in the UK, with 15% of employees being on the receiving end of bullying and harassment in the last three years. Here, one woman explains what happened when she reported bullying to her company’s HR department – and the steps she took when they refused to take her seriously.
In my first job after I graduated – aged 22 – I was bullied.
In 2013, I moved 300 miles away from home to a city that I’d never been to. I didn’t know a single person, but I was young, ambitious and looking forward to new challenges. I’d always told myself that I was a chatty person and I’d always found it relatively easy to make friends, so I was looking forward to becoming close to my tight-knit team of two women. I was hoping to set up a new life for myself and I was so excited.
At the beginning, my colleagues were friendly. It was clear that we didn’t have as much in common as I’d hoped but the two women on my team were professional and kind. They included me in tea rounds and took me on lunchtime drives to the supermarket where we debated whether Beyonce’s Lemonade really was a masterpiece. They asked about my weekend, my long-term boyfriend, and my upcoming holidays.
However, it quickly became obvious that these women were in a clique with women on other teams in the office that I needed to make an extra effort to be a part of. At first, I was invited to customary Friday after-work drinks with the rest of the office. I put every effort into socialising with them, but after a few months the invites slowly trickled out – even though I thought nothing had changed.
Though my colleagues knew I was alone in an alien city, they began lying to my face about drinks and events. One Friday afternoon, I asked my team boss what she was up to after work and she replied saying “Oh nothing tonight – I’m knackered!” yet a chat box flashed on her screen from a group chat with the rest of the women in the office stating a time and place for drinks that evening. A picture of them holding cocktails appeared on Instagram mere hours later. Alone in my flat, I felt sick at the sight of it, but I knew that if I didn’t like it or ignored it, it would look bad on my part. Although it made me cry, I double-tapped.
Not only was there the issue of the chat group that I wasn’t invited to, but the women were obsessed with it. Whenever I’d walk past one of their screens, they’d quickly minimise a page and smirk at one another, often giggling when I walked away. More than once I spotted my name in their chat history when I looked over.
Looking back, I should have cornered them about the drinks I wasn’t invited to, or the giggles behind my back. But I was new. I felt like I didn’t have a voice. Back at my flat alone in the evenings, I punished myself mentally for not making enough of an effort when, really, I wasn’t even given a chance. I replayed conversations I had with my team over, and over, again in my head, wondering where I’d gone so wrong. It felt like I was back in high school, being singled out for not wearing make-up, choosing black boots over ballet pumps, and cutting my hair a different way.
Though I was desperately lonely and miserable, I was determined not to let them destroy my experience in the career I’d worked so hard to get a foot into. At the end of every month, my sales were second-best to my team boss. Yet she took the credit for it from our seniors, stating it was a ‘team effort’ when really it was mostly my work. If I’d corrected her, who would believe the quiet, new girl who never came along to the after-work drinks?
I was made out to be a ‘hermit’ figure in the office – but in front of the ‘Big Bosses’, my colleagues were sickly sweet. They would ask what I was having for lunch just that little bit too loudly, or call me ‘hun’ whenever anyone else walked past us. Regardless, they’d still go to lunch together without me. To anyone on the outside, it would look like they were making an effort and I was the miserable, silent type that didn’t reciprocate or join in.
Thankfully, I’d become particularly close to women in another office outside the city, and they supported me through my darkest days. But the final straw was when they invited me to their Christmas do, yet my boss made sure to think up an excuse for me not to go.”We need her here, working,” she said to the Big Bosses.
“You’re being bullied,” my mum finally said, when I called her in tears after enduring almost a year of abuse. I’d called her upset before, but this time she made me realise that bullying didn’t have to be physical, or name-calling – it could be emotional and cyber, too. These girls had deliberately excluded and manipulated me when they were supposed to be supportive. Even in their mid-20s, they were bullies.
Eventually, after almost a year of being bullied, I felt strong enough to arrange a chat with a woman who was head of HR. She was incredulous. “Are you sure you’re being bullied?” she asked, tilting her head and smiling, patting my wrist when my voice cracked with emotion. She couldn’t believe that these friendly, giggly women could be so two-faced and cruel – and crucially, I couldn’t prove it.
Was I not just insecure? Or over-cautious? I was made to feel like it was all in my head, and that I should make more of an effort to get to know the team. She even suggested that I should invite my boss for a drink, like a ‘mate date’. I was astounded – a drink with my bullies? HR made me feel that because I was in my first ever ‘big’ job, I didn’t really know what offices were supposed to be like. My mental health took a turn for the wore and for weeks, I asked myself – was I the problem?
No, I wasn’t. I took control of my own life and stood up to my bullies. I contacted HR again to lodge an official complaint, and asked for everything mentioned in our meeting to be on record. Instead of the quick five-minute meeting I’d had with HR before, I wanted to be taken seriously. I contacted the company director and asked if I could have a one-on-one meeting with him, instead.
A week of torture later, walking into a conference room to meet him was one of the most terrifying things I’d ever done. In the sleepless nights I had in the run-up up to our meeting I’d imagined that I’d be strong in making my case, but instead I broke down. In tears, I told him about being left out, not invited to drinks, and the giggles behind my back. Afterwards, I felt like a weight had been lifted off my shoulders. Putting it out into the open meant that it was real, and that it was happening to me – that it wasn’t just in my head.
Thankfully, I was listened to. My complaint was lodged and my team boss was taken aside for a separate meeting and given a formal warning about excluding a colleague. I wasn’t told much about the details, or about what would happen to her – only that she’d been given a warning of sorts. It meant from then on that I was ignored by the women in my office, but at least I wasn’t bullied, or laughed about any longer. With a black mark beside their names, I could finally breathe.
Soon, I found myself a new, better job and left with my head held high after standing up to my bullies. Their names still crop up on my social media pages but I try not to feel any malice – instead, I just feel sympathy for them. By being bullied I’ve learned how to respect and treat colleagues, and most importantly, how to set standards for respecting myself.
Yes, it’s left a lasting mark on my confidence when it comes to socialising and making new friends, but I don’t punish myself for it. I’m no longer naive or put myself down if I find it difficult to speak to new people. I focus my energy on lasting friendships, and how to stand up to clashing personalities. I’m a stronger person because of being bullied – it has never, and will never, define me.
I’ve learned that bullying isn’t confined to the playground, it can happen anywhere – even at work. But that moment I stood up to my bullies was the moment I changed my life for the better.