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Work Harassment-Being a Target Doesn't Make You a Victim
What is work harassment?
Sexual, race or cultural harassment is illegal in the United States. There are laws that protect people from being coerced, bullied, or threatened on the job or denied promotion based on these factors. But, what if you are the target of harassment in the work environment and your situation is not covered by the policies of your corporation? Perhaps, for example, you are an experienced employee who has worked at your job for several years and along comes a new manager that decides, for whatever reason, to dismiss you. And, thus he starts a ‘campaign’ to build a case.
I am currently the ‘victim’ of such a manager and this case will be completed in two days following the completion of an investigation for charges of insubordination. Now, mind you, I had already received a letter informing me that I had three charges which resulted in a three day, unpaid suspension just three weeks prior to that with the explanation that the next step would be termination.
Knowing this is hanging over my head, why, pray tell, would I be stupid enough to disobey my manager’s orders and worse, according to her paperwork, “argue and barge into a patient’s room” after she ordered me not to do so? Well, the obvious answer is, “I wouldn’t”, nor did I.
Who is a 'Big, Bad Boss?'
When a manager is, what Marilyn Haight refers to in her book, Who’s Afraid of the Big, Bad Boss, a ‘Little Dictator’, it creates a working environment that is unproductive for all people involved. On a hospital unit this puts patients at risk because the staff is so worried about making a mistake, being the next target, or focused on doing things to get in favor with management, that patient service and safety is compromised-two standards I take great pride in.
I’m sure we have all worked for unpleasant bosses at one time or another. If this situation has never been your experience then you are very blessed. Unpleasant can mean anything from denying your vacation time, making you work weekends, having unrealistic deadlines to meet, withholding a well deserved and hard earned end-of-the-year bonus, etc.
Unpleasant may also mean: moving you to the basement office-no windows, no ‘air’; keeping the temperature at a chilling level for his comfort only; smoking in his office and having it seep out into the work room; etc. Not comfy, not cozy…but, do-able.
The ‘big, bad bosses’ that I am referring to are not the unpleasant ones previously mentioned, but the true barracudas of the corporate world. They are what I refer to as ‘axe men’-or in my own personal experience, ‘axe-women’. Their purpose is to pave the way to implement their own agenda-their own hand-picked staff-usually someone who is either very inexperienced that they can ‘mold’ into what they want, or someone who is of the same mindset as the manager.
Stop work harassment before it orbits out of controlClick thumbnail to view full-size
How to protect yourself from a managerial attack
It is not an uncommon managerial tactic to ‘clean house’. I was actually forewarned by a co-worker who was a previous employee under this manager at another facility. This was two years ago and when it was announced that the manager had indeed been hired my co-worker went into tearful hysterics ruminating about how everything was going to change and warning staff to watch our backs.
Hindsight is worth so much, is it not? I could have heeded this warning; however, I felt I was not in a position to move to another facility at the time that my B.B.B. (Big, Bad Boss), came on board. It was March and my nephew, whom I am raising, was still in school. To uproot and move to the next city was a possibility, and J was all for it, however, I did not even have an opportunity to apply before the first wave of charges hit me.
This manager was hired in Mid-March and within the first week she had targeted my co-worker, an LPN, with so much pressure that Sandra, (not her real name), had quit. I was next on her list. I was served the first suspension for a series of charges by the end of April. Following my suspension I was expected to return to work in that same environment and function to the best of my capabilities, as if nothing had happened, while knowing that at anytime the next shoe may fall-this one in the name of a ‘termination’.
The next charge, the one naming insubordination, was written on my fifth day back to work. This was following a notice I had sent her, per my instructions from the human resources director, (whom I had been in contact with regarding my concern for the trumped up charges), that I was appealing her allegations. Her immediate reaction was one smelling of retaliation.
Recourse defense from managerial harassment Steps 1 and 2
What recourse does one have when faced with this situation? First of all, understand and try to disengage emotionally. It is easy to take it personally and question your own job performance. I’m not saying that if your mess up NOT to be accountable for your mistake. However, when you are faced with an impossible situation that is clearly motivated by circumstances beyond your control-in this case a manager who has it in for you no matter what you do or how hard you try to make it right, there is little hope that you will be around to even make any positive changes in your performance. Why? It’s because he does not want you around and will not wait for those improvements to occur. In fact, the need for ‘improvement’ is just a smoke screen to distract upper management from the real issue-your ‘B.B.B.’
Second, when faced with a written reprimand refuse to sign it. That’s right. Refuse to sign it. If your boss, or even human resource representative, insist that you sign write on your form ‘this employee has read the disciplinary action and is in disagreement with it. Please read the attached letter from this employee’ or something very similar to this and explain to the H.R. Rep that your letter will be forthcoming in the next day or two telling your side of the story. Be sure to write your letter, include details and names of witnesses, and make sure it is attached. Reference in your letter what you have noted on the disciplinary form. Further, you should insist on checking in two weeks to make sure that your letter did get attached and to verify that the original disciplinary form had not been switched with a copy stating, ‘employee refused to sign’. No matter how much they insist you do have the right not to sign the form.
Work harassment defense: Steps 3 and 4
Third, alert your support system to help you maintain your balance and equilibrium during this time period. This may be a close friend or family members. It is imperative, if suffering from symptoms of anxiety, depression, panic attacks, insomnia, loss of appetite, increased drinking, or other unhealthy coping mechanisms, that you seek treatment from your company EAP, (Employee Assistance Program), for help or talk with your medical doctor or religious leader for additional advice and support.
Fourth, immediately go to your human resource department and meet with a representative. Not all work environments have unions. Most hospitals do not. Most nurses do not belong to unions because unions are not an option. And, in many states, such as North Carolina, it is an ‘at will’ state which means that the employee has little, if any, rights if they are fired; while the employer can fire ‘at will’. This I know from consulting with an attorney and going on-line. So, it is important to have this information before you are in that situation. It is also important to read your employee handbook, have a copy if available to you, and refer to it frequently if you suspect that you are working for a manager who is out to get you; or one that is creating a hostile work environment. Being prepared is a more beneficial place to be than finding out what your rights are after the fact.
Psychological effects of harassment in the work environment
What happened from my rebuttal letter and my visit with the H.R. Director was the beginning of both my appeal process and the end of my service at this hospital. According to my co-worker-the one who had previously worked for her, no one…NO ONE stood up to this woman and complained, wrote letters of protest or met with anyone from human resources. They just tucked their tales between their legs and left, defeated and beaten down.
There was a lot of shame I experienced initially, after receiving the first disciplinary action. I questioned my judgment and skills as an experienced nurse. I questioned my personality and ‘likeability’ with my co-workers, because one of the complaints was that ‘three co-workers had come forward with complaints’ about me. But, I found the strength within me to examine the truth of her allegations and measure her reality with my own.
I suffered panic attacks and nausea each day I returned to the hostile work environment knowing I was a target. But, I kept in communication with my friends and family, who offered support, as well as the H.R. personnel. Communicating that I felt I was returning to a hostile work environment was an important factor for me. It allowed the representative to see that I was not being overly dramatic with my concerns.
In the end, I do not have any control over the outcome. I am one year away from being fully vested in the company to receive my pension. I am one of the most experienced and highest paid nurses on the unit. I feel these are all reasons worth dismissing me. It’s a feather in this manager’s cap to move onto the next employer while bragging about ‘saving the company thousands of dollars’. I’m not stupid. But, I do have control over whether I will fight for what is my right or just go away silently. I choose to fight.
When to seek legal council
Finally, if you feel you have been wrongfully terminated seek legal council. There is usually a free or minimal fee for a thirty minute meeting with an attorney. If he feels there is a case he will move forward. If not, you haven’t lost anything but your time. It’s worth it, isn’t it?