TW: Discussion of bullying at work, microaggressions, and sexual harassment.
This past April I sat with Amanda Kohal in my series Transition: From Corporate to Entrepreneurship. During our discussion, we shared stories about workplace bullying and of how being our own bosses helped us walk away from corporate and live a vivacious life.
Our stories in corporate, sadly, are not out of the ordinary. According to the Workplace Bullying Institute’s (WBI) 2021 report, 30% of workers experience bullying and 19% witness it. This means nearly half of workers directly or indirectly experience hostility at work.
Despite the reality of corporate trauma, we don’t talk about it openly in our society, and those experiencing it often suffer silently.
The workplace becomes an uncomfortable space filled with triggers like the typical “happy friday” greeting at work becoming a reminder that we reserve happiness for the weekend.
Yet, because we don’t talk about this issue honestly, many of us may minimize or be unaware of the many ways corporate environments traumatize us.
What Workplace Bullying Looks Like
The WBI defines workplace bullying as “the repeated, health-harming mistreatment by one or more employees of an employer: abusive conduct that is either verbal abuse; or behaviors which are threatening, intimidating, or humiliating; or work sabotage, in some combination.”
From the obvious to the subtle, Amanda and I shared various examples of these behaviors from past bosses and co-workers.
An A**hole Boss
Amanda recalls a specific meeting she attended after having spent an entire night working on a task. In this meeting her boss “went into a rage about how [people] didn’t do things fast enough”.
Most of us may recognize the angry, threatening tone of the boss in this scenario but may miss other layers of inappropriateness in this response: the unreasonable expectations and dehumanization of his co-workers.
It is understandable to have set expectations and standards in a workplace, but setting unrealistic deadlines that end up sabotaging a worker’s performance and then devaluing their work for not meeting unreasonable expectations undermines the value of employees as people.
Yet these expectations are justified in an environment that values profits and productivity over the well-being of employees. Because of the widespread grind mentality in corporate America, many normalize these expectations rather than recognize how dehumanizing it is for employees to work to the point of burn out.
Other behaviors that lead to a sense of humiliation or shame may not show up as loudly as a screaming boss but are just as debilitating.
Conforming to Corporate Culture: Shape Up or Ship Out
In my own experience, it showed up in bosses’ micromanaging and exclusionary behaviors.
Little things like not eating at my desks were seen as abnormal and scrutinized, leaving me with little to no autonomy in the workplace.
A clear example of exclusion was a moment when my co-workers had a mini-celebration at work to which I was not invited. After the fact, I was told there were snacks and cake in the break room if I wanted some.
It may be easy to dismiss these behaviors and say, “just get over it”. As with other forms of abusive behavior, this advice does not help.
For those of us who have experienced it, we know that it is not one incident but the accumulation of moments like this that can create self-doubt and cause us to feel disempowered. In my transition story I share the impact this had on my mental and physical health.
These seemingly small acts can be more triggering when they are tied to other social issues such as racism and sexism among others.
When Workplace Bullying Becomes Harassment
In cases when belittling someone is based on some aspect of their identity (e.g. race, gender, sexual orientation, religion,etc.), it becomes harassment. As with other forms of bullying, these can range from overt to subtle forms of microaggressions.
Data from Lean In shows that ⅔ of women still face microaggressions. Even though there has been progress for women in the workplace, men still outnumber women in leadership positions, and the work environment often reflects expectations based on a limited idea of masculinity.
To date, the workplace is still largely driven by ideas of competition and rugged individualism that demand a detachment from our emotions. People of all genders participate in this.
One of the most disconcerting experiences for me was being called emotional by other women. The stereotype of women being emotional has been used by men to invalidate and disempower women though emotions are natural for everyone.
As Amanda pinpoints, it is disappointing to see women acting as many men have towards other women. This type of behavior, unfortunately, maintains the status quo and creates an environment that can become threatening to women.
When these ideas go unchallenged, it creates an environment where, even if women are in a leadership role, people can still feel comfortable behaving in sexist ways.
Amanda shared a specific instance where she was in an elevator with about five other men. One of them made a comment to the other men about remembering “what they learned in the sexual harassment training”.
Many may see this as just a joke, but in a society where 35% of women in corporate experience sexual harassment and 81% experience it nationally, these words carry a lot of weight.
These, among many other toxic interactions, led us to quit corporate.
Entrepreneurship: A Path towards Healing
For both Amanda and I, entrepreneurship allowed us to walk away from the corporate world and empowered us to build communities and businesses that align with our values.
Not only that, but in building our businesses we regained our sense of self and worth.
The trauma I experienced has served as motivation for building my personal brand around freedom, and it is why I created my brand development program. Understanding the impact entrepreneurship has had in my life drives me to support others in their journey.
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