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Working the Gray Area

©2014 Gail Pursell Elliott

“The only real moral crime that one man can commit against another is the attempt to create, by his words or actions, an impression of the contradictory, the impossible, the irrational, and thus shake the concept of rationality in his victim.” — Ayn Rand

Whether or not you agree with Ayn Rand’s philosophy, the above quote describes clearly a type of abuse perpetrated by mobbers and bullies in the workplace. Even if you have a bullying or general harassment policy in place, these enterprising people will work in the gray areas of those policies. This can happen on any level of the organization, whether supervisors, coworkers, or subordinates. It is important to be specific when writing such a policy that these more subtle behaviors are included and also to pay attention to concerns from employees which may seem trivial at the time but are indicative of patterns of behavior that undermine an individual’s ability to perform. As my colleague, the late Tim Field wrote, “By the time HR get to hear of the bullying they are faced with an articulate, plausible, convincing, charming “bully” and a gibbering wreck of a “target” who is traumatized and thus unconvincing, inarticulate, incoherent, obsessed, apparently paranoid, tearful, distressed and highly emotional. By this time the bully has already convinced HR that the target has a “mental health problem”, is a liability to the organization, and needs to be got rid of.”

Examples of these types of behaviors are taken from actual cases with which I have experience. Often what happens is that one individual will be held to a different standard than others, micromanaged, or is the recipient of off handed remarks that are ambiguous. If the employee questions these the response may be simply a look of incredulity. For example, in a retail environment, a supervisor or manager, under the guise of supervisory discretion, consistently assigns work that is unpleasant, meaningless, or impossible to complete within expected time frames to one individual. The person is assigned to working every Saturday while others work that day on a rotating basis. Adjusting a schedule and posting it without notifying one of the impacted employees while others are told about it, is another subtle way this is done. The supervisor can simply say it is the employee’s responsibility to check the schedule regularly.

Another way people work the gray area is to treat a coworker as if he or she is invisible, interacting with the person only when absolutely necessary and to a minimal degree. Being left out is a strong memory for many adults and is difficult especially in a work environment where people regularly socialize. It sounds adolescent and of course it is. When a person is described as a loner who keeps to himself perhaps it is because that individual has been excluded in subtle ways. Most people appreciate having the option of being included whether they participate or not as well as being treated with courtesy and kept informed of social opportunities without feeling that they are being singled out for jokes that on the surface may appear harmless but are intended to create discomfort. Isolation and exclusion are among the recognized mobbing behaviors. We are all familiar with the concept of isolation in health care; someone is placed in isolation when they have a contagious disease. In corrections, inmates are placed in solitary confinement as a punishment. Treating an employee or coworker as if they have the plague or deserve punishment for some nebulous offense is inappropriate. Specifically address avoidance or shunning as a behavior in your policies if not already included.

This type of subtle behavior has been used to eliminate people from the workplace by making the conditions so uncomfortable that the person decides to resign and go elsewhere. In past years it was called turning up the heat on the employee. When this does not work, especially when the person has been with the organization for many years or when other opportunities for employment are scarce, supervisors or others begin a process of demoralizing and setting the stage for the person to appear to be substandard in performance or otherwise undesirable. If the person does leave the behavior continues afterward, as people try to justify their actions toward the worker. These are some of the reasons why a person who has been subjected to this type of abuse and believes that his reputation, employability, self respect and even safety have been compromised by the organization, may plot revenge or return to commit an act of workplace violence.

In the majority of cases, the bullying you see is the tip of an iceberg of subtle and pervasive wrongdoing. Bullies and mobbers are adept at exploiting the policies of organizations and playing political games for personal gain. They also are adept at deception, especially the manipulation of HR and management perceptions of the target. Creating a safe and respectful environment for everyone is not just the job of HR, Security, or management in general. It is the responsibility of everyone who works for the organization. Policies can specify both expectations and prohibitions when it comes to behavior but ultimately, setting the example is something that each person can take very personally.

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For videos including the Five Phases of the Mobbing Process visit youtube.com/dignityrespectlady
Gail Pursell Elliott, “The Dignity and Respect Lady”, has over 20 years experience in middle and upper management, founded Innovations “Training With A Can-Do Attitude” in 1998, and is author of several books including School Mobbing and Emotional Abuse and co-author of the book Mobbing: Emotional Abuse in the American Workplace. Her Food for Thought articles are read by people around the world. Gail has been a guest on such programs as MSNBC’s Deborah Norville Tonight, ABC World News NOW television programs and the Workplace Violence Today program on talk radio.
For Human Relations Consulting, Assessments and Training, contact Gail through her website:


One comment on “Working the Gray Area

  1. Lives are changed forever, families dynamics change, friends notice the changes in the target, he or she seems distracted, they are not talkative and/or tends to make up excuses as to why they can not socialize. The children also are impacted by the stress and the uncertainty of the future. It does not end there, the stress, the worry, the low self esteem, the shame of what’s happened to them impacts the immune system. It has been proven that this impacts the ability to fight cancer, strokes, migraines, high blood pressure, heart, circulatory system, digestive system, pulmonary system, depression, PTSD. suicide and they can become homicidal. Today our legal system does not acknowledge workers as being human in the workplace so you can legally abuse an employee since there is no language to recognize At Will Employees. The targets are made to feel they have no worth and that they are accountable for the shame they are made to feel.

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