In 2011, I was in a terrible accident. Without going into too much detail, my dog and a city trolley were involved. The local news stations covered the story and posted their news clips on their websites. It wasn’t long before the comments section was full of a hateful string of nastiness. People said I was too stupid to own a dog and it should be taken away from me. They said I should be dragged into the street and shot for being so dumb. They said they wished I hadn’t survived that accident because people as idiotic as me shouldn’t be walking the streets of our fine city.
While these comments hurt for about two seconds, I didn’t know any of these people so it was easy to move on. I discounted them as losers who had nothing better to do with their time than be mean to complete strangers. I could rationalize that I’m better than them, and the suffering was over. Easy.
But, what if I had known them? What if these people were my co-workers?
You already know that high schoolers have to go to school with their cyber abusers, and many of them haven’t survived the stress. But did you know that adults suffer the same fate at work? As an HR Director in a former life, I experienced this when our customer service supervisor received an anonymous email that said everyone in the office wished he was dead. While we could take an educated guess at who sent the email, we couldn’t prove it was her. All we could do was hold a company-wide staff meeting to address the email and appropriate work conduct.
So what do you do if you’re being bullied online? What if it is anonymous? Here are four tips out of a long list of many, gleaned from my book, BACK OFF! Your Kick-Ass Guide to Ending Bullying at Work:
- If you know who it is, confront the cyberbully. A word of caution, however. If you confront this person, he or she may see it as an attack and increase the abusive behavior. But, I always recommend doing this for two reasons. One, you’ll always wonder what would’ve happened if you’d had the courage to stand up for yourself. Two, your managers and HR will be more willing to help you if you tried to help yourself first.
Stay calm. Be professional. If the bully responds with aggression, say, “Jim, I’m not here to argue. I just simply want you to stop _____ (insert the unwanted behavior here), Jim. I treat you with respect, and I expect the same from you. Jim, starting today, please refrain from _____.”
Notice I used the individual’s name, Jim, several times. Using a person’s first name like this is a form of assertiveness. It puts a person on the spot and usually gets a person to take notice and actually listen. (Think about the old trick parents use when they catch their children doing something wrong: They call them by their first, middle, and last name because it gets attention and implies dominance. The same applies here.)
- Focus on yourself and your own actions, not on the cyberbullying. If we’re being bullied, we become obsessed. Of course we do. The bully and cyberbully are ripping our self-esteem and self-concept to shreds. But this is allowing the bully to win because instead of focusing on how to overcome bullying, we are focusing on how bad the bullying makes us feel.
Try to focus on yourself, your work, your own behavior, and how well you’re doing. Make a conscious choice to push the bullying out of your mind. It’s easy to say that our thoughts and emotions are not a choice, but that simply isn’t true. You have control over what you think about; what you think about does not have control over you. You have control over your thoughts. Understanding that will help you take control of how you feel.
In fact Viktor Frankl, a concentration camp survivor, said, “Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way. When we are no longer able to change a situation - we are challenged to change ourselves.”
- Use powerful body language all day every day at work. Even if you don’t know who it is, cyberbullies see you. They are looking for signs that they are affecting you, so don’t give them the satisfaction.
When you’re at work, are your arms and legs crossed? Do you look away from people or look down? Is your chin down and are your shoulders hunched over? If you answered yes to these questions, then you are undoubtedly communicating to others that you are feeling closed off, nervous, shy, and not willing to stand up for yourself—even if you don’t mean to. All of these nonverbal communication codes show your co-workers, including the bullying ones, that they can trample all over you.
So start focusing on your “battle stance.” Hold your chin up, lean forward slightly, toes pointed forward, hands on hips or at your side, and deliver firm extended eye contact. If the person you suspect of cyberbullying is in the room, tilt your head slightly, almost as if you’re saying, “I can’t believe you have the audacity to cyberbully me.” This body language shows others that you are confident and ready to stand up for yourself. This is a way to subtly confront aggressive people at work by showing that you are not someone to mess with—without saying a single word. It shows the bully you are ready to stand up for yourself, but it also helps you develop the courage to actually do so. You are what your body language says you are.
- Take it to HR. Print out anything you find online that you suspect came from a co-worker and turn it into them. A smart HR professional will take care of it immediately. If not, let HR know you will be visiting an employment law attorney regarding slander and defamation.
In the end, I know being bullied and cyberbullied is hard and it can make you feel helpless. Unfortunately there’s absolutely nothing you can do to change the bully. I say that with love and empathy, because the sooner you realize YOU are the one who has to change, the more quickly you will recollect your dignity. You are not helpless.