Dear Thelma: Why are my colleagues picking on me?

I'M a woman, 30 years old. I have always been bullied at my workplace and even when I’m not at work but leisurely hanging around, everywhere I go. I don’t understand why.

Although I’m a quiet person, I have always tried to talk to people in a friendly manner and I have a smiley face. Many people have commented that I’m friendly and funny. And whenever people approach to ask me something, I have always responded politely.

At all my workplaces, I have always been careful with my speech, never spoke ill of any of my colleagues nor got involved in any politicking, whereas many of my other friends who were chatty and busybody who minded other peoples’ business and spoke ill of others got plenty of friends and people even respected them. When they had nothing else to talk about, they even made up stories about others and yet people love to listen to their stories, damaging other peoples’ reputation and hurting peoples’ feelings. Why is this so?

Whereas I who have been sensitive to other peoples’ feelings and never spread any rumours got blamed for being quiet instead. People have been hurtful when they made ugly faces at me, gossiped about me, in front of me, to their friends, even hurled hurtful remarks at me, all because I am a quiet and reserved person.

When I went to conferences or meetings with new people, I noticed that people also never approached me first, they were also reserved, but expected others to start the conversation.

The hurtful remarks I got were: She doesn’t know how to make friends (yet I have friends who say I’m their best friend), and who would be interested in her (yet I've found a man who loves me).

To people out there who love to make ugly faces at quiet people like me, stop that ugly face-making of yours! It’s hurtful and uncalled for. Quiet people are not bad people, we are just quiet and sensitive. We just cannot go on and on chatting like a television.

Stop being ugly to quiet people

You sound very angry and I can see why you're upset. The office, meetings and conferences should be places of business, not combat arenas. You ask why people gossip and hurt others. It's very simple: bullies enjoy being powerful and they get a kick out of lording it over others and hurting them.

Why do they get away with it? When we come across powerful people, we tend to have several reactions. We're a bit afraid, we want the powerful person to recognise us, and we want to share in that power.

When it's a great leader with excellent ethics, they affirm us, assure us, and support us. They use their power for good. But when that person has a bad heart, they will enjoy our fear, make us feel uncertain of ourselves, and play with our emotions.

Some people react to bullies by thinking (consciously or unconsciously) that it's better to be part of the problem than a victim. That's why bullies are surrounded by sycophants who spread the poison around. Bullies spawn a toxic environment where mean is normalised.

However, the interesting thing about bad hats is that they are indiscriminate. They will harm their allies as well as their enemies. To the bully, only one person matters, and that's them. That doesn't help you, although when you see how the hangers-on suffer, it may relieve some of your anger.

As for the rest of it, please know that bullies pick on their targets for no reason at all. They just enjoy getting at victims. So all that stuff about you being quiet or reserved is a smoke-screen. If you were noisy and a party animal, they'd make that an excuse for picking on you.

Therefore, don't be fooled by their faked-up reasons; you're fine the way you are.

What can you do? In practical terms, you might be able to harness your HR department and bosses to change the toxic culture that's pervading your organisation and your wider industry. However, if they haven't already picked up on it and taken action, you may have lazy or incompetent people at the top.

Consider documenting the bullying, noting time, place and details of the attacks. You need to have enough to prove they are creating a hostile workplace. If you can, talk to an outside HR practitioner or lawyer to get good advice. Once you have enough, you can present it to management.

Note: while some companies take that kind of report as a wake-up call, victim-blaming is common. You may find management backing the bully and promoting the toxic work culture. If that is so, you will need to decide if you fight or not. Again, talk to a lawyer.

As an alternative, you might persuade the bully that you are not a fun target. That means calling them out and showing that you are not upset, merely bored by their antics. To help support you, you might rope in colleagues who will stand with you.

This approach can work wonders, but it can also backfire. You see, bullies don't want the fun to stop and they don't want their other victims getting brave. So standing up to them may result in an escalation of aggression. Although you're in a corporate environment, it is not unknown for people to be actively violent. So do be careful.

Although the bullies are wrong, there is no right or wrong for how you choose to handle this. You must do what suits your needs best. I suggest you think over all the options and decide what is best for you.

Whatever you do, my advice would be to work on keeping your self-esteem high. When you have a strong belief in yourself, you will be firm about your boundaries, your self-worth and you will have the courage to keep your chin up while you're dealing with this.

I am sorry you're in this situation, and I do hope that you win the day. As you say, these people are dreadful. We shouldn't have to put up with it.

Is something bothering you? Do you need a listening ear or a shoulder to lean on? Thelma is here to help. Email or write to Dear Thelma, c/o StarLifestyle, Menara Star, 15, Jalan 16/11,46350 Petaling Jaya, Selangor. Please include your full name, address and a pseudonym. No private correspondence will be entertained. The Star does not give any warranty on accuracy, completeness, usefulness, fitness for any particular purpose or other assurances as to the opinions and views expressed in this column. The Star disclaims all responsibility for any losses suffered directly or indirectly arising from reliance on such opinions and views.

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Work stress , bullying


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