The Career Doctor, Susan Moir, provides practical steps for combating age-based bullying in the workplace and beyond.
Q. I am feeling a subtle form of bullying at work (and elsewhere) because of my age. How do I fight this, especially in the workplace?
A. Rest assured you are not alone. In a 2008 survey, more than half of employees claimed to have witnessed ageist behaviour in the workplace in the past year. Nearly 80 per cent of reports to the United Kingdom Workplace Bullying Helpline are made by people aged over 40. This says a lot about poor management practices, narrowness of vision, stereotypical attitudes and the persistence of bullying in the workplace. What is worth bearing in mind is that colleagues may bully because they’re ageist or – unfortunately – simply enjoy picking on vulnerable people, but managers implicated in bullying could have in the back of their minds that faithful employees over the age of 50 are paid higher salaries and are in line for large redundancy payments if cutbacks are necessary. So it can be a lo easier (and cheaper) to bully them out of their jobs.
I suspect when you say the bullying is subtle you are perhaps understating the situation. Most people tend to associate bullying with childhood and assume that as adults we have matured beyond such behaviour.
Unfortunately, bullying in the workplace, like childhood bullying, can involve namecalling and all kinds of negative acts. Psychological and physical health can be affected.
According to the UK’s Workplace Bullying and Trauma Institute, workplace bullying is “repeated, health-harming
mistreatment, verbal abuse, or conduct which is threatening, humiliating, intimidating, or sabotage that interferes with work or some combination of the three.” Some common tactics used in ageist bullying are:
• slanderous, belittling, insulting comments using terminology that mocks age, e.g. over-the-hill, senile, menopausal, past it
• sabotaging the employee’s work or being obstructive
• constantly criticising and nitpicking
• giving the cold shoulder and ostracising, for example, continually ‘forgetting’ to put someone on the email list despite multiple requests to be included
• being awkward when requests for holidays, training or overtime are made
• ‘mobbing’, which involves a group of people ganging up on an individual. It may hide behind the appearance of humor, but it’s really ‘all five of us making fun of you’.
When someone is specifically targeting you because of your age, ignoring it may exacerbate the problem. It is unlikely to alleviate it. Steps to consider are:
1. Confront the bullying if it is safe for you to do so. It may help if you are assertive, depending on the circumstances. Bullying can grow from someone ‘trying you out’ initially and if this behaviour is resisted early and firmly, then sometimes the bully will move away. During an initial episode, with a smile on your face say something like: “Not sure I like the tone of that remark – I am sure you don’t mean to be rude” or “You know, I could take that as bullying behaviour: is that what you intend?”
2. If the situation continues, take the bully on. The aim is to see the bully modify his or her behaviour, but if you can’t achieve this alone, go to higher authorities to get them to help you resolve the situation. Make it clear that the behaviour is unwanted and say it is unacceptable. “STOP. I do not like your tone. I want you to stop speaking in this manner immediately.” When you confront the bully, you may
want to take a reliable witness with you. If necessary, put your words in writing and deliver them face-to-face, too. If the bullying continues, take the matter further.
3. Keep a journal of incidents and dates. Wherever possible, include the names of any witnesses to the events described.
4. Tell someone. A battle with a bully is uphill and you will need your friends and family to stand by you. Colleague support is great, but also may be difficult to find. Some colleagues may retreat to the safety of ‘group-think’ and refuse to differ with the bully (especially if the bully is the boss). They may be too scared to support you in case they could become the next victim. But it is not usually the first time that your perpetrator has bullied someone and you might find valuable advice from previous targets and victims or those in the same boat as you. Don’t allow the bully to isolate you. Keep up your friendships with any former work colleagues.
5. Follow the channels for reporting bullying in your organisation or, if necessary, report it through an appropriate external organisation such as those suggested in the MORE box. Carefully time your complaint so that it does not appear that you are overreacting or hypersensitive. Wait until you have gathered sufficient evidence to demonstrate that there is a consistent and continuing pattern of victimisation directed at
you. This will prevent the bully claiming that there has been a misunderstanding.
6. Your complaint should be in writing, thoroughly prepared and, as indicated above, established procedures should be followed as closely as possible.
These suggestions can be applied not only in the workplace, but in other situations where you think you are being bullied because of your age, for example, as a shopper, by service providers (including health professionals) or even by family members. They aim to enable you to take control of the situation. There is nothing a bully likes less, because you are, in effect
taking away the power on which they depend.
Susan Moir is a consultant with Macfarlan Lane, a business offering career transition and career development services to organisational clients.
Bully Blocking at Work – A Self-help Guide for Employees and
Managers by Evelyn M. Field, Australian Academic Press 2010,
For advice on lodging a complaint with the Human Rights and Equal Opportunities Commission visit this website.
Employees experiencing bullying at work can also contact their state or territory’s occupational health and safety (OHS)
agency. For contact details in your state, visit Safe Work Australia.