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Three Survival Strategies For Women In Hostile Work Cultures

By one measure, nearly 66 million working Americans report experiencing or witnessing abusive conduct at work.

Three Survival Strategies For Women In Hostile Work Cultures
[Photo: Flickr user Neil Piddock]

As two high-profile lawsuits that were both dropped earlier this year make clear, women still have trouble winning gender discrimination cases in the courtroom. A new California law could soon change things, but a few questions are still worth asking: If women struggle to address discrimination at the legal level, what other destructive workplace behaviors still hold back their careers? And what can professional women do if the perpetrators are other women?

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Here are three strategies for professional women to survive an unwelcoming work culture.

1. Know You Aren’t Alone

For one thing, same-gender bullying is a real problem in many organizations. In 2014, the Workplace Bullying Institute found that 77% of bullied targets were bullied by those of their own gender. The same study reported that female bullies directed their hostilities toward other women 68% of the time, impacting the safety, productivity, health, and confidence of American female workers across all industries.

We know there are structural causes within organizations that tend to pit women against one another, and those circumstances need addressing. But the issue is part of a broader epidemic, with the research showing that abusive bosses thrive in the modern workplace: 65.6 million working Americans report either experiencing or witnessing abusive conduct during their workday. In a survey conducted by the American Management Association, 95% of women reported being undermined by a woman at some point in their careers, whether through sabotage, abuse of authority, or deliberate destruction of their relationships.

In the meantime, workplaces still struggle to protect targets. According to the Workplace Bullying Institute, women who are victims of bullying lose their jobs at much higher rates than their bullies—89% compared to 18%; and men don’t fare much better at 82%. When the bullying finally stops, victims cite a range of reasons why:

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  • They quit (29%)
  • They were forced out (19%)
  • They were fired (13%)
  • They were transferred to another job by their employer (13%)

The added injustice of toxic work cultures rests in the fact that targets need to make additional sacrifices in order to retain their livelihoods.

2. Recognize The Difference Between A Tough Boss And A Bully

Some experts believe that bullies are the primary–yet least recognized cause– of work-related stress. Better understanding workplace bullying begins with knowing how it differs from other forms of mistreatment, like rudeness, incivility, and teasing.

Unlike those other slights, bullying is the repeated, often covert, and strategic mistreatment of an employee by an aggressor who intends to control or undermine their target. While pinpointing the exact reasons for bullying is tough, research suggests that some female bullying is a result of feelings of competitive threat, defined by one researcher as “the fear that a highly qualified female candidate might be more qualified, competent, or acceptable” than the bully.

Workplace bullies aren’t always overt aggressors. In fact, they’re typically charismatic and well-liked by superiors, reserving their bad behavior for those below them. According to experts, bullies excel at deception and are obsessed with control. They turn their other coworkers against their target and use defamatory remarks, intimidation, social exclusion, and targeted gossiping to harm victims’ confidence and reputations.

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One survey found that 62% of the 96% of Americans who reported experiencing workplace bullying “saw sabotaging of others’ work or reputations” and 52% “saw browbeating, threats, or intimidation.”

Simply put, bullies seek personal gains at the expense of others, creating direct and indirect costs to targets (decreased job satisfaction, productivity, and well-being) as well as to their organizations (lower morale, higher turnover, and sometimes even legal fees).

3. Take Back Control

So how can professional women protect themselves against all this?

Female bullying victims tend to experience withdrawal, especially when bullied by other women. They internalize feelings of shame, humiliation, and isolation. They let their work suffer.

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Know those warning signs, and if you begin to experience them, it’s important to think strategically in order to protect yourself. It’s easy to imagine that a bully exists because the environment enables them–and to a certain extent that’s true. But bullies also create toxic environments themselves. It’s still the responsibility of organizations to support their workers, but you need to reach out for help first.

Document your experiences, and determine your bully’s place in the organizational hierarchy. To whom do they report? How is their relationship with their supervisor? Does your bully’s boss act objectively, or are they more of a mentor or friend?

Rightly or wrongly, you may feel reluctant to take your case straight to HR. Maybe you want another perspective first. Be ready to find another ally outside your immediate chain of command. Search for another manager–someone who values your work or would value it once you explain what you’ve accomplished and the experiences that are jeopardizing it. If your personal network within the company is small, ask others which managers have reputations for being a good or fair boss.

When you’ve found this person, present the facts as objectively as possible and explain how they’ve affected you. Don’t exaggerate anything. Your confidant might direct you to human resources, or they may suggest a more informal solution instead. Whatever the case, keep the option of speaking directly with your bully on the table. Once you’ve fortified yourself with the facts and secured allies, you might consider addressing the bully’s behavior one-on-one or with a mediator whom the bully trusts.

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No matter what, the key to surviving a hostile culture is to understand that it all comes down to people, and that includes you. Keep envisioning yourself as a leader who has real agency in righting the situation. That’s the first thing a bully will try to take from you, and it’s up to all professional women–not just those who experience bullying–to help our organizations reduce the conditions that create it.

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