You’ve been subject to bullying for weeks, months, maybe even years. You’ve grappled with continual jibes and anxiety about your performance. Over and over again you’ve doubted whether the insidious remarks and micro-acts of undermining you are experiencing are real. Perhaps you teeter on the brink of thinking maybe you are paranoid. You feel depressed, and worry that there’s some truth in the lies that you must be a bit crazy.
And somehow you summon the courage to go to your employer and report what’s happening to you. After all, you trust your company, in the shape of your boss or the HR team or some other respected individual. You trust that they will want the bullying to stop and to prevent anyone else being bullied by this person in the future.
Reporting bullying and harassment at work
If you want bullying at work to stop, the obvious place a victim might turn for support and help is their organisation. But, according to Marie Hemingway, Co-Founder of not-for-profit Speak Out Revolution, not everyone feels supported or able to. Around a quarter of all bullying and harassment incidents are never reported. And a staggering 50% only reported informally. From their data, of the remaining cases which were reported formally, survey respondents were more likely to feel that doing this resulted in an outcome that made the situation worse, not better.
Given the nature of the relationship of trust that organisations have with their employees, this seems such a surprise. If an injustice at work is perpetrated, such as bullying or harassment, we expect the organisation to respond with actions that understand the injustice and that protect the victim.
Institutional betrayal and organisational gaslighting
Instead of institutions coming forward to protect the victim of bullying and harassment, unfortunately we see many stories of institutions taking steps to protect themselves by silencing the victim. They are not believed, no action is taken. Or worse they are punished in some way for highlighting the abuse they are receiving. This form of organisational gaslighting, termed ‘institutional betrayal’ by researchers Smith and Freyd, occurs in a relationship of trust – when an institution that a person depends on in some way harms that person.
Impact of institutional betrayal
Institutional betrayal or gaslighting is particularly distressing. The absence of organisational support impacts an already vulnerable employee. They have raised the fact they have been bullied and now feel further doubted and unsupported. On top of being bullied, they have been betrayed by the people that they expected to be able to trust. This can result in disengagement with the organisation, depression, anxiety and right through to suicide.
At its worst, it’s a betrayal perpetrated by the team of well-regarded people who are framed as the corporate arbiters of justice. These people may come in the auspices of the HR person or line manager or company executive team. But their action is to protect their institution. Of course, this may not be an intentional betrayal, perhaps a lack of experience or incompetence in handling the case by the front-line HR team or line manager. But either way, they have stepped over the line balancing the right of the victim, company and perpetrator of the bullying to be treated fairly.
As Michaela Kennedy-Cuomo explains, “In effect, the goal of those who investigate the wrongdoing is not to decipher the truth or dole the consequences, but rather to silence the victim, consequently enabling the predator. When a group of respected people within an institution are posed as investigating on the victim’s behalf, but in actuality act to belittle or deny the reality of the harm committed in order to protect the institution’s reputation, the institution can cause the victim to question their own perceptions of reality, feelings, instincts, and even sanity.” The institution uses “gaslighting” to protect its reputation and keep the status quo, harming the wellbeing and career of the survivor of bullying in the process.
Dimensions of institutional betrayal
There is no single pattern used when organisations gaslight employees who raise an issue of bullying and harassment. Organisational betrayal happens when companies respond in one of four ways, depending on the initial apparent problem being raised and the actions the organisation takes.
Figure 1. Types of Institutional Betrayal
In quadrant 1, individuals can end up being effectively punished for raising an issue of bullying. For example, an organisational response might be to re-organise a victim’s team under the guise of sorting the problem, leaving the person wondering what they did to deserve this.
In quadrant 2, a lack of action by the company results in the harm. For example, a person might have raised an issue of bullying by a specific individual. Yet they are not told that, in fact, these issues have been raised before by other people in the organisation. The effect is to marginalise the person raising the issue and leave them thinking theirs is a one-off case. The tragic case of Lizzy Seeburg might have not resulted in her taking her own life, if her institution, Notre Dame University had shared that similar issues had been raised by other students previously.
Gaslighting, as in quadrant 3, can also happen when the problem raised seems systemic and the organisation is active. For example, moving victims of bullying away out of the bully’s team. This does nothing to deal with the way the bully operates nor the underlying issue – the remaining team members are assumed to be resilient enough to work with the bully. The behaviour of bullying becomes normalised.
Finally, in quadrant 4, organisations betray their employees systemically through their lack of action. For example, if there is no clear policy for dealing with bullying and little or no training for employees and leaders on bullying. This makes it very hard to even raise the issue of bullying in the organisation.
Stopping the betrayal of organisational gaslighting
If your role or circumstances mean you are asked to respond to employees who raise bullying and harassment in the workplace, you might clearly see the need to support the victim. Whatever lines you walk between perpetrator, victim and organisation, your actions can have far reaching impacts.
Here is a list that line managers and HR professionals can check to ensure they avoid the institutional betrayal and gaslighting of their employees:
- Be proactive
- What steps are you taking to prevent bullying and harassment in the workplace?
- How can you make it as easy as possible to report bullying and harassment if it does occur?
- Respond quickly, appropriately and consistently
- Are you putting time and resources into investigating any complaint expeditiously? Don’t use a length process as an excuse not to progress.
- Are the actions you take and the things you say appropriate? For example:
- Don’t deny the victim’s experience by relabelling it as a “personality clash” or “miscommunication”.
- Don’t tell the victim to “just get on with things” or “put this behind you”?
- Don’t set up mediation – it neither addresses the imbalance of power nor redresses any wrong-doing.
- Are your actions consistent every time bullying and harassment is raised?
- Are your actions transparent?
- Ensure you are not further victimising this victim
- Do you create a work environment where they continue to feel like a valued member of the team?
- Do you continue to value their performance and worth in the organisation as you did before they raised this bullying and harassment complaint.
Hold up a mirror to institutional betrayal
Look in the mirror.
Pause before you refer the next survivor of bullying for psychological assessment or advise them to take sick leave due to the stress of raising their issue.
Whether you are a colleague, manager or HR professional, ask yourself what role are you playing here? How well have you walked the line between perpetrator, victim and company? What patterns of behaviour do you notice in your organisation? And what do the outcomes of any investigations of bullying and harassment that you are part of say about how you are handling this? And doing this requires us to have firm hold of who we are and what we stand for.