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Interpersonal Obstacles at the Office

In this section:

Don’t Get too Cozy

We all know single people who spend most of their waking hours at work and dream of finding true love on the job as opposed to dealing with blind dates or online matchmaking. But the downside of finding your honey where you get your money can be daunting: What if those kisses in a cubicle actually cost you your paycheck? Instead of running with your heart, consider thinking with your head before hooking up with coworkers.

Check company policy. Before you get in too deep, find out if your company has a policy about workplace relationships. Many corporations have formal, written policies that prohibit them. Sometimes this prohibition includes all employees, or it may be limited to senior executives and their subordinates. Other policies extend to relationships with clients and vendors.

On the flip side, a growing number of policies are now being reevaluated, especially because many workers resent having their bosses tell them who they can or can’t date. In your place of employment, this may be an evolving issue. But no matter what the policy, you should know up front if dating a coworker will jeopardize your job.

Consider your colleagues. Consider how your colleagues will react to your office romance. Some may think you’re focusing more on your new romance than on your work – whether it’s true or not. There’s a risk of alienating them, and distancing yourself from the people you work with can’t possibly benefit your professional growth and development. You also run the risk of gaining a reputation for getting ahead in business by using romance – whether it’s true or not. There’s often no telling how your colleagues will react to the knowledge that you’re romantically involved with another coworker: jealousy, spite and resentment are all common reactions in cases where the boss promotes his girlfriend to a better job.

Be wary of potential conflict with your significant other. What happens when you two are at odds – for personal or professional reasons? It puts an awkward strain on the workplace dynamics – between the two of you, and among everyone you work with. No relationship is perfect, but even small disagreements or riffs can be magnified when you have to see the love of your life all day long. If your heart takes control of your senses and you do find love at the office, consider following this advice:

Keep it to yourself. Be discreet, especially at the beginning. Dating publicly invites endless workplace gossip. Keep it on the QT until you see where the relationship goes. If it fizzles, no one needs to know, and you can avoid the headache of announcing a breakup.

Keep it professional. Don’t hold hands at work and avoid all other public displays of affection. Even if your romance is public knowledge, no coworker wants to see your canoodling while they’re preparing expense reports.

Keep your email clean. Don’t forget that most workplace email is not private. In many companies, it’s monitored. So before exchanging hot and heavy love notes, be warned that the boss may be reading what you write.

Stand Up for Yourself

Nearly 40 percent of American workers say they have experienced workplace bullying, according to a 2007 study by research firm Zogby International. A University of Minnesota report released in March 2008 found the emotional toll associated with workplace bullying can be more severe than that of sexual harassment.

Bullying in the workplace takes so many forms. Among them:

Humiliating comments or actions
Making comments or taking action designed to humiliate is a form of bullying. For instance: if in a meeting or at the water cooler, you offer what you think is a good idea and someone smirks and calls you a moron that person is a bully. A bully laughs at you or mocks you in public.

Excessive yelling
A boss can disapprove of your performance. A boss can be upset if you’re repeatedly late. But none of that is an excuse for out-of-control screaming – in private or in front of others. Yelling repeatedly is a bully tactic.

Undermining your status at work
This includes withholding key information from you. Excluding you from an e-mail distribution once could be an oversight. Doing it consistently, or always intentionally leaving you out of meetings when you ought to be in the loop, is the pattern of a bully.

Failing to give credit
Just as damaging as undermining you is failing to give you the credit you deserve. If you’re working diligently and producing results but the boss or a colleague refuses to acknowledge you or your contribution on an ongoing basis – as if you simply don’t exist – that’s bullying.

We’ve heard from hundreds of people who’ve experienced bully tactics. While there is no single solution – no magic fairy dust to sprinkle to get a bully to change his or her ways – there are some smart steps workers can take to stop bullies from continuing to target them.

Stop it on the spot
If you can, nip it in the bud. People who bully do it because they can, and they won’t stop until someone stops them. So if you’re feeling strong when bullying starts, tell them firmly and directly, “Don’t speak to me that way. I’m professional and cordial to you, and I expect the same in return.”

Walk away from a tirade
You can also walk away. As a child, you might have had to sit still and take it from an intimidating parent; not so at work. Stand up and excuse yourself. “I have to go to the restroom.” “I have an appointment.” “I need some water.” This is especially useful if you’re on the verge of getting emotional which you don’t want a bully to witness.

Confront the bully calmly
When you’ve taken a breath and have had a chance to compose your thoughts, calmly confront the bully. Cite examples of the behavior that has been humiliating or demeaning and state that you expect it to stop. No name calling, just facts delivered in a reasoned manner.

Document the abuse
Documenting bully behavior is really important. Without the facts of when, where, witnesses and so on all clearly spelled out in writing you risk being brushed off as a petty complainer or tattletale. You can sound like you’re upset that someone is picking on you or that you’re thin-skinned. Going to human resources or a top manager is serious – and to be taken seriously you want to present the facts. Facts are much harder to dispute and to ignore than emotions. And by putting everything in writing as it happens, you’re less likely to forget key details.

Leave a toxic culture
Many people emailed me to ask if it’s ok to quit a job where the boss is a bully. They worried about being seen as a coward or a quitter. Sometimes leaving is the best and the only solution. The critics may say that’s giving in to the bullies – those bullies would like nothing more than to see you cry uncle and quit. But instead of worrying what they may or may not think, do what you know in your head and your heart is best for you. Your mental health and self-esteem are far more important than any one position. As hard as it may be to pound the pavement, you can always get a new job but it’s far more challenging to rebuild your crushed confidence and your declining health.

Express support for co-workers
This is not a problem limited solely to the nearly 40 percent of workers who say they’ve been targets of bullying; this is a significant workplace challenge that all of us should care about. None of us should sit in silence. If you see something, say something. That doesn’t mean gossiping or getting confrontational. Let someone know that you see what they’re going through and you’ll support them any way you can.

Talk to management
When it’s feasible, speak up to management about what you’ve witnessed. If you’re concerned about pointing fingers, show them articles on the costs of bully-related absenteeism, high turnover and productivity loss. Since bullying is costly to the company’s bottom line, that may cause them to take note. You can also suggest the introduction of company policies that support a healthy workplace.

Contact lawmakers
Several states have anti-bullying legislation on the books or pending ratification. Contact your state lawmakers to find out about anit-bullying/healthy workplace legislation. If no such legislation has been introduced, let lawmakers know that you feel strongly about the need for such laws.

The End of a Marriage

Just because half the marriages in this country end in divorce doesn’t mean you feel any less alone when it happens to you. Share your news, but refrain from wearing your bitterness or betrayal on your sleeve in the workplace. Usually the demands of coworkers and supervisors are the last things you want to deal with during or immediately following a divorce. But getting back to work can boost your self-esteem, put your mind on other things, and bring home a paycheck to avoid financial stress. It can also provide a chance to socialize after your main social outlet has disappeared. Most importantly, your career can provide you with a sense of stability and accomplishment to combat the sense of failure many women feel after a divorce.

No matter what you’re feeling or the circumstances surrounding your divorce, it’s essential not to allow this personal crisis to diminish your professional worth. Since divorce can be an all-encompassing experience – straining everything from your self-esteem to your pocketbook – it’s often next to impossible to separate personal and professional feelings. Yet the fact remains that the failure of your relationship doesn’t in any way lessen your value in the workplace. As you divvy your tangible possessions, do not dispose of your professional confidence. Now is when you need it most.

Another thing to be careful about during the aftermath of a divorce is falling into a dangerous office romance because you’re on the rebound. Keep your mind on work when you’re at work and give yourself plenty of time to heal before you look for a new romantic alliance, whether in or out of the office. Sometimes we make our worst decisions when pain is fresh in our heart, and that includes decisions about with whom we choose to socialize.