“I fear the consequences of filing a complaint; any suggestions?”

Question: I am contemplating filing a grievance at my workplace. I know the decision must be my own. I FEEL abused by a hostile person. I can provide some information with emails. But I’m (to put it bluntly) scared.

I’m concerned that people more powerful than myself will put together a case that will tear me apart. These past few days I feel like I cannot take another day. That being said, what can I use to weigh the circumstances and make a firm, correct decision?

New Milford, Connecticut

Answer: Dear Eleanore, Your letter is like so, so many other letters I receive. What you are feeling is like what so many other people feel. At least you know you are not alone. Here are a few thoughts that, I hope, will help you decide what to do:   

1. You have already taken the most important step forward: you decided to make a decision. No matter what you decide to do, at least you have owned up to the fact that the decision is yours to make, and the consequences of your decision – or non-decision – are yours to live with. We’re all faced with decisions every day – whether or not to exercise, whether or not to eat well, whether or not to undergo a serious surgery – each of which may have significant consequences. Far too often many people think they can just avoid a problem situation by avoiding a decision about what to do, with the hope that the situation will simply “go away” on its own. They never do. Instead they fester, and almost always get worse.                              

2. “When fear knocks on your door, send faith to answer it” is one of my favorite sayings. Fear is such an interesting phenomenon: It is like a self-imposed jail that we use to limit our own freedom. Others can’t make us feel fear: only we can put it on ourselves. Most fear is fear of the unknown, and so really has no basis. I say it often, and in fact often to myself: do not live in fear, do not act in fear, do not fail to live due to fear. The more I listen to and follow that “mantra,” the happier I turn out to be, because I’ve learned, that, as Roosevelt said, “The only thing we have to fear is fear, itself.”  

3. “Action is the antidote to despair” is another of my favorite sayings. One thing that might help you is the truth of this saying: when you start to “do” something, fear just dissipates, degree by degree by degree. Living in fear leads to despair; taking actions in spite of fear makes despair go away. Sooner or later, you have to decide if you are going to be a fearful person the rest of your life, or if you are going to be “adult” about things and “confront” your fears. The sooner you confront your fears, the sooner you will feel that veil of despair lift and disappear, and the sooner you will actually begin to enjoy the process of acting against, or in spite of fear.

4. Standing up to Bullies is the best way to stop them. The first time anyone stands up to a bully, or even thinks about doing it, they fear retaliation, retribution and even greater bullying. Though it is, I’m sure, hard to believe, the exact opposite usually happens: the bully finds a different, passive, willing victim who won’t fight – or bite – back. I say that not just as an attorney who has helped people stand up to bullies for 30 years, but as someone who has had to stand up to bullies in his own life, more than once. I, too, feared the retaliation, retribution and even greater bullying. Experience has taught me that the opposite takes place. In fact – and please don’t quote me – I have come to the point where I actually enjoy standing up to bullies, to see them in disbelief, to see them squirm, to see them run away, to see them learn a lesson: “Even the little old lady on the subway might have a can of pepper spray in her pocketbook.” I know this is a matter of faith, but like the saying goes, “When fear knocks on your door, send faith to answer it.”

5. Health should always come first. As the saying goes, “If you don’t have your health, you don’t have anything.” This, more than anything, should be the guiding star of your decision. It’s hard to figure out what would risk your health more – filing a grievance or not filing a grievance. But I think that your “inside” or “instincts” will guide you in this decision.

6. People tell me that the “pain” of possible retaliation is far less “painful” than the “pain” of certain daily abuse. My clients have reported this to me, too. The daily “pounding” of hostile and abusive behavior has a way of eroding self-esteem and self-confidence, and then even sleep and health. Eventually the dehumanization results in making you a “zombie” of sorts. On the other hand, saying through your actions and demeanor, “I am a human, we have rules, and I won’t take your nonsense anymore” has the opposite effect – on the bully, but on you, too. It is self-affirming, it is humanizing, and it is revitalizing. Sure, from my battles with bullies I have a few “bumps on my forehead,” at least there is a smile on my face, and I enjoy waking up to each new day. And, too, deep down inside I know I have done what I always should have done. But better late than never.

7. What are you really afraid of? Can the bullies really do anything more, or worse, to you? You write that these past few days make you feel like you cannot take another day. Could it be much worse? Eleanore, I don’t know your financial resources, but even getting fired seems like it would be better than losing your emotional, mental and physical health, no? If by this account you have nothing to lose, then by definition you have everything to gain. In any negotiation, the person with the least to lose usually wins the negotiation.

8. A well-prepared and well-documented grievance is a powerful thing. You might ask a friend to help you, or to be your editor, or even to be there for emotional support. Even if you don’t submit your grievance, I suggest you prepare an organized, respectful and detailed grievance – just for the “fun” of it. Even if you don’t send it, I think the process of preparing it will be helpful to your emotions, and help you make your decision. I think when it is complete, that alone will make you feel better about what you have accomplished. I think this process will make the fear disappear at least a bit, and you will be able to see more clearly than you have in a real long time.

We have available a Model Letter entitled “Anonymous Report of Bully Boss Behavior,” for those who are concerned about potential retaliation. To obtain a copy, just [click here].

9. And don’t forget the “Extraordinary Power of Purpose.” Got children? Loves ones? A spouse or partner? Parents? Siblings? If you remember that one of the reasons you work is to be there for them if and when they need you, you will have a purpose outside yourself, a better reason than yourself to stand up for yourself, a strange kind of strength, resolve and determination that you didn’t feel before. When you are standing up for those you love, all of a sudden you’ll find courage that you didn’t know was there before. I urge every one of my clients in your situation to keep a photo of loved ones nearby – in a pocket or purse – to remind you of this “extraordinary power of purpose.”    

Eleanore, because I don’t know you, I can’t help you weigh the particular “pluses” and “minuses” of filing a grievance in your situation. But I do hope that these thoughts are of some help to you in that process. You have a lot of courage inside of you, and I hope and pray it will rise to the surface and guide you in whichever path you choose.

My Very, Very Best,
Al Sklover

One Empowered and Productive Employee at a Time ™

© 2012 Alan L. Sklover, All Rights Reserved.

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