brother.jpgThere’s is nothing worse than having a loved one who’s treated badly at work. Unfortunately, in this economic environment, fuses are short, people are over worked, and sometimes that causes hell for workers.

I typically write about how employees can deal with problems they face on the job, but lately some of you have been asking me how to help a loved going through this.

Becky emailed me recently about her older brother who is being bullied at work.

“My brother is being harassed on a daily basis in his workplace. He’s called a ‘fag’ regularly, is told to ’shut up’ and is constantly overall ridiculed, insulted, disrespected to say the least. He’s not gay but is single and, of course, in this world that’s enough to label you gay. His work environment is absolutely unbelievable. I guess there must be worst situations out there, but this one is pretty horrendous.”

She’s so upset over how her brother is being treated it’s starting to impact her own mental health because she has no clue how to help her brother. What to do?

I asked her the obvious questions. “Is he looking for another job, a different division or department even in the same company?”

He has done all these things but has gotten no where…not unexpected in this crummy job market.

We exchanged emails, but I realized she was at her wits end and becoming a bit desperate.

She wrote:

“I broke down tonight while on the phone with him though. Maybe he hasn’t, but I feel like I’ve reached my breaking point. He’s a human being, and he’s my brother. It’s absolutely tortuous for me knowing what he endures daily and matters are made worse when he discusses it so casually. I’m getting angry and frustrated with him, which is so totally inappropriate.”

Whoa! That’s not going to help anyone, so I offered to talk to her on the phone and called her. I totally understand her frustration. When someone you love is going through this type of abuse in the workplace and is suffering as a result you want to help them. But all your concern may end up doing more harm than good.

And, after talking to her, I realized her brother didn’t seem to really want to help himself. He didn’t complain about the behavior, and actually may have brought a bit of it on by his own actions. Not that I’m saying bullying is ever justified. It’s a big problem in the workplace and can be illegal. (Here’s a great site with lots of information on this problem.)

But when it comes to Becky, and people like her, she doesn’t really know what is going on where her brother works. In the end, you’re only getting one side of the story after all. And she lives in another state.

A while back I wrote a column for on what friends and family should say and do if someone they love loses a job. The main thing that came out of my research for that piece was don’t spread your anxieties on the jobless friend or family member. And crying is a definite no no.

Here’s some of what I found:

There’s no how-to manual on dealing with the jobless. But psychologists and career experts say it’s a lot like the etiquette we use when someone has lost a loved one. the proliferation of social networking sites and e-mail have added yet more complexities to an already sticky situation.

“The main challenge in this situation is that most of us project onto the laid-off person how we’d feel if we were laid off,” says Karen Romine, a psychotherapist in Santa Monica, Calif. “In most cases, this means we see them as a helpless victim who’s in real trouble. The truth is, while it’s a setback, it’s not nearly as bad as we tend to think.”

This is sort of how Becky should deal with this. Offer her brother encouragement, not tears, that this too will pass.

Yesterday I emailed a Manhattan psychologist Dr. Joseph Cilona to ask him specifically how people like Becky can help loved ones if they are going through work hell, such as bullying, or being overworked?

His thoughts:

ASK ABOUT YOUR THEIR NEEDS. Although there are general strategies to coping with stress and conflict like this, it is much like a finger print. Everyone has their own unique way of getting through it. One of the best ways to help a loved one in this situation is to be direct and ask them what helps and what doesn’t. Don’t assume what would make you feel better will make them feel better. If you do something to try to help or support them like bring them, ask them if they found that helpful. Let them know that you won’t be hurt or insulted or think they are unappreciative if they don’t find something helpful. Be clear that supporting them and helping where possible is your top priority.

DON’T TRY TO CHEER THEM UP. The first impulse for many people watching a loved one upset about this kind of situation is to try to help change their feelings from negative to positive. This may seem logical and that it can only be helpful, but it can really backfire and make them feel worse. It can be very powerful to simply validate their difficult feelings with simple phrases that let them know you have empathy and understand how hard these feelings can be for them. For example, respond with statements like “I know how frustrating and difficult that is must be for you” rather than “Don’t worry, it could be worse.”

Another tendency for many people trying to help a loved one facing these problems is to try and offer solutions and ways to
“fix” the situation. Part of the difficulty of dealing with this kind of situation for many people is a sense of powerlessness. Telling them specific things to do to help themselves can inadvertently increase feelings of powerlessness. Instead, try to lead your friend to possible solutions by gentle questioning based on observations of what seems to help them and what doesn’t.

And he also offered some bonus advice for people who have to deal with bad behavior on the job:

“Unfortunately, a professional environment doesn’t always guarantee professional and appropriate behavior,” he said. “Encountering inappropriate behavior when at work can leave you feeling shocked and uncertain about how to best respond. The following tips can help you be better prepared and have an immediate plan of action when faced with unprofessional and inappropriate behavior.”

RESPOND IMMEDIATELY TO BAD BEHAVIOR. It’s important to respond quickly, clearly and specifically to bad behavior. It can be very helpful to first try to identify and validate whatever you think might have been motivating the behavior. Be sure to mention the negative emotion(s) you think the person might be experiencing, and ask a clarifying question to confirm your speculation. For example, “Mr. Jones, it seems like your feeling extremely frustrated with me. Am I on target in this thinking?” Continue then by mirroring back the clarification, expressing understanding, and then naming the specific inappropriate behavior and how it is negatively impacting you.

If the behavior is repeated, be clear about what the consequence will be and enforce it promptly at the next occurrence. Be succinct and specific with your words and neutral in your tone. Take extra care to avoid raising your voice or communicating frustration or judgment in your voice or body language. A failure to model appropriate and professional behavior while your speaking about it is very likely to exacerbate negative reactions. Focus on the behavior in general and minimize the use of “you” statements as much as possible.

You may also consider not getting into a toxic workplace in the first place. Here’s a link to some great tips from AvidCareerist on how to do that.

Clearly Becky’s brother would benefit from getting out of the toxic environment he finds himself in. I told Becky he could email or call me, and I even offered to go over his resume if he wanted. She was so excited and told me she’d call him and see if he would take me up on the offer. The brother didn’t know she had reached out to me, so I told her to be honest with him and give him my email and phone number.

I have yet to hear from her brother, who is in his mid 30s, by the way.

I think Becky has done enough. How about you?

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