Put a finger down if you have experienced or observed workplace trauma over the past two pandemic years. Bullying? Verbal abuse? Harassment? Racist remarks? Sexist comments? Ableist attitudes? Agism? Or any other inappropriate or discriminatory behavior? Workplace trauma comes in many forms – and honestly, you don’t deserve any of them.
According to a study in 2021, 55% of employees experienced workplace discrimination and 80% of them experienced it while working remotely. While this study is from a relatively small pool of employees, approximately 500, it reflects an unfortunate new norm: discrimination, harassment, and bullying at work have gone virtual.
Even throughout the WFH era, toxic work cultures, abusive bosses, and politically incorrect colleagues have continued to wreak havoc on women, BIPOC, LGBTQ+ folks, and other marginalized communities. Over the past year, we’ve seen major discrimination lawsuits against big tech companies, like Google and Tesla, come to light too.
While the Great Resignation is encouraging us all to leave behind toxic jobs and land a role that makes us feel valued and respected, workplace trauma is still a valid threat. It’s something that we as women or non-binary individuals, must mentally prepare for, especially in the tech industry.
But alas, there is such limited education on what to do if we experience trauma at work! Do we go to HR? Do we complain to our supervisors? Should we go straight to a lawyer? Or do we just internalize it and hope it doesn’t happen again? What are our options for healing from & protecting ourselves against workplace trauma and discrimination?
Over the past 18 months, I’ve been working with an employment lawyer with 25+ years of experience fighting workplace discrimination and an award-winning executive career coach in tech to answer these questions.
As a content marketer and copywriter myself, I’m helping these two powerhouse WOC develop a playbook to help folks legally overcome professional trauma.
While working on Exit Wisdom, their initiative to democratize legal education for marginalized people who have experienced workplace trauma, I’ve learned some incredible career power moves that I’m constantly sharing with friends, colleagues, and my women’s college alumni network. And of course, I want to share them with the Elpha community too.
So if you’re pushing through a toxic workplace or simply want to know what to do if you enter one, here are three empowering practices you can use to protect yourself against workplace trauma now and for the rest of your career.
1. Gathering Evidence is Truly Your Greatest Superpower
Regardless of whether or not you think your employer has actually broken the law and discriminated against you – if you’re experiencing something traumatic at work, start documenting in every way possible.
In any situation, gathering evidence is the ultimate way for you to be your best advocate, recognize which cards are in your hand, and decide on your next best move. Learning how to bring together evidence confidently is an incredibly validating, empowering practice.
Not only can you decide in the future if you’d like to file a legal discrimination claim with the federal government, but you can also leverage this evidence directly with HR, your supervisor, or senior leadership to demand resolution.
Smart Tips on How to Gather Evidence:
- Create a physical folder or digital folder NOT on your work computer- you’ll want to store evidence somewhere safely without fear of someone discovering it.
- In general, there are two goals of gathering evidence, particularly in the context of workplace discrimination. Even if you don’t believe what you’re going through is legal discrimination, these two goals are still helpful to know:
- The first is to prove that the negative treatment happened.
- The second is to demonstrate how that negative experience was linked to your identity as a member of a legally protected class, such as race, gender, sexual identity, age, physical or mental disability, national origin, and more.
- Going straight to HR to file a report is not your only option. There are many different ways to document your experience and use that documentation as evidence. Here are a few examples that you may not have thought of:
- Text messages to friends or your significant other about the negative experience you had at work.
- A Slack message from your colleague asking if you’re okay after they witnessed your workplace trauma.
- Testimonials from a conversation at brunch you had with your best friends about what happened to you.
- Documentation that you went to your therapist or doctor for support for onset depression, anxiety, PTSD, etc… after the experience at work happened.
- An account from your significant other or roommate that you started having terrible nightmares and sleepwalking after the negative experience.
- Commenting below on this article about your negative experience (anonymously or not).
So what is the moral of the story? If you experience something traumatic at work – tell someone. Text your partner, call your family, tell your best friends, chat with a counselor, or post on an online forum. All of those actions can be documented and used as evidence. Plus they can provide some much-needed emotional validation to help you feel supported.
2. While HR May Not Be Your Go-To, Definitely Review Your Contract or Employee Handbook
When conflict arises at work, we assume we either need to speak to our supervisors or head to HR to solve the issue. But what happens if our boss, supervisor, or senior leadership are the aggressors? What if we get the sense that the HR department prioritizes the wellness of the company over our own individual needs?
As mentioned above, there are many ways we can gather evidence to document an abusive incident or repeated bad behavior. If going to HR does not feel like a safe option- then don’t. Make sure you tend to your immediate emotional and physical needs- you always deserve to feel safe and comfortable at work.
Many of us assume that HR is where we must go to report problems; however, this is not always the case. You may find in your employment contract or employee handbook that there is a specific person, team, or department that is responsible for filing reports or handling conflict resolution. In fact, there may be a specific protocol put in place that most employees don’t even realize exists and therefore don’t follow it.
While you may have no interest in filing a formal report, it’s important to be familiar with the official conflict resolution protocol for a few reasons:
- You can follow the process in hopes of actually resolving your issue.
- You can follow the process knowing that the issue probably won’t be solved. But you’ll then have strong evidence of what happened. Plus you can potentially document if your employer neglects or mishandles the situation.
- You decide the process is not worth it and can confidently decide to allocate your energy towards healing in other ways.
Please note that if you one day wish to file a legal discrimination claim, you will most likely need evidence that you followed this formal reporting/conflict resolution process.
Lastly, you might want to double-check your contract because you’re ready to quit after this terrible experience! Before you dive into giving notice to leave your job, familiarize yourself with the terms of your “notice clause.” You will want to understand if there are any specific rules or timelines as to when you’re supposed to quit.
If your contract has a specific notice requirement, then there is one caveat worth highlighting. Job contracts sometimes include a statement explaining that if you break any clause in the contract, then you’ll forfeit certain provisions. For example, if you don’t follow the official 30-day notice period then your employer might not grant you certain parts of the agreement, like getting paid out for your unused Paid Time Off (PTO).
3. Seek Community & Be an Ally Whenever Possible
Oftentimes, people stay in the shadows because they feel alone, isolated, and emotionally invalidated. It’s perfectly normal to feel a sense of shame after experiencing workplace trauma- and that shame may fight against the urge to speak up and share your story with others. Doing so is not only empowering but can also aid your emotional and professional healing. Of course, we know it’s easier said than done.
Speaking up about your negative experience will invite others to come and support you. Perhaps you find refuge with other colleagues that share aspects of your identity. For example, can you set up a private Zoom call with a handful of trustworthy Black software developers at your organization to ask for advice? Or perhaps you start a text group with other young women in your department to share your experience and ask for backup at your next meeting.
In a time of need, rallying the troops may be a great way to help you stay safe at work, get others to document evidence that could support you, help you find a new job, or simply be a shoulder to cry on. Community is key.
Additionally, if you’re in a toxic work environment where you witness or suspect others are experiencing trauma, be the ally you wish you had.
Speak up at a meeting to call bad behavior out. Be a distraction to let your colleague escape their aggressor. Check in with them afterward to see if they’re okay or need help documenting what happened. You are in this together and both may have valuable insight to help you escape, resolve, or report the workplace trauma.
Concluding Thoughts: You ALWAYS deserve to feel safe at work
In case you need a reminder, you never deserve to be in a toxic, abusive, or discriminatory workplace.
In this day and age, when hustle culture reigns supreme, we are often told to “suck it up,” “grow thicker skin,” “stop making a big deal about it,” or that if we “can’t handle it, then maybe we shouldn’t be working here.” These are toxic statements that often invalidate our experiences and gaslight us.
Plain and simple: you are always entitled to feel safe and comfortable at work.
And while there are times when we all feel powerless and stuck in bad situations, I want to remind you of these three empowering tools in your toolkit:
- Gathering evidence to document what’s happening ;
- Familiarize yourself with the official reporting or conflict resolution protocol; and
- Catalyze community and allyship whenever possible.