Sunday, January 18, 2009

A personal attack at work

Last week, my company’s HR manager, who is also a family friend of our President, verbally attacked my management skills. In my opinion, her comments crossed the line from constructive criticism to a personal attack.

Luckily, I had read this post on Anita Bruzzese's blog "On the Job" a couple of days before the occurrence. While she was going on and on about how my career was going nowhere, I was the weakest manager my company had and that it was all my own fault, I kept repeating to myself this isn’t about me, this isn't about me. I knew what she was saying wasn't entirely true and that the attack was more about her career than mine (she had a confrontation with my boss earlier in the day; she is being forced to do administrative work she feels is beneath her and most likely feels her job is going nowhere), but her words still stung. I thought I handled myself as well as I could while talking to her, but afterwards I went back to my office and cried. I haven't cried at work in 15 years.

I made it through the rest of the work day and even went to my Pilates class, but once I was home I just couldn’t shake the incident. Foreseeing a sleepless night and inability to concentrate at work for the next several days, I posted a comment on Anita’s blog asking:

Does anyone have any suggestions on how not to dwell on a personal attack after the occurrence?

Anita posted the following response:
Savvy Working Girl, I’m going to suggest some things, but I hope other folks will jump in with suggestions.

1. Talk to someone you trust about how you're feeling. This can be a family member or friend, someone who will be empathetic, without trying to fix the problem for you.

2. Get moving. Studies have shown time and again how important it is to use physical exercise to relieve stress. Go dancing, to a gym, indoor pool, or go bowling! Do something physical that will help burn off some of your anxiety.

3. Write it down. Put down everything you're feeling. And then write all the positive things you did in the situation and review how well you handled it.

4. Look deeper. You say you haven't cried in 15 years at work, and feel you handled it well. That could mean it wasn't this particular incident that was so bad, but perhaps an indication that a lot of things are building up. Maybe things have gotten out of balance and you can see this incident as wake-up call that you need to re-balance your life.

5. Laugh. Rent a funny movie, go to a comedy club, watch stupid videos on YouTube. Laughter truly is the best medicine and can help you relieve the stress.

6. Be good to yourself and others at work. Erase a bad situation at work by replacing it with good things. Put 5-10 coins in one pocket. Every time you pay someone a compliment, move the coin to the other pocket, with the aim being to have moved all the coins by the end of the day. Buy yourself a nice flower to put on your desk. Go to lunch with friends or co-workers you enjoy. Take a walk, weather permitting. Just be good to yourself.

Finally, I know it sounds trite, but you truly do have a choice to make. You can choose to let this incident drag you down, to make you lose sleep and be miserable. Or, you can choose to focus on something else. It really is your decision, and you have the control. Good luck, and let me know how things go.

I read Anita’s response before going to work the next morning. I tried all of her suggestions, but it still took almost a week to shake the incident. I particularly liked her advice to look deeper. The reason I found the criticism so upsetting is because I have been disenchanted with my career and feeling overworked for quite sometime. The manager's approach may have been too harsh, but her message was valid. My work load is getting out of control and it's time I start taking steps to rectify the situation.

What do I do going forward?
Now, that I can look back on the incident with out getting upset, I can remove the hurtful comments to decipher the message she was attempting to convey. I do need to delegate more work, my staff does need to be more accountable; they can no longer leave early to mail their holiday cards expecting me to finish their work (I did draw the line on this one and insisted my employee stay until she finished her assigned project). I didn’t replace an employee who resigned last spring. This has added additional work and stress on me and everyone in my department including my boss and our HR manager. After the economy picks up, I have to hire someone even if it is only part-time.

In future dealings with our HR manager I am going to keep discussions focused, never giving advice or asking for an opinion. Even though she gave me a little present a couple of days ago, I need to limit the time I spend with her. I am not ready for another attack.

Perfect my work. This goes for me and my department. I have been saying this for quite some time; this manager has caused problems in my department in the past by personally attacking my employees. If we work together as a group, get our work done accurately and timely she won’t be able to touch us.

What about complaining about her to the owner? Just about everyone in the company wants this to happen, but nobody wants to be the one to do it. Even my boss, an officer of the company, feels the President needs to rein her in, but is unwilling to be the one to complain. She has such a volatile personality we are hoping she will one day do herself in.

Lessons Learned:
Do your job and do it well. The workplace bully wants you to fail and when you don't he or she will be defeated. Make sure your superiors are aware of your work. Workplace bullies often try to spread the word that you are not doing your job well and will even go as far as to report the smallest infractions to your boss. Your actions will carry more weight than his or her words. No one likes to be yelled at or treated with disrespect. It is degrading to have another adult treat us like a child. Most of us begin to tune out criticism when it feels like a personal attack, but hidden behind a crazed tirade may be some important suggestions for improving your work. After you have had time to cool off, think about whether there is anything you can learn from the experience. Try to separate the message from the messenger. Once you strip away the personal attack, is there something left that merits your attention?

And finally, I believe the key to constructive criticism is knowing that after dressing down a worker a manager needs to find a way to end the conversation on an encouraging note. The employee should want to get out there and perform not be so defeated they search out new employment.

Thank you to Anita for writing the helpful blog post and responding to my inquiry.

Please feel free to comment on your own personal attacks at work and what you do to keep from dwelling on them.


  1. I want to thank you for being so open with what happened to you. The number of people you will help with your honesty probably will never be known, but suffice it to say that you've taken a very negative situation and turned it into a positive. As I said on my blog...
    You rock, girl. You really do.
    Anita Bruzzese

  2. I had a similar experience (except it went on and on) with my last boss. It took me a long time to come to terms with the fact that someone could be against me for their own reasons. So I agree with Anita - you need to be doing things that remind you of who you really are and what you are really capable of. Also, I read a great book this year, "How to be Useful: A Guide to Not Hating Work" and wished I had had it during that time. Hope things are better!!!

  3. Anonymous7:32 PM

    This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  4. Anonymous7:32 PM

    This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  5. Anonymous7:49 PM

    I need to resubmit: I need feedback on being coached and counseled on someone's perception of me being rude by giving short responses to her questions. I was totally taken aback. Her questions were answered appropriately and honestly; I didn't know any other way to respond and I conveyed this to her. I've worked on this job for 5 years and have never had a manager speak to my character as this manager did today. I was so upset that I wanted to cry but I stated that I needed to seek advice on how to respond to third party false accusations. I don't know what to do; I feel that this is a personal attack against my character. How can I defend my self against someone's perceptions? I was so upset in typing this earlier that I had some errors. So this is a resubmit. Please advise.

  6. Anon,
    I've decided to start a new post highlighting your question. Please see And good luck to you.

  7. Anonymous7:31 PM

    It is extremely interesting for me to read the article. Thanks for it. I like such topics and everything that is connected to this matter. I would like to read more soon.

  8. Anonymous6:15 AM

    Thank you for sharing your experience. I have been having a very difficult time with a leadership peer making an unfounded personal attack behind my back. It is very difficult to stop dwelling on it, and I have been giving her too much of my time and energy. Your situation spoke to mine and has been very helpful. Thank you and best wishes to you!

  9. The line between a personal attack and a very crtical conversation is unclear to me. My boss, who claims it is never personal, sometimes does not listen at all and then makes a strong declaration that an idea or opinion I have expressed is not valid, while the accuracy of his perception is "obvious". To me using ridicule is a personal attack in disguise. In response I recently responded with the question "don't you listen" as part of my response and I was told this was completely inappropriate, that it was a personal attack. I am distraught!

  10. Dancing Bear,
    Please see my latest post where I attempted to address your comment

    Thanks for commenting and good luck.

  11. Rachel12:15 AM

    I recently received 2 personal attacks at my workplace. My boss said that i was putting on weight - 1st time - the lady boss said it front of my co-worker. 2nd time (5 days later) - she said it in front of my peers and other managers, including her boss. I'm quite sure I'm not overweight but with age, my belly is kinda rounder that before. I'm not in the modelling industry where slimness is so important. It's really demoralizing to be humiliated in front of everyone. Any ideas how i can deal this?

  12. Rachel,
    I have attempted to answer your question in a new post. Please see:

  13. Anonymous8:38 AM

    Hello... I was looking for some ideas about how to handle attacks and came across this older post.
    I don't supervise anyone and try to stay out of the inevitable drama, but have had 3 incidents of mean comments in the past month. It seems that the more you stay out, the more they try to suck you in. Many of the folks I work with are friends outside work and I don't do that. Anything new in the arena that's helpful?

  14. Anonymous,
    I am assuming these mean comments are coming from do-workers and not management. I addressed a similar problem in moving on after a personal attack by a co-worker found here: You may also find helpful such as practicing rebuttals in the mirror or with a friend in the comments of this post: I will try to put together a new post about dealing with personal attacks from co-workers in the future.

  15. Anonymous2:57 PM

    I know this is an old post, but I just found it today. Thank you so much for sharing your experience, as well as Anita's suggestions. I recently experienced a pretty long and in-depth personal attack at work. Although I pride myself in how I handled it, I still felt shaken by the incident days later. I took Anita's advice of writing about the incident and processing what happened. I also made a list of things I can do to address some of the individual's criticisms (whether I agreed with them or not).

  16. Anonymous5:22 PM

    Happened to read this today. Today my junior at work snapped when encountered about lapse in work. She went ahead with a personal attack on me by calling me names at high decibel. Initially after having tried to reason out with her my patience gave in and I had to retailiate. Well a scene got created not to mention tension and hostility. Well thought I could take it to the boss to sound a warning bell but refrained from it as that would have made matters worse.

  17. You shouldn’t feel the need to justify the words of others ... No matter what the facts are, no one has the right to personally attack your work ethic.... The same suggestions can be made using kindness and encouragement which would also yield a better response from you. I would not tolerate this type of unprofessional communication. Make a formal complaint if necessary, but no amount of money is worth your integrity.