The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Telling office bullies that they hurt your feelings may feel liberating. But it’s a bad idea.

Sharing your hurt only helps with people who care about your feelings. Otherwise it’s giving them ammunition.

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Reader: I left my miserable, abusive workplace of two years over the holidays. I worked remotely, but I was told that the supervisors would disparage me and others in front of the entire department daily. This week, I was accidentally informed that my three former supervisors had a countdown of how many days until I was finally out of the office. Two of them were people I barely worked with.

I’ve seen them bully, harass and abuse many people. There were at least a half-dozen complaints about this to HR and management over the past two years, and an “investigation” by the higher-ups found no wrongdoing. I was identified as a target but was never interviewed during the investigation.

I’m trying to leave that behind and heal. But I do want to say my piece. I want to send the three offenders an email explaining how they hurt my feelings. I want to tell them that they should be ashamed of themselves for abusing their power and their subordinates. But I’m concerned that I’ll have HR and management calling me, and it’ll become a lot of drama.

I have a draft of this email written, and I want to send it to the offenders only, but if I do, can I refuse to participate in any further questioning?

Work Advice: Dealing with a workplace bully

Karla: Your question leapfrogs over a more important question: Should you send that email at all?

Writing out your bad feelings is always a good idea. Sharing them with the people who caused them, in this case, is not.

I understand the need for closure and the opportunity to say, “I know what you did, and it’s not okay,” instead of just leaving with your tail tucked. But trust me when I say you won’t be getting the last word.

Sending a “You hurt my feelings” message is helpful when:

  • The recipients care about your feelings, or, at least, their own image.
  • You’re deliberately laying a documentation trail for future action.

Beyond those scenarios, you’d just be handing your bullies a “kick me” sign to pin to your back.

It’s possible one or two of them would feel a twinge of private regret at being called out. Generally, though, lecturing people who have to be told when they should be ashamed of themselves is a lost cause.

If they share your message with HR and management, it will only be as evidence that you were “too emotional” and “unprofessional” and your departure was no big loss.

Best case, they mock or ignore you. Worst case, they harass you — or launch a smear campaign against which you will have no effective way of defending yourself.

If you had leverage over these bullies, such as support from authorities who could impose real consequences, my answer might be different. But management at your former employer has already washed its hands of the matter. They investigated just far enough to determine that they can safely continue to ignore the toxic behavior everyone knows about.

Work Advice: When a manager is out to get you

But there are ways to get beyond this that don’t involve making yourself vulnerable to further abuse.

Talk to a therapist, career counselor or other professional who can help you process what you’ve been through and give you the validation you’re unlikely to get from your abusers. Venting your hurt in a private space will also help drain off any negative vibes you might be carrying to interviews.

Maintain connections with the people you can trust from your old job for networking and references. But also remember that they’re still enmeshed in the toxicity as long as they’re at that workplace, and stay vigilant against getting dragged back into the gossipy quagmire — especially if it’s just feeding your hurt and outrage.

Date and print a copy of the email you’ve written. Delete the electronic copy so you can’t hit “send” on it. Refer back to the print copy if you start to question whether leaving was a good idea, or whether it really was all that bad. Then, once you’ve found another employer that treats you with the respect you deserve, file it away for your memoirs.

Reader query: With labor shortages due to the coronavirus pandemic, I’m hearing about workers being asked to cover jobs at their workplace that are completely different from what they usually do (such as office workers serving food or sorting mail). Have you been asked to do this? How did it work out? Let me know at