Returning to work as a (former) target of workplace bullying

A page of advice, success stories and cautionary tales for those returning to work.

Gaps? Answering the 'why did you leave your last job' question. References?

It's impossible!

No, it's not.

Leo Tolstoy had a club, of which he claimed to be the only member.

It was called the White Bear Club.

To become a member you had to sit alone in a room and not think about the imaginary white bear in the corner for 5 minutes.

The point of course is that trying not to think about something, you can't help but do so.

Realtors say that their worth is in presenting a property to a possible buyer without explaining everything.

The home owner, the seller, will at every point in the tour of the house where they feel there is something less than perfect explain or justify every shortcoming.

'Well this is the kitchen. That slight damp patch in the corner, on the ceiling, comes from that bad storm last year. We painted over it but you can still see where the leak was.'

The realtor will say: 'This is the kitchen. You'll notice the wonderful natural light from the floor to ceiling windows. The sink, installed just last year is in three sections allowing preparation and dishwashing to be done at once...'

If asked about the damp patch (but more likely to be asked about the sink or agreed with about the excellent daylight) the realtor will say. 'It was a one off leak. It just needs another coat of paint.' and move on to another great feature of the kitchen or on to the next room.

Thus it is with gaps and references and 'why did you leave' questions.

If you are still stuck back there, explaining everything, then it will show and you will force the questioner to focus on exactly what you don't want them too. If you are trying not to think about the White Bear they will notice.

Here are some simple tips to keep you moving forward.

You need to show three things:

you are not avoiding a question or denying the past

you are not trying to explain things away

you are organized and are looking and moving forward

Dealing with gaps.

Well these days everyone has gaps. Almost no one starts work at 16 or 18 and then works for the same company through to retirement at 60 or 65.

If you have had a break from work to recover from being bullied you may be nervous about explaining what you were doing for the last 6 months. year, 2 years.

Saying you were a bit of a wreck, and couldn't function doesn't seem an adequate response or at least not one to get you a job offer, so what to do?

Here's what I suggest to my clients (working as an employment counsellor in the Downtown Eastside of Vancouver, BC).

'I was taking care of some family business and now I'm looking forward to getting back to work which is why I am interested in this position with (name of company)'.

This may be partly true - you are part of your family and taking care of yourself and others affected by your experience of being bullied is part of the gap.

However accurate, this approach does three things in one sentence. First acknowledge the gap, second dismiss it and thirdly move on.

No one will ask 'What family business?'.

If they do, you get up and leave! You don't want to work for inappropriate and intrusive people.

Any true human will understand 'family business' - haven't we all had to take some time to take care of it?

It is crucial to keep the three step answer intact. Don't stop at the first part.

So - dealing with gaps:



Move on

Answering the 'why did you leave your last job' question.

'Because my co-worker/ supervisor/ subordinate was a bullying a**hole..' may be true but won't do.

Just as suggested above the principle is to acknowledge, dismiss and move on.

'I felt I had learnt and given as much as I was going to so I thought it was time to move on, which is why I put in an application for this position.....'

'The team/ department I was working with/ in had changed a lot and the 'fit' wasn't as good as it had been; this happens sometimes doesn't and it's then you know time to move on...' smile.....

'I didn't see a way of continuing to grow with (name of previous employer). I'd enjoyed my work there and now I'd like a chance to expand on what I'd learnt in a position such as the one you are offering...'

Even if you had been bullied out of your last job, all the above examples are true.

So - dealing with why you left:



Move on


When you had a bad time at your last place of work, you are understandably anxious that your previous employer, especially if they were the bully or one of the bullies or one of the bystanders, will sink you with a bad reference.

Let's look at what a reference is designed to do.

It's purpose is to confirm the interviewer's good taste and assessment skills.

'I want to hire Jane; I can see that Jane is the one. I will call Jane's references to have them agree with my decision.'

The though process is not 'I want to catch John out. I will call his references and hope they tell me how awful John is.'

If you feel your interviewer is trying to catch you out, then you don't want to work there. Done.

Selecting references

If your direct supervisor at your last place of work will not give you a good reference don't use them.

It's OK to say 'The people I worked most closely with..' or 'The people who know my work best...' I am not in touch with anymore/ are no longer there/ have moved on themselves.

You may wish to go back to the job prior to the 'bad' one, and select a reference from that workplace. It's fine to offer just one professional and one personal reference.

Whoever you select as references ensure they are, or least are prepared to be, not completely glowing.


Well 'Jane is the most wonderful person in the history of the world without a flaw in any aspect of her work or personality....' doesn't ring true, sorry Jane.

So you are looking for a 95% glowing reference, but with an acknowledgment that you are human and therefore flawed.

Your reference must be prepared to answer the 'If I was to ask about a weakness that John has...' question.

'Well John does sometimes take on too much; he knows this about himself, and is always now aware of how much he can deal with professionally at once...'

It is the reference's version of the classic interview 'What about a weakness that you have...' question.

So - references

Remind yourself of the purpose of references.

Dismiss queries over 'why not direct supervisor?' if this is the case.

Select your references and remind them of their role and purpose.

Finally, job interviews are just that an 'interview' 'between see' not an interrogation.

If the style of the interview is aggressive or the questioning inappropriate you don't want the job anyway.

Do find a friend or relative to rehearse your answers until they flow, without revealing pauses.

No Bully For Me - adding insight to injury

A campaign to support and inform the targets of workplace
bullying and to promote respectful workplaces.

We are physically based in Vancouver, B.C., Canada