Can bullying create PTSD?

Question:

Our newest accounting employee works in a cubicle with the accounting manager and one other employee. To create a sense of space for each of them, we’ve set up the office so each desk faces a wall. A door bisects the fourth wall and that’s where we’ve placed the accounting office’s filing cabinets.

Yesterday the accounting manager came to me and asked if the new employee could share an office with me. I have the largest office in our company, however, because I have regular client meetings in my office. Also, I need privacy when I have employee discussions.

When I asked what the problem was, she said the new employee jumps and even shrieks when others come into the office or walk to the file cabinets, as she can’t handle anyone walking behind her back. She told the manager she had post-traumatic stress disorder. That seemed odd to me as she wasn’t ex-military, so I questioned her in the presence of her manager.

During questioning, she burst into tears and said she’d been the victim of severe bullying in her last job. She claimed a jerk used to come up behind her and put his hand, paper clips and other items down her shirt back, until it was investigated and he was fired. She said she was so traumatized by his actions that she resigned and took two months off before applying for our job.

The manager wants to keep her but I have a hard time believing all this. What are our options or do we simply decide she’s not a fit for working in the office we have available?

Answer:

Before you decide she isn’t a “fit,” please realize the Americans with Disabilities Act may cover her. Although we commonly consider PTSD a war wound or link it with the extreme trauma of a sexual assault, it’s an anxiety disorder resulting from a traumatic environment in which the individual senses she has little or no control. Severe bullying can create PTSD, and as an employer, you’re required to try to find a viable accommodation.

You can turn her desk so her back is to the wall. Although her desk will jut out into the center space, it eliminates the problem. Or you can house her in a less congested cubicle or allow her to work from home. Search out what might work. Many construction and oil patch companies in Alaska tried the “we can’t hire women because we only have one bunk house or shower” defense when they got sued for illegal sex discrimination in the 1980s. They were told to subdivide the bunk house and schedule the shower.

Finally, although some employees falsely allege PTSD for a variety of reasons, the fact that she resigned, took two months off and now shrieks when others walk behind her suggests she’s telling you the truth. If you suspect she’s not, you can have your own professional evaluate her and the situation. If you keep her on board, please give her a fair shot.

©Dr. Lynne Curry is author of ”Beating the Workplace Bully” and ”Solutions” as well as owner of the management/HR consulting/training firm The Growth Company Inc. Follow her on Twitter @lynnecury10 or at http://www.bullywhisperer.com.

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3 Comments on “Can bullying create PTSD?

  1. Good call. I’ve seen more than one new employee take 6 months to a year to realize and internalize that our workplace is a no-bully, no-overbearing-bosses territory and then turn into great employees who contribute fully and are not afraid to make suggestions. But you have to give them the time and space, for the ones who don’t have actual PTSD. And, frankly, I’d hate a cubicle or office where I had to sit with my back to the door. I concentrate very hard while working and can easily be startled by an unexpected voice at my back. (yes, minor shrieks do happen)

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    • Thanks, Sue. When someone has PTSD, it’s a healing process that take time. And you’re right, not everyone who says they have PTSD does.

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      • I said that wrong, I meant to say “don’t (claim to) have actual PTSD”. They might not recognize it or claim it, but the effect is the same.

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