If you thought you'd be safe from bullies once you got away from the tough guy on the playground or the mean girl in high school, think again. Unfortunately, those schoolyard bullies grow up and sometimes continue the cycle of being unkind and intolerant well into their professional years. According to the Workplace Bullying Institute, 60.4 million Americans are affected by workplace bullies every year.
Workplace bullying can take many forms, from easily recognizable harassment to more insidious actions that can leave you questioning whether or not someone is actually trying to cause you harm. Either way, the result is a workplace that is, at best, uncomfortable and, at worst, dangerous.
The good news is you're not alone. We're here to help you identify what's happening and to give you some strategies for dealing with your workplace bullies once and for all.
23 signs of workplace bullying.
If someone is constantly trying to force you to do things their way, that's a sign of a workplace bully. Whether they are intimidating you because they're in a position of power or they're simply insisting that their opinion is the only one that matters, a coworker who's uninterested in anyone else's thoughts is a problem.
Bullies are often sneaky about the ways in which they harm their victims, and ignoring someone is a tactic that is both effective and easy to deny. After all, they aren't really doing anything to their coworkers. In fact, they're actively NOT doing anything. If your workplace bully is ignoring you in meetings or via email or generally isn't collaborative, their inaction can have plenty of negative impact on you.
Mansplaining is real, but men aren't the only toxic coworkers who resort to condescension and infantilizing coworkers to make them feel inferior. If someone is disrespecting you by talking down to you, they're guilty of workplace bullying. It's not your imagination.
4. Constantly changing expectations.
It's impossible to succeed when your goals aren't clear, and a boss or supervisor who either avoids communicating expectations or changes them on a whim is creating a hostile work environment. Setting others up to fail is a red flag.
You might not be aware of the lies at first, but chances are you'll find out about them eventually. Lies might be personal — someone saying things about you that aren't true — or they could arise in the form of promises that were made to you that your employer never keeps.
6. Taking credit.
If someone is constantly taking credit for your work without giving you any sort of acknowledgment, this is a problem that needs to be dealt with immediately. It's easy to want to give folks the benefit of the doubt, but letting them enjoy the limelight while you seethe in the corner isn't doing you any good. Take the credit you deserve.
7. Talking over you.
If you're called to a meeting, generally, you deserve the opportunity to ask questions and contribute to the discussion without being constantly interrupted. Sure, it's normal for someone to get excited by one of your fabulous ideas occasionally and want to chime in before it's their turn. However, it's not normal for you to get cut off all the time.
Workplace gossip is, in many ways, par for the course. It's one thing when coworkers are all commiserating about having to stay late to work on a challenging project. It's another when they're whispering behind someone's back to make fun of them or spread rumors.
9. Destructive criticism.
Criticism is part of every job. No matter how used to it you are, it's never easy. A good coworker or supervisor understands that the best criticism comes with advice on improving and learning from mistakes. Criticism that serves only to tear someone down and belittle them is a sign of workplace bullying.
10. Disrespecting your time.
The old saying goes that you should be working to live, not living to work. An environment in which schedules are constantly changing with little to no notice and coworkers are late to or absent from meetings is not a happy one. Your time is valuable, and it's important that your supervisor, in particular, honors that.
11. Dismissing your concerns.
It can be scary to speak up and share your worries, and you deserve to have those taken seriously. A boss or coworker who gives you the equivalent of a pat on the head is not someone with your best interests at heart.
Whether people are keeping you out of the loop about a big project or planning an office get-together without you, secrecy isn't kind and it's not part of a healthy working environment.
13. Lack of support.
A strong leader is willing to find ways to support the people who report to them. If you seek additional guidance or resources at your workplace and rarely or never get that support, that might be a sign of a workplace bully.
Some signs of bullying are super obvious, and being humiliated is one of them. This can take the form of being yelled at in a meeting or being the victim of a practical joke that you don't think is very funny. You don't have to tolerate this.
15. Misgendering you.
It's not hard to call someone by their name and their pronouns. While it's kind to be understanding if a coworker slips up shortly after you make a change to your pronouns, that's completely different from dealing with a person who simply refuses to refer to you by the name and pronouns you requested. Don't put up with someone knowingly and constantly misgendering you.
Just like bullying, the phenomenon of "teacher's pet" continues into adulthood, too. It's normal for your boss to have stronger connections with some employees than others, but it's not fair for them to show people preferential treatment to the point of excluding you.
17. Removal of duties.
If you find that your work duties are dwindling without any prior discussion, that may be a sign you're being bullied and getting phased out. You go to work to...work. Insist that you get to do that.
Some managers are just annoying about this in general, but it's a red flag if you notice that you're being micromanaged more than your coworkers. Being asked to perform at an impossible standard is a sign of a workplace bully.
19. Unwelcome sexual advances.
This is another no brainer...or is it? Sometimes workers who come face to face with unwanted sexual advances are so taken aback that it's hard to process what's happening. Trust your instincts. If you think someone sexually harassed you, you're probably right.
20. Blocking promotions.
Preventing you from getting a promotion by either refusing to submit you for a role you're qualified for or by withholding information from you that might have helped you advance your career is a sign that someone doesn't have your best interests at heart.
21. Making fun of you.
Is it friendly teasing or is that co-worker making fun of you? This is another sign of workplace bullying that you should trust your instincts on. If you feel like someone is attempting to undermine your authority or make you appear less competent, that's not friendly. It's bullying.
When gaslighting occurs, you start doubting whether the challenges you're experiencing are real and start to believe that you're the problem. Gaslighting can affect your self-worth and your ability to trust yourself.
23. Physical violence.
Physical violence in the workplace is somewhat rarer than the other instances described, but it does happen. At the first sign of physical violence, it's time to take action to protect yourself.
What to do about it.
Talk to a mental health professional.
First and foremost, you need to take care of your own mental health. It can be helpful to speak to a therapist or counselor as one of the first steps in dealing with workplace bullying. That process will allow you to work through your thoughts and come up with a strategy for what you should do.
If you don't have the means to see a private therapist, don't worry. There are therapists who accept payment on a sliding scale depending on your income. Online therapists are another great option.
Have a meeting with HR.
If you work for a company that's large enough to have an actual human resources department, you should get them involved as soon as you feel you're being bullied. They can help you start documenting what's going on and assist in mediating any challenges you're having with your boss or coworkers. While collaborating with HR doesn't always offer a satisfying outcome, these professionals are generally good resources for helping to maintain a healthy working environment.
Stand up for yourself.
Depending on the situation, the solution might be simply to speak up for yourself. If the issue is that your bully is constantly talking over you in meetings, you can calmly reply, "I wasn't done sharing my ideas." If someone is taking credit for your work, consider ways to regain control and get the credit you deserve.
Confront your bully.
It sounds simplistic, but you can just tell your bully to stop. There are no guarantees that they will cut out the bad behavior, but there's a good chance that a coworker who's reasonable in other ways might just not realize that they're upsetting you. Plan your speech ahead of time, be clear about what you want them to change, and make sure you give them space to respond.
Hire an attorney.
If things are really bad, it's time to take legal action. Every state's laws are different, but workplace harassment is a form of employment discrimination. Talk with an attorney to see whether you have grounds for a suit. If you feel strongly and want to invest the time and money to sue your employer, it's worth considering.
Look for another job.
This is easier said than done, but you should start looking for other options if your workplace is untenable. Think about the kind of environment you want to work in, and seek out that situation. As you're interviewing for other work, remember that you can ask your potential employer questions, too. Hopefully, you can find a better fit and a more comfortable situation.
Leslie W. Price is a theatre artist, educator, and writer living in the San Francisco Bay Area.