We’ve all known at least one – the coworker or team member who’s rude, domineering, arrogant, and even sometimes pointedly cruel. It’s stressful and unproductive, and it’s not appropriate in any workplace. If you are encountering workplace bullying, here’s what to do.
What Is Workplace Bullying?
Workplace bullying happens more often than you may think. "Workplace bullying is verbal, physical, social or psychological abuse by your employer (or manager), another person or group of people at work," according to HumanRights.org. "Workplace bullying can happen in any type of workplace, from offices to shops, cafes, restaurants, workshops, community groups and government organizations. Workplace bullying can happen to volunteers, work experience students, interns, apprentices, casual and permanent employees. Some types of workplace bullying are criminal offenses. If you have experienced violence, assault and stalking you can report it directly to the police."
Here's what to do if you think you're experiencing workplace bullying.
1. Understand You're Not Alone
Forty-five percent of American workers say they’ve dealt with workplace bullies — and that’s a conservative percentage. Other studies have found that the true ratio of workers affected by workplace bullying is more like 75 percent. Additionally, unlike the common stereotypes around schoolyard bullying, the targets of workplace bullies tend not to be the weaker members of a team, but the stronger and more veteran ones, according to research compiled by the Workplace Bullying Institute (or WBI).
“Targets are more technically skilled than their bullies,” the bully institute’s website explains. “They are the ‘go-to’ veteran workers to whom new employees turn for guidance. Insecure bosses and co-workers can't stand to share credit for the recognition of talent. Bully bosses steal credit from skilled targets.”
So, if you’re finding yourself the subject of a bully at work’s malicious attacks, it’s probably because they feel intimidated by your successes, skills, and/or how well you’re liked. As such, try not to internalize their words and actions. It’s truly not about you — it’s about them, and their own insecurities.
2. Assess if it’s an HR Issue (and Report if So)
Is the bully discriminating against you under a category that’s protected by anti-bullying legislation, or are they creating a hostile work environment that threatens you or prevents you from doing your work? If so, follow your organization’s protocol to talk with a supervisor or human resource representative that you trust, citing specific examples. Most companies have a strict zero-tolerance policy for bully behavior and workplace violence — and make no mistake, verbal abuse is a form of violence.
So, talk about how the bully’s actions affect work projects/outcomes or the overall team culture instead of focusing solely on how it made you feel. Make sure you keep records of the bully’s actions that you can cite during this time — emails or notes work just fine.
3. Know Your Rights
Your company should absolutely want to do everything in their power to eliminate the bullying, including if that means firing the offender. That’s because having a bully at work can seriously cost an employer. Targets of bullies can often experience decreased confidence — or in more extreme situations, major mental health issues like post-traumatic stress disorder and stress-related illness — and that can lead to a lower quality of team output. Plus, a company will have a difficult time finding and retaining top talent if the environment they’re enabling is one of a toxic workplace culture. Thus, no matter how much seniority a bully may have attained or how skilled they are, the company is still better off without them. Know that.
However, also know that life doesn’t always work out that way. Sometimes bullies may find themselves in a relatively protected position, thanks to an ineffectual or even corrupt boss or manager. If that happens to be the case at your company, be prepared to take the issue above the heads of your direct superiors if necessary. Read up on anti-discrimination law and worker rights, and be prepared to cite such legislation when reporting bully behavior if you feel the situation calls for it.
4. Disconnect from the Bullying
Do whatever you can to not take it personally (easier said than done, right?). Shift your perspective so that you’re not valuing or taking to heart any of the actions this bully is taking. You’re a professional and a human being, and their thoughts/actions are not valid feedback for you; in fact, they likely have nothing to do with you, and everything to do with the bully. Whether it’s venting, meditating, scheduling PTO, or talking to someone, do what you can to ignore their bad behavior and maintain calm and focus on your own work. Because that’s really why you’re there, right?
5. Kill Them... with Kindness
I’ve found that most bullies are bullies because they’re overcompensating for some deeper insecurity or fear. By providing positive reinforcement for their good behavior, such as when they do respect others’ opinions, share credit, or contribute a good ideas, you may be able to start building a relationship with them and get them to a point where they’ll be able to better listen to and understand your point of view and how to best work with you. This is strategic communication and a great leadership skill, as well.
6. Match Them
Sometimes a bully becomes a bully when they’re more aggressive than you are. They talk over you in meetings, they shut down your ideas, or they may tell you to do things instead of asking. Are they using any tactics that you could adopt, albeit more professionally, and match their behavior right back? For example, maybe you could be a little less polite in meetings; if the bully keeps jumping in to start a debate while you’re presenting an idea, perhaps you might try jumping in with questions/assertions during their time, or you could change the tone of your emails to be a bit less accommodating and more direct. Sometimes, these small tweaks can help us feel as if we’re leveling the playing field, and that we have more of a stake in our work once again and aren’t being taken advantage of.
7. Enlighten Them
Depending on your relationship with the person, you may be able to confront them. Make sure you’re calm, and it’s one-on-one so there’s not an audience. Point out their specific behavior, without making any assumptions about why they did it, and let them know how it affected the work or the team dynamic, giving a suggestion or an ask as to what they could do differently next time, and thanking them for listening.
8. But Also — Don’t Expect to Change the Bully
Approaching the situation with this expectation is more than likely setting yourself up for failure. Sometimes a person doesn’t intend to bully — perhaps their style of communication is simply harsh, or maybe they engage in passive-aggressive behavior, and bringing that to their attention could actually serve to benefit you both, as mentioned above. But if a coworker is truly, pointedly bullying you, recognize that it can take a lot of time — years, even — for that behavior to really change. And ultimately, whether that happens or not is not something you have control over.
9. Defend Their Targets
The most important thing when you see someone else being bullied or subjected to harassment is to stand up for the target in the moment. I was once a manager at an organization where most of the directors were men, and I had an important meeting to discuss organizational process changes with several of those directors, as well as my direct boss, who was a woman. Every time I started trying to speak, there was one director who would jump in and start speaking over me. Every. Single. Time. And then another director who opposed his ideas would start jumping in on him, so my entire idea was lost almost immediately. I had great ideas, and it was incredibly frustrating to keep being talked over, especially at such an important meeting where I really wanted to be heard. Finally, my boss cut in, assertively: “Hold on a second. Every time Chelsea starts to speak, one of you interrupts her and it’s not right. You need to give her her turn to speak.” It was as simple as that, and they did. She kept neutrally pointing it out from that point, as well, to help them continue to identify it.
10. Shut ’Em Down
There have been times when a bully wanted to make me their ally, asking me to gossip about other employees or join in something I wasn’t comfortable with. Or they were just being a bully, and I had to let them know it wasn’t okay. So what did I do? Shut ‘em down right then and there. “Did you hear that so-and-so did XYZ and is going to get in trouble?” they’d ask. “I don’t want to get involved,” I’d reply. Or, if they brought up something inappropriate, “I’d prefer not to talk about that at work; it’s not appropriate.” Boom. By refusing to engage in bully behavior like this, you’re helping to protect a healthy workplace culture at your job.
11. Recognize the Many Forms Bully Behavior Can Manifest Itself
Not all bullying involves threats and raised voices. Some of it can be a tad murkier, and thus harder to pinpoint. Here are a few examples of workplace bullying when it’s taken a sneakier turn, according to the WBI:
- Someone wrongfully accusing you of making errors
- Someone purposefully taking credit for your work
- Someone assigning you impossible-to-complete tasks as a punishment
- Someone intentionally ensuring the failure of project by not performing required tasks
- Someone failing to stop the spreading of a rumor about you; this goes beyond being the one to actually start a rumor.
12. Get the Difference Between Bullying and Harassment
While bullying isn’t technically illegal in the U.S. (though individual companies may enforce anti-bullying policy independently), harassment is. According to the Employment Law Handbook, bullying is defined as any “repeated, unreasonable and unwelcome behaviour directed towards an employee or group of employees that creates a risk to health and safety. Bullying is a health and safety issue, and your obligation to prevent bullying relates to your duty as an employer to provide a safe workplace for your employees.” Meanwhile, harassment is categorized as “unwanted behaviour that offends, humiliates or intimidates a person, and targets them on the basis of a characteristic such as gender, race or ethnicity. Harassment relates to the prohibition in anti-discrimination laws against sexual harassment and sex-based discrimination in the workplace. These laws differ from health and safety laws in that a victim of harassment can make a complaint to an external agency — in effect, launching a legal proceeding against your company.”
13. Don’t Forget to Protect Yourself
The important thing to remember is: Don’t let them take over your headspace. You were hired at your job for a reason, and you deserve to be there just as much as anyone else. There will always be difficult people. Successful people just know how to handle them.
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Chelsea Fonden is a career coach and resume writer based in Brooklyn, NY. Over the past 5 years, she has worked with countless jobseekers across industries and professional levels, and holds a passion for women's advancement in the workplace. She received her Bachelor of Arts in Psychology from the University of Maryland and has worked for several NYC non-profits, as well as in freelance roles.