It took me took me several years before I could think about this one particular boss without feeling physical anxiety. My heart would start beating faster, my muscles would tense up, and sometimes I’d be so anxious I couldn’t fall asleep.
He was the kind of boss to whom all my work was a disappointment – he told me several times that he should have just done a project himself. He kept a constant eye on me, sure I was trying to cheat his time. When I gave my (rather long) notice he refused to speak to me – I got the silent treatment for nearly a month.
Thinking about him doesn’t keep me up at night anymore, but it wasn’t until I started researching this post that I actually realized I wasn’t just bad at my job, or a poor fit for the NGO. My boss was a bully.
According to the Workplace Bullying Institute’s 2014 study, 27% of respondents had experience being bullied at work – either currently, or in the past.
Being a bully’s target can make work miserable, but an earlier online study by the Workplace Bullying Institute showed that the impact can extend far beyond the 9-5 work day (as I definitely experienced). Respondents were given a 33-item symptoms checklist, and the WBI tallied their top five health problems: anxiety (76%), loss of concentration (71%), disrupted sleep (71%), hypervigilance (60%), and stress headaches (55%).
6 ways bullies intimidate targets
- Verbal barbs and insults: This can run the gamut from yelling, screaming, and throwing tantrums to more subtle comments about your skills and abilities – particularly when they’re made in front of your coworkers. Bullies may also use verbal put-downs/insults based on gender, race, accent, language, or disability, often followed up by comments like: “Oh, I was just joking, you take things too personally, you’re too sensitive.”
- Alienating you from your coworkers: A bully may start (or fail to stop) harmful rumors or gossip. He may make comments about your abilities behind your back, and encourage your coworkers to turn against you.
- Undermining your contributions: She may falsely accusing you of making mistakes, whether to your face or to your superiors, or ignore your best quality work in favor of nitpicking occasional errors. In meetings, a bully may ignore your contributions, talk over you, or discount your thoughts or feelings. She may also steal credit for things you’ve done.
- Having a double standard: A bully often holds his target to a double standard, making up rules on the fly that don’t apply to the bully, or to other members of the team. He may assign all the worst tasks to the target as punishment.
- Making undoable demands: Piling on impossible workloads and expectations is one way a bully can ensure her target fails, no matter how good an employee the you are.
- Abuse by neglect: It may feel like you’re off the bully’s radar, but in fact the bully is sidelining you – causing your projects to fail by withholding signoffs and cooperation, failing to include you in meetings, emails, and other communications that are crucial to your success, or “forgetting” to tell you something important.
How to deal with a bully
Having a bully in the office doesn’t just affect your work and health, it affects the success of the entire team. It’s unlikely that you’re the only one feeling frustrated; bullying behavior can dampen an entire team’s enthusiasm and creativity.
Most targets fear speaking up, since it could potentially jeopardize their jobs. Suffering in silence may seem the better option, but it can eventually lead to the symptoms outlined above. The bully won’t just quit on her own.
Confront: Is this the right option for you? Only you will be able to tell, and if the bully is your boss it could lead to increased problems, or the loss of your job. If you decide to confront the bully, be clear and direct: describe what the bully’s behavior is, explain exactly how the behavior is impacting your work, and draw a line for what behavior you won’t tolerate in the future.
Document: Keep a record of what’s happening in a notebook or private computer file (don’t leave it at your desk where the bully might find it), and especially include documentation of the bully’s impact on business results. This could include emails and other correspondence (again, stored somewhere off your work computer), as well as voice mails.
Enlist help: As I said, you’re probably not alone. Talk to your coworkers – are others experiencing the bullying? Or have they witnessed it? Ask your coworkers to document instances of bullying, as well. If you have a solid case with evidence and witnesses, HR may be better able to act.
And if that doesn’t work?
There’s no time like the present to start moving on. If management and HR aren’t able (or willing) to act, you need to put your health first. Once you’ve tried your best to fix the situation, you owe it to yourself to find a healthy resolution.
It’s your call: Can you wait it out until the bully leaves, or is reassigned? Do you want to try to manage up with your bully boss? Is it time to start looking for other opportunities?
Rather than letting yourself get smothered in the bully’s influence, take the time to start tapping into your professional contacts and other social support networks. Networking with your peers will help lift some of the cloud of negativity, and may just lead to a way out of your current situation.