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How to Deal with a Bully at Work

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.

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Profile Photo Patricia D Jones

This is a topic that is of major interest to me at this time. I recently facilitated a workshop on Synergy and one of the feedback forms requested that I do something on workplace bullying. I am in the process of researching the topic to see what I can develop. This article was very helpful and easy to follow. If you have any additional information or resources on the topic I would love to see it. Thank you for your willingness to help people have the “tough conversations”.

Profile Photo Mark Hammer

I’m curious as to the contexts and circumstances that tend to result in higher incidences of bullying. Given that I’m presently reading a paper on pay-for-performance regimes, and that the incident the blog leads off with is a boss-to-subordinate incident, my thoughts turn to whether things like pay-for-performance, or perhaps the specific sorts of managerial-performance indicators used, or simply the business lines, may influence whether otherwise decent folks transform into jerks.

Bullying is usually thought of as going in the direction of someone in authority targeting someone under them, but clients can be bullies too. I recall well a circumstance I encountered a decade back. I had been directed to a government office to get a form (as a citizen, not as employee), and when I got there, around half-past noon, there was a huge lineup, and a sign that indicated if you did not already have a number at this point, you could not be served today. I caught one of the office employees on her way to fill up her kettle at the water fountain in the hallway, explained that I was in town for only one more working day, and wondered what I might be able to do (legitimately, nothing underhanded) to assure that I could get the form I needed the next day. She recommended coming around 6:30AM (the office opened at 8:30).

I arrived around 6:20, only to find someone already in line. Myself and this fellow watched the line get ever-longer, and by around 7:30 we started to see people arriving who had obviously thought “I’ll get there early, make sure I’m served as soon as they open, and be at work a few minutes late before anyone has noticed my absence.”. As they each came through the doors and gazed at the lineup all the way down the hall, we could see them silently mouth a variety of expletives, as their jaws dropped.

Myself, and the first guy, had waited 2hrs, but we knew we were going to be served right away (and were). I would imagine that the folks who had waited a bit less than the 2hrs, and had little idea how soon they would be served – or had no idea how much time they would need to be away from work, and docked pay – probably arrived at the service wicket with less of a smile on their faces. And if they had been pushing a stroller back and forth for 90 minutes, or not been able to sit down all that time, they would be even more surly when their turn came up.

The circumstances in some workplaces can sometimes almost engineer both harassment and bullying, by under-resourcing a workplace that deals with high-stakes matters. This obviously is not representative of ALL bullying, but when we see stats about what percentage of employees report being bullied, *some* of them are coming from circumstances like I described, where the worst in everyone had been unintentionally crafted.

Paula M

Very interesting. I experienced a similar situation years ago at the FCC’s public reference room (the days before the internet) where paralegals and all manner of other folk needing information from the reference desk staff would line up in the wee hours of the morning, put in a written request and take a number. Some people would literally wait there all day for their reference materials/documents to be pulled by the reference desk staff. And if one of those ref desk staffers decided they didn’t like you, a person might never get their materials pulled because the bullying staffer would just keep shoving their request to the bottom of the request pile. The situation became so intolerable that some people took to filing FOIA requests to get their documents. It took one paralegal to file a legal complaint with the FCC’s admin law staff to change the situation. I think the claim was that the staff were arbitrarily and unlawfully blocking access to public information that should have been easily publicly accessible under normal circumstances. I believe at least 2 of the reference desk staff were fired as a result of the complaint. Sometimes, drastic action is what it takes to stop a bully.

Ralph

I think you might have confused “a bully” with just a “plain incompetent and uncaring” government employee. Frankly, I am surprised when I hear of any gov-ie being held accountable, with the safety net of their unions. (Like, what about Lois Lerner’s emails?). In many civilian workplaces, heads would roll.

NY State Employee

Bullying happens daily as the state agency I work at. Unfortunately, the HR Dept lacks any staff with integrity and they never listen to both sides of the story. Civil Service employees get away with bullying because there is so much turnover and no upper management who will take control of the situation and there have been many non civil service workers screwed over by the lack of simple common sense when it comes to human conditions in the workplace. But, what do you do when everyone is a political hack and some how related to a friend of someone of the governor. One employee who was well liked was fired and the HR Dept. refused to listen to both sides of the story and just listen to the one commissioner who lied and lied about the employee. One thing that was extremely wrong is the employee had a glowing review from her past supervisor who had left the agency and then was not reviewed in years. So when it was time for how to get rid of this person many written up lies were made, but again there is always two sides to every story and when HR ignores both sides, it’s time to get a new job or get yourself fired so you don’t have to deal with the BS in the workplace.

Oregon State Employee

I totally understand what you mean New York. I think bullying behavior (including group bulling-known as mobbing) is more rampant in government agencies. Although it exists in the private sector, it seems more pervasive in the public-perhaps there is more time for bad behavior in the public. In my state agency and I believe most all state agencies, nepotism, favoritism and fraternization are prevalent. This leads to poor morale and adds to bullying environment. Luckily in my state, state workers have a Union. This affords workers some level of protection as we have been able to get management to admit that bullying exists and have negotiated anti-bullying language in our collective bargaining agreement. As a Union steward I have been aware of many bullying situations. It is difficult to prove, especially if HR always believes management. I have been successful at resolving these situations most often when the workers are able to overcome their fears and be willing to stand together and behind their coworkers, working in concert to thwart the behavior

AreYouSerious?

Great article. However, why should you have to leave your job because there is a bully there? Why doesn’t management see what the bully is doing to the co-workers? I personally spoke up (just before I was going to punch someone). I talked to the office manager, then the boss and I was ready to go to Employee Relations and the Union. The last pow-pow in the bosses office seemed to do the trick. I have since been promoted and the bully is still in the same position. Fortunately for me, I no longer have to deal with her on a day to day basis.

Gary

Can’t thank you enough for posting this article. Bullying is a very insidious and often unaddressed issue in the workplace and all to often is written off by senior management as “Oh he/she has always been that way.” My experience is that it creates a very hostile work environment, significantly affects productivity and morale and is like a cancer that spreads because it becomes a defacto cultural standard of what is acceptable behavior by management. It can be so insidious that it results in employees being diagnosed with PTSD and result in serious health issues for victims. Establishing codes of conduct and strict enforcement within the management culture can help, but all to often ‘Willful blindness’ by management only perpetuates the problem and adds to the hopelessness felt by victims and poor performance within an agency. It sets the foundation for workplace violence and cannot be ignored without realizing its potential ramifications on a personal and organizational level…period. Read “The Addictive Organization” and “When Society Becomes An Addict”, both by Anne Wilson Scheaf for great insight into where these behaviors may come from.

Paula M

I have confronted my bullies directly after they committed the offending behavior and both backed down like the cowards they are. One of my bullies actually became a big supporter of mine and wrote a really nice recommendation for my grad school applications. The other bully almost fell apart in tears when I sternly told him that his behavior was completely unacceptable in an office professional setting. I later found out that this guy is bullied at home by his wife. I met her at an employee family event. She nagged my bully incessantly to the point where I actually felt sorry for him. I’ve concluded that bullies are acting out at work, in reaction to whatever is going on in their personal life. That is no excuse for their bad office behavior, but there is a story behind every bully’s bullying actions. Regarding the bully who wrote my grad school recommendation – I figured out that he’s the kind of person who bullies to see where your “push-back” boundaries are; he pushed people’s buttons to try and get them to fight back to see what they’re made of because he didn’t like people being shrinking violets or wimps when it came to supporting his work load. He actually turned out to be a pretty nice guy. So, there are very different influences that govern why bullies bully people. Personally, I think confronting the behavior (not the person), and asking the bully how he or she justifies their behavior often leads to some self-reflection on the bully’s part and MAY help change the behavior. It just depends on how deep-seated their own problems are. Sometimes a good therapist is the only solution to a bully’s bad behavior. Additionally, I have to say that I’ve found human resources personnel to be ill-equipped if not down-right incompetent to deal with bullying behavior in the office. They’re so scared of offending anyone that they never discuss the bullying behavior with the bully themself, and HR often just sweeps the issue under the proverbial rug by not dealing with it, or by having so many “incident review” interviews with the bully’s victim, that the incident becomes “diluted” in the sense that HR tries to convince the victim that the bully’s behavior wasn’t “that bad” or that the bully was just having a bad day. They try to get the victim to sympathize with the bully rather than get the bully to see how damaging their behaviour is because HR staff themselves are afraid of the bully.

Profile Photo Jessie Kwak

“Personally, I think confronting the behavior (not the person), and asking the bully how he or she justifies their behavior often leads to some self-reflection on the bully’s part and MAY help change the behavior. ”

Thanks for this insight, Paula!

Profile Photo Dan Jorgensen

Unfortunately you used the example of the supervisor being a bully. While that can be the case, it is way too stereotypical. I have found that it may be almost as likely, or perhaps even more so, that the bully in the office can be a co-worker. Co-worker bullying can be much more subtle and even worse than that of a supervisor. I do think you examples are good and I can point to exact situations where each has occurred in the workplace. last, but not least, the documentation process can be long and difficult, don’t give up, that’s what the bully is hoping.

Profile Photo Jessie Kwak

Thanks for that, Dan – my personal experience certainly does fall into the supervisor-as-bully category, but it’s important to remember that anyone can be a bully, no matter their position.

Profile Photo Tim Nolan

Jessie, it appears that you’ve hit a nerve based on the comments. Your article evoked deeply suppressed memories of a horrible boss that I had a few years ago. I had many colleagues that suffered the same fate as me, but it took us a while to discover due to alienation. I found that it doesn’t matter how strong you are or how long you’ve been with the agency. A bully, particularly your boss, can be devastating. Bullies lack trust and disseminate lack of trust to others.

Trust is the answer. If you have trust culture at work, then it doesn’t matter who gets credit or succeeds. It’s the team & customers that benefit.

Great topic.

Profile Photo Jessie Kwak

“Bullies lack trust and disseminate lack of trust to others.”

So true. Thanks, Tim – I’m glad you were able to connect with coworkers in a similar position. I think the knowledge that you weren’t the only one dealing with a bully can go a long way toward overcoming the bully’s negative effects on your psyche.

Julie

How do you differentiate a boss who is legitimately trying to get an under-performing worker step and be accountable to the tasks assigned to them. Some workers even when coached continue to under perform or become defensive and upset when any corrective actions are suggested. Ending all discussions with “you are nothing but a bully.” Seriously, this type of information is not helpful. I agree there are bosses who need to correct their behavior, but hypersensitive employees are equally problematic. There needs to be a system of accountability from both parties.