Dealing with a Bully at Work? Four Tips to Take Back the Power

Have you ever been bullied? Have you supervised a team that included a bully? Though they sometimes go by other names, I have known my share of bullies and have struggled to deal with them at different times in my life. It doesn’t really matter if the bully is part of a little league soft ball team, a fellow student or a boss or co-worker. If you have a bully on your hands they probably will not just go away.

Repeated encounters with a bully can leave one feeling powerless, frustrated, and exhausted. At work, the consequences of dealing with a bully can include stolen credit for effort and ideas, loss of passion for the work or even a job. Government employees face an additional challenge because when someone does not fit into a team there are often limited alternatives. No one likes to deal with a bully and while it is challenging, it is necessary to find a way to start a conversation and build a positive relationship.

The bully may be the aggressor but the target of a bully does have the power to make some changes:

1) Draw up some solid boundaries to protect yourself. – We surround ourselves with family and friends who understand us best. We show them the closest version of our true self because we trust them. This is your inner circle and you should let them know you are struggling. Be honest and be sure they know that you may need a sympathetic ear but you should not expect them to solve your problem for you. You should rely on them to offer moral support. Ask them to remind you of your talents; build your confidence and you can wear it like armor.

2) Recognize and own your feelings. – We each live in a reality that is uniquely ours. A combination of personality, past experience, emotional intelligence and learned behaviors make up our feelings and how we deal with them. I think of feelings as the layer of colored glass through which we each see the world. If you can separate your feelings from the situation, working toward a solution will become much easier.

3) Open a dialogue that does not include accusations. – Sometimes a person who is behaving like a bully may not realize how they are being perceived or how they impact you. Remember, you want to find a way to work with the person, not around them; you want to solve the problem. It may feel like a big risk but if you don’t take the first step nothing can change. Talk about what you want from the relationship and how you would like to make a positive change in order to move forward.

4) Don’t wait. – Bad news only spoils with age. Approaching someone to address a strained relationship will not get easier over time either. If you are not prepared to speak directly to the bully, approach your supervisor and ask for help as soon as you realize there is a problem.

Some people do not grow out of bullying behavior as adults. If you are impacted by their behavior and don’t let them know it, they may never get the chance to change. Addressing the issue can be difficult but the reward for taking that chance could be the working environment you have always wanted.

How have you dealt with bullies at your agency?

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Dannielle Blumenthal

If you are being bullied, get help and get out, as fast as you can. Do not confront the bully – you will only make it worse.

David B. Grinberg

If diplomatic efforts fail, then go by the old advice of punching the bully in the (proverbial) nose — as a last resort. This action may be taken through intellectual, administrative or legal channels.

While you may lose some battles along the way, especially against abusive managers, you may win the war in the long run (and get rid of the bully). This strategy only works if you press your case relentlessly and convince folks that the bully is the problem and poisoning the work environment for everyone.

Stand up for your rights and use whatever administrative, regulatory, or statutory remedies available.

Keeping silent and taking the abuse will only result in more misery for you, your co-workers, your agency and it’s potentially its mission. Don’t let one bad apple ruin the crop.


Your best bet for winning administrative or EEO complaints is to identify the problem as being systemic and to find the “smoking gun” or direct evidence in the form of a written workforce policy, a public interview with a senior official, etc. showing that you are not alone in your experiences.

Otherwise, bullying may be very hard to prove, since many of the anti-discrimination laws have been reinterpreted to narrower definitions, and anti-bullying laws vary state by state and contain tricky loopholes.

However, each incident is different, and if you feel you have a solid case via indirect evidence such as statistics, survey data, employee testimonials, etc. then go for it. It’s a long battle, but potentially lucrative if you stick it out to the end. Hot tip: leverage the power of crowds to get the word out about your complaint, and crowdfund your legal fees! YAY for social media!