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How do you deal with a workplace bully?

Unfortunately, some bullies don’t grow up, they just grow older. And dealing with a workplace bully can be just as challenging as dealing with a bully in middle school, but instead of stealing your lunch they could be stealing your ideas and innovations.

Tom Fox is the Vice President for Leadership and Innovation at the Partnership for Public Service. He also writes the Federal Coach Column on the Washington Post.

He told Chris Dorobek on the Dorobek Insider Program how to spot a federal bully.


Tom Fox talks bullying with Chris Dorobek by cdorobek

Tom’s advice for dealing with a workplace bully:

  • Have a private conversation with the manager. It won’t be easy, but you need to talk to the offending manager. If there are others who also feel bullied, perhaps you can schedule some time as a group for a closed-door conversation.
  • Do not start with an accusation. Don’t automatically assume that the manager is intentionally trying to belittle you and other employees, or otherwise purposely trying to intimidate people or make them uncomfortable. That implies you know the manager’s motivation, which you cannot know with certainty.
  • Focus on a factual description of the behavior and how it affected you. Your manager may not understand the impact of his behavior. So in as hypothetical example, you might say, “I asked for this meeting because you may not be aware of how something that you did is really bothering me. The other day at our staff meeting, you raised your voice and told me that I was being inconsiderate by asking for leave next week when the workload is piling up. All I could think about was how embarrassing it was to be yelled at in front of my co-workers and that you didn’t give me a chance to explain that I have a family emergency.”
  • Be clear how a change in behavior could make a positive difference. Explain that in the future when your manager is angered that you would appreciate having a private discussion so you can offer your point of view. Point out that it’s easier to concentrate on getting the job done if there is open, civil communication rather than a negative, attack approach.

Check out GovLooper Paul Wolf’s post: 12 Signs You Might Be A Bully.

So how would you deal with a workplace bully?

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16 Comments

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Profile Photo Terrence Hill

To be honest, I took the “cowards” way around my sole workplace bully. I found a new job in another agency rather than try to confront or change my bully (who happened to be a female and my supervisor at the time). I didn’t want to risk my career and I didn’t think that I could influence her behavior or that she even cared. I felt it was my best option at the time.

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Profile Photo Lisa Jones

I wish I could say being positive and standing up to the bully works. In my case the bully was my supervisor who didnt attend my panel interview. First day of work-I am introduced to her by the govt agency commissioner (her boss) and get why are you here? I didn’t choose you! I don’t appreciate being forced to accept someone I didn’t want. They may have been impressed by you but you dont impress me. Your degrees mean nothing. I’m not going to train you and I will write you up for any mistakes you make. Dont ask me any questions and dont waste my time. I hope you know You’re on probation for 1 yr. “. This craziness was at the top of her voice and witnessed by many. She got written up and later apologized but (would you believe) the commish told me “Sorry for that, she is just venting and she gets like that sometimes… We kind of thought she might act like that when she saw you but didn’t expect that”. ARE YOU KIDDING ME? So they knew she was a bully??? Here’s the kicker-she refused to train me, Publically criticized my demeanor in a meeting, told me I was a liability to the agency, reported to her superiors that I was incapable of doing the job and finally terminated me after 9 months of the 1 year probation. Here is the wildest thing: The new agency commissioner and union officials advised they were aware of the unfair treatment-“just hold on–we talked to her and are monitoring the situation but cannot help you until your probation is over”. Unbelievable!!!

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Profile Photo Carol Davison

Realize that 6% of the population is egotyistical and can’t get along with you, Jesus, the Dhali Lama or Ghandi. Leave the job if they are your supervisor or your supervisor sides with them. You will loose, loose, loose. If you must stay, don’t put up with it. Collect your documentation, draft non accusatory stories and go to their superivsor now.

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Profile Photo Jana Opperman

Yes I have been bullied by a co-worker when I used to teach High School. I kept a record of her snide comments made to me when no one was around. When I brought the problem up to the Principal he said “Oh you are this years victim!” They didn’t even talk to her. Other teachers then told me how she sometimes didn’t even hold back when she had a certain person on her radar, she would even berate the victim of the year in front of others. I used to help her out even took her to the airport when she was going on a vacation, took care of her classroom pets when she was dealing with her mother in Hospice.

Well, what are you supposed to do, especially when you live in NJ and our Governor who signed the anti-bullying law last year practices the targeted behaviors identified in the law! He calls his constituents idiots and yells at citizens to get “the Hell off the beach!” etc…

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Profile Photo Dennis Snyder

You have some options when the bully is your supervisor. To begin with, the supervisor hired you, made assignments, managed the work team, monitored progress, etc. so criticisms can be deflected back. If you are having problems with your supervisor its nearly guaranteed the rest of the team shares your woes. Performance and morale suffer, and its generally very visible to outsiders because someone arrogant enough to bully doesn’t care who observes it. What can you do? Use your performance appraisal to reflect attacks back to the source. Go with the established tone of the meeting, you don’t have to be shy if he isn’t. It can be both constructive and cathartic to illustrate the destructive nature of bullying leadership. Take the opportunity to offer leadership to your supervisor, i.e. be arrogant yourself and go with the established tone of the meeting. Sounds crazy, don’t ask how I know this works. If you make no progress in that single meeting then go to HR and don’t bother with his supervisor. Like I said, this behaviour is highly visible and the 2nd level supervisor is already aware. You don’t have to start something, but you also don’t have to let it go unfinished. Fight for your right to be human.

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Profile Photo Hope OKeeffe

Tom’s suggestions are fine when dealing with a rational person, but not all bullies are rational. If all else fails, I recommend getting the hell out. It isn’t the coward’s way out if a supervisor is actively sabotaging you; it may be necessary to preserve your career. I agree with the comment about working with second-level supervisors: they likely know of the bullying behavior and may be allies in getting you out of an irremediable situation. A successful escape also annoys the supervisor-bully no end.

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Profile Photo Jo Youngblood

I agree with Hope that sometimes your best bet is to update the resume and move on. But also be sure to call it what it is – BULLYING. When I called someone out on it everyone around me was so stunned that it was called bullying but they all knew I was right. It wasn’t simply just undesirable or bad behavior. The environment and tone towards that person changed immensely. It doesn’t always readily strike others that are not suffering from it (and sometimes even those that are suffering from it) that what is happening is bullying. And we all know by now that bullying is inappropriate and more than that, abusive.

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Profile Photo Janina Rey Echols Harrison

Hope is correct in that. I worked for a person years ago who was just horrible to her staff. Her mother could call her and she would be in tears in seconds (gosh, where did she get that from?) A friend of mine who I met at this company was in the process of getting her master as a pshyco therapist. When she graduated and left to pursue that field, they gave her an exit interview. My bosses boss asked what they were going to do about me? Her answer to him, “You think Janina is the problem? She proceeded to tell him that I was the positive influence in our office and that he needed to look elsewhere for a problem.

Dennis points out that you are not likely to be the only one affected. And his process can work. But, sometimes not. Then it is best to leave.

My clue to leave is when I start becoming someone I don’t like because of all the stress caused by whoever it is that is causing the problem. Sometimes it is a corporate culture.

For instance, the person above, I worked for at one company,, was owned by a person, who I later worked for his son’s company, and had the same experience. Even though my interaction with either of them was fine, the people they hired seemed to have a corporate culture that wasn’t very nurturing. (except for me of course : )

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Profile Photo SteveWonder

Something needs to be done about Road Bullying when driving to/from a workplace.

Too many licensed drivers are bullying people off the roads, causing needless deaths and injuries.

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Profile Photo Dennis Snyder

Abusive behaviour by any name, whether bullying, sexual misconduct, racial, etc. is not just wrong, its illegal under the Civil Rights Act of 1963. I think you can consider yourself as a protected group based on the relatively powerless nature of your relationship with your supervisor. Janina is correct, it doesn’t always work and I only tried it once having observed someone else who was also successful. Of course when your strategy, whatever it might be, isn’t working effectively then plan B is needed and it might be a new job. Take the opportunity to run toward something that fits you, rather than simply running away from the current situation. If you have to run, carefully consider the exit interview. If you make sure your coworkers are supportive of your reasons and issues, it could be construed as mutiny and is a big bridge-burner.

Bullying employees sets a corporate tone and undermines the organization from its core. Morale is bad, business suffers from complacency, and everyone is out of a job.

I still stand by my earluier statement to try to fix it. You and your boss can share being heroes, you can even give him all the credit to save face. But you can’t let it continue.

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Profile Photo Dennis Snyder

Get “The Caine Mutiny” and watch closely how bullying undermines the ship. Also watch the end to understand how my suggestion can easily backfire.

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Profile Photo Carol Davison

In these posts I see that senior leadership is aware of the bullying. They do nothing about it because they are afraid too, and because doing so is hard, risky work. RUN AWAY NOW! while you still have some reputation, relationships, position, haven’t been disciplined, etc.

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Profile Photo Lisa Jones

I think Carol clarified the real problem. Senior leadership is usually aware of the bullies but do not adequately correct the behavior. Some of the more blatant behaviors would never be tolerated in the private sector-often due to fear of lawsuits. The sad part is the government environment is often lenient on addressing performance and behavioral issues promptly.

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Profile Photo Jack Shaw

I was one of those mid-level employees who moved on to retirement after eight years of bullying by a manager. Senior leadership was as afraid of her as I was. The continual battle just wasn’t worth it so I got out when I could to do what I would enjoy. There was a time I liked my job. Oh yeah, that was before I worked for her and was around those people she had totally whipped into submission. Before that I had a stellar career going for me in central office. I tried everything mentioned in this article and more. The problem: she was smart; she knew how to make me the bad guy, while she did everything by the book. She manipulated the system until she got what she wanted. I probably sound paranoid–just one of the symptoms. I’m sure she didn’t want me in a job where I might talk, but out of the government completely. Credibility ruined. The bullying she did on the phone or behind closed doors…was enough for pills. Fortunately, I was able to re-brand myself so she didn’t matter any more.

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Profile Photo Megan

I’ve since learned that bullying is often strategic in government because it is not possible to fire a civil servant without a “docket” or a string of formal problems such as poor reviews and disciplines on record. So supervisors purposefully create hostile environments for certain targeted groups, typically aging or long term workers. But it could be anyone who is targeted: whistleblowers, “troublemakers”, anyone who asks too many questions, etc. Or just to make room in the workplace for new hires and “favorites”.

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Profile Photo Janina Rey Echols Harrison

OK, haven’t weighed in lately but this one really sticks in my craw. Megan’s comment is spot on. I too retired as others have said in here to get away. I too once love my job. The person who caused the most trouble sucks up to everyone except those targeted so if you say anything, you come out the bad guy. Bummer is my daughter is left behind (she was hired without anyone knowing our relation until after). The person is manipulative and stalks my daughter by friending people she is friends with to see her internet activity by admittedly backdooring her accounts. Supervisors were told and it was ignored. I can be pretty sure she is watching my accounts even now that I am retired. She lied constantly and even if we could show them specifics, she would cry and tell them she would be better. This is flat out mental illness. But I do agree after seeing many people who were close to retirement, whistleblowers, etc as Megan mentioned, forced out in really ugly circumstances. Just before I left I reiterated that I had to continually correct her mistakes, talked to her often about the impact of her mistakes on other staff, cautioned her to take more time to be more accurate(I was budget analyst for a large division). As soon as I left they put her in charge of essential accounting programs, plus she is going behind my daughter’s back and doing her work, then complaining that she is overworked. The person is on FB or texting on her phone more than she works. She would be reading texts when I was trying to train her. My daughter can’t say anything because it makes her look bad. Never mind, I am ranting now. I don’t think it is too far fetched that the government should use psychology testing to weed out those who give government workers such a bad name.

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