Chances are, you’ve experienced it yourself. A boss who regularly hurls insults at you in front of your coworkers, a project manager who frequently undermines your work by withholding information, a colleague who spreads rumors and considers it her mission in life to ruin your reputation – these are all common examples of workplace bullying.
Workplace bullying is traumatic and incredibly costly to your physical and mental health. It also negatively affects your productivity and can affect your entire career path. But what can you do about it? Well, there’s a lot you can do to confront and overcome a workplace bully. Let’s take a look at what, exactly, workplace bullying entails, and how you can assertively address the situation.
What Is Workplace Bullying?
The Workplace Bullying Institute defines workplace bullying as “repeated, health-harming mistreatment of one or more persons (the targets) by one or more perpetrators.” It is abusive conduct that:
The Workplace Bullying Institute goes further, saying that workplace bullying is:
- Driven by perpetrators’ need to control the targeted individual(s).
- Initiated by bullies who choose their targets, timing, location, and methods.
- A set of acts of commission (doing things to others) or omission (withholding resources from others).
- Requires consequences for the targeted individual.
- Escalates to involve others who side with the bully, either voluntarily or through coercion.
- Undermines legitimate business interests when bullies’ personal agendas take precedence over work itself.
- Akin to domestic violence at work, where the abuser is on the payroll.”
While the term “workplace bullying” is now the most commonly accepted term, others, such as “mobbing” or “harassment” are also used to define repeated, aggressive behavior in the workplace.
So, how do you know if you’re being bullied? Look for some of these signs:
- You feel physically ill before the start of the workweek. Symptoms may include vomiting or diarrhea, chills or sweats, tremors, chest pain, rapid breathing, feeling uncoordinated or confused, rapid heartbeat, elevated blood pressure, insomnia, crying, or headaches.
- You take “mental health days” just to get a break from a particular person or group at work.
- You’re often excluded from team lunches or meetings that you should be attending.
- Colleagues have been told not to talk or socialize with you.
- You’re the frequent topic of gossip and lies.
- Your boss or other superior frequently yells or humiliates you in front of others.
- You feel too ashamed about the situation at work to tell your spouse, partner, or other colleagues.
- You no longer feel excitement or pleasure from hobbies or other activities that used to bring you joy.
- You often feel anxious or fearful at work, and expect that something bad will happen soon.
- You’re frequently unable to do your job without interference.
- Your tormentor frequently threatens you in some way.
- Despite producing high quality work, you experience constant criticism from your tormentor.
- Your tormentor seems to remember every mistake you’ve ever made, and brings them up frequently.
- You’re accused of making mistakes that were made by someone else.
- Your tormentor frequently takes credit for your success.
- Your tormentor frequently tries to sabotage your work, either overtly or passive-aggressively (like dragging their feet intentionally on an important project, withholding essential information, or not taking your calls when you need them to sign off on your next step).
If several of these signs feel all too familiar, chances are you’re being bullied at work.
Who Gets Targeted?
On the surface, it seems as if the weakest people in the workplace would be the most likely targets. After all, that’s usually what happens with schoolyard bullying: Loners and “oddballs” are far more likely to be bullied than the popular kids.
However, workplace bullying is distinctly different. Most often, the victims of workplace bullying are targeted because they pose some kind of threat to the bully. You’re not being bullied because you’re weak; you’re being bullied because you are strong.
For example, you might be victimized because you’re smarter, more talented, more independent, more technically proficient, or have better social skills than the bully. You might have more emotional intelligence, more integrity, or command more respect in the workplace. In short, you’re targeted because you’re better than the bully in some way. They feel threatened, and so they lash out in an attempt to punish or control, or simply to experience the pleasure of causing you pain.
It’s important to realize that you’re likely not alone. According to the survey conducted by VitalSmarts, 80% of respondents reported that their workplace bully intimidated five or more people.
Consequences of Workplace Bullying
As you might imagine, workplace bullying is incredibly detrimental to your physical and mental health.
A study published in the journal Occupational and Environmental Medicine found that there was a strong association between workplace bullying and depression. Another study, published in the Journal of Nursing Management, found that repeated exposure to workplace bullying could lead to Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).
Research published in the International Archives of Occupational and Environmental Health states that victims are at a higher risk for mental health problems as long as five years after the fact, and the Scandinavian Journal of Work, Environment & Health found that victims of workplace bullying were at a higher risk for suicide.
Additionally, research found workplace bullying affects the victim’s self-esteem and sleep quality. The Workplace Bullying Institute reports that bullying can lead to debilitating anxiety and panic attacks and strong feelings of shame or guilt. Victims can experience weaker immune systems, higher risk for cardiovascular problems (through stroke or heart attack), gastrointestinal problems, and adverse neurological changes.
Bullying can also negatively affect your productivity, job performance, and overall career path. Research published in the Annals of Work Exposures and Health found that bullying is significantly and positively related to work exhaustion, which leads to a loss in psychological well-being. This, in turn, negatively affects concentration at work.
Unsurprisingly, research published in the Human Resource Management Journal found that victims of workplace bullying are more likely to leave their jobs. Some victims are terminated unfairly, demoted, or refused a promotion for no valid reason.
How to Overcome Workplace Bullying
Victims often feel powerless when they’re being bullied, especially when that bully is a boss or other superior. However, you’re not powerless at all; there is a lot you can do to confront the situation.
1. Look at the Situation Objectively
There’s a fine line between having to work with a jerk and being victimized by bullying behavior. So, take a step back and try to look at the situation objectively.
Is this person mean or confrontational to everyone, or is it just you? Do they have a bad attitude most days, or do you feel that their attitude only changes around you? Have you done anything that might have caused this person to lash out at you?
As you question the situation, don’t go too far and start blaming yourself if it’s not warranted. Victims of workplace bullying are often quick to blame themselves for someone else’s bad behavior, because self-blame can be easier to deal with than a confrontation.
However, if this person’s behavior is frequently threatening and demeaning, and if they often sabotage your work efforts, it’s important that you recognize that you’re dealing with a bully. Simply recognizing and naming workplace bullying can be healing and empowering for the victim.
It’s also important to recognize that there are many things you can control in this situation, and many things you can’t. You will never be able to control this person’s behavior. But, you have complete control over how you respond. Eleanor Roosevelt famously said, “No one can make you feel inferior without your consent.” The more you let this person control your thoughts, emotions, and actions, the more power you give them. When you take back this control, you limit their power.
2. Identify How You Threaten Your Bully
Remember, chances are high that you’re being bullied because you pose a threat, in some way, to the bully. Try to identify what that threat is. One way to do this is to look at your bully’s biggest weaknesses and compare those to your own strengths. Where is there a match?
This next step might be a hard pill to swallow, but it can be effective. You need to stoke your bully’s ego a bit and become (in their mind, at least) less of a threat. To do this, show gratitude or give them sincere compliments that boost their confidence in the areas that they’re most vulnerable.
3. Stand Up for Yourself
There are many reasons why it’s important to stand up for yourself.
Standing up for yourself will rebuild your self-esteem, assertiveness, and personal power. When you look your bully in the eye and tell them firmly that what they’re doing or saying is unacceptable, you’re going to feel good about yourself. You’re going to feel strong. Standing up for yourself sends a clear message to the bully that you’re not going to be their doormat any longer.
Here’s the bad news: The Workplace Bullying Institute reports that while 70% of victims confront their bully, bad behavior only stops 3.5% of the time. So, standing up for yourself is probably not going to make much of a difference to your bully. But, it will make an enormous difference for you by restoring your confidence and sense of self-worth.
When you do take a stand, don’t let the bully goad you into saying or doing something you’ll regret later. Take the high road; be firm and strong, but stay professional. Be specific about what this person is doing, how it makes you feel, and why it needs to stop.
You can also turn the tables and question the bully when they make damaging statements about you. For example, if they say, “You always mess up these reports!” (even when you don’t), ask, “What would you have done differently?” or, “What, specifically, did I mess up?” Or, if they trash your ideas at a team meeting, ask them, in front of everyone, to contribute some of their own ideas.
Keep your comments simple and direct, and look them in the eye when you question them. Above all, don’t try to humiliate or embarrass your bully; this will certainly cause retaliation and may even damage your reputation. Be positive and polite, but also assertive.
It can be helpful to use role-playing strategies to prepare for these situations. At home, with a spouse or friend, act out various scenarios and conversations involving you and your bully. Role-playing might feel silly, but this can be a useful tool for boosting your confidence and planning what you want to say when the time comes.
Remember, it took the bully years to learn how to abuse and manipulate people; it will take you some time to learn how to respond effectively. You’ll make mistakes, and sometimes things won’t go as planned. That’s just part of the learning process. Don’t give up.
4. Don’t React to Their Behavior
Workplace bullies often experience pleasure in causing others pain. When they see you upset, they feel good. This means that you need to develop a poker face. Do whatever you have to do to keep your own emotions in check, and try to stay calm and detached during tense situations.
It can be helpful to get more exercise, eat healthy, and meditate. If you can’t sleep, find natural remedies to fight insomnia so you’re well rested. These tips might sound arbitrary, but you need to take care of yourself so you have the strength and resolve to stand up to your bully.
5. Document Everything
Get in the habit of documenting every negative situation that happens between you and your bully. Archive or print emails that illustrate their bullying behaviors, or try to record conversations that demonstrate their bullying in action. Ask colleagues who have witnessed the bullying if they’ll go on the record about what they saw.
When documenting personal encounters, keep your emotions out of the narrative. Record the date and time, list any witnesses, and write out exactly what happened. Avoid describing how you felt; stick to the facts.
Having records of this person’s behavior will be very important if you end up having to go to a superior to address the problem. The Workplace Bullying Institute reports that 71% of victims are not believed when they finally blow the whistle; only 9% of respondents were taken seriously. This is disheartening, and it makes evidence-gathering all the more important.
Research the rules and guidelines that your organization has set for bullying or other unacceptable behaviors (if they exist). You want to make sure that you document situations where this person is clearly violating these guidelines.
6. Go to a Superior
Your next strategy is to go to a superior about the problem. If your bully is your boss, you’ll have to go over their head, or to the human resources department. Before you take this step, brush up on your workplace communication skills so that you’re able to clearly lay out your case without letting your emotions take the reins.
Resist the temptation to make the situation about you. Yes, this person is making your life miserable and sabotaging your career. However, if you go to your superior or HR rep to complain about your misery, chances are nothing will happen; it will become a case of your word against theirs. Or, they might wrongly assume that you’re the problem, and that you’re trying to sabotage this person.
Instead, appeal to their best interests and outline how this person’s bullying is negatively affecting the company. For example, has the bully caused other employees to leave the company? Has their behavior lost the company a key account? How much time are you and other employees wasting trying to deal with their bottlenecks and bad behavior? Keep the focus on what this person is costing the company, and you’ll be more likely to see HR take action.
7. Make a Backup Plan
Keep in mind that if you blow the whistle on your bully, retaliation is almost a certainty. The Workplace Bullying Institute reports that 77% of targets lose their job, either involuntarily or by choice, when they’re bullied. Standing up for yourself is important, but know that moving on is a real possibility. So, develop a backup plan just in case the worse happens and you have to leave.
Update your resume and make sure it highlights your most recent accomplishments, and find out how to make yourself more marketable in the current job market. Start browsing available jobs in your field on sites like ZipRecruiter, or use social media to find job openings. Talk to a headhunter or career counselor about your situation, and build a relationship so it’s there if you need it. Next, brush up on your phone interview skills, as this will likely be the first step toward landing a new job. Prepare for a job interview by practicing the most likely questions you’ll be asked.
Yes, it’s unfair that you might be forced out of your job by blowing the whistle on your bully. They should be fired, not you. However, you have to go into this situation with open eyes. You might lose your job, or you might have to leave to escape a bully that’s never punished. If you prepare for the worst outcome in advance, you’ll experience less stress and anxiety when you start the whistle-blowing process because you’ll already have a plan B.
How to Help a Colleague Who’s Being Bullied
If you discover that one of your colleagues is being bullied, there is plenty you can do to help them through the situation. First, give them a listening ear. Invite them out to lunch and talk about what they’re going through. Reassure them that this situation is not their fault, and encourage them to stand up for themselves and confront the bully about their behavior.
Keep in mind that your colleague is likely traumatized and upset by this situation. While you might be eager to see the bully brought to justice, your colleague might not be ready to take action. Go at their pace. Be there for them when they need to talk, but try not to push them too hard to take action if they’re not ready.
When you’re at work, stand up for your colleague when you hear malicious gossip or notice any “mobbing” type of behavior. “Mobbing” is when several people band together to humiliate someone else. Don’t just witness and walk away; inaction is a subtle form of acceptance. Say something positive about your colleague, and make it clear that you don’t approve of their behavior.
What Leaders Can Do About Bullying
If you’re a manager or entrepreneur, it’s important to learn how to spot a bully, and how to take action so they can’t terrorize your other employees. Workplace bullying is incredibly costly to organizations, whether you employ five people or 500. Remember, bullies often target the best and brightest on your team, and these are the very people that will relocate to another company if you don’t nip this bad behavior in the bud.
1. Learn How to Identify Bullies
Most of the time, a workplace bully won’t act out in front of a superior. This can make it hard for leaders to detect bullying behavior. One of the best ways to find a bully is to make it easy for employees to report abusive behavior, especially anonymously. Put out a locked “suggestion box,” and encourage everyone to submit their thoughts and ideas on a regular basis. This can be an easy and discreet way to report bullying.
You can also implement a 360-degree performance review policy. This review process allows people to review their bosses and peers anonymously, and it can be an important tool for uncovering bad behavior.
2. Look at the Work Environment
Work environment plays an important role in workplace bullying. A study published in the Scandinavian Journal of Psychology found that poor leadership and high job demands were strongly linked to a rise in bullying behavior. The more your employees are frustrated and stressed, the more likely they are to lash out at others.
There’s a lot you can do to mitigate this risk. First, do what you can to lessen your team’s stress and frustration. For example, do they have the tools and training they need to do their job? Are there bottlenecks in your business or organization that regularly cause frustration for team members?
Many of the strategies you would use to increase employee productivity and improve employee engagement will also ameliorate your workplace culture so bullying doesn’t happen. Think carefully about the culture present in your team or organization. Cultures that pit employees against each other, where there is only one winner and many losers, create a “survival of the fittest” atmosphere. This, in turn, often fosters bullying behavior.
Research has also found that organizations or teams that rely heavily on a hierarchical culture, rather than a culture built on reciprocal relationships, is at higher risk for workplace bullying.
3. Learn Conflict Management
Next, learn how to effectively manage conflicts. A study published in the International Journal of Human Resource Management found that when an organization was well-versed in conflict management, rates of bullying declined.
One way to navigate the tricky situation of workplace bullying is to target the behavior, not the person. When you address the behavior and avoid personalizing the issue, you can manage the conflict more effectively. So, make it clear that certain behaviors have to stop. If they don’t, be very specific about what will happen.
4. Set Clear Consequences
Even when it’s reported, managers and leaders rarely punish bullies. A survey conducted by the Workplace Bullying Institute found that 67% of the time, higher-level managers supported bullies, and only 2% of the time were the bullies actually punished.
As a leader, it’s up to you to set clear consequences for bullying behavior, since a lack of formal policy only enables bullies. Lay out ground rules in your employee handbook, and make sure everyone sees the changes you’ve made. You might even want to call a meeting to talk openly about workplace bullying, and stress that it won’t be tolerated on your team or in your organization.
Last, make sure everyone knows they can come to you for help if they’re being bullied. You might need to communicate this repeatedly, but keep at it. Many victims are afraid to blow the whistle on their bully for fear of reprisal, but if your team knows they have your support, they’ll be more likely to speak up.
Workplace bullying can be painfully obvious or incredibly subtle, which is why it’s important to learn how to identify a bully, and, more importantly, how to put a stop to their bad behavior. Whether you’re the victim or not, there’s a lot you can do to communicate that this kind of behavior is not acceptable.
Have you ever been a victim of workplace bullying? What did you do about it? What did you get right, and what mistakes did you make along the way?