What can I do about workplace bullying?
How to stand your ground against a bully in the workplace, be they an abusive boss, co-worker, or subordinate.
Bullying doesn’t just happen on the playground. Roughly one in five U.S. adults say they have directly experienced bullying on the job, according to a 2017 survey by the Workplace Bullying Institute.
“At its core, bullying is about power,” says Tara Fishler, a conflict-resolution specialist. “When someone feels threatened or powerless, they try to exert power over other people through bullying.”
Examples of bullying at work
The Workplace Bullying Institute survey defines bullying as “repeated mistreatment of an employee by one or more employees; abusive conduct that is: threatening, humiliating, or intimidating; work sabotage; or verbal abuse.”
Some experts say it goes further than that. “Workplace bullying is psychological violence,” says Lynne Curry, author of Beating the Workplace Bully: A Tactical Guide to Taking Charge. “A bully is someone who repeatedly and intentionally goes after a target.”
Being a victim of bullying can have devastating effects on your career. Approximately 65% of bullied targets lose their job, either because they voluntarily leave to escape more mistreatment, quit when conditions become worse, or are terminated by their employer, the survey found.
Who are typical workplace bullies?
The survey found the majority of workplace bullies are men (70%), 61% are bosses, 33% are peers with the same rank as their targets, and 6% are subordinates.
Also, despite common misconception, there is same-sex bullying in the workplace: Male perpetrators prefer targeting women (65%), but many target other men (35%); conversely, 33% of female bullies target other women.
Types of workplace bullies
- The mean-spirited prankster. Like the class clown in high school, this person plays jokes on co-workers. Sure, some office gags are perfectly innocent, but there’s a line between playing a harmless prank and intentionally humiliating someone.
- The jerk. Some people, like the jerk, are simply mean by nature. This person brings a toxic attitude to the office environment by delivering angry or condescending remarks to their co-workers.
- The saboteur. This bully’s agenda is to undermine your every move and prevent you from succeeding at your job. Saboteurs view their peers as competitors that they need to squash—not collaborators.
- The constant critic. This person, typically in a management position, talks down to direct reports and picks apart your work.
- The gossip. Every office has one, but gossiping can become a form of bullying if the perpetrator is out to tarnish your reputation.
- The gatekeeper. Taking a more indirect approach, this person withholds resources that you need to succeed (e.g., a boss who doesn’t provide you with adequate time to complete a project).
What to do if you’re being bullied
Sure, it would be great if someone else stepped in and put a stop to the bullying, but unfortunately, this may fall on your shoulders.
Your strategy will depend on who is bullying you, says Gary Namie, director of the Workplace Bullying Institute and co-author of The Bully-Free Workplace: Stop Jerks, Weasels, and Snakes From Killing Your Organization.
If a peer or subordinate is bullying you, turn the tables by deflecting the person’s attacks. To achieve this, Curry says you should have nonchalant responses ready to use the next time the person says something negative to you (e.g., “Give it a rest,” “Nice try, but I’m not biting”).
But if the bullying continues, compile evidence that you can present to your manager. “Document everything,” Fishler says. “Dates, times, and places the bullying happens.”
You’ll have to take a delicate approach if your boss is the bully. “You can’t stand your ground as readily, since there’s a power dynamic,” Namie says.
First know that there’s strength in numbers. “You need to break the silence with co-workers,” Namie says. “Chances are you’re not the only person [being bullied], and you can use your collective power to mobilize as a group.”
Together, you can build a case that highlights why your boss’ bullying is hurting the company’s bottom line—“turnover, absenteeism, and lower productivity,” Namie says—and present your case to a senior manager.
Know when to escalate matters. “In general, an employee should consider approaching HR when they have either tried, unsuccessfully, to address the situation with their supervisor, or feel unable to do so,” says Fishler. So if your bully’s rank is high above your own, or you fear your bully could retaliate against you for standing up for yourself, you may want to reach out to HR. Again, have clear documentation of incidents, including dates, times, and places.
Find another job
If you can’t get the bullying to stop, there’s no shame in leaving your company. There are plenty of employers who will ensure that you’re treated with the respect you deserve.
Quitting may also be the right move for your health, since research shows repeated bullying can trigger physical and mental health problems such as high blood pressure, difficulty sleeping, anxiety, and depression.