How to Deal with Bullying in the Workplace

How to Deal with Bullying in the Workplace


I had a great job in a small company that many people would have liked to work for. I had constant raises, praise from staff and clients, and engaged in professional development in night school to better myself and the company.

After a series of incidents with a particular bully, I walked away from all of this. How can you keep your staff from doing the same thing, and what can you do if it is happening to you?

Who Does Bullying Happen To?

I’m not the only one with a bullying story. A 2008 survey from the Workplace Bullying Institute (WBI) reveals that over 37% of American workers, or 54 million people, surveyed had experienced bullying at their workplace in some capacity. 80% of the targets are women.

A target represents an occupational threat to the bully. Overacheivers, excellent performers, and company superstars are targeted by bullies. If you ask your top employees, they’ve probably been targeted by a bully in the past year. The WBI reveals that they are generally the “go-to veteran workers to whom new employees turn for guidance.” Bullies target the best and brightest.

Several indicators are listed in this New York Times article, including these:

  • have you had people consistently arrive late at meetings that you’ve called?
  • have you been lied to?
  • have you been denied a deserved raise or promotion with no cause?
  • have you been given the “silent treatment” or isolated from certain tasks and responsibilities?
  • have you felt like you are the recipient of an unusual amount of disrespect from a particular person?

How Do Top Performers Handle Bullying?

In my case, I initially laughed off the bullying and got on with my work. The bully in question was a “seagull manager”, coming into the office only once every few months. I was also not his direct report, so it didn’t affect my career at first. The key diffuser to bullying behavior is to not take the bully seriously, especially if they can’t do anything to you professionally. Remember that they are looking for a reaction; if you don’t give them one, they will move on.

The approach has to be different if it is a member of management that is bullying you, which it is in over 70% of cases. If a member of management that you directly or laterally report to is bullying you, note the date and time of each incident and catalogue them for a few months. Take the information to a lawyer specializing in workplace litigation. Most will give you a free consultation and let you know if you have a case or not. If they have told you that you have a case, be prepared to follow through on a threat to litigate if the company does not give you any satisfaction.

It may be necessary to litigate from the outside. According to the same 2008 survey by WBI, only 1.7% of the complaints against a bully concluded in a result that was satisfactory to the complaining employee that ensured their safety, while 31% resulted in retaliation against the target by the company. Complaining will result in retaliation from the bully in 71% of the cases.

If you are dealing with a more extreme case involving physical or sexual violence, do not hesitate to call the police and let them sort out the details. Do this even if the bully threatens violence, especially if they do it in front of witnesses. This should result in the immediate dismissal of the bully, and if it doesn’t you definitely want to change jobs.

If you know that you are going to change jobs anyway as a result of the behavior, make sure that your employer is told through the exit interview process or in a formal complaint that you are leaving because of the bully. Carbon-copy your complaint letter to the offices of top company brass, including the members of the board if you are leaving a publicly held company. This is the only way to ensure that the higher-ups will actually know about your case, as such complaints are usually swept under the rug.

Changing Jobs Solution and Problem

This is another way to handle the bullying behavior. Changing jobs doesn’t have the stigma that it once did. Employers now almost expect to see you at 3-4 positions before showing up at their door. While looking for a new job, let your potential employers know exactly why you are changing jobs and tell them that you don’t want the same environment at your new place of business. While you would think this would backfire, it landed me a fairly lucrative position within a short period of time.

The new employer will appreciate your honesty and the fact that you are seeking a non-toxic work environment. Most also wonder about why you have left your last job, and a definitive answer that doesn’t involve any of their nightmare scenarios will be comforting. This strategy is most effective since employers with toxic environments will see you as a potential troublemaker and will definitely not hire you.

You will need to change jobs if the bully in question is one of the owners of the business or an extremely high-level executive. Staying put is not an option. A high position in the company automatically means that their behavior is being protected internally by other stakeholders. Litigation is still an option, but only with witnesses and these can be hard to find against a high-ranking company official. Seek the counsel of an employment lawyer in this case to see what options are available to you.

Is Litigation Really the Answer?

This depends on the case. You are probably keenly aware of the company’s financial situation. Do they have the pockets for litigation? If not, they will most likely settle with you fairly quickly to avoid legal costs, especially if you have the journal of events and witnesses. If they have deep pockets for litigation, you may not be able to play legal chicken with them. We have mentioned previously that if the behavior crosses the line to illegal, you should contact the police immediately. This will force the company to take action and lend firm credence to any civil suit that you may launch in the future.

Why Do Companies Protect the Bullies?

While we know from the statistics that companies generally don’t do anything for a target of bullying, the question is why. Companies recognize aggressive behavior as reward-worthy and promote individuals that engage in bullying behavior. Human resources is generally not there to help employees but to protect the interests of the employer. If you are reporting a bullying incident to them, their primary interest is to protect the company from litigation. They will try to play it down and paint you as a whiner, trying to diffuse the situation by making sure that you don’t think that you have a case.

A fundamental shift in culture has to happen in order to get companies to recognize that bullies are hurting their business. The best way to do this is through litigating when the behavior occurs, but most people don’t have the pockets for that. Formal complaints when the behavior happens or through the exit interview process are the cheapest way, especially if you make sure that the complaint is CC’ed to top company brass. You should also list in such a complaint key financial contributions that you have made to the company, such as developing an entirely new market for the product. Companies should be made aware that they are losing their top financial performers through bullying behavior, and they almost never are.

How Can I Get Rid of Them?

If you are in a company where you are in a position to get rid of workplace bullies, it is in the best financial interest of the company for you to do so. Bullies may be top performers, but they discourage other employees from doing well because they don’t want to share or lose the spotlight. The employees that you don’t lose will purposely try to avoid outshining the bully so that they don’t receive the bullying treatment.

This translates into huge losses of profit and potential profit. When your human resources department has had a complaint or two lodged against a person who is participating in bully behavior, there is no rehabilitation. There is only firing with cause. This person will not change, despite their multiple assurances to the contrary. They will just get worse and retaliate further against their targets who reported them. Bullies will be quick to threaten litigation and other measures if you fire them, but they will generally lack the resources to follow through on their threats, particularly if you have a well-documented complaint against them. Install an anti-bullying policy in your workplace that serves notice that any bullying will be grounds for immediate termination.

Bullying affects everyone in a workplace environment, and employees and employers are both better off without them. Gone are the days when aggression meant performance; results now mean performance, and those who deliver them should not be marginalized. In our hyper-competitive economy, there is no room for a schoolyard mentality.

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Angela is a writer who is working awesome every day at what she loves to do. Her workplace adventures from back when she was doing what she had to do are now available for your viewing pleasure on workawesome.com, which she is thrilled to have the opportunity to write for.
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Discussion

  1. David Turnbull on the 17th September

    I’m surprised that bullying is so common within the workplace; you’d think after years of schooling people would finally grow up. Being self employed means these sorts of things don’t affect me, but I still enjoyed your article. :)

  2. Joni on the 17th September

    Wow. I just left a job because of a toxic environment, and reading your post made me realize that I left because I was being bullied (by my boss). Thank you so much for the info…and the validation!

    • Angela West on the 18th September

      No problem Joni; I think a lot of people just think it is a regular part of the corporate culture. I know I did until I left the workplace with the bully and started reading up on the subject, so I never took the time to keep a journal, etc. in order to back everything up. I hope this article will help people in the same situation before it is too late to do something about it.

  3. KJ on the 17th September

    Thank you for posting this.

    Its slightly uncanny that I am currently being bullied at my workplace and have been looking for tips and answers to what I can do without bringing myself down to the level of my ‘bully-er’.
    This post has helped me out with some thoughts and worries I’ve had, but unfortunately it doesn’t quell my fear completely.

    It’s not a nice feeling to be watched, criticised and talked down to someone who is in the ear of my manager.

    I wouldn’t wish this upon anyone.

    • Angela West on the 18th September

      Hi KJ:

      I would recommend the WBI’s “Targets” page as a great starting point for a way through your situation. Know that despite what the bully is saying, you are most likely a target because you are a star at work, and don’t give up hope.

      http://www.workplacebullying.org/targets.html

  4. Jarryd on the 17th September

    My fiancée has a bit of workplace bullying going on at her workplace. The thing is they are all higher positions than her and the HR manager is biased against her for being a ‘whiner’. It sometimes gets to the point of where she will come home crying or very angry and there’s not much we can do about it from a financial point of view. People are so stupid and childish.

    I will definitely forward this on to her and see if she can get something out of it.

  5. Kayle on the 17th September

    I was the target of a vicious bully in my latest job and personally relate to this article. I never imagined it happening to me after a long. successful work history.In fact, I never thought of her as a bully until my sister suggested I read “The Bully at Work” by Gary and Ruth Namie six months after I was fired. The Namies make it clear that conscientious workers are usually the targets and that either the bully or the target are new to the department. As a new hire, I was on probation and had no allies. In Texas, a right-to-work state, there are no laws against bullying except when the target is in a protected class (gender, ethnic identity, age, etc.). In my case, the bully was in a protected class but I am not. Not only was she the boss, but how can I accuse her of discriminating against me? What could be her motivation? I was fired just as my probationary period was up after being threatened daily and striving futilely to meet her arbitrary expectations. (I felt somewhat vindicated when she was fired three weeks after I was, but I still am no longer eligible for a job at the company.)

    After talking to people and thinking about this with the wisdom of hindsight, I believe two things. 1) The problem is more prevalent now in our buyer’s market. Bullies feel empowered by the economic environment we are experiencing today. Restraints are lessened and those who tend to enjoy tormenting others now feel free to do it with impunity because there are so many job seekers and people are afraid for their jobs. I was. 2) The only defense is to stand up for yourself and be vigilent. As soon as someone demands unreasonable performance standards, berates you, and has impossible or unsubstantiable expectations begin to consider the bigger picture. I will never “try to hang in there” again because the Namie’s recommend that you stand up to the bully as soon as it starts. It isn’t my fault, but I do not intend to ever happen again. Statistically it is clear from their book that getting support (if possible) and not rolling over is key to stopping it.

    I do not want for anyone to be undermined as I was. It was very painful. I really believe it could happen to anyone who just wants to do a good job.

    • Angela West on the 18th September

      Thank you for sharing your story Kayle. It is funny, the better of a job you do, the worse it will get. We are taught to think that hard work is rewarded when it is exactly the opposite when you are the target of a bully.

  6. Tanja on the 17th September

    Thanks a lot for this article!

    I have seen people – mostly women – brake down after a long time being bullied, often by their bosses. The mental stress can be so bad that people even think of committing suicide!

    I hope that companies wake up in future and articles like this definately help.

  7. Claude on the 20th September

    Have you considered that maybe you’re not been bullied and you’re just paranoid?

    Some co-workers might think you’re a bully if you ask them to contribute more than they think is normal.

    • Jarryd on the 21st September

      Begone, troll!

    • Angela West on the 23rd September

      I would say this is a valid argument :).

      You are completely right. Healthy debate and minor disagreements are key components of the average workplace. This article is referring to over-the-top behavior such as physical threats, deliberate isolation, constant abusive language etc. that are characteristic of bullying behavior. Perceived slights and occasional tiffs could only be construed as bullying behavior by someone who is being paranoid.

      While everyone’s feelings are valid, even someone who may be being a bit paranoid, you are correct that we need to make sure that “bullying” doesn’t become a catch-all for any kind of negative social behaviors in the workplace.

  8. Claude on the 22nd September

    During my 15 years of professional experience with mostly male (IT) and female majority (MARCOM) teams, the conflict has been between women with strong personalities. Why does this happen? I am not sure, but I am learning by observing similar competitiveness from my two daughters.

    I think reasonable argument results *healthy* competition. But if you find yourself in a truly abusive workplace your best bet is to leave that job. Chances are you will not encounter the same behavior again.

    • Jarryd on the 22nd September

      I guess it depends on the environment. As with your example with a larger female to male ratio, the stronger personality would be with the women. I’d assume it would be the same vice versa.

      A good argument or discussion is always healthy for the workplace but just as long as it’s constructive and not for targeting a person or what not. As with any job, if your workplace is giving you problems and nothing is being done about it, it’s time to move on.

  9. Anonymous on the 12th February

    This is a very serious problem that companies don’t seem to care about at all. I have had this happen to me more than once while people just stood by. I stood up to the bully as one of the people commented below, but it made the bully act even worse. It started out with sexual harassment. This person should not be working period! I proved I was just as capable to complete the work, and did a very good job. If you report it to the company they don’t care. The only thing that anyone seems to care about is money. They don’t care about how the “target” is affected at all.

  10. Mary M. on the 4th May

    Loved this article.

    It is true what you write, about how staying in the job isn’t an option if the bully is the owner or an executive. I have a friend who resigned after being bullied for 4 years–she thought she could triumph over them. But she couldn’t. She just became ill.

    Very good to communicate to people that it is highly that a target will be able to stay in a job without significant harm.

    I was bullied for a year once. Worst experience of my life, just the worst. How freaky it is to be punished for being extra competent!

  11. John on the 17th April

    This is a great article. Your forgot to mention another serious danger of bullying… columbine. If you read up on the massacre, it was two kids who were subject to intense bullying. I know the role of Columbine bullying has since been debated, but it couldn’t have helped the situation.

    I know this is an exotic danger for corporations but it’s too scary to simply ignore.

  12. james on the 3rd February

    I have been recently bullied at work and found that the only option was to hand in my notice and leave I didnt want to mention this on my resignation letter due to the stigma that is attached to it – now I am without a job and looking for another one and feel quite sad but my health is a lot better.

    I am extremely good at my job and I guess others feel threatened as I have only been in this job approx 1 year and I am showing them ways to improve things how to make the company better etc etc but I now see that people are very jealous and don’t like getting the job done. I wish that I had never had the misfortune to join this company and personally see how they get away with things as this is not the first company that I have been bullied in and now it makes me feel that the UK is full of crap companies with incompetent staff who just like to do nothing and when they get someone in who can do all the work and more they pounch and get rid of them asap by what ever means necessary.

    I was singled out, ignored, belittled, had people interfere with my work and do things to stop me getting my job done.

    The one thing I do know is that the bullies usually remain where they are as they have tons of people to support and back them up.

    I would not wish this experience on anyone and I hope the bullies get what they deserve.

  13. Claire on the 29th April

    I’ve read a few of the different stories above and I’ve learnt some new reasons why I was being bullied at work.

    I’ve started a job 10 months ago,I work in an environment of all women except for my manager. I couldn’t understand why it was happening to me and often wondered whether it was something I said/didn’t say, do/ didn’t do. The reality is that I didn’t do anything wrong, I’m a happy, confident person, secure in my marriage with a solid bond of female friends out of work, I have a good work relationship with the manager, am easy going and enjoy making friends at work. I was being bullied because of their insecurities, their competitiveness, their jealousy, their petty need for attention and their desperate hold on their dying youth.

    The women isolated me from their morning tea or lunch gatherings, I wasn’t included in their daily chit chat, personal emails. They would talk at me rather than to me demanding attention as though I should stop what I was doing to assist them, if I was lucky they would only humiliate me to me face but there were times when it’s in front of a larger group. I realised that I was the gossip for them when they get silent as soon as I walk into the room and no one talks or comes near me. They walked around me or through me with out saying hello – this was all new to me as I’m a competent, kind mannered person who worked hard and was good at my job.

    My self esteem and confidence hit bottom and I started to loose my hair, I couldn’t cope with it once it effected my health so I’ve left me job and am unemployed. For now I am a broken person but have faith that I’ll be a stronger person once I’ve had time to peel away all the toxic emotions over the past 10 months. Thank heavens my husband is an amazing supportive loving man who has been my rock through out this unfortunate time.

    A new page has turned which means I can leave the rotten to rot amongst themselves. Karma has it’s ways and I can only wonder which one of them the pack will turn onto next.

    • Pooja Lohana on the 29th April

      Claire,

      Good on you for showing so much courage. We hope you’ll find a new job soon, which not only suits your skill-set but also is a healthy environment to grow.

      -
      Pooja

  14. Sagi-girl on the 7th April

    This is one of the best articles I have read about bullying. I’m a female park ranger getting bullied by a boss who has far less education than I do and who wants his buddy to get my job. What I found most helpful here is what you wrote about how to handle the situation in an interview for a new position…I love what you wrote about being candid, it takes all the stress off as I look for new work. I can’t help but wonder if women are targeted more than men because women are viewed as “extra” workers looking for nail polish money or something along those lines? My male co-worker and boss, both bullies, also both have girlfriends/wives who don’t work…I also agree with the posters here, there is a strange twilight zone feeling as the more classes I take (I’m in the process of getting a graduate degree while working), the worse the bullying gets, and yes, it is the opposite of what we expect. I can’t wait to get a new job!!!!

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