How to Deal with a Workplace Bully

Boss standing up angrily gesturing at seated employeeUnfortunately, working with a bully is not a rare experience. According to the Workplace Bullying Institute, 27% of survey respondents reported having experience with bullies at their places of employment. It’s particularly tragic that the majority of bullies, statistically, are bosses. I’ve had to deal with bullies either directly or on behalf of someone else in various jobs, and most of the other professionals I know have as well. Some of them are dealing with a bully right now.

The worst part about dealing with a bully is trying to decide whether it’s best to ignore the behavior, even though that means giving the bully tacit permission to keep on keeping on, or to stand up to the bully and possibly be seen as a troublemaker.

If you’re reading this, you may be dealing with a bully yourself or know someone who is. You might be wondering what to do about it. It’s important to take a look at what is really at stake here. Is this person trying to damage your reputation? Are they just really annoying or rude? Is this person the only bully at work or are you noticing a culture of bullying?

The worst types of bullies to have at work, especially if you really need the job you’re in and aren’t ready to move on, are the ones who can make you look less competent than you are. They might sabotage projects by hiding key pieces of information from you. If you ask to cut them out of your process, you might be seen as not being a “team player.” It’s amazing how some bullies can seem dim-witted about certain things, yet they are masters at making someone else’s life miserable when they commit to doing so.

Handling a Bully in the Workplace

As with most types of workplace behaviors—assuming they are not egregious, threatening, or dangerous—the first round of intervention should be sitting down privately with the bully in a nonconfrontational way and just pointing out the facts of whatever it is that is troubling you and how the other person factors in. This lets the other person know you are aware they are contributing to the issue, but invites them to help problem solve.

I know. You don’t want to problem solve with a bully. You shouldn’t have to. They’re annoying and mean. It’s worth trying to take the high road, though.

I know. You don’t want to problem solve with a bully. You shouldn’t have to. They’re annoying and mean. It’s worth trying to take the high road, though. At worst, you can document that you took initiative and made a good-faith attempt to improve the situation.

If that intervention fails, it’s time to get your supervisor and possibly human resources (HR) involved. You’ll want to have documentation of behaviors (including dates and details) and your attempts to address them.

The rules of thumb for handling general conflict apply when it comes to handling a workplace bully at any stage:

  • Stick to measurable, observable data.
  • Use “I” statements as much as possible. Saying “you” tends to put people on the defensive.
  • Be prepared to compromise.
  • Document everything. Save emails, voicemails, screengrabs, etc.
  • Try not to involve more people than are needed; you don’t want office gossip.
  • Find a way to reliably unwind at the end of the day.

What to Expect When Taking On a Bully

Bullies exist in workplaces because few people attempt to take them on. If you choose to, be prepared for a potentially long and mostly thankless journey. Aside from improving your work environment, the upsides include finally getting validation that you aren’t “crazy” for believing this other person was being manipulative and passive-aggressive. The downsides include awkward meetings with people who may or may not be sympathetic, as well as being subject to the bully’s side of the story, which could call your motives into question.

Taking on a workplace bully takes courage, but if you are invested in making a difference in your workplace culture, it’s a worthy cause. Just be sure to maintain professionalism, document, document, and document some more, and be prepared for some pushback.

Reference:

Namie, G. (2014). 2014 WBI U.S. Workplace Bullying Survey. Retrieved from http://www.workplacebullying.org/wbiresearch/wbi-2014-us-survey

© Copyright 2016 GoodTherapy.org. All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Amy Armstrong, LPC, therapist in Denver, Colorado

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

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  • Sebrina

    Sebrina

    June 22nd, 2016 at 9:22 AM

    You would hope that by the time you get to actually working for a living that being a bully would be the last thing on your mind. But unfortunately I think that there are those who have absolutely no sense of self value or worth and the only way that they can ever feel good about themselves is to push other people around. I am sort of the age now where I don’t let things like this get under my skin. I try to ignore it and usually they will move on if they see that they are really not getting to you.

  • Tara

    Tara

    June 22nd, 2016 at 4:15 PM

    Too much to ask to be a bully right back?

  • Kate

    Kate

    June 23rd, 2016 at 11:48 AM

    Golly, you would hope that there would come a time for people like this to grow up and live their own lives instead of becoming so intent on ruining lives for other people. They are mean and obnoxious and truthfully even though I know I would like to say that I would always stand up to them there is still the elementary school kid in me who would just want to lay low and hope that they would avoid me.
    Maybe I am the one who needs to grow up.

  • danyel

    danyel

    June 23rd, 2016 at 3:22 PM

    Whatever happened to a good old fashioned human resources department that you could report someone like this to and who would effectively handle the situation?

  • Amy

    Amy

    July 12th, 2016 at 2:59 PM

    I often found myself asking the same question.

  • Peyton

    Peyton

    June 24th, 2016 at 9:41 AM

    The biggest problem is that most of the time there is no reasoning with this person.
    They are picking on others not because of something that they see lacking in you, but in something that they internally believe is wrong within themselves.

    That does not make them at all comfortable in their own skin so they decide that the winning thing to do is to take that out on their co workers around them.For some reason making someone else feel small makes them feel significant even when the rest of us are looking at them and communicating that they are out of their minds and that their behavior is unacceptable.

  • sonia t

    sonia t

    June 26th, 2016 at 5:13 AM

    You sort of get to the point with people such as this who are such a toxic presence in your life that you have to walk away from them. You go do your thing and let them do theirs and when someone stops paying attention to their antics I think that most of the time they will walk away because for them it is all about getting attention and a sense of entitlement.

  • MArIE

    MArIE

    June 26th, 2016 at 12:23 PM

    Reading this makes me so thankful for the people that I work with

  • Sonny

    Sonny

    June 27th, 2016 at 8:16 AM

    Most work environments especially when they are bigger settings now make their office staff go through training sessions on what constitutes harassment and bullying so why not try to start one of these sessions in your own work space? Maybe then if there is someone that you specifically would like to address they could better get the point.
    And then when all else fails, confront them with their actions.

  • bennett

    bennett

    June 27th, 2016 at 1:28 PM

    If someone would just stand up to them one good time I think that would most likely resolve the issue in an instant.

  • Maya

    Maya

    June 28th, 2016 at 9:30 AM

    I wonder how many of the recent mass shootings have boiled down to being bullied at work or school?
    I know that this is not an excuse for the evils that have been inflicted, but I want to know if this could possibly be how some of these things get started, just feeling overwhelmed and taken advantage of by other people, and could some of them have ever been prevented had the bullying been stopped sooner?

  • Tamara

    Tamara

    June 30th, 2016 at 4:50 AM

    I am the new girl at my office right now and making new friends has not been easy for me. I don’t know, there is some sense that others think that I am there to take their jobs or to start stepping on their toes and I don’t want to do anything except make some new friends and earn a living. How do I help them see that I just want to fit in a be included, and stop then form making me feel like such a fish out of water?

  • Amy

    Amy

    July 12th, 2016 at 3:10 PM

    @Tamara, it is so hard being new! Every workplace/office is unique, but I think that this could be a good topic for a future post. So thank you for the inspiration :-) You’re certainly not alone. Most of us have dealt with being the “new kid on the block” at work. Some people hate the feeling so much, they will stay in a a familiar work environment for years just because they don’t want to go through it again. So give yourself credit for being brave every day, and going in to do your best. That’s job #1.
    One piece of advice I will share with you about this is it’s a good idea to hang back and observe the office dynamics for about the first month. It’s tempting to try to make your mark as soon as you’re in a new environment, and it is important to prove your value to your employer. However, trying to do too much too soon can backfire too. (I’m not suggesting that you’re doing this, by the way.) Another key thing to remember is it’s not personal. None of these people know you at all, and that’s probably part of the reason they’re cautious. You might also be in an organization that isn’t handling transitions in the healthiest way–not your fault–but that could also be part of the reason people seem apprehensive. Another possibility is that your co-workers could just be somewhat shy, used to each other and not sure that you’re going to accept them. For now, do your best to go along with current trends at your workplace: join in social activities where you can, smile and be supportive, ask for help when you need it and show appreciation for other people’s expertise. Sometimes, a workplace just isn’t a good fit, but more often than not, you’ll find your group. It just takes time.

  • Port Eighty

    Port Eighty

    March 17th, 2017 at 4:56 AM

    I can’t recall ever being bullied at work. If some misguided fool ever tried to bully me, I would address their behavior the first time, right away. I would be assertive, and reasonable. If the bully made the mistake disregarding my warning…. well, let’s just say it’s a bad idea to harass Software Engineers :D

  • Aimee

    Aimee

    July 31st, 2018 at 6:17 PM

    I ended up quitting my job of 18 years that I loved because of a bully. Management refused to do anything. I ended up taking a huge paycut but I once again look forward do going to work. Funny thing is the bully is still up to her tricks and they still refuse to put a stop to her antics

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