How to Deal with a Workplace Bully
Bullying isn’t just for school yards. It’s also going on at work. But when workplace bullying gets reported, the practice is too frequently ignored.
Jackie Humans, an anti-bullying advocate who works with families and schools to prevent bullying, said that when targets living in the United States try to sue the organization, they soon learn that unlike Australia, Canada, and some countries in Europe, there are no laws in the U.S. against workplace bullying. In the very rare instances when targets have won monetary judgments after protracted litigation, the toll on their careers and their families has been horrendous, she added. Humans said 82 percent of targets eventually leave their jobs. (Workplace bullying, Humans said, is defined as someone criticizing you for reasons that have nothing to do with the way you perform your job.)
“Targets shouldn’t be the ones who get ‘punished’ by having to change jobs, often for a lower salary,” Humans said. “But until our legislators make bullying in the workplace illegal, it’s often wiser to cut your losses.”
The best defense against a workplace bully is a good offense, Humans said. She shares five tips for dealing with workplace bullying.
Recognizing a bully
Prepare yourself for deflecting verbal attacks by learning to recognize the difference between legitimate criticism and bullying. Legitimate criticism is always about job performance and never about extraneous issues such as your height, weight, your clothing or your receding hairline.
He who hesitates is lost
All bullies — whether they’re in the school yard or the prison yard or the workplace — first test the waters by saying or doing something provocative and then very carefully gauge your reaction. Responding with hesitancy shows the bully you’d make an ideal target.
When you respond confidently, a bully is far more likely to categorize you as someone who’d make a lousy target. For example, if you were presenting an idea in a group meeting and someone rudely interrupted you, you could put your hand out in front of you as though you were stopping traffic and say, “Excuse me. I wasn’t finished. How about this: you grant me the courtesy of letting me finish and I promise not to interrupt you when you’re talking?” Then smoothly continue speaking where you left off.
Body language trumps words
Body language is deeply embedded into our collective psyche. Let’s go back to the above example of someone interrupting you during a business meeting. If you used those exact words but said them while looking down at your hands with your shoulders slumped, and using a whiny tone of voice, what message would you actually be communicating? The words we speak are never as powerful as the way we say them.
Keep a journal
It’s almost always better to try handling a bully on your own terms than to ask management to intervene, for three reasons: the default assumption of others is likely to be that you’re not a team player; bullies are adept at office politics and can usually outflank targets; and no one appreciates having extra work piled on their plate, especially upper management.
So why bother keeping a journal? The most important person who needs to be convinced you’ve been victimized is you. Documenting everything makes it easier to see that you’re not the one at fault. When we feel sure of ourselves, we exude self-confident body language as effortlessly as breathing. This may sound simplistic, but it’s what will enable you to appear less attractive as a target and to make a fresh start, no matter where you find yourself.
Document each incident by including the five Ws: who, what, when, where and witnesses. Strictly avoid using emotional language such as “I was devastated!” or making value judgments, such as “He enjoys hurting people.”
These kinds of statements will only make you look unprofessional. Try to include an estimate of what the bully is costing the company in terms of lost productivity, absenteeism and turnover.
Lastly, report the bullying to someone who’s at least two to three levels above the bully within the corporate hierarchy. They’re less likely to be friends with the bully.
Cut your losses
It is a natural and normal human reaction to want justice; to see the bully punished and our dignity restored by reporting the bully to upper management or by bringing a lawsuit against our employer. But you’re kidding yourself if you think the deck isn’t greatly stacked against targets.
As much as 62 percent of workplace bullying incidents don’t get reported. When they do, it’s often difficult for employees to win in court. Big corporations have deep pockets, Humans said.