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How to Deal with a Workplace Bully

This is a guest post by Anita M. Martinez, one of the students in the spring 2011 magazine writing course at Paradise Valley Community College.

Courage is fire, and bullying is smoke.

—Benjamin Disraeli

Rebekka walks into her office and cheerfully bids everyone good morning. As she is getting settled at her desk, her supervisor, Milly, steamrolls into Rebekka’s office and asks her, “Have you completed that quarterly report yet?”

Rebekka stammers…“I…I just have to…”

Milly interrupts, “I thought I asked you to have that done by end of day yesterday. Why haven’t you gotten it done?”

Rebekka turns and helplessly gestures toward her in-basket piled high with files.

Milly responds, “Never mind the rest. Get that report to me by 9:30 today.” She turns on her heel and walks away, leaving Rebekka quietly seething and close to tears.

Is Milly simply trying to get the job done? Is Rebekka being too sensitive? Is Milly inflicting emotional abuse upon Rebekka? The answers are no, no, and YES!

Milly’s first offense occurred when she stormed into Rebekka’s office, not giving her the chance to get settled. An expert bully targets their victim at vulnerable times. Offense #2: Milly interrupted Rebekka when she was attempting to explain why she hadn’t completed the report. Offense #3: Milly’s statements were demeaning and counterproductive.

Is it coincidence that both characters involved in this scenario are women, or does this characterizatioin reflect a broad reality? According to current research by The Workplace Bullying Institute (WBI), founded by Drs. Gary and Ruth Namie, women comprise 58% of bullies in the workplace, and 71% of their targets are women. Seventy-two percent of these bullies are managers!

If you are a target for workplace bullying, what can you do to protect yourself? The following five-step approach will not change the bully, but it will give you an effective strategy so you don’t have to put up with bullying behavior.

Step 1: Identify the abuse. According to the WBI, the definition for bullying in the workplace is “repeated health-harming mistreatment of one or more persons (the targets) by one or more perpetrators.” Forms of mistreatment include verbal abuse, intimidating behavior to include non-verbal actions, and sabotaging work from getting done. At times, bullying can cross over into the “harassment” classification, which is defined as discrimination against a person for their sex, race, age, or religion (or group affiliation). Federal and state law protect us from harassment, yet only 11 states have Healthy Workplace bills in place, giving targets of bullying certain legal rights.

Step 2: Know where to draw the line. A healthy person instinctively knows when their boundaries have been crossed. Bullies know and usually avoid such persons, immediately targeting a boundary-less person. Know what you will and will not tolerate, and never be afraid to calmly verbalize your “will-nots” at their first or next attempt at bullying.

Step 3: Stand up for yourself (literally). Often a bully will invade your personal space (measured by your fully extended arm’s length), or place a hand upon you to exert control. If you are sitting and they are too close for comfort, slowly stand up and look the bully straight in the eye. If you are already standing, do not back down. Maintain eye contact. If the bully pushes you, strikes you, or touches you in an inappropriate way, he or she has crossed the legal boundary, which must be pursued. (Make sure you are not the aggressor.) When the person says something offensive, take control of the situation by politely asking them to repeat it.

Step 4: Take written observation. Okay, so you’ve had enough bullying and decide to take your complaint to Human Resources, or for a smaller company, the owner or top dog (assuming that person is not the perpetrator). Documenting mistreatment cools you emotionally so you can take action with a level head. A written record also arms you with ammunition when you take your complaint to a higher level. A competent HR professional will document such reports, which should count against the offender come employee review time. If you are fortunate enough to live in the states of Washington, Nevada, Utah, Illinois, West Virginia, Maryland, New Jersey, Massachusetts, Vermont, or New York, you could be building your case to sue the offender, or your employer for not taking appropriate action to protect you.

Step 5: Assess whether the job is worth it. When your physical or mental health, as well as the quality of your personal life begins to suffer, it is definitely time to consider alternative employment. Do you really want to work for an employer that hires and tolerates workplace bullying? Before accepting a new position, ask to review their policy manual. A good employer will have a policy in place prohibiting bullying.

The world is full of bullies. Chances are you will cross tracks with one again, in your career or your personal life. The key is to identify it and put an immediate stop to bullying behavior.

Here are a few resources that will help:

The Bully at Work: What You Can Do to Stop the Hurt and Reclaim Your Dignity on the Job, by Gary Namie and Ruth Namie. Illinois, 2009

5 thoughts on “How to Deal with a Workplace Bully”

  1. I once worked for a computer company in the UK and one of my coworkers ~ a scottish woman with red hair!! ~ was the most evil, conniving, bipolar, mood altering bully I have ever met in my ENTIRE life. Looking back, I can see now that she was mentally ill but, boy, she dominated the entire floor of that office building with her weird ‘personality’ and warped behaviors. We all used to gossip that she must’ve ‘had something’ on her boss because we couldn’t figure out why she didn’t get fired! After she began an affair with a married man on the floor below, things really heated up and many of my work days can be summed up by watching ‘Girl, Interrupted.’ Sociopaths make the work day that much more difficult…..

  2. PS. I wanted to add in reference to Step 5, several of us ended up leaving the company simultaneously because we just couldn’t deal with the nonsense any longer. The department heads continued to do nothing about the bully.

  3. Well, I have been a victim of bullying, both as a student and as a faculty member. My main bully here was the husband of my dept head: good luck dealing with that one! Bullying thrives in hierarchical organizations.

    Happy day when dept head and spouse retired. Of course, I had to endure 15 years of that treatment.

  4. My favorite place when dealing with workplace bullies: You can’t talk to me that way. Sometimes hard to utter as your blood pressure reaches steam-out-of-your-ears levels.
    Recommended reading: “The No A$$hole Rule”, by Robert Sutton

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