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How to deal with workplace bullies

To put it bluntly, workplace bullies suck. They make work less fun, hinder your ability to get things done, and overall take all the energy out of an otherwise good workplace. If you’re dealing with a workplace bully, though, you’re not alone. A University of Windsor study found that 40% of workers experience workplace bullying on a semi-regular basis. That’s millions of people across North America getting bullied by coworkers. 

But the other thing to remember is that you can do something about workplace bullying that isn’t running away and quitting your job. Check out all the ways to handle workplace bullying without quitting your job.

Take the high road

take the high road to deal with workplace bullies

The first thing you can do, which you probably already tried, is to ignore it. Take the high road. You’re at work to do your job, not manage workplace bullies. Taking the high road can be effective for two reasons. One is that most bullies pick on people to get attention. If you’re not giving them attention because you’re ignoring it, there’s a chance they will stop. Ignoring can also be effective because it doesn’t waste your brain power. You have better things to do. 

If you’re opting to go the high road, that doesn’t mean you have to suffer in silence. Confide in a close work friend or colleague that can offer you some support and encouragement. Ignoring workplace bullies does not mean you have to be alone. All it means is that you keep your chin up, focus on your work, and build a support system around you to help with ignoring the person. Just be sure this doesn’t fall into gossiping – more on why that’s a bad idea later in this article.

Confront them

confront workplace bullies and ask them to stop

Workplace bullies do what they do for a variety of reasons. Perhaps it makes them feel powerful. Maybe it was a joke that got out of hand and they aren’t stopping when it’s no longer funny. Or it’s possible that the person thinks you’re an easy target or that you’re too sensitive. It’s even possible they had no idea their actions were bullying. There’s a lot of debate on the psychology of workplace bullies. 

But when you’re the one getting bullied, all you care about it making it stop. 

So realize that all of these issues – and more – could disappear in an instant when you confront the person about what’s going on. Yes, confrontations are uncomfortable. They are not fun and could make things worse if done wrong. So if you want to go the confrontation route, keep these tips in mind:

  • Do it privately
  • Talk about facts and your reaction to them (“You did this and it made me feel like X – did you know your action was getting this reaction from me?”)
  • Do not assume their intentions or reasons
  • Do not make guesses about what kind of person they are
  • Directly ask them to stop regardless of their intentions 
  • Give them a chance to save face

And while you may get an apology, it’s not always going to happen. You need to be ok with it simply stopping.

Ask for a third party to listen

if you can't confront someone alone, ask for a mediated conversation

If confrontations are horrible for you – or you think a private conversation won’t go anywhere – ask for a mediated conversation. In this case, a mediated conversation is not a legal thing. It’s when you bring in a neutral third party to sit, listen, and witness the conversation. They are not there to cast blame or guide the conversation, but to provide another set of eyes and ears. 

Mediated conversations are helpful for confronting workplace bullies because everyone tends to be on their best behaviour when someone else is in the room. This method can be really helpful if you’ve been getting bullied “on the sidelines” with mean comments quietly as you’re leaving a meeting, for example. Having the third person there means that if the bully flies off the handle when being confronted, there are witnesses. It also helps you, though, as confrontations can be emotional and having a third party there makes sure you stick to your script as well. 

Avoid gossip about that person

don't gossip at work - it doesn't help you deal with workplace bullies

Gossiping can feel amazing. It can feel even more amazing when it’s about someone who’s causing you grief at work. But gossiping is a bad idea, particularly about workplace bullies. Not only can gossip create problems for people based on half-truths and speculation, it can also completely backfire when talking about workplace bullies. Here’s how: if you gossip about someone who is bullying you at work, you’re technically partaking in a small form of workplace bullying yourself. You’re talking about a person behind their back and, whether you say something half-true or someone else does, you’re participating. 

When you gossip about workplace bullies, you also limit your ability to take action if the bullying gets out of hand. This is because, to put it bluntly, you create sympathy for the bully. If you’re known as an office gossip who talks about that person behind their backs, folks will be less likely to understand how you’re being bullied. At the very least if they do believe your claims, it could be perceived as two potential bullies going at each other, reducing the chance you will get much help or support.

Use emotional detachment

use emotional detachment so insults slide off your shoulders

Sometimes you can’t ignore someone or confront them. Whether office environment or personal feelings, those options sometimes just don’t work. There’s also the reality that you have to work with your workplace bullies, sometimes directly. So try emotional detachment. Treat the bully like you would a small child – as if they don’t know any better. That their actions can’t actually harm you because the person is not conscious enough of their own actions to make an impact. 

This method works if the bullying is based in words that are meant to hurt you personally, but don’t affect your ability to do your job. For example, the bully is not taking your pens and paper, but instead insulting your outfit or something similar. If you make it an academic challenge to work with them and let the insults roll off your shoulders, you may not stop them from being a bully. However, you insulate yourself so you aren’t affected by it any longer. 

Play dumb

try playing dumb to get workplace bullies to say what they really think

Sometimes bullies do most of their work through innuendo. They make “comparisons” but leave out the punch line so everyone knows what they said but they never really said it. They use laughs, sighs, or eye rolls strategically so people can see everything but there’s no record of them doing something obvious. If you confront this kind of person, they can easily deflect away – they weren’t eye-rolling at your idea, they were looking at the ceiling! 

If you’re faced with this kind of bully, try playing dumb. When they make a comment but stop short of saying an actual insult, ask them to explain. Pretend you don’t understand the joke. Play dumb. Continue asking them what they mean until they say what they really meant, in plain black and white. So when them say “Wow, that was an interesting choice” in a sarcastic tone, politely ask them what they thought was interesting. This is another way to stand up for yourself without direct confrontation. Be careful, though, as this method could make you into a really sarcastic person. And if you go too far with this, you could be perceived as bullying back.

Question yourself: Are you misinterpreting or taking things too personally?

you have to ask yourself if you're overreacting, if only to rule it out as an option

No one deserves to be bullied. End of sentence. However, every person comes from a unique background and brings those experiences into work. This happens on both sides. Someone may genuinely not know they are being a bully. But there’s also potential that you feel like something is bullying when perhaps it’s not. It’s important to at least ask yourself the question to explore the possibility that you are overreacting to something. 

Just asking yourself the question of whether you’re overreacting or are being too sensitive can feel painful, but it’s necessary to dealing with workplace bullies. Not only does it leave room for you to be wrong, which can happen even if your feelings are hurt, but it also opens the door for more empathy if you do confront your bully. If there’s a chance (even a tiny one) that you could be overreacting, then there’s a chance (even a tiny one) that the other person didn’t mean to be a bully. When that happens, confrontations can take a more productive stance. 

Go to your boss or HR

your boss or HR is the final step if nothing else stops workplace bullies for you

If all else fails, you may need formal help to deal with workplace bullies. It doesn’t mean you’ve failed. It doesn’t make you a snitch. In fact, if you’ve tried everything else on this list and it’s not working, then you definitely have a workplace bullying problem and need help to get it addressed. Keep in mind, too, that the vast majority of companies have policies and procedures in place for handling workplace bullies. 

When you go to HR, you will need as much evidence as possible. If you go simply with a feeling or personal experience, they may be able to offer you personal support but can’t do much to make it stop. Since HR needs to look out for all employees in the business, they will likely conduct a full investigation into what happened, including hearing the other person’s side of the story. If you don’t have evidence, you could find yourself in a position of you saying one thing and your coworker saying another – all without resolution if no one can prove anything.

Shift how you work

handle workplace bullies by shifting how you work

Sometimes, a workplace bully is circumstantial. They only make snide comments in certain types of meetings or when someone isn’t there. They are mean, but only in a specific way. Or they think they are being funny in a certain context where they definitely are not.

If you’re facing a workplace bully that acts like this, the solution could be as simple as changing your work situation. When you change the context of your working environment, the bully may be thrown off their base and not know how to react. Hopefully, this leads them to simply stop.

The easiest way to change your work situation, if it makes sense for your company culture, is to work from home on occasion. This has the double benefit of getting you and the bully separated while also giving you the comforts of home. Since people are usually more productive when working from home, it could also be better for the company as a whole.

If working from home isn’t an option, try to shift up where and how you work in the office. Work in pairs instead of alone (it could be a great way to spend time with your work friends anyway). Or try booking meetings in different rooms. Maybe you could even “hot desk” where you work from different desks on different days.

Depending on your company culture, you may have to chat with your manager about why you want to do these things, which could be uncomfortable. But if it gets the bully off your back, then it’s worth it.

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