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How to Manage a Workplace Bully

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There was probably a bully or two in your elementary school. Maybe they stole lunches or called people names. In high school, perhaps they spread rumors or got into physical altercations with fellow students. But now that you are an adult, all the bullies have grown out of their bad behavior, right?

Unfortunately, experts say bullying still happens years after we thought we grew out of it, and often, it happens in the workplace.

Coworkers and supervisors might not be stealing your lunch but they could be taking credit for your work, being disruptive during meetings, or being verbally abusive. Experts say this is bullying too, and they have some advice for how to recognize it, respond to it, and improve your work environment.

What is bullying?

Bullying shows up in the workplace in a variety of ways. Most commonly, it is when one worker is attempting to exert power over another, often by intimidation or verbal abuse, says Catherine Mattice, owner of Civility Partners, a consulting firm specializing in solving bullying problems in the workplace, and author of Back Off! Your Kick Ass Guide to Ending Bullying At Work.

While conflict in the workplace is okay, Mattice explains that it rises to the level of bullying when one person feels afraid to speak up or is afraid they will be retaliated against.

It might manifest as a boss who is constantly yelling and intimidating you, or a coworker who takes credit for your work or is verbally abusive. Mattice says that most often, about 70% of the time, it is people in leadership who are bullying those below them and the rest of the time, it’s someone bullying a colleague.

"People who bully do it because it makes them feel powerful,” Mattice says. “They think it makes them look competent and powerful when they put someone down.”

Are you being bullied?

As adults, we enter the workforce presuming that everyone has outgrown their childhood antics. We think that people at work will be professional and respectful. So, it may come as a shock to think that a mean coworker might actually be a bully.

If you already have lower self confidence or are insecure about your position, you might not even realize that the way you are being spoken to or treated is wrong, says Art Markman, a psychology professor at the University of Texas, Austin and an expert in behavior in the workplace.

"People feeling that way will sometimes take verbal abuse from someone else as a sign that in fact that they don’t belong,” he says. “They don’t recognize it as inappropriate behavior and they think it’s deserved.”

But while criticism from a boss or an argument with a coworker is normal, anything above and beyond that is inappropriate workplace behavior, he adds.

Should you confront your bully?

It can be difficult to know where to start if you find yourself the victim of bullying, Markman says. If you feel comfortable, and depending on the relationship you have with the bully, the first thing you should do is approach them for a conversation. Here are a few things you can do to prepare for the conversation:

  • Seek advice from trusted colleagues about how to approach your bully. If your bully is your boss, be clear when you are meeting with colleagues that you are not going over your supervisor’s head but merely seeking advice.
  • Write down clear examples and incidents, how they made you feel, and why it was unprofessional.
  • Practice what you want to say before you approach the bully. You can even ask a friend or coworker to sit down and have a practice conversation with you.
  • Schedule a meeting at your office with your bully. If you are fearful, make sure trusted co-workers are nearby in another room.

Reporting the incident

If confronting your bully does not improve the situation, or if you just don’t feel comfortable approaching them, then your next step is to report what happened. If your organization has a human resources department, report there. If not, report to a supervisor. If your supervisor is the bully, report to someone above them.

There are a few things you can do before you file that report:

  • Document all the incidents that occurred. Write down the date, time, and who witnessed the event, along with a description of what happened.
  • Keep any emails, texts, or voicemails from your bully that back up what you say.
  • Think about how the bullying has impacted the workplace. While your first reaction is to approach this from an emotional perspective, it can be more persuasive to human resources and supervisors if you focus on how the bully is making you and others work less efficiently. Were meetings disrupted? Were you or others unable to complete your work because of the incident?

Responsibilities of leadership

Once it’s reported, there are certain steps that leadership should take, Mattice says. The first thing that should be done is a complete investigation. That means leadership should interview people who witnessed the incident, talk to the bully and the victim, and address what happened.

If the bullying is based on your protected class status, there are legal ramifications. But if it’s not, then bullying often isn’t even considered a violation of any organizational rules.

"It really comes down to the fact that the leaders have to care,” she says. “Sometimes bullies are considered valuable to the organization and the report is dropped."

But to be a strong leader, Mattice and Markman both say it is important to promote core values of civility throughout the organization, and to respond to every bullying incident that is reported.

"As a leader you have to make it clear that the values of the organization are more important than the contribution of any individual,” Markman says. “It is destructive to a workplace culture to have bullies known to be bullies still walking through the workplace.”

If you find that none of this works and you are still being bullied, then you should consider leaving the organization, Markman says.

"Bear in mind that no job, and no cause, is too important to be in an environment in which you are not being treated civilly and appropriately,” Markman says. "People get involved in a nonprofit because of what it stands for. But you can always find another job. You can find somewhere else where you are treated better.”

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About the Author | Samantha Fredrickson has worked in communications and nonprofit advocacy for more than a decade. She has spent much of her career advocating for the rights of vulnerable populations. She has degrees from the University of Nevada, Reno and New York Law School.

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