How to Handle a Workplace Bully

Stuck in a hostile work environment? Try this seven-step plan to knock your bully down a peg.
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How to Handle a Workplace Bully

Stuck in a hostile work environment? Try this seven-step plan to knock your bully down a peg.

-David Sbarra, Ph.D.,

sad office woman

Most of what we know about bullying comes from the schoolyard. There is a broad body of research on the subject and it’s being discussed more and more in the media, including in public service announcements about how to teach kids to stick up for picked-on classmates. About one-third of people report being bullied as a child with about five to 10 percent reporting being severely victimized.

Kids can be cruel, but bullying is not a strictly childhood phenomenon. Many adults report being bullied at work, and the net effect of these toxic behaviors can leave us feeling humiliated, ashamed, embarrassed, intimidated and even depressed. Bullying is intentional hostility or aggression that is repeatedly directed at a target person who is usually less powerful than the bully. The hostilities can be emotional or physical, and the acts toward the target are done to coerce, intimidate or gain and maintain power. The topic of bullying in the workplace is a relatively new area of research (though, surely, people have been bullying each other for as long as they’ve worked together), but it is one that is growing rapidly.

Recognizing a Bully

Most simply, if you are repeatedly tormented and singled-out for intimation by a person who is trying to gain and use power over you, or to simply wear you down and frustrate you, then you’re being bullied.

If, on the other hand, your boss is simply a mean person and yells at you and everyone else quite a lot (like in The Devil Wears Prada), this is likely not bullying. It’s not always black or white; the line of what is and isn’t bullying can become very blurred (like in the movie “9 to 5”).

Read How to Handle Difficult People

Let’s assume, for the sake of discussion, that it is your immediate supervisor who’s after you. This woman, let’s call her Fran, is jealous of your performance. You’re far out-pacing her productivity when she was in your position, and it’s clear upper management has you on the radar for a promotion, perhaps even before Fran.

What does Fran do that’s so bad? Well, for starters, she always gives you assignments at about 4:45 p.m., right before it’s time to quit for the day. These assignments are always urgent, and they often come on Friday afternoons.

Fran also undermines you in public. She puts you down in subtle ways in front of others (“I liked your presentation at the meeting—I barely even noticed when you misreported those sales numbers.”), then explodes on you in emails, calling your ideas stupid and your choices unprofessional. On several occasions she has had the gall to lament about why you don’t treat her better, suggesting you’re not a team player. When other people are around, she sometimes supports your ideas, but everyone can sense her true feelings and your co-workers have even started to ask you why she dislikes you so much.

Having Fran as a boss makes going to work really stink. You love what you do but you hate your work environment. She’s got it out for you, and you’re overwhelmed by the sense that she’s not going to stop until you crack down the middle.

Does it sound like I know your bully? I have some personal experience with workplace and schoolyard bullying, and it’s true that one of the worst parts about it is feeling trapped, like there’s no way out of the situation.

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