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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sad office woman

Putting an End to the Abuse

When I was in elementary school, I was bullied quite a lot. I was a chubby kid and my nickname at school was Saucy, short for Sausage. I remember one day some bullies took my shoes and played “keep away” as I ran around trying to get them back. After being taunted and taunted, I just quit, got down on the ground, and pretended I broke my leg chasing them.

In fifth grade, I started growing faster than almost anyone else. I hit puberty early and was stronger than a lot of the other kids. Finally, the day came when I decided I had enough of the school bully. When he came to work me over for the millionth time, I punched him right in the face. I did a preemptive strike, laid him out, and that was that. I was not bullied again.

That tactic might work fine on the playground, but I do not advise punching your bully’s lights out in the break room. When the bully is your boss or manager, you can’t simply “stand up” to him or her, because doing so means you’ll either lose your job or this approach will make matters worse (read: pouring gas on the fire). Instead, here’s what I suggest you do:

First, know your rights. Most workplaces have clear policies about harassment. These policies outline the steps you can take to make complaints and initiate changes. (I am not saying you should do so yet, but the first step is to learn about the actions you can take.) If you wanted to talk with someone in Human Resources, find out who you can go to. (Please don’t tell me it’s your bully!)

Read Three Ways to be Happier at Work

Second, document, document, document. Make a list of all the ways Fran is undermining your efforts. Make sure to keep track of who else observed her act this way (including who “observed” her email actions) and when possible use direct quotes, or copy and paste from emails that contain the behaviors in question. In order to demonstrate that Fran is bullying you, the burden is on you (unfortunately) to show a clear and consistent pattern of intimidation, and to demonstrate that you are the specific target.

Third, who are your friends? When we deal with stressful events, there’s no doubt that friends can help. Tell your friends what’s up—share your thoughts and feelings with the people you trust. When you do so, you want to talk about how you’re being impacted by the event, but you also want to get advice on at least two key questions. For one, is this real? Am I over-reacting, or does Fran really seem to have it out for me? Secondly, what would you do if you were me? Ask for practical, solution-focused support from your friends to help you get new ideas.

Fourth, go see Fran. Don’t do it reactively after one of her attacks, but do it proactively when the water is calm. One way to be strategic is to use what’s called a “one-down” approach in which you talk with Fran in a very deferential manner. Remember, you’re trying to get her off your back, not convince her she’s a bully. Be specific and be direct, for example, “Fran, thanks for meeting with me. I want to talk about my work assignments. I know you’re so swamped with everything and that there’s a lot of important stuff happening, but I feel like my assignments often come right at the end of the day and sometimes even at the end of the week, which makes planning anything really difficult when we’re on a deadline. Is there a way we could work things out to solve this problem? I hate to ask this of you because you’re the boss, but I am hoping we can think of a good solution together.”

Fifth, repeat step four. I don’t mean this to be coy or even funny, but I assume that change won’t come quickly. The next time Fran gives you a work assignment at 4:45 p.m., ask her about it directly and ask her if there’s any way it can be delayed given your earlier conversation.

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