What Can You Do About a Workplace Bully?

Bullying has become a real cause celebre in recent years. The news is full of stories about victims of bullying and bullying related suicides. We have popular movements such as the Pink Shirt campaign that provide hope and support for the victims of bullying. At one time, almost everyone was bullied at some time in their life, most often during childhood. Few people really appreciated how damaging it could be and most victims were probably told to “deal with it,” or to take matters into their own hands (and maybe become a bully themselves in the process).

Bullying has changed over the years, and with the internet age we’ve seen the appearance of cyber bullying which has allowed bullies to torment their victims anonymously and from afar. The internet has also helped victims of bullying to bring their stories to light and has helped to create the critical mass needed to make movements happen. Times have changed, and there is now zero tolerance for bullying, at least in North American schools. That’s not to say that bullying doesn’t still happen, but at least now victims have a voice, and people are listening.

Numerous recent studies have shown, however, that in spite of the great strides we have made as a society in dealing with bullying in our schools, it’s alive and well in the workplace. A quick search on the internet pulls up an endless list of resources related to workplace bullying. So, what is workplace bullying?

Workplace bullying is defined as verbal, nonverbal, psychological, and physical abuse and humiliation. It can be difficult to deal with because bullies are often able to work within the rules and policies that have been established by the employer. Academic researchers have defined five different categories of bullying behaviour in the workplace:

  1. Threat to Professional Status – this includes things like belittling a person’s opinions in meetings, the use of discipline to intimidate, and humiliation.
  2. Threats to Personal Standing – damaging a victim’s reputation, and using sarcasm, insults, and intimidation.
  3. Isolation – preventing access to opportunities and support.
  4. Overwork – overloading an employee with work, and giving them impossible deadlines.
  5. Destabilization – setting up an employee to fail, for example, by constantly changing project scope and expectations.

Recent studies show that workplace bullying is 3 to 4 times more prevalent than sexual or racial discrimination, and that over 50% of American workers report that they have been bullied in the workplace. 71% of bullies are the superiors of their victims, and 58% of bullies are women.

Case in point. I worked for a software company for almost 10 years. I was one of the company’s longest serving employees and took a lot of pride in my work. For the most part, I enjoyed my job and liked being part of the company I worked for. My work life was good, but that all began to change when a new manager arrived on the scene.

My new manager began to send nasty, demeaning e-mails to me. She threatened to take away vacation time that had been booked and planned several months in advance. It didn’t matter how much extra work I took on, it was never enough and it was never good enough. When I talked to senior management and HR about what was going on, I received no support. The job that I had been doing for several years was posted, and my new manager made a point of telling me that there were no internal employees qualified to do it. I applied anyhow, and they gave the job to someone will far less experience than I did. The work of employees who weren’t carrying their share of the load was piled onto me in addition to my regular work. Perks like the ability to work from home were taken away, but then given back. When I worked from home the very next day, my manager ran over to my desk to take a picture of it with me not in it. I was then criticized for it.

I contacted a lawyer and they told me that it sounded like the company I was working for was engineering a constructive dismissal – they were trying to force me to quit by making my work life miserable. Finally, after 4 months of abuse, and almost 10 years of service with the company, I was called into an office and told that I no longer had a position.

So, what should I have done, and what can you do when you become the victim of a workplace bully?

According to experts, workplace bullies tend to target high achievers because they are threatened by them. They don’t typically go after mediocre employees or chronic time wasters. Workplace bullying is psychological – it’s not normally physical in nature. It’s a pattern that is repeated over time and often focuses on a victim’s competence.

If you feel that you are the victim of a workplace bully, don’t suffer in silence! Here are some things that you need to do:

  1. Speak Up – the best way to ensure that you will continue to be bullied is to stay silent. If a bully makes a rude comment or inappropriate joke about you, ask them not to speak to you in that way. If you notice that someone else is being bullied, speak up for them and offer them support.
  2. Talk it Out – talking to the bully may resolve the issue but don’t get into a war of words. They may not even realize that their behaviour is offensive to you. Stay calm because bullies get a kick out of manipulating people emotionally.
  3. Do a Good Job – don’t give a bully ammunition by doing a lackluster job, coming in late, or taking too long lunches.
  4. Find a Policy – check to see if your company has a bullying policy or complaint procedure. It may tell you how to file a complaint against a bully.
  5. Talk to HR – if you feel that you can trust your HR department, talk to them about your concerns. Be careful approaching HR though because they work for the company, not you. If you are in a union, talk to a union official.
  6. Document Everything – keep detailed notes about incidents including dates, times, and the names of anyone who may have witnessed bullying behaviour. Save e-mails. It’s important to establish a pattern of repeated behaviours.
  7. Get Counselling – If your company offers employee assistance or counselling, use it. Bullying is psychologically damaging.
  8. Educate Yourself – learn everything you can about workplace bullying and your legal rights in your area.
  9. Launch a Formal Complaint – if your employer has a process for launching a formal complaint against your bully, use it.
  10. Have an Exit Strategy – Let’s face it, things may not get better, especially if your company isn’t supportive. In the end, you may have to consider leaving your job.

If you do find yourself the victim of a workplace bully, just remember, you are not alone – almost one half of your co-workers have probably also been bullied. There are steps that you can take to protect yourself. Most importantly, remember that you are not the problem, the bully is the problem.