Unless you were homeschooled in the wild or have some type of supernatural luck, you’ve probably tangled with a mean girl or bully at some point in your life. Unfortunately, bullies grow up and get jobs, so you might just run into them again in the workplace—except this time sans the lockers and swirlies. Therefore, let’s talk about some tips to deal with workplace bullying.
We all want to believe that growing up means the end of lunch table cliques, demeaning back talk, and petty gossip. Unfortunately, this might not always be the case. Too many of us end up in eerily similar scenarios to our dark days of junior high.
Sadly, adult bullying behavior identically reflects childhood bully behavior: it methodically targets a person with the intention to intimidate, undermine, or degrade. The same tactics get used, too: gossip, sabotage, exclusion, public shaming, and many other conscious behaviors.
Bullying takes a profound toll on its victims. Stress levels, self-confidence, and even our grasp on reality gets warped if the bullying is constant. Therefore, let’s cover nine tips on dealing with adult bullies in the workplace.
Sometimes, bullying can be so camouflaged and insidious that we start to blame ourselves. You might find yourself asking, “Am I really the least valuable team member on this project? Am I somehow asking for this torment by being too quiet, too loud, too (fill-in-the-blank)?”
Rest assured, you didn’t ask for this. You never would have invited others to subject you to unfound criticism, overt exclusion, or targeted gossip that wrecks your self-esteem and confidence.
So even though it may be difficult, always remember: it’s them, not you.
If the bullying isn’t deeply rooted yet, call out and correct the rude behavior when it happens. For instance, if you’re not into being called “Big Tuna” or “Pama-lama-ding-dong,” say so right when it happens, in public if possible. Stay calm and say, “That’s not my name—please call me Jim,” or “I’m not on board with that—please use my name.” Don’t make a joke of it, because that could send the message that you’re nervous or vulnerable. Stand up for yourself and state what you want. The goal is to show that there’s no fun or reward in provoking you.
Contrary to some advice you might see here on the interweb, if the bully is persistent and entrenched, don’t confront him/her. You read that right—don’t confront him or her. Why? Simply put, it doesn’t work. Bullying is a thought out, systematic campaign, not an “Oops, my bad.” A confrontation just shows the bully that the fight to get under your skin is working.
A 2013 poll asked over 600 bullied workers what they did to take care of themselves while being bullied. Unfortunately, these results were not very positive. The most popular response was to disengage from friends and family, and the second was to go down a self-destructive path of drinking or overeating.
When we think about it, withdrawing and self-medication makes sense: feeling persecuted, especially without a valid reason, often makes us seclude ourselves and avoid further retaliation. “Why am I being treated this way? Am I not seeing things clearly?” Especially if your aggressor is well-liked or charismatic, or if others don’t believe you, all of this can be very isolating.
However, about 25 percent of respondents did report taking care of themselves in a healthy way, like exercising, meditating, and the most important one—spending more time with family and friends. Indeed, a 2011 study showed that bullied adolescents can improve their mental health and protect their grades by using the support of friends and family. Thankfully, this support doesn’t stop with adolescence: turn to your colleagues, family, and friends to help validate your sense of reality and remind yourself that you don’t deserve this cruel treatment.
You may be tempted to go to your boss or the bully’s boss, but consider going higher. Why? Often the bosses know exactly what’s going on, but the bully has spent time growing that relationship (read: kissing up) so they’re ingratiated to authority. To bypass this, go two or three levels higher.
When you get a meeting, don’t bring up your feelings. Don’t ramble on about what the bully did to you. Keep it straightforward and low on emotion. Rehearsing your story beforehand with friends, family, or your therapist will help you stay calm and collected.
Another trick is instead of using the term “bully,” consider using the terms “abuse” or “harassment,” both of which have legal connotations and are less dismissable by higher-ups. The term “bully” can be seen as a juvenile problem and therefore a waste of your manager’s time.
Most importantly, be ready to talk about the problem in terms of the bottom line. Emphasize that your bully’s behavior is costing the business in terms of money, time, performance, and morale. If you know of other employees that have left due to the bully, bring up the issue of turnover costs, expenses for headhunters, productivity lost to training and startup, and the cost of having positions vacant. Talk about productivity and how stress, distraction, and discord caused by the bully end up costing the whole team and the business at large. If possible, calculate everything out in dollars. Nothing talks louder than the bottom line.
One solution higher-ups might offer you is mediation. In this case, politely explain that mediation has been shown to be ineffective in cases of workplace bullying. Mediation is great for resolving conflict where both sides want the conflict to be resolved, but that’s not the case with bullying. The bully has nothing to gain from mediation.
Instead, request other solutions like a transfer of the bully, disciplinary action, or at the very least, an investigation with protection for you. If you get none of these, which is unfortunately probable, start planning your exit.
You may consider asking for a transfer for yourself. However, bringing up bullying when looking for a transfer will do nothing but create suspicion. It’s not fair, but instead, when going for a transfer, leave bullying out of the issue. Instead, think of it as a new opportunity and focus on what skills and strengths you can bring to the new division.
Many bullies are narcissists who think they’re hot stuff. Other bullies have self-esteem issues and therefore target those who threaten their skills, expertise, or likability. In either case, both types can often be temporarily subdued with a strategic compliment and a statement that tells them you’re not trying to step on their turf. Don’t make ego-stroking a long-term strategy, but use it judiciously to buy time while you figure out how to leave.
Unfortunately, according to a 2007 survey commissioned by the Workplace Bullying Institute, 62 percent of employers did nothing about a bully in their offices. It can be tempting to stay because of pride, a sense of justice, or sheer inertia, but in serious cases, the safest and healthiest thing to do is leave. If you work in a large organization, you may be able to transfer within, but especially if your bully or mean girl is the head honcho, discreetly look for another job and fly far, far away.
Once you’re free of your bully, help others in the same situation. The phenomenon of diffusion of responsibility, where people are less likely to take action when others are present, creates an even more toxic environment out of a bullying scenario.
Therefore, even saying something as simple as, “Quit messing with him,” or “No one thinks that’s funny,” can send a message to the bully that their shenanigans will not be tolerated. If they don’t get any positive attention or affirmation from their acts, they will be less likely to continue. A bully’s greatest asset is the collusion of others because it contributes to isolating their target. Breaking the cycle and standing up for others is one of the best things you can do. So do the right thing. You’ll feel good about yourself and maybe gain a grateful friend in the process.
A version of this piece originally appeared on Quick and Dirty Tips.
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Disclaimer: All content is strictly for informational purposes only. This content does not substitute for mental health care from a licensed professional.