There likely are very few people in the workforce who have not encountered, or seen others being the targets of, workplace bullying. Unfortunately, there isn't a single precise definition of what counts as workplace bullying. There are many different ways that a co-worker (or a group of co-workers) can intimidate, threaten, criticize or psychologically abuse a vulnerable co-worker. What unifies the many distinct cases, however, can be loosely characterized as “a form of workplace violence,” or more specifically: a "repeated health-harming mistreatment of an employee by one or more employees."
Bullies use a number of different tactics to achieve their goal. Author Gwen Moran describes five strategies bullies may use to devalue a co-worker:
This type of tormenter is not putting you down behind closed doors. The bullying is done right in front of whomever happens to present. Often this bully is in a position of power that enables them to be overtly aggressive. Their style of bullying is bombastic and is typically characterized by using name calling or other forms of verbal abuse.
The methods of The Scorched-Earth Fighter are quite similar to those of the Aggressive Jerk. One difference between the two types is that The Scorched-Earth Fighter is more likely to use social media, email lists or forums to (consistently) humiliate, demean, belittle, degrade or threaten a co-worker. They are relentless, and If no one intervenes, they will proceed until they win and the target loses.
The third type of workplace bully hides behind people in power. They pretend to just do what they were told to by the administration or people higher up in the workplace hierarchy. They may even pretend to be kind and empathetic. They will, however, hardly ever stand up to unjust decision making coming from their own bosses. Instead they will choose the easy way out. They may force the bullied person to resign or punish them in other ways under the disguise "I am just doing what I was told."
Shape-Shifter ("The Office Sociopath")
The Shape-Shifter often has psychopathic traits (or in more technical terms: the traits of a person with anti-social personality disorder). This type of bully will appear charming, empathetic and helpful in settings where it appears that this kind of behavior will be in his or her best interest. When an office sociopath feels they have nothing to lose, or even can gain some influence by being vicious, they will not hesitate to put down a co-worker. Their charm (when it matters) can make it easy for them to gain support from the other co-workers and as a consequence make it hard for others to see the bullying or to believe the target if the target complains.
This type of bully could easily be the most dangerous of them all. They are the vicious office gossipers—the co-worker who "tells stories and defames you behind your back." Their goal is to ruin your reputation. In fact, you may already be in deep trouble by the time you realize that you are being targeted by the bully.
Not all bullies fall into one of these five categories. Some bullies use mixed strategies. What characterizes most of them is that they seek to gain power or influence, or avoid trouble, by putting down a co-worker who appears to the bully to be a threat to the bully's own success, or alternatively, an individual who is particularly susceptible to bullying.
Individuals who are competent, successful, cooperative and unlikely to confront the bully, or take action when bullied, are particularly susceptible.
Christine Comaford hits the nail on the head when she writes "bullies are scary, shocking, embarrassing and far too often tolerated in the workplace." They are tolerated because most of us are non-confrontational by nature. We prefer to avoid being "involved", avoid having a crisis on our hands and potentially risk damaging our own status and reputation. So, we tolerate the bully and pretend that the bullying does not take place.
Although it is hard to stop workplace bullying and mobbing, there are steps you can take to make it harder for the buldozer to succeed.
Gwen Moran recommends that you document all instances of bullying that you encounter as soon as you can. You may need this documentation if at some point you decide to take the issue to your HR department. Of course, if you document these instances in writing, you can only provide your point of view. But if there were any potential witnesses to the bullying, make note of that as well. If possible, secretly record instances of bullying on your cell phone. Depending on the state you live in, this sort of evidence (that the other party did not consent to) may or may not be admissible in a formal hearing or court setting. But even if it is not, it can be useful in informal proceedings.
Gwen Moran also recommends confronting the bully, even if it will not stop them. If at all possible, call them out on what they are doing. Calmly name what they are doing. For example, if you learn that a coworker is gossipping about you and that the gossip may ruin your reputation, let them know that you do not appreciate their defamation of your character. Tell them that if they have a problem with your behavior or attitude, then the first person they should inform or confront is you, not the intern, another co-worker or your boss. Even if they have in fact identified a serious flaw in your behavior or character, gossipping about it is not the right way to handle the problem.
Additional advice provided by Gwen Moran is to do your best not to react negatively to the bully in public or in writing. This is one of the greatest mistakes targets make. When we encounter harassment or find out that we are being harassed, our deep-rooted instinct often is to lash out—perhaps in writing, perhaps in front of others. This type of response could seriously weaken your case, were you ever to make a formal complaint.
Do not worry too much, however, if you snapped and yelled back or wrote the bully a nasty message or three. It is likely that others have also witnessed the bullying that has been taking place. Your co-workers may even have been subjected to it as well. Further: you may have witten messages from your tormenter from previous occasions that can testify to the true nature of their character.
Sherri Gordon, About.com's Bullying Expert, recommends that targets of workplace bullying find a supporter. This ally can be someone who has also been bullied by the very same person or someone who has witnessed the bullying and who is not one of the bully's "soldiers." The supporter can serve as a witness in the event that you decide to make a formal complaint. He or she can also help you deal with the psychological stress bullying generates.
As noted above, we often tolerate workplace bullying. This is one of the ways that bullies retain their power. We tolerate them in part because we are afraid that we might be their next target. It can seem safer to side with the bully.
The situation here is not all that different from when you were back in middle school or high school. You have likely encountered bullying at a young age even if it wasn't directed at you.
Most people who are not bullies resort to supporting—or even facilitating—the bullying. We may do this because we are afraid of the bully or because we realize deep down that the bully is the person who holds the power and who will therefore be likely to gain the support of others.
In middle- and highschool there wasn't always a brave kid standing up to the bully on behalf of the victim. There may not be a co-worker who is brave enough to stand up for you now either. The brave kid from the sandbox who confronts the mean guy is a rarity.
One of the things that can be most hurtful when being the target of bullying is seeing friends turn against you. They may not be mean-spirited. They may not want to harm you. But their primal fear (of the bully) may trump all rational reasoning.
If you are the target of bullying long-term, the best you can do is to document, document and document—in writing or in a recorded format. Find supporters. Find others who have been subject to the person's despicable behavior (if any). Calmly confront the bully. At some point—before you become too worn down and overtaken by the psychological stress caused by this kind of behavior—find out if there is a way to report this in a formal way to the HR department at your workplace (if you are lucky enough to have a department of this kind).