Bullying @ Work

Bullying @ Work: Why does it happen and what can you do about it?

Posted Nov 29, 2013

Bullying doesn’t just happen at school.  It’s happening in the workplace. Whether it’s in an office or a football field, co-workers are bullying other co-workers.  According to the Workplace Bullying Institute, approximately “35% of the U.S. workforce (an estimated 53.5 million Americans) reported being bullied at work; an additional 15% witness it”; furthermore, in their latest research they found that “68% of bullies are men, and women bullies target women in 80% of cases” 1

Bullying has to do with power and control. It can manifest itself in the form of mental and/or physical abuse.  At work, it’s harder for physical abuse to happen because if there were a physical altercation, then the person would be fired and arrested. Instead, mental abuse tends to be the most prevalent form of bullying that happens at work.

Why does bullying happen?  It happens when a person (the bully) believes that he or she has power or control over another person (the bullied).  Bullies seek out individuals that they can manipulate and control. They do this by putting their co-workers to the test. These tests are not always obvious. 

For example, you can be on a conference call and someone asks you a question but before you can answer, two, three, four more questions are being thrown at you by the same person.  

This rapid fire questioning is purposely done to catch you off guard and make you look like you don’t know what you’re doing in front of others.  On the surface it looks like the person asking the questions is just being thorough but the fact that the person doesn’t let you answer leads one to question the motivate behind the questioning.

Their goal is to see how far they can push their intended target. If they find that they get push back from the person they are intending to bully, the bully tends to back off; however, if the person does not push back, then the bully has found a new emotional punching bag. 

Unlike the school ground, where kids are unable to hide their facial expressions, adult bullies have a better poker face and usually come across as charming and very likable.  Bullies are manipulative, self-centered, and, in some cases, sociopaths. This means that many times you may not be aware that you are being bullied until it’s too late.

How do you know if you are being bullied?  Bullying can either be in your face or it can grow over time.  For example, you come to an agreement with a co-worker that you are going to deliver a project on March 15th even though they really want it on March 1st.  Then you find out your co-worker had sent a note to your management thanking you for all your hard work and that you are planning to deliver your project on March 1st. This coercive tactic is an in your face type of bullying. 

Your co-worker is getting their way by forcing you to deliver on a timeline you know will be difficult to meet; hence, setting you up to fail.  This person has used power to manipulate you to get what he or she wants on the timelines he or she wants it. 

A grow over time bullying is much more subtle.  On the surface it can perceived that the person is just being bitchy; however, over time, that bitchiness is a tactic to manipulate you to get their way. 

For example, let’s say during your weekly team meeting, your boss says, “training for the new template is being held next Monday. I better not hear ‘Uhhh, I don’t know how to complete these templates because no one explained to me what I need to do.’”

In addition to sounding bitchy, the condescending and patronizing tone leads one to believe that your boss doesn’t really think highly of you and your team, and that any complaints on the new process will not be tolerated.  

This type of hidden bullying happens all the time. It’s when someone wants you to do something by making you feel guilty or incompetent. It’s harder to detect because it’s hidden behind something that is “supposed” to help you. This becomes a problem when you’re finding yourself avoiding the person because he or she nags you until you do as what he or she wants. 

What can you do when you are being bullied at work? 

  1. Cover your bases – You need to make sure there isn’t a reason for anyone to say that you are underperforming or that you are a troublemaker. What I’ve found when standing up to bullies is that they try to manipulate the situation to make it look like you are the one that has the issues. Make sure it is known that your work stands for itself and that your performance is not in question.
  2. Stand up for yourself Easier said than done but it is critical for the bully to know that he or she cannot step all over you. The first step is to not be afraid to push back.  In my first example where someone is asking rapid-fire questions, what you would do is let him or her finish the line of questioning before answering. If you find that he or she is still interrupting you and not letting you answer. Simply say, “if you want me to answer all your questions, you’re going to have to let me answer one before going to the next.” It doesn’t matter how exactly you say it but your goal is to make it seem like your bully is being impatient. By turning it around on them, not only would they be pissed off, they will back down. 
  3. Document, Document, Document – When you are looking to raise issues to management or human resources, the first thing they will ask for is proof.  It’s important to keep a log of these types of incidences. Management or human resources will also ask if you’ve raised this issue directly with the person who’s doing the bullying. Your response should be, yes. And that’s because after documenting this matter, you need to give the person feedback with some examples. It’s important to give that person a chance to rectify their behavior and if they still continue, then you will need to escalate.
  4. Have a Support System – Being bullied as an adult may sound ridiculous to some people—especially if you are a 6’5”, 312lbs, football player like Jonathan Martin from the Miami Dolphins; however, it happens. When it happens, it’s important to have people around you that will support you and encourage you to step forward to raise this matter.  A support system at work is critical to your success in overcoming this issue. Not only are your co-workers there to support you, many times, they may have witnessed the behavior that is taking place.
  5. Last resort, Move on – If you are finding yourself fighting an uphill battle because no one believes you or the environment is not changing, then it may be best to just move on.  I know it sounds like running away but if you take things into perspective, it has taken years for that person to become a bully and they will not change overnight. It may take years to undo the bully behavior and for that to happen, the bully must want to change. Just because you tell them to change doesn’t always mean that they are ready to change. 

Bullying can happen in many ways: in person, via email, via social networking sites, on the phone, etc. It’s important to know that bullying needs to happen more than two times before taking action. That’s because people sometimes have days that they are not their best.  So you will have to give them the benefit of the doubt; however, if it’s a behavior that you’ve noticed is continuous, then you know you have a problem. Let me know what you think.  I’m really interested in hearing your story. 




Bernardo Tirado, PMP    @thePMObox

Bernardo covers leadership and technology for PsychologyToday.com.   In addition to being an industrial psychologist, he’s certified as a Six Sigma Blackbelt, Project Management Professional, Body Language Expert, and is a Certified Trainer in Analytical Interviewing.  



About the Author

Bernardo Tirado is an industrial psychologist and project management executive.

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