You might have thought you left the bullies behind you in the seventh-grade schoolyard, over by the bike racks and the broken basketball hoop.
But bullies can show up anywhere, including the workplace. In fact, it’s common: so common that there’s an institute devoted to the problem. It’s called – not surprisingly – the Workplace Bullying Institute, and it reports that 35 percent of the U.S. workforce are being bullied at work. Michigan State professor Joe Grimm, who’s written a book on the phenomenon, told Businessweek that “in a lot of workplaces, it’s just considered part of daily workplace culture: browbeating, intimidation, cutting people off, and being the loudest in the room with an opinion.”
According to a report from the University of Louisville, victims can have a range of symptoms as a result of bullying: stress, reduced self-esteem, self-blame, phobias, sleep disturbances, depression, musculoskeletal problems, and/or digestive problems. A company with rampant bullying will see high absenteeism, employee turnover, low morale, and missed deadlines.
How to handle a workplace bully
- The who and the what: The who: if the bullying is coming from your boss, you might also want to check Fix My Job on dealing with a Verbally Abusive Boss. The what: If you are the subject of persistently aggressive and/or unreasonable behavior, you are being bullied. But bullying – while awful – isn’t necessarily illegal. Threats of physical violence are illegal. Bullying that involves Harassment (in which you are singled out on the basis of your race, color, religion, national origin, gender, sexual orientation or gender identity, marital status, disability, HIV/AIDS or hepatitis C status, and/or military status) may be illegal. Sometimes the bullying is in retaliation for Whistle-Blowing. That may be illegal, too.
- The where and the when: It is important to write down the details – including the where and when – of each instance of bullying. Hold on to any bullying emails or notes. Again, remember that it is a consistent pattern of behavior that defines bullying.
- Don’t let the bully in your head or under your skin: Victims of bullying can often question their own self-worth and blame themselves for their situation. Remember: You are not at fault here. The bully is at fault.
- Line up your allies: It’s possible that some of your co-workers are being bullied by the same individual or individuals. Talk it over with them. When you decide to take action, it’ll be good to have some folks on your side – especially if bullying is rampant in your organization. Also, when dealing with just about any workplace problem, private-sector employees are likely to be protected under U.S. labor law when two or more of you are acting “in concert” – but not if you try to solve the problem on your own.
- Take the bully by the horns: There are cases where you should not confront your bully. If you feel you face any physical danger in such a confrontation, then don’t do it. But if you feel no physical threat, calmly confronting the bully can be effective. Bullies seek power. If they see that you won’t be a victim, they might desist.
- Take it to another level: If confronting the bully is not an option or does not work, go to your union rep, a trusted superior, or someone in HR and calmly explain what is going on. Show them your documentation of the bullying. Ask if your company has an anti-bullying policy. Explain how bullying creates unproductive workplaces and hurts the bottom line. If all else fails, check with a lawyer to see whether the bullying has slipped over into illegal territory. And through it all, keep your head held high. You’re better than that bully, and don’t you forget it.
Organization: “Workplace Bullying Institute”
Comprehensive Analysis: “Workplace Bullying” from the University of Louisville Ombuds Office
Advice column: “5 Steps for Handling a Workplace Bully” from US News & World Report
Advice column: “What To Do About Workplace Bullies” from About.com
Article: “Taming the Workplace Bully” from Bloomberg Businessweek
The Workplace Bullying Institute defines bullying as “repeated, health-harming mistreatment,” including:
- Offensive conduct/behaviors (including nonverbal) that are threatening, humiliating, or intimidating.
- Work interference — sabotage — that prevents work from getting done.