Impact SA

Don’t Let Workplace Bullies Win—Here’s How to Spot Them and Stop Them

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By Stav Ziv

Goodbye, playground bully! See you never, high school mean girls! Hello…workplace bully? Oh no.

Unfortunately, bullying isn’t one of those things you can put behind you when you become an adult, like awkward yearbook photos and (usually) braces. Offices can have bullies, too. In fact, they’re more common than you might think. In a national survey, the Workplace Bullying Institute found that 19% of adults said they’d personally been bullied at work, while another 19% said they’d seen it happen to someone else.

“It comes just like sexual harassment—uninvited, undeserved, unwarranted,” says Gary Namie, a social psychologist and the co-founder and director of WBI. He and his wife, Ruth Namie, a clinical psychologist, founded WBI after her experience being bullied by a colleague at a psychiatric clinic (yes, that’s right, the bully was another mental health professional).

Being bullied at work can harm both your mental and your physical health—with potential effects including major stress, anxiety, depression, trauma, high blood pressure, gastrointestinal issues, and more.

“It really is very damaging. It creates a place where you’re just always afraid and you can’t be yourself,” says Catherine Mattice Zundel, CEO of Civility Partners, who specializes in resolving toxic work environments and coaching people who bully. “People are angry and confused and they’re concerned about their job all day every day—is today the day I’m going to be fired?” she adds. “That’s just no way to live.”

Workplace Bullying, Defined

According to the WBI, bullying is “repeated, health-harming mistreatment of one or more persons (the targets) by one or more perpetrators.” The abusive conduct—including verbal abuse—is intimidating, threatening, or humiliating to the target. It can, and often does, interfere with the target’s ability to get their work done.

Zundel emphasizes that workplace bullying goes far beyond a minor disruption or small annoyance. Rather, “it creates a psychological power imbalance between the person doing the bullying and their target or targets to a point where that person at the receiving end develops [a] feeling of helplessness.”

And unfortunately, unlike harassment, bullying isn’t illegal. What’s the difference? Harassment—including the kind where someone or someones create a hostile work environment—hinges on being mistreated based on a protected class, such as sex, race, religion, or national origin. If the bad behavior is unrelated to one of those, it might be toxic and soul-crushing, but it’s not against the law.

The 4 Types of Workplace Bullies

The majority (61%) of workplace bullies are bosses, according to WBI’s survey. But that also means that more than a third are not managers, but rather peers or even lower-level employees. In short, bullying can come from any direction in the org chart, and it can take different forms. Here are four kinds of bullies you might encounter and the behaviors they display (and keep in mind that one bully could adopt multiple tactics):

1. The Screaming Mimi (Think: Aggressive Communication)

When you imagine a bully, what comes to mind? If it’s a stereotypical yelling, cursing, angry meanie, then you’re thinking of what Namie calls the “Screaming Mimi.” This type of bully tends to make a public scene and instill fear not only in their target, but also in all their co-workers, who might understandably be terrified of speaking up, for fear of becoming the next target.

Aggressive communication can include not only yelling, sending angry emails, and other verbal forms of hostility, but also using aggressive body language. One client Zundel worked with, for example, would often assume a kind of power pose in staff meetings, putting his feet up on the table and leaning back before launching into long tirades about why someone’s idea wouldn’t work.

2. The Constant Critic (Think: Disparagement and Humiliation)

When Laine (who asked to use her middle name for this article) got a job at a nonprofit with a mission she really believed in, she thought it would be a great gig. But then her boss, who was often traveling, started criticizing, from afar, every little thing she did—to the point that disparaging emails were pretty much the only kind of communication she received from him. Not only did he chastise her regularly when she made a mistake—or when he arbitrarily decided she’d failed—but he also made sure she never took credit for any of her successes.

She started working longer and longer hours, but “the harder I worked the worse I was according to him… Everything I did was wrong,” Laine says. He told her that “every team is just as good as its weakest link and you’re the weakest link.” For a long time, she believed him.

Namie refers to this kind of bully as the “Constant Critic.” They may not yell at you to your face or in front of other people, but they’ll disparage you so regularly that you begin to doubt your abilities and wear you down so much that the quality of your work might objectively suffer. Laine, for example, became so petrified of what the next email would say that she stopped checking, and her performance went downhill in other ways, too. Ultimately, she was fired.

The bully might humiliate you one-on-one or in public by pointing out your mistakes, taking credit for your work, leaving you out of things, socially isolating you, or even playing jokes on you, says Zundel.

3. The Gatekeeper (Think: Manipulation and Withholding of Resources)

One of the most frustrating aspects of Laine’s experience was that her boss routinely criticized her for doing things wrong or differently when he never gave her instructions in the first place. In some cases, he got angry she hadn’t performed tasks he’d never told her to tackle.

Some bullies manipulate their targets and withhold resources—whether that’s instructions, information, time, or help from others—setting you up to fail. They might only tell you about three steps of process when there are actually five, Zundel says, or pile so much work on you that there’s no reasonable way for you to complete it by the deadline. They might give you a poor performance review when your work isn’t actually so poor or punish you for being one minute late to a meeting (when others who are tardy don’t face any repercussions).

The gatekeeper, Namie points out, can also be a peer or a subordinate, if they “forget” to invite you to an important call or pass on pertinent details that will prevent you from doing your job.

4. The Two-Headed Snake (Think: Behind-the-Scenes Meddling)

One of the most difficult kinds of bullies to detect—and therefore deal with—is the one who pretends to be your friend and champion while undermining you behind your back. “They’re controlling your reputation with others. They are tearing you to shreds,” Namie says, calling you “unreliable, unskilled, un-this, un-that. Whereas to your face, they’re your friends.”

You might eventually find out if someone breaks rank and tips you off, but often the bully will ask people to keep their remarks confidential. It goes without saying that it’s hard to combat something you don’t even know is happening.

Why Workplace Bullies Get Away With It

Bullies are often high performers. They might be a top salesperson who brings in huge deals worth millions or a brilliant engineer who’s always coming up with efficient solutions or a marketer who managed to double a site’s traffic. Whatever it is, they’re bringing value to the company, which means the company has an incentive to keep them onboard (and happy).

Some bullies also work to ingratiate themselves to their superiors (and perhaps their peers, too)—even as they abuse one or more of the folks they oversee or work with. Put all that together, and instead of being held accountable for their bullying behavior, they might be getting rewarded with praise, raises, or promotions—and you might be all the more intimidated by the prospect of casting a shadow on such a star.

The bottom line is that bullies get away with their behavior mostly because of the company and the culture it fosters. “We want to look at the personalities of the perpetrators and say, well that explains it all. No it doesn’t. What really explains it is the work environment that provided the opportunities,” Namie says, the one that allowed these people to get hired in the first place and then to bully with impunity. “Without the work environment giving the green light, providing the license to unbridled mistreatment, bullying wouldn’t happen.”

7 Ways to Deal With Your Workplace Bully

Figuring out how to deal with bullying can be overwhelming. So we asked the experts what you can do to help yourself.

1. Speak Up Early On

The good news is that you have a window of opportunity to nip things in the bud, before you become the long-term target of a workplace bully. “One of the best things that you can do for yourself is the minute somebody mistreats you, that you speak up in the moment right then and squash it, because everybody likes the path of least resistance, right?” Zundel says. She suggests a few options:

  • Call attention to their values: Try “I know that you really care about everyone feeling valued, and when you do X, it undermines that intention. Maybe we could try Y in the future?”
  • Explain why it’s a problem: Try “I notice you X, and when you do that it makes it hard for us to foster a team environment.”
  • Say their name a lot: Try “Jim, I hear what you are saying, but Jim, I need you to stop doing X. I treat you with respect, Jim, and I need you to do the same.”

And don’t forget your body language. “Stand up tall, arms at your side, nose up,” Zundel emphasizes. “If you’re feeling nervous about standing up it will show through with arms folded, shoulders hunched, looking down.” 

The bad news is that if you brush off bullying and let it continue in its early stages, it’ll only get worse. “A lot of times people let it go and let it go and let it go,” Zundel says. And by the time they realize they’re being bullied, it might be too late. Once that power imbalance has been cemented, it can be virtually impossible for the target to fix.

In other words, if you muster the courage to speak up after months of being bullied, the abuse is not just unlikely to stop, it may even intensify. So if you’re that far down the path, you might be better off taking a different approach.

2. Document the Abuse and Your Performance

If it took you awhile to realize the full severity of what was happening to you and you feel like you’ve missed your chance to react quickly, start documenting.

“Keep a journal of the who, what, when, where, why of things that happen,” says Zundel. “If you’re in a staff meeting and the bullying occurs, then go back to your desk and write down who else was in the staff meeting, what was said, why was it said, and try to just put in as much detail as you can around kind of the facts of the situation.” If you decide to report the bully later, you’ll want to be able to give concrete examples of the behaviors you’re describing.

In addition, start filing away any emails or other evidence to back up your side of the story. For example, if your boss is criticizing your performance, collect documentation that demonstrates quantifiable results of projects you’re working on as well as any praise-filled emails you’ve gotten from other stakeholders.

3. Take Care of Yourself Outside of Work

Bullying can take a huge toll on you in the office and outside of it. But it can help to try to balance the damaging influences with positive ones.

“If you can, join some things happening outside of work that would make you feel good about yourself,” Zundel says. “Join a softball team or do yoga or any of those things that make you happy.” Spend time with your friends and family and lean on them for support, though be aware that venting constantly about your work woes could strain your relationships.

Consider seeking professional help from a therapist or counselor, too. Namie suggests trying to find someone who understands trauma. (You can simply call and ask: “Do you have skilled practitioners in trauma-informed counseling?” or “Do you practice trauma-informed counseling?” If the answer is “No” or “What’s that?” then call someone else.)

4. Do Your Research

Does your company have a policy about bullying, mistreatment, verbal abuse, or anything similar that you might be able to reference? Since bullying is not illegal, many companies don’t have a formal policy against it. But it’s worth your time to check your employee handbook or any other document that lays out the organization’s values and expectations. It can only strengthen your case if you’re able to point to that language if you decide to make a complaint.

At the same time, consider seeking legal advice to confirm whether or not your situation might qualify as harassment or otherwise offer some sort of legal recourse. Namie recommends “renting” a employment attorney who works with plaintiffs on harassment and discrimination cases for half an hour or an hour and telling a concise version of your story to get a sense of what your options are. (See WBI’s detailded advice on finding a lawyer here.) Some lawyers will do free consultations, but others might charge an hourly fee that might be as low as $75 or as high as hundreds of dollars.

5. Talk to Your Manager (or Someone Else, if Your Boss Is the Bully)

If you’ve made some attempts to deal with the situation and haven’t gotten anywhere, Zundel recommends speaking to your manager (assuming they aren’t the bully, of course). “You can say, ‘Here’s what’s going on. I’ve tried these three things, none of them worked and that’s why I’m here in your office,’” she recommends. “That’s a much better conversation than, ‘This person is bullying me. Can you help me?’”

If your boss is the problem, think about whether you trust one of their peer managers, or someone above them, enough to seek their advice. The key here is to assess your specific situation and try to gauge the relationships within your company. It probably wouldn’t be wise, for example, to go to the person who hired your bully or worked with them at a previous job. And you definitely wouldn’t turn to their work BFF or someone who’s related to them (in the case of a family company). Because if you do and it gets back to the bully it could make things even worse.

6. Talk to HR or Someone in Power

Before you make any moves to talk to HR or someone in the C suite, you’ll want to do a few things.

First, decide who to speak with. Namie isn’t a proponent of taking your complaint to HR and suggests finding a high-ranking individual you feel you can approach with “a plan to save money” (more on that in a second). Zundel adds that the decision of whether or not to go to HR comes down to what type of HR person you’re dealing with. “One type of HR person is really focused on compliance and the rules and the other type of HR person is focused on culture and people,” she says. You might have trouble with the former, but if you think you have the latter, “they don’t need a corporate policy to help you.”

Second, think about how you can make a business case rather than a personal plea, no matter who you decide to approach. Namie recommends literally calculating the cost of the bully to the company in terms of turnover, absenteeism, lost productivity, and more (he’s even got step-by-step instructions here). Your documentation can also help at this stage, because you’ll be able to cite specific examples of time wasted and resources lost.

Finally, think about what it is that you want. “Is it that you just want them to know or is it that you want their help? Is it that you want this person transferred? What do you need from HR?” says Zundel, who provides a worksheet to help you prepare in her book Back Off! Your Kick-Ass Guide to Ending Bullying @ Work. “And what will you do if you don’t get what you’re looking for?” If the answer is that you’ll leave, that’s okay. Ultimately, she says, “your dignity and self respect and psychological wellbeing is so much more important than the paycheck you get.”

7. Look for a New Job

The reality is that most bullying situations (77% according to WBI’s survey) end in the target leaving their job, whether because they got fed up and quit or they ended up getting fired (sometimes because, like Laine, their performance suffered so much under the stress of long-term abuse).

So it’s in your best interest to start job searching as soon as you can, especially if your company doesn’t have a policy or culture you trust to squash bullying swiftly and forcefully. Even if you do pursue some of your other options before you actually decide to leave—speaking to HR, for example—it can help to have an offer or at least prospects lined up in case things go awry.

What to Do if You See Someone Else Being Bullied

You don’t have to be the bully or the target to be entangled in bullying. “If you see it, you know it’s happening, and you don’t do anything, you are giving permission for this person to act that way with your silence,” says Zundel.

If you feel comfortable speaking up in the moment, do it. Zundel suggests something simple like, “Hey, what’s going on? Let’s not talk to each other that way.”

In her bystander training, Zundel also teaches people to “state the problem, state the consequences, and offer a solution.” So, for example, if someone is yelling in a meeting, you could say: “Hey [Name], I noticed that you’re yelling. When you raise your voice, it makes it hard for the meetings to be feel collaborative and it shuts ideas down. Maybe moving forward we can all agree to keep our voices down so that we can get through the brainstorming process.” Doing that in front of everyone else simultaneously makes it safer for you to speak up and empowers others to follow your example.

You can also quietly, without turning it into a raging gossip parade, ask your other colleagues if they’ve noticed something and agree to join forces. That might mean you all commit to calling out bullying behavior in the moment whenever it happens or take turns going to HR to share your concerns.

If the bully is a peer manager or a subordinate, you can take them aside and try to talk some sense into them, says Namie, who believes that kind of informal coaching is more effective than a formal complaint. Still, it can be hard to convince a bully to stop if the company has no policy against such behavior.

How to Avoid a Bully in Future Jobs

The last thing you want to do is finally escape a bully, only to encounter another one at your next job. To that end, Zundel recommends asking a few types of questions during your future interview processes that will help you assess whether your future boss has a history of bullying and whether the company’s culture would tolerate any bullying if it were to arise.

  • What’s the manager I’d be reporting to like? Ask during your phone screen, if it’s with someone other than your prospective boss. If the response is, “Oh my gosh, they’re wonderful. Everybody loves them,” Zundel says, that should be a reassuring sign. But if you sense some hesitation and then get something like, “Well, you know, he’s good, people like him, he’s been here a long time,” then it might be a red flag.
  • What’s your strategic plan around company culture? How do you manage the organization’s culture? If they have nothing to say in response to tell you about active steps they take to foster their culture, it might not be a great sign.
  • How do you live your core values? How do they show up in the work here? Do you talk about them on a regular basis? If they can’t talk much about these—or even worse, don’t really know what the core values are—again, not a great sign.
  • Who are the corporate heroes here? Who are the stellar people and why are they the stellar people? These questions get to the heart of what drives the company. “Try to get a sense for who’s celebrated and why,” says Zundel. “Is that the kind of place you’d want to be?”

Your days at the office shouldn’t be filled with aggressive communication, humiliation, and manipulation. If they are, remember first that it’s not your fault. And then take whatever steps you can to take care of yourself and put that bully in the past once and for all.

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