Despite the fact we would have liked to leave them behind on the playground or high school hallways, bullying doesn’t end with adulthood. No workplace is immune to bullying, and many teams have at least one person who builds himself up by putting others down. Harvard Business Review reports about 30% of the American workforce are bullied at work. Yet bullying doesn’t get very much attention or action in the corporate world.
The term “workplace bullying” covers a wide range of behaviors, which makes it difficult to address. Being bullied at work can be overt — your ideas being ridiculed, other people dumping their work on your plate. It can also be subtle — you’re excluded from important meetings or repeatedly given menial tasks.
Here are just some of the inappropriate behaviors of bullying:
- Berating others
- Coercing someone to do something they don’t want to do
- Dismissing a person’s efforts
- Embarrassing people in front of others
- Excluding others
- Threatening others
Founding of Workplace Bullying Institute (WBI)
Social psychologist Gary Namie and his wife Ruth Namie, a clinical psychologist, founded the Workplace Bullying Institute 26 years ago after Ruth was bullied at a psychiatric clinic by another mental health professional. They are now go-to experts on the subject who conduct studies, provide consulting services, and serve as expert witnesses in bullying-related legal cases.
The Different Types of Bullying
HBR identifies fifteen different features of bullying, from “hostile” (aka hot) to “instrumental” (aka cold) and direct to indirect. We often assume that bullies are often high performers and that their work can justify their bad behavior. But usually, the star performers are the targets of bullies, who are mediocre performers who may appear to be stars, but often take credit for the work of others.
A recent survey by WBI found that the majority (61%) of workplace bullies are bosses. Here are four types of bullies you may encounter and the behaviors they display:
- Screaming Mimi (Aggressive Communication) This type of bully makes a public scene and instills fear in their target as well as others, lest they become the next target.
- Constant Critic (Disparagement and Humiliation) This type of bully chastises people regularly when mistakes are made or when they decide you fail. They will rarely let you take credit for your work. This could happen so often that you begin to doubt your abilities and eventually, the quality of your work may suffer.
- Gatekeeper (Manipulation and Withholding of Resources) This type of bully withholds information and therefore sets you up to fail. They may pile so much work on you that’s there no way to get it all done in a reasonable amount of time. Or they may “forget” to invite you to an important meeting with information you need to do your job.
- Two-Headed Snack (Behind-the-Scenes Meddling) This type of bully acts like they are your friend but undermines you behind your back. If you don’t even know you are being bullied, it can be hard to combat it.
More than the negative effects on your self-esteem, our career coaches point out that workplace bullying can actually be detrimental to your career. Being bullied can hold you back from promotions, keep you out of the loop on important projects or relegate you to grunt work.
In addition to the negative impact on your career, being subjected to a hostile work environment can cause serious work-related stress, which can be harmful to your physical and mental health.
Bullies are often assertive, powerful people and, in many cases, they are leaders in both title and perception. Unfortunately, people often believe the loudest voice in the room, and if a bully is leading the conversation, her negative perception about you could gain momentum. It’s essential that you craft the story about who you are and what you can do.
Strategies to Manage a Workplace Bully
An organization must take a systemic and prevention-focused approach to effectively address all types of manifestations of bullying. But some degree of prevention of bullying can be achieved on the individual level. If you are dealing with bullying at work, here are five ways to try to handle it on your own:
- Refuse to internalize the negativity. Bullies aim to make us feel small. Don’t let your self-worth be compromised by a bully. As we often remind our coaching clients, if a bully’s ideas about who you are and what you can offer the company are seeping into your consciousness, take a step back and self-assess. It’s very likely that the bullying has little to do with your actual performance.
- Toot your own horn. If bullying at work takes the form of you being given less important tasks or being left out of projects, speak up. Go into meetings prepared to explain how your past accomplishments make you the ideal person to work on an important part of a project. Often, a bully will imply that by not doing what he tells you to, you’re not a team player. Don’t let that happen. If you are in a group setting, pause and think about what you have been asked to do and then say, “While I recognize that someone needs to handle that aspect of the project, I don’t think that is the best way for me to add value,” then hit them with the information about your experience.
- Avoid being passive aggressive. While no one likes bullies, passive-aggressive people aren’t good co-workers either. Don’t just complain to friends — face your bully head-on. Set up a time to grab coffee outside of the office so you are in a neutral space.
Avoid using the word “bully,” as it will put the person on the defensive, or worse, give her the impression that she has power over you. Start by saying you feel that if she knew more about your skills, the two of you could work together more effectively. If that isn’t working, use a recent example and ask her to explain why she acted as she did. Ask the question and then stop talking. Listen to the response to assess your next steps.
4. Document the abuse. Keep a journal of any bullying incidents and exactly who is involved. Try to record as much detail around the facts of the situation and file emails as evidence. Use these concrete examples if you must resort to the next step.
5. Talk to your manager or HR. If you cannot handle the bullying on your own, go to your manager — or to HR if your manager is the bully. Frame the conversation as a way for you to gain the ability to offer more value to the team or the company. To get the support you need, try to keep emotions out of it — don’t get personal and avoid becoming negative. Go into the meeting knowing what you want this person to do. Are you asking for your manager or HR representative to talk to this person for you? Are you hoping that the person can allow you to report to someone else? Knowing your goal and going in with clear expectations will keep you on track and make it clear that you are not just coming in to complain or to tattle; rather, you are seeking a solution to a real problem.
Bullying is not illegal so many companies don’t have a formal policy against it. Check to see if yours does or if there is any company policy against verbal abuse, mistreatment, or something similar that you can reference.
It isn’t always easy to stand up for yourself, but you can’t count on someone else to do it for you. You have advanced to this point in your career because you are a valuable asset, and it is always your right to be treated with respect. While workplace bullying may be an unfortunate reality, facing the issue is the only way to start working toward a more productive, peaceful work environment.
Leaders addressing workplace bullying is not easy, but it must be done systemically to prevent organizational demise. If you ignore or placate bullies, you will lose valuable people and your company culture will take a direct hit. Strive to create a workplace environment that fosters teamwork, cooperation, and positive interaction instead.