Career & Finance

Advice on How to Handle Office Bullying


Bullying is a hot button topic lately.

We’ve all heard about the rampant bullying in schools, online, and even on city sidewalks.

But what about at work—the place where most of us spend the majority of our time?

It’s hard to believe that bullying would ever be an issue between two presumably smart, employed adults. Well, believe it: According to a 2014 workplace bullying survey, 27% of the American workforce has directly experienced workplace bullying, with another 21% claiming they’ve witnessed it. Workplace bullying is just as common as in any other environment, and can be just as difficult to deal with calmly and maturely.

Of course, if you’re being bullied at work, you could—and maybe should—quit. I’m not a professional therapist, but I would never recommend spending the majority of your day in an environment that’s mentally and emotionally toxic.

However, I also realize that quitting is not always an option, for myriad reasons: perhaps you’re gaining valuable experience or you need the paycheck or maybe you actually really love your job.

I totally get it. So I want to provide you with other avenues for combating workplace torment. Following are five tips that have worked for me and countless others when dealing with an office bully:

1. Know the difference.

Before you do anything else, think carefully about your “bully” and their behavior towards you. Are they actually bullying you or are they simply pushing you—often in ways that feel challenging or even uncomfortable—to work harder and do better?

Bullying behavior is abusive and without merit. On the contrary, a helpful but challenging boss or colleague doesn’t demean or act inappropriately, though they may be stern, have high expectations, and be harder on you when you drop the ball.

It’s important to recognize and understand the difference, because while one behavior is inappropriate, the other is actually quite valuable.


2. Document the behavior. 

Though negative behavior shouldn’t have a place in the office, it’s possible that your boss or coworker had an outburst or sent a condescending email because they were having a bad day.

But if these outbursts or emails or inappropriate behaviors are ongoing, be sure to make note of that! Like, literally make a note of it. Document every email, every inappropriate comment, even every sideways glance in a file—digital or on paper, but preferably one that your colleague can’t easily find.

Should you ever need to share what’s happening with someone else (such as your boss’ boss or your HR manager), it’s important that you have documented specific dates and details related to the problematic behavior. Not only will this act as proof of your mistreatment, but it will prove a pattern of inappropriate behavior (as opposed to a one-off incident) that shouldn’t be tolerated by any organization.


3. Stand up. 

It’s not easy, but the best thing you can do when confronted by your bully—in the workplace or otherwise—is to remain calm and positive, and stand up for yourself while avoiding stooping to their level.

Your office bully is no different than the bully you might have faced on the middle-school playground—they’re just looking to get a reaction out of you: a spike in anger, sadness, frustration, and so on. Don’t allow them that. They’re less likely to continue poking at you if they’re not getting a rise out of you.

That being said, you can and should stand up for yourself, if necessary. Just be sure to do it in a professional, mature manner—in other words, likely not in the same way your bully is treating you.

It won’t be easy. And it won’t be fun. It’s hard to speak reasonably to someone who is acting immature and irrational, but it will help you maintain respect amongst your colleagues and the proper authorities, should you ever decide to report your bully’s behavior.


4. Have a conversation. 

If your bully still hasn’t backed down, it’s time to have a private conversation with them. Ask to have a meeting, then calmly and honestly explain how you feel. Bring up specific instances where you have felt disrespected or victimized—while unlikely, it’s possible your bully didn’t even realize the effect their behavior was having on you.

If you approach the conversation as a mutual one—not one where you point fingers and demand reparation, but one where you want to discuss both sides and figure out how you might work better together, there’s a chance these problems can be reconciled quickly. Take responsibility for your part in any situations or misunderstandings, and offer solutions for working well together in the future.

Not every workplace bully will be receptive to this approach—though some will!—but if nothing else, you will have exhausted all of your options before reaching the final step.


5. Go to the authorities. 

If, after standing up for yourself and having a private conversation with the bully in question, their inappropriate behavior continues, it’s time to speak with a trusted advisor who can actually effect change in your organization—whether that’s your manager, someone in your HR department, or the boss above your own.

Again, remain calm and honest throughout, presenting them with the documentation you’ve collected and explaining how you’ve tried to address the issue on your own. Offer constructive solutions for working together moving forward, but be clear about your boundaries and what you will not tolerate in the workplace.

It’s important to remember that we all have the right to a healthy, positive workplace environment—your superiors should know and respect that. And you should do whatever you need to, to ensure you experience that for yourself.

Have you ever been bullied at work? How did you handle the situation? Let us know in the comments!