6 Tips for Handling Bullying in the Workplace

October 16, 2017

Bullying is a terrible part of some childhoods, and parents and teachers are fighting back. But being bullied at work as an adult is another problem that can be just as painful, although people rarely talk about it. As adults, we’re expected to just deal with such issues. The problem is that they can quickly escalate and make your work life absolutely miserable.

“At any age, if you’re being bullied, you could be risking your mental-–and sometimes physical-–health,” says Cherie Hudson-Whittlesey, director of organizational learning and effectiveness at St. Jude Medical Center. “Because we spend so much of our lives at work these days, you must have a strategy for responding to this difficult situation.”

The key to remember is that workplace bullies crave power over others. If you find yourself a bully’s victim, know that you did not cause the situation to happen. However, you must make sure that you don’t allow the problem to overwhelm your life. Here are a few pointers:

Don’t doubt yourself. Bullies love to bait you to make you question your talents or abilities. This is all part of the bullying game. You do not deserve to be insulted, excluded from important meetings or the topic of rumors. Do not play into the bully’s “mind game” that can destroy your self- confidence, even though you actually know you are good at your job and an accomplished professional.

Awareness. A significant part of bullying involves eliciting a reaction. Bullies thrive on the attention that comes from your response. While you might attempt to ignore those side comments that are uttered when you’re making a presentation or speaking at a meeting, the key is to stay calm. When the opportunity presents itself, helping to make the bully aware of their actions and how you feel is critical. Using “I” statements in this situation targets the particular behavior and the impact that it has on others. There are times that the bully is just unaware or may lack self-awareness.

Don’t pick a fight. The best response to a bully is not to fight back, but also not to shirk away. You need to assume a cool, collected professionalism that shows you are the adult in the room. Try to be the polite professional who limits the bully’s childish games. Let the bully know that intimidation, talking over you or other activities will not be tolerated. Be clear and let the bully know where you stand.

Don’t let bullies speak for you. Bullies love to interrupt you when you speak. They think that by speaking louder or telling a rude joke or simply butting in, they have made a power play. If this happens, politely stand your ground and continue what you were doing. Bullies lose power when they’re not in the limelight.

Don’t cower. Are you lowering your head, stooping your shoulders, and looking away when the bully talks? Those are signals that that you’re being intimidated. Instead, show who’s in charge by lifting your head, standing up straight, and looking the bully in the eye.

Watch for bully minions. Minions, if you recall from the movies, are small, yellow creatures who existed only to serve history's most despicable masters. Bullies seek out minions and they’re hard to stop. Trying to convert the minions to your side doesn’t directly deal with the bully and, most likely, the minions will break up once the bully is handled. In addition, don’t try to bring a minion into your confidence. It could be more fodder for the bully. Also, the minion is looking out for themselves because they may be afraid to stand up to the bully and/or have the mind-set that it is “better you than me” and join in.

Finally, if adult bullying is making it impossible to do your job, you must report it to human resources. Sometimes this is difficult because really skilled bullies wait to do their deeds when there aren’t any witnesses. However, you still need to issue a complaint because chances are you aren’t the only one being victimized.

“You need to protect yourself and, if you see a colleague being bullied, you should also speak out,” says Jennifer Duncan, human resources business partner at St. Jude Medical Center. “Workplaces should have a zero-tolerance policy for bullies, just like many schools. It’s an assurance for a better work environment and much better mental health.”

Both Cherie and Jennifer have facilitated classes on incivility in the workplace.

How have you handled a workplace bullying situation? Tell us in the comments below.

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