How to Deal With a Bully at Work

Don't Allow Yourself to Become an Easy Target for a Bully

workplace bully
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Think you work with a bully? Do you regularly feel intimidated, dread to work near a particular coworker, or you’re yelled at, insulted, and put down? Does a coworker talk over you at meetings, criticize you, or steal credit for your work? If you answer yes to these questions, chances are good that you’re one of 54 million Americans who have been attacked by a bully at work.

You know you’re working with a bully when the bully picks out your mistakes and constantly brings them up.

Or worse, the bully gossips about you, tells lies to your coworkers, and even undermines and sabotages your work. If you dread going to work, you may have a bully coworker or boss.

If your employer won’t help you, and a recent study says they often won’t, even if it's just because they don't know what to do either, these are the actions to take to defeat the bully.

You’re Not Alone: A Bully Lives in Many Workplaces

In their 2017 National Survey, workplace bullying "was defined as repeated mistreatment of an employee by one or more employees; abusive conduct that is: threatening, humiliating, or intimidating, work sabotage, or verbal abuse." The  , found that:

  • 50 percent of Americans have not experienced or witnessed bullying, but 19 percent of Americans are bullied, another 19 percent witness bullying at work.
  • 61 percent of Americans are aware of abusive conduct that takes place in the workplace.
  • 60 million Americans are affected by workplace bullying.
  • Bosses comprise 61 percent of bullies.
  • Hispanics are the race most frequently targeted by bullies.
  • More men (70 percent) are bullies and women are the most frequent targets of bullies (60 percent). Female bullies most often target other women (80 percent).
  • Up to 81 percent of employers are perceived as doing nothing and resisting taking action when targets of bullying fill out a survey. In the general public, only 44.8 percent perceive the employers as doing nothing.
  • 29 percent of employees who are targets of bullies remain silent about their experiences.
  • 71 percent of employer reactions are harmful to the workplace targets of bully behavior.
  • 60 percent of the target's coworkers' reactions are harmful to the targets of a bully.
  • To stop the workplace bullying, 65 percent of targets lose their original jobs.
  • 40 percent of people targeted by a bully experience stress-related health problems including debilitating anxiety, panic attacks, and clinical depression (39 percent).

How to Deal With a Bully

You can deal with a bully and change the bully’s behavior if you are willing to practice personal courage. But, you must do something. The bully will not go away; if you make yourself an easy target, you will only encourage the bully. If you tolerate the bully's behavior, you are training the bully to continue the reprehensible actions.

Here’s how to deal with your office bully—most effectively and potentially resulting in a bully-free workplace. You can do it.

Set Limits on What You Will Tolerate From a Bully

Most importantly, once you have set the limit in your mind, exercise your right to tell the bully to stop the behavior. You might want to rehearse these steps with a friend so that you are more comfortable responding when the bully attacks.

  • Describe the behavior you see the bully exhibiting—don’t editorialize or offer opinions, just describe what you see. Don't say you're mean and nasty to me. Meaningless commentary to a bully. Better? (You regularly enter my cubicle, lean over my shoulder, and read my personal correspondence on my computer screen.) 
  • Tell the bully exactly how his behavior is having an impact on your work. (Because much of my work is confidential, these actions make me feel as if I need to hide what I am working on from you, or change computer screens which is a waste of my time.)
  • Tell the bully what behavior you will not put up with in the future. (In the future, you are not to enter my cubicle unless I invite you to come in. This is my private workspace and your actions are unwelcome.)
  • Stick with your statement and if the bully violates your space, move on to confrontation. (You cannot allow the bully to get away with the behavior even one more time or the groundwork you so carefully laid is wasted.)

Confront the Bully With His Own Behavior

Confronting a bully is scary and hard. But, as Jonathan Littman and Marc Hershon suggest in , bullies are “only effective when they’re on solid ground. Ground that you can take away.” They suggest that “Next time he swears or heaves a phone book, call it out. Point out that he’s swearing or yelling, and leave the room. Or end the call.”

“Remember: You’re the adult dealing with a tantrum. No wise parent gives into a child’s fit because it just leads to more fits.

”You’re wrapping Bulldozer’s fury with tough love. By making statements about his conduct, you’re putting him on notice. Keep up your game and by the second or third attempt, Bulldozer will tire of spinning his treads in the sand.”

This confrontational approach works in meetings, too. If the bully is talking over you with complaints and criticisms, ask him a direct question about what he recommends instead. If that doesn’t work ask him to leave the meeting until you finish your discussion. If he refuses, end the meeting and reschedule the meeting without him.

You need to call out the bully on your terms.

Document the Bully’s Actions

Anytime you are feeling bullied or experiencing bullying behavior, document the date, time and details of the incident. Note if another employee witnessed the incident. If you eventually seek help from Human Resources, documentation, especially documentation of the bully's impact on business results and success, gives HR information to work with on your behalf. The bully is not just hurting your feelings; the bully is sabotaging business success.

If the bullying occurs in email, texts, or correspondence, maintain a hard copy of the trail of emails and texts and file them in a folder in your computer.

Your Coworkers Are Targets of the Bully, Too

Note whether the bully pulls the same behavior with your coworkers. Ask your coworkers to document the bully’s behavior and any scenes they witness when the bully targets any coworker.

If five of you experience the bullying and five of your coworkers document the bullying, then you build a case to which HR and your management can respond on solid ground. They need evidence and witnesses, even if everyone knows, that the bully is a bully. Help your HR staff help you.

Also, if you decide to press charges in the future, you need to have witnesses and dated documentation. An earlier Zogby-WBTI study indicates that only 3 percent of bullied employees sue and 4 percent complain to state or federal agencies. But, these numbers are on the rise with the notoriety that bullying has gained.

So, it’s best to confront the behavior, but don’t rule out the possibility of a lawsuit, especially if your employment is terminated or threatened by the bully.

Tell Management and HR About the Bully's Behavior

You’ve tried to implement these recommendations about how to address the behavior of a bully, but they aren’t working to stop the bully. It's time to get help. Go to HR or your manager with your evidence, especially the evidence that demonstrates the impact of the bully on the business, and file a formal complaint. Most employee handbooks describe the HR investigation process that your complaint sets in motion.

Hope for the best resolution but be prepared to explore other options so you have less contact with the bully. You may even need to find a new job. You may never know what HR did about the bully; his or her privacy and confidentiality is also a priority. But, you can assess the impact by how they now treat you.

You can address the behavior of a bully in your workplace. With persistence and personal courage, you can neutralize the bully behavior and regain your conflict-free workplace.

See more about how to deal with difficult people.