5 Steps to Stop Workplace Bullying

“No person, in any culture, likes to be bullied. No person likes living in fear because his or her ideas are different.” — Barack Obama, 44th President of the United States in his book, The Audacity of Hope

Workplace bullies. They’re no fun. They can make your life awfully, awfully miserable. But we don’t always have to succumb to their abhorrent behaviors. By taking some time to sit back and analyze a bully, you can often beat him at his own game. Let’s review five steps worth considering if you’re David up against Goliath.

Step 1:
Recognizing a Bully
Forget about realism for a moment and pretend your boss or a coworker suddenly comes charging down the hallway toward you with her fist raised. Just as she begins to reach striking distance, what would you instinctively do? Chances are excellent that even if you’ve never been in a fistfight in your life, you’d raise your arm to deflect the blow. What you wouldn’t do is keep your arms at your sides, wait to be struck, and then tell yourself, “Gee, I must need to work harder.”

Ironically, that’s how targets of workplace bullying react every day when the attack is verbal. It’s vitally important to prepare yourself for deflecting verbal attacks by learning to differentiate between legitimate criticism and bullying. Legitimate criticism is always about job performance and never about extraneous issues like your height, weight, your clothing, or your receding hairline. When someone criticizes you for reasons unrelated to job performance, it’s bullying. It’s that simple.

Step 2: He Who Hesitates Is Lost
The example in Step 1 of a boss or coworker suddenly becoming violent is ludicrous precisely because bullying never starts that way. All bullies, whether they’re in the schoolyard or the prison yard or the workplace, first test the waters by saying or doing something provocative and then they carefully gauge your reaction. Responding with hesitancy shows the bully you’d make an ideal target. When you respond confidently, a bully is far more likely to categorize you as someone who’d make a lousy target.

For example, if you were presenting an idea in a group meeting and someone rudely interrupted you, you could put your hand out in front of you as though you were stopping traffic and say, “Excuse me. I wasn’t finished. How about this: you grant me the courtesy of letting me finish and I promise not to interrupt you when you’re talking?” Then smoothly continue speaking where you left off.

Step 3: Body Language Trumps Words
Body language is deeply embedded into our collective psyche. Let’s go back to the example in Step 2 of someone interrupting you during a business meeting. If you used my exact words but said them while looking down at your hands, with your shoulders slumped, and using a whiny tone, what message would you actually be communicating? The words we speak are never as powerful as the way we say them.

Step 4: Keep a Journal
It’s almost always better to try handling a bully on your own terms than to ask management to intervene, for three reasons:

  • the default assumption of others is likely to be that you’re not a team player;
  • bullies are adept at office politics and can usually outflank targets; and
  • no one appreciates having extra work piled on their plate, especially upper management.

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So why bother keeping a journal? The most important person who needs to be convinced you’ve been victimized is you. Documenting everything makes it easier to see that you’re not the one at fault. When we feel sure of ourselves, we exude self-confident body language as effortlessly as breathing.

This may sound simplistic but it’s what will enable you to appear less attractive as a target and to make a fresh start, no matter where you find yourself. A secondary benefit is occasionally upper management is receptive to complaints about a bully. Document each incident by including the 5 w’s: who, what, when, where and witnesses.

Strictly avoid using emotional language such as “I was devastated!” or making value judgments, like “He enjoys hurting people.” These kinds of statements will only make you look unprofessional. Try to include an estimate of what the bully is costing the company in terms of lost productivity, absenteeism and turnover. (The online site Level Playing Field and the book, The No Asshole Rule by Robert Sutton offer information about the costs of workplace bullying). Lastly, report the bullying to someone who’s at least two to three levels above the bully within the corporate hierarchy. They’re less likely to be friends with the bully.

Step 5: Cut Your Losses
It is a natural and normal human reaction to want justice — to see the bully punished and our dignity restored by reporting the bully to upper management or by bringing a lawsuit against our employer. But you’re kidding yourself if you think the deck isn’t greatly stacked against targets.

According to the Workplace Bullying Institute, when workplace bullying gets reported, 62 percent of the time the organization does nothing or actually rewards the bully. Worse, when targets try suing the organization they soon learn that unlike Australia, Canada, and some countries in Europe, no American laws protect against workplace bullying.

In the rare instances when targets have won monetary judgments after protracted litigation (corporations have very deep pockets), the toll on their careers and their families has been horrendous. Some 82 percent of targets eventually leave their jobs. Targets shouldn’t be the ones who get “punished” by having to change jobs, often for a lower salary. But until our legislators make bullying in the workplace illegal, it’s often wiser to cut your losses.

1: Recognize the bully Differentiate between legitimate workplace-related criticism and bullying. For example, negative and berating commentary about your weight, clothing or hairstyle can be construed as bullying.
2: Don’t hesitate. Bullies tend to test the waters. Don’t let them kick you while you’re down. Be assertive and let bullies know you are not going to be an easy target.
3: Control your body language. Keep your head held high and give off signals and signs to let the bully know that you are in control.
4: Keep a journal. A journal could come in handy if you end up with the opportunity, albeit rare, to meet with upper management about the bully. Besides that, keeping a journal is cathartic.
5: Cut your losses. Sometimes leaving a workplace, though it may stink, is better than staying. There’s no dollar sign on peace of mind.

The Best Defense
The best defense against a workplace bully is a good offense. Confronting the bully’s behavior the first time it happens with strong words and strong body language is key. Documenting the bullying will help clarify your thinking but won’t necessarily impress upper management.

Unless and until new laws are created to protect employees against workplace bullying, the primary remedy for targets seems to be resigning and making a fresh start elsewhere.

Dr. Humans is a graduate of the Workplace Bullying Institute, an organization that trains individuals how to present anti-bullying programs for bullying in the workplace. She also works with Child Abuse Prevention Services (CAPS), a nonprofit organization that sends volunteers into schools to present programs about keeping children safe. She is a speaker and program leader on subjects like bully prevention, Internet safety, sexual harassment, date rape and child abuse. She is the author of 15 Ways to ZAP a Bully!