Have you ever worked with a yeller, saboteur, or person who stole credit for your work? Then your work environment was plagued by a bully. Bullying in the workplace is on the rise and is gaining recognition as a national and international problem. According to studies, 35 percent (an increase since previous years) of US employees say that they have been bullied by a coworker, manager or customer. A quick Web search about bullying yielded websites like mytoxicboss.com, bullyonline.org, and bullybusters.org.
High-stress environments like law firms, hospitals, and stock market trading floors are breeding grounds for aggressive bosses and coworkers. Not only does aggressive behavior in the workplace have the potential to reduce your employees’ productivity, it sometimes comes with an expensive price tag.
In 2006, the National Education Association paid $750,000 to settle a sex discrimination lawsuit that was based on one tyrannical employee’s bad behavior. A high-level male supervisor subjected his female employees to yelling, screaming, and profanity-laced verbal attacks. The court transcripts described the supervisor as “turning bright red with bulging neck veins as he screamed, coming so close [to the women that] they often felt his saliva spit on their faces.” Although the supervisor’s harassment was not sexual, the court of appeals did not dismiss the case on the grounds that “harassing conduct does not have to be motivated by lust or blatant misogyny to be illegal sex discrimination.” As you can see, there are serious consequences for hostile behavior in the workplace.
For some, bullying is just a personality trait, and they bully others wherever they are—restaurants, their children’s sporting events, and pretty much any setting. Others tend to target when they feel that there’s a chance to acquire power or exercise it in their workplace or places where it’s useful to them.
Sometimes, dealing with a bully at work requires the same strategies used on the playground in elementary school. While your workplace bully is not the same as your school bully, who employed peer pressure, verbal abuse and humiliation, the workplace bully is similarly overpowering and tries to get his or her way by usurping the entire power base. However, remember when the playground bully was tamed? It was because someone stood up to him or her. The same concept often applies to workplace bullies. Here are some strategies to shock a bully and making him or her think twice before bullying again.
- Recognize that you are being bullied. As intelligent and independent workplace leaders, it can be difficult to identify the signs of bullying and admit that they are happening to you. Bullies often prey on naiveté. You may not be pushed in the sandbox but a bully has figured out how to push your buttons.
- Create office allies in the in-group. Bullies tend to seek out the most vulnerable: people who have a history of not speaking up or newly hired people who may not feel that they have earned their stripes yet (Why should people listen to them? They don’t have a ton of experience that others have). Many times employees in the non-dominant out-group—age, race, gender, national origin—are among the most vulnerable. It’s not that bullies are only targeting out-groups. Bullies tend to seek out opportunities where they feel that people in general are not going to be that strong or they are not going to push back.
- Patiently seize the opportunity to confront the bully. Studies have shown that the only people that bullies respect are the ones who take them on directly. Taking on a bully requires patience and planning at the right time and place. If possible, you want the right people—i.e., a manager who can make meaningful changes in the workplace—to witness their misconduct and empathize with your well-crafted response. Talking to others who have experience working with the bully can be helpful in determining how to manage your interactions. Although there are no federal laws against bullying, a workplace may have a policy to address hostile, harassing, or threatening behavior.
As with any other issue in the workplace, check your employee handbook. Ironically, bullies are often the kind of people that no one is happy working with, so they often, and eventually, get sabotaged by poor reviews or less than enthusiastic reference letters when they are trying to take another job or move to a different department. Sometimes the lack of interpersonal skills comes back to bite them.
Some people just grin and bear it with a bully because they feel that misconduct is a part of the office culture. However, bullying can affect the target’s health, overall self-esteem, and feelings of engagement. Your response will greatly depend on how you much you enjoy the work and need the job, as well as your threshold for working in stressful environments.
Regardless of your chosen response, it’s glaringly obvious that workplace bullying is on the rise and it should not be tolerated. When you consider and employ these techniques you stand a solid chance of stopping bullying in its tracks.
About the author
Natalie Holder is an employment lawyer, speaker, corporate trainer, and author of Exclusion: Strategies for Increasing Diversity in Recruitment, Retention, and Promotion. As the co-founder of the New York State Bar Association’s Labor & Employment’s Diversity Fellowship she developed strategies to increase diversity and retention for various bar associations. In 2013, NYU honored her with the Martin Luther King, Jr. Humanitarian Award. For more information on Natalie Holder please visit www.QuestDiversity.com.
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