Skip to main content

What can be done about a workplace bully?

What can be done about a workplace bully?

Workplace Issues

There seems no end to your tormentor’s campaign of psychological harassment and personal and professional destruction -- aimed squarely at you. The nitpicking, the demeaning comments, the misleading digs and full-blown lies have all come together to exact their intended effect: to make you quit or get fired.

This is the ugly picture of bullying in the workplace, painted by workers who describe themselves as targets and by the professionals who advocate for them.

Telltale signs you’re being bullied at work manifest themselves both in and outside the office. Just a few include apprehension about going to work and agitation and anxiety while you’re there, surprise, agenda-less meetings where you’re humiliated, never being left alone to do your job, and false accusations of incompetence.

The essence of workplace bullying is to twist political and social power to inflict psychological abuse on a carefully chosen target. The vast majority of such incidents are illegal.

Employers and workers can both play roles to prevent or stop bullying, which can destroy careers and lives.

Management vigilance
Companies should be concerned about bullying, if for no other reason than its potential to damage the bottom line. It often costs a company thousands of pounds to recruit, hire and train a new employee to replace a bullied worker who left.

The employer should be close enough to day-to-day activity to recognize and appropriately inquire about intimidation going on. But such awareness won’t necessarily end bullying, even in the best of circumstances, there will be people who behave badly.

The chief legal concern for employers is avoiding any backlash that could result from taking action against an employee accused of bullying. If some harm does come to the bullied person and the employer could have prevented it, there’s some liability.

Bullying bosses
Perhaps the most common workplace bullying relationship is between an abusive boss and a targeted subordinate.

If your HR department collects feedback for performance appraisals, you may be able to use your colleagues’ documented perspectives to demonstrate that your boss’s assessment of you doesn’t add up.

Another option is to transfer to another team or department. Cast your move as a positive change for you and the company, not as an escape hatch. A geographic move, even if it’s just to another floor, may help assure a successful transfer.

At some dysfunctional employers, especially smaller businesses, the chief executive or one of his top managers is also the bully-in-chief. In this difficult situation, reaching out to someone within the organisation, including human resources, for help can be risky and ineffective. And with a bully at the top, there’s little chance an organisational change could improve your situation. You’ve simply got to get out of there.

Pushing back
It’s easy to say that targets should respond aggressively to bullies, but it’s not always possible. A lot of people who are targeted can’t fight back.

The alternative is to involve human resources, a higher manager or an outside advocate, such as a consultant or solicitor. But don’t confide in anyone close to the bully -- that could make matters worse. And make sure you document the abuse.

If you’re being bullied, leaving your job is sometimes the only way to salvage your physical and mental health.

Be discreet in your search for employment elsewhere. Top-brass bullies sometimes use the full weight of the organisation to trash the careers of workers who turn on them.

When you interview with prospective employers, don’t discuss the negative aspects of the company you’re leaving. Instead, emphasise your accomplishments. If you describe your interpersonal skills, avoid discussing your relationship with the offending executive. Any mention of the bullying will probably trigger more wariness than sympathy.

When you leave, tell the powers that be why. Bullied workers who go out fighting are likely to get past the nightmare relatively quickly and move on to a better work situation. If you skulk away in silence, the bully gets to be the oral historian