8 Ways to Deal with a Workplace Bully
Bullying doesn't always end when you graduate from school. If you're being targeted at your workplace, learn how to deal with it successfully.
Every editorial product is independently selected, though we may be compensated or receive an affiliate commission if you buy something through our links.
Bullying never stops
When most people think of bullying, they think of fistfights on the playground or cyberbullying among teens. But those schoolyard bullies don’t become always turn over a new leaf when they graduate—bullying behavior often continues into the workplace. Research published in the Journal of Social Psychiatry revealed that nearly 30 percent of people report being bullied at work.
The consequences of being bullied can significantly impact your health. Studies have linked workplace bullying with increased risks of developing cardiovascular disease, suicidal thoughts, and even muscular and skeletal pain like back and neck aches.
And it can create neurological deficits that make it even harder for you to thrive and succeed in the workplace. “Bullying is a form of abuse,” says Gary Namie, PhD, social psychologist, founder of the Workplace Bullying Institute and author of The Bully-Free Workplace. “It has a neurological impact, flooding your brain with hormones that impact your memory, decision making, and your emotional regulation.” Prolonged exposure to those hormones can sometimes create a memory deficit and make you appear less competent and more anxious.
Bullying becomes even thornier in the workplace when you consider that supervisors are most likely to be the bully, according to research from the Workplace Bullying Institute, 61 percent of workplace bullying was inflicted by people in positions of power over their victims. Here’s how to handle a boss that happens to be psychopath, by the way.
So what do you do if you’re being targeted by someone at work? Here’s how to help yourself out of a terrible situation.
Understand that it’s not your fault
“The earlier you recognize that it’s not your fault, the better,” Namie says. “You didn’t cause it, and you don’t deserve it—so there’s no reason to blame yourself.” Sometimes the reason you’re targeted is because you’ve triggered jealousy in the person who’s holding the power.
Talk to HR
Your human resources department isn’t only there to explain your benefits or educate staff on sexual harassment. Just make sure your chat is confidential, says Namie—this is a good way to explore strategies for solving your issues with the bully and potentially join others who may have reported this person’s behavior. HR may also help with the next step.
Meet with your boss’s boss
Your boss’s immediate supervisor most likely hired and approved your abuser and may be loyal to your bully, Namie says. If talking to your bully isn’t an option or doesn’t work, you may want to go to HR. See if you can get 15 minutes with the highest-ranking person that you can, with the help of HR, suggests Namie. “Make the business case for a healthier work environment by showing the cost of the bully’s behavior.”
The easiest way to solve a bullying situation may be to extricate yourself—can you find an exit strategy? Look for another position at your company that doesn’t require you to interact with the bully, for example. More extreme measures could include searching for a new job. “It’s about your health and well being,” Namie says. “You need to take time to come down and restore yourself.” Sit down and weigh the pros and cons of removing yourself from the situation. Here are some ways to resolve to take better care of yourself.
Gather support from your colleagues
Your colleagues may see what’s going on, but they may be afraid of repercussions if they intervene. In fact, many workplace bullying victims find themselves isolated and shunned by their coworkers, Namie says. “Don’t be mad if they exclude you, but you need their support,” he says. “Don’t come to them and say, ‘Help me.’ Instead, ask them the question—’has this kind of thing happened to you.’ One or two will probably admit that it has, and you can ask them what they did to cope.” These coworkers may become your allies as you deal with the bully.
Figure out what the bully costs your company
Your strongest case against your abuser isn’t the impact on your own health and well-being—it’s the financial health of the company. “Calculate and document how costly the bully is to your company,” Namie says. “Determine the turnover rate—how many people they’ve lost over the years, at about one and a half times the salary, as it costs an extra half a salary to replace someone.” Calculate lost work due to absenteeism; have there been lawsuits and settlements? Often, an abusive environment is a huge financial and talent drain on the company that isn’t realized, Namie says.
Talk with an attorney about your options
Unfortunately, unless you can make a case that you’re being sexually harassed or targeted because you’re a member of a protected group, you’ll have a hard time taking legal action against your employer.
If you think you might have a case, find an employment lawyer who specializes in dealing with plaintiffs—National Employment Lawyers Association is a great resource for them—and explain your case, Namie suggests. They can help you determine if any laws have been broken that could allow you to file suit.
Consider seeing a therapist
Seek a therapist who specializes in trauma and PTSD, who can help you deal with the impacts the abuse can have on you in the long term. “Workplace bullying exposes you to cumulative stress, debilitating anxiety, and a full 39 percent suffer clinical depression,” Namie says. “The trauma lasts a long time—long after the stressor is gone.”
- Journal of Social Psychology: "Bullying and cyberbullying in adulthood and the workplace."
- European Heart Journal: "Workplace bullying and workplace violence as risk factors for cardiovascular disease: a multi-cohort study."
- Scandinavian Journal of Work, Environment & Health: "Does exposure to bullying behaviors at the workplace contribute to later suicidal ideation? A three-wave longitudinal study."
- Journal of Psychosomatic Research: "Gender differences in the relationship between workplace bullying and subjective back and neck pain: A two-wave study in a Norwegian probability sample."
- Gary Namie, PhD, social psychologist, founder of the Workplace Bullying Institute and author of The Bully-Free Workplace.
- Workplace Bullying Institute: "2017 WBI U.S. Workplace Bullying Survey."