8 Tips For Managing Workplace Bullies

Managing Workplace Bullies

Ever feel like giving a colleague a swift kick in the conscience? I have.  I’m not shy about admitting that I have been a bully. If you want to bring out the monster in me, then start by picking on someone with less power than you. It’s like a little light goes off in my head and the mean side of me steps out of the darkness and demonstrates to the bully exactly what it feels like to pick on someone their own size.

Needless to say, I’ve never had much patience for bullies.  When I was a kid I encountered lots of bullies. They were rarely attracted to me, but I ran into them because I’ve never thought bullying was someone else’s problem. As I grow older, not much has changed. Somehow I expected that bullies would make fewer appearances in my life as I grew older, so imagine my surprise when I encountered bullies in the workplace.

I can remember one boss who would yell at the top of his lungs at any and everyone. He would start at one end of our very long one story building and scream as he marched his way down the central hallway to the other end.  He was like some crazed long haired bull.  His face would get redder and redder as the target of his rage became smaller and smaller. It was pretty awful. It was my first real job and as the receptionist I sat in the centre of the building able to watch the whole horrible thing unfold from beginning to end. I was never the subject of his rages (thank goodness) but I do remember thinking I couldn’t get out of there fast enough.

When I encountered bullies again it was a herd of them.  Honestly, it was like entering an alternate dimension where bad behavior was acceptable and being considerate and polite was the thin veneer worn for public consumption. Thrown chairs, tossed telephones, fist fights in the office and threats riddled with obscenities delivered across the boardroom table as if the speaker was delivering the time of day, were all part of the weekly antics. It took me a long time before I could get my bearings back and then for the first time in my life I didn’t bully the bullies, I out maneuvered them. To tell you the truth, it wasn’t that hard. You see at heart I think bullies are like badly behaved little kids, or at least that’s been my experience. Your average garden variety bully has gotten away with their behavior largely because no one has called them on it.  Through intimidation and threats they have managed to make their way through life and work with no one stopping them. What the rest of us have to figure out is what do we want to do with them, defuse them, ignore them or avoid them.

Here are some things that have worked for me.

  1. Build your network. Don’t let the bully make you feel isolated. Engage your colleagues; give yourself the opportunity to have fun. I have found that eventually it is the bully who gets left out of activities unless they can behave.
  2. Ignore them. Yup, simply act as if they don’t matter or don’t exist. A non-responsive target isn’t all that interesting to many bullies, a bit like picking on a door.
  3. Avoid them. If you don’t have to engage them, then don’t.  Life is short enough without wasting time on people who don’t know how to behave.
  4. Rephrase. I got into the habit of rephrasing dumb or aggressive requests so that the person delivering them would look foolish confirming the comment or request. “Get me some lunch.” Would get repeated as, “So you want me to postpone the bosses report so that I can get you a sandwich?”
  5. Stay calm. There is nothing quite as disconcerting to a screamer as someone who simply doesn’t rise to the hysteria. By staying calm you also stay in control and demonstrate a level of emotional intelligence that generally shuts down the bully.
  6. Document the bullying. One of my buddies had a terrible bully for a boss.  One afternoon my friend called me close to tears, her boss had sent her a particularly inflammatory email. I told her to forward the email to her boss’ superior with a brief sentence explaining that the tone and language were not acceptable professional behavior. Her boss was fired by the end of the week.
  7. Tell them to stop. Point blank tell them to stop. Tell them you feel bullied or harassed, that their tone, language or manner makes you uncomfortable.
  8. Get out. There are unfortunately situations that can’t be helped and in those situations your best bet is to make a run for it.

Have you ever had to manage a bully? What do you do to deal with bullies?

Quick Reminder: I’m looking for your great communications stories. I’m collecting them in November and posting in December. See my post “Everyone Loves a Good Story” for more details.

Related articles:

Bullying is Theft – Seth’s Blog

About Debra Yearwood

Experienced communications and public relations executive who manages challenges with an eye on outcomes and a sense of humour. Learn more about how I think at https://commstorm.com/ Learn more about my experience at ca.linkedin.com/in/debrayearwood/
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38 Responses to 8 Tips For Managing Workplace Bullies

  1. becc03 says:

    People have tried to bully me in the past, however I think that I did employ some of the points you made in the article so it never really got to the point of really upsetting me. The best revenge is to stay calm & not rise to it.
    I do agree that a bully as an adult is just some poor old sod who hasn’t managed to grow up yet. They act like petulant children and should be dismissed from your mind as such.

    • Isn’t it amazing what can be achieved by maintaining control over your own responses? The first time someone told me that no one could “make me” feel anything, I was completely disbelieving, but as I got older I realized there was some truth to the statement. I could manage most situations by managing my own responses.

  2. Arleen says:

    I must live under a rock and let me tell you it is an old rock. I have never encountered a bully. I guess I have been lucky

  3. Great bully tips! I often to tell my older son these things when his little brother is trying to annoy him. Sadly, it hasn’t clicked yet and he over reacts to things he should be ignoring.

    • it so hard for kids to understand the implications of bullying, especially when a sibling is involved, but if you persist, they will pick it up. When my son was little we had extensive conversations about bullying. I was so adamant about it being a horrible thing that I’m proud to say he has little tolerance for it himself and will stand up or intervene when he sees it happening.

  4. I had to think about how to answer this one. I had a horrible situation that affected me and my whole department. The worst part was when I reported the bullying/harassment, my responsibility as a manager, I was retaliated against for having done so. It took a situation where this person threatened to hurt me and potentially my staff where I had to clear the office and call the police, all in fear of what he might do before the company took action. The only reason the company took action was in fear of any legal repercussions that could have resulted otherwise. The sad part is, this person had a habit of doing this to many others in the company. Even though I was a senior staff member with documented proof of this individuals actions, my boss just wouldn’t do anything to correct the situation. I couldn’t wait to get my bee-hind out of there.

    • What a terrible situation and a very costly one for the organization. The amount of damage they did with their inaction was by far more destructive than anything the bully could do and bullies can do a lot of damage. If you have a situation like that and let it go you are telling employees not to speak up, not to engage, in fact you might as well just tell them to leave. Look at your reaction.

      If you so much as use the word “bullying” in my workplace all kinds of red flags go up. In fact, even when the threat comes from outside our organization and impacts our staff I’ve seen our CEO react swiftly and definitively to bring it to an end.

  5. Jason Butler says:

    I’ve never had to deal with online bullying. I hope I never do. I’m not one to take kindly to be disrespected.

    • You are lucky, but also I suspect you’d make a lot of bullies think twice. There is no fun for the bully if their potential victim refuses to be a victim or worst still, turns into a threat.

  6. Glynis Jolly says:

    Fortunately, I haven’t had to exercise your eighth suggestion, at least not yet. I’m always so surprised at how easy it is to make bullies look stupid. You would think that they’d learn something from their experiences — yet they don’t.

  7. cassi9879b says:

    Our quality manager is the bully at my job. She’s tortured all of us at various points in time. The boss doesn’t see it so nothing is done about it. Pretty much all he’s said is that people need to grow up. Because she’s the quality manager we can’t ignore or avoid her. She’s always throwing people under the bus too.

    • That’s awful. I don’t understand how boss’ can’t see how disruptive and destructive that kind of behavior is to the office. No matter how good someone is at their job, if they are a bully, they are hurting your business.

  8. Bullies are a huge problem in society. Not least online. People commit suicide because of online bullying. The fact that they are unhappy people and that the way they behave clearly shows that is of little help to the people that are being bullied.

    In Sweden a lot of women are bullied online and social media networks like Facebook do nothing to stop it. And the police doesn’t do anything about it. However starting from January 1st 2015 a new law will make it easier to deal with online bullies. About time because why should women have to put up with fake pornographic pictures of them circulating online?

    • Catarina you raise an excellent point about how women in particular get singled out by online bullies. I was amazed at how passive Facebook had been in the face of some pretty horrific posts and language. I understand they have now added an online bullying prevention hub, but not clear on whether they have taken other steps, like kicking bullies off the platform.

  9. Lorraine Marie Reguly says:

    Great topic and post, Debra. As a victim, I have chosen to walk away and pretend like nothing is wrong. I really like the flippant and yet serious point you make with the rephrasing, as in “So you want me to postpone the bosses report so that I can get you a sandwich?”

    Taking the moral high ground always seems to work. 😉

    • I find managing the situation in a non-aggressive way is way easier on the mind and emotions than tackling the bad behaviour with more bad behaviour. Besides, it can be very entertaining thinking of ways of rephrasing silly stuff.

  10. Bullies operate from fear as a cry for help because they don’t love themselves. I think your numbered points are both insightful and useful. Neale Donald Walsch, a teacher of mine has said that when someone hurts you, it’s a good idea to ask that person, “What is it that hurts you so much, that you feel the need to hurt me in order to heal it?

    • Great question, It encourages a little introspection for the bully. I have sometimes wondered if they have any idea how they are viewed. I have encountered a few who are just oblivious until you show them what they are doing.

  11. Kitchen life has benn and still is at times ruled by what you would call bullies. It is a military mentality that happens in high stress environments. Granted it is out of place in a traditional office environment but when you are in the middle of a firefight or knee deep in the rush of a busy Saturday night you have to yell to be heard and changes need to happen yesterday.

    • So all that crazy stuff we see on television is true?!! 🙂

      I’ve seen tempers flare while in the middle of an intense political campaign, and if you want ugly, try a heated political debate when the difference of opinion spills off of the stage and into the audience. That stuff doesn’t phase me at all, it’s when the stress of the setting is the behavior of the bully.

  12. jacquiegum says:

    Wonderful post! And great tips, if one heeds them. It’s too easy to yell back and one has to pocket the feeling of failure by walking away. But that’s exacting what emotional intelligence is and viewing silence as empowerment is key. I was bullied as a child because I had a speech impediment…stutterer. It’s part of what has fueled me a great part of my life. In these waning years, I’ve been bullied in some on-line forums for just having an opinion that didn’t jive with the masses and having the temerity to voice it! We’ve made it easy with the curtain of technology to hide behind. But the good news its that these very valuable tips apply to on-line bullying as well. Enjoyed this EXCEPTIONAL post very much! Thanks:)

    • On-line bullying is such a low form of engagement, even lower than the face to face stuff because the bully can hide behind the internet. The whole point of online engagement is that you are going to share and see opinions that may not always reflect your own perspective. How boring if we all agreed. I have been happy not to encounter any bullies in this last year of blogging, but then, I don’t really venture far. I control what gets posted here, LinkedIn manages aggressive behaviour and I won’t post on blogs if the owner is rude. Pity we have to navigate around these folks even in our virtual world.

  13. TheGirl says:

    These are great tips, you think that once out of high school we would be done with bullying but no, some people are bullies for life. As long as the situation does not get dangerous, then I think these tips will help.

    • It is very much a high school mentality and I think that speaks to another aspect of bullying, an immaturity or a lack of social skills. If the situation gets physical, you have to remove yourself from it, nothing good comes from engaging with someone so far removed from understanding social boundaries.

      There was nothing quite as shocking as watching two men in suits start punching each other in my office. It was actually a woman who stepped between them and physically threw one of the combatants out of the office. Yikes.

  14. Diana says:

    What an insightful post, Debra – tanks for writing and sharing it – sending you some smm love as well 🙂

    I have not dealt with bullies at the workplace per say, but i have encountered on numerous occasions incompetent bosses and/or colleagues who are at a higher level in the company. I think incompetence or feeling helpless in doing your job right, or feeling threatened by a smarter, more competent, more creative, more something colleague (fear for your job, i guess) is what makes you become a bully in most cases (at the workplace) – what do you think?

    • Its amazing how clever people bring out the bully in weak bosses. I do think fear of losing a job may play into the process in some cases but I have seen people who are secure in their positions bully others who were in much more subordinate roles. The red faced boss i mentioned at the start of the post owned the company, no one could make him lose his job, he was a bully because he could be a bully.

      I think there are a wide range of reasons why people become bullies, it could be extremely high or low self-esteem, parental influences, cultural norms, mental health issues, a desire for power…the reasons are many and varied.

  15. alisonwiley says:

    Great topic, Debra. Of your tips, documenting the bullying is the most powerful, in my view, and sharing the documentation with people in power. I notice that in your anecdote, doing this contributed to the bully being fired by the end of the week. Yes! (Consequences are crucial for bad behavior.)

    Have you ever heard of Nonviolent Communication, also known as NVC? More and more people I know and respect have been recommending this well-proven,35 year old method to me. So, my husband and I are going to buy and study the book, and take a course in it. I understand that a number of hospitals have gotten their employees trained in NVC (I know you work for a hospital).

    Finally, I have a book in my current stack-to-read called “The No Asshole Rule”. It’s written by a Stanford professor. I wish I had found it a few years ago, when I was working under a terrible boss. Our workplace has become much better since he retired. My new, positive/capable boss and I met twice with the director of HR (on my suggestion) to discuss how our organization could become healthier, and not promote people like the former boss, nor tolerate behavior like his.

    The fact that I had documented his behavior earlier helped these conversations. The HR director said she planned to use it as an example with which to train her managers.

    • Thank you for flagging all of these great ideas Alison. I came across the NVC when I was originally looking into bullying for this post. Initially i wanted to include some of the formal approaches to managing bullying and the legislation related to bullying but it is so varied across provinces, states and countries that I decided to keep things much simpler. NVC looks very interesting from a communications perspective, It would certainly make for an interesting alternate post.

      I love the focus of the book, “The No Asshole Rule”, I think bullying has a disastrous effect on the workplace. It destroys morale, productivity and increases turn over. I’ll be adding it to my reading list too. i agree about documenting the behavior. At the end of the day the documentation means that you’re not stuck trying to remember a barrage of incidents, but have them all in order, if you can hold on to the bullies written abuse, even better.

      • alisonwiley says:

        Good to hear all of this, Debra!

        I wanted to let you know that In the past few days, another excellent blogger, Seth Godin, happened to take on the topic of bullying, too. He first wrote that in the old world order/economy, bullies got away with their aggression (it could create economic advantage). But in the new information economy, which is based on cooperation and collaboration, bullies are at a disadvantage, and experience more natural (negative) consequences.

        In his second piece on bullying (he must have been on your wavelength this week) he wrote that bullying is literally a form of theft. He says the best employees will leave your company due to bullies (they are the best able to find work elsewhere). But moreover, the fearful, shut-down atmosphere that bullies create robs your company of employees’ best work, best ideas, etc. Not to mention the intense distraction of trying to figure out how to protect oneself from the workplace bully.

        So, Seth’s Blog this week made a great case for companies to have zero tolerance for bullying behavior. I find all this quite exciting, and again, I love that you are addressing this topic.

        • Thank you for sharing this with me Alison. I am a fan of Seth Godin, he was the person that first opened my mind to the idea of tribes in the modern context. I am so pleased to see people engaging on the subject of bullies. Tolerating that kind of behavior diminishes us all and spawns more aggressive behaviour. He makes an excellent point about bullying being a productivity thief. I know how much energy I spent trying to avoid the nonsense so that I could get my work done when I was in that environment. It’s not smart from any perspective too encourage the bully. I have added a link to the Seth Godin article above.

  16. Simone Hart says:

    Bullies are certainly everywhere. I’ve encountered far too many. I tend to tell them to stop and if that doesn’t work, walk away.

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