How to Protect Yourself From Bullying in the Workplace

Bullying in the Workplace: Options for Handling It

Bullying imagery

 Feodora Chiosea / Getty Images

Bullying can take many forms, but it's generally considered to be any behavior that is unwelcome, offensive, unsolicited, or objectionable. It can be physical, psychological, or verbal. 

It's commonly associated with the playground and sometimes with the internet among older youths, but it can happen in the workplace as well. It typically manifests in some specific ways, and you can take steps to protect yourself, up to and including filing a lawsuit in some cases.

Threats to Personal Standing

Workplace bullying can take the form of personal attacks that seem to have little to do with your job or with the workplace environment. It can involve spreading rumors about you, or sharing hurtful gossip or innuendo with another coworker. It can include yelling, name-calling, mocking, insulting, or ridicule in face-to-face confrontations.

It can also involve offensive photos or objects that might be placed on your desk, in your locker, or anywhere else where you're likely to come across it. 

The abuse can become physical when it involves unwanted contact or gestures that are intended to intimidate or threaten you.

Stand Your Ground

Bullies will most likely continue with their behavior as long as they know they can do so without reprisal. It might be difficult, particularly if you're not the assertive type, but you have to draw a line. Let the bully know in clear terms that you don't appreciate what the behavior and that you're not going to tolerate it.

Avoid reacting or speaking emotionally. The bully wants you to be upset. Don't provide that satisfaction. Speak calmly and firmly, then simply turn away, putting an end to the event.

React this way every time the bully approaches you in a negative manner. You might also throw in a threat of your own: If the bullying doesn't stop, you'll report the behavior to your supervisor.

Try to Understand

It's possible that your bully is even more tormented than you are, by something you know nothing about. A little circumspect digging might reveal that they're going through a divorce, had to file for bankruptcy, or experienced some other life crisis. The problem here might have more to do with the bully than it does with you.

Understanding your bully's back story might not make the bullying stop...but it could, depending on how you handle it. And a little sympathy can make the behavior a little lighter for you to bear.

Consider responding with something like, "Are you OK?" or "Let's discuss this later when we're both a little calmer." You might suggest that you both refocus on a work issue at hand. Try to diffuse the bullying instances if they're less than chronic.

Document the Behavior

You don't want the situation to turn into a he-said-she-said scenario if you do end up reporting your bully's behavior, so take care to document every action: what time it occurred, where it occurred, and who was nearby and might have seen or heard the incident. Keep a journal or a log so you have documented proof.

Join Forces

Bullies usually don't zoom in on just one person, so it's likely that one or more of your coworkers might be experiencing ill-treatment as well. It can help you and them if you offer your assistance based on your own experiences, and particularly if you all band together to push back against the bully.

And remember, workplaces will be workplaces. You have a lot of different personalities thrown into one cauldron during working hours. Some drama, power struggles, and office politics are often inevitable. Concentrate on your own work and excellence, and let people be people when at all possible.

Take the Matter to Your Supervisor

You can report to your supervisor if you're being tormented, but this might make the situation worse if it results in reprimands or otherwise imposes some type of punishment against the instigator.

There's also the risk that the bully is so valuable to the company that no one wants to take steps against them. Your supervisor might be their best friend off the job. But you should at least try, because the situation probably won't be resolved without your supervisor's cooperation if you can't make the bully back down on your own.

When Your Supervisor Is the Problem

It's also possible that your supervisor is the bully, and this can get tricky. It can be even more important to keep notes and documentation of the incidents in this case, including the names of those who witnessed them.

Go over your supervisor's head, if possible. But keep in mind that those your supervisor reports to probably aren't going to be happy to hear what you have to say. They might want the problem to just go away...and you'll make that easier for them if you jump in with unsubstantiated allegations.

They might also take an unfavorable view of you for causing problems—unless you can back up what you're telling them with that documentation and cooperative witnesses.

Bullying, Harassment, and a Hostile Work Environment 

Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 makes it illegal for an employer, manager, or supervisor to take certain actions against employees based on their sex, religion, race, national origin, or color. Businesses can be held responsible for the actions of their management and supervisory staff. 

Harassment becomes illegal when tolerating it becomes a condition of your employment—you either put up with it or you're out of a job. Bullying rises to the level of harassment when any reasonable employee would consider the behavior uncomfortable, offensive, or hostile. 

Some examples and warning signs of bullying crossing over the threshold into discrimination and a hostile work environment include: 

  • Denying an employee access to resources, assignments, projects, or opportunities that are available to others
  • Little or no feedback on performance
  • Withholding information that's essential to performing your job
  • Failing to invite you or let you know about an essential meeting
  • Threatening job loss
  • Excessive monitoring or micro-management
  • Assigning tasks that can't be completed by the deadline and setting unrealistic and impossible goals
  • Interference or sabotage with doing your job
  • Treating you differently than how your peers and co-workers are treated 
  • Excessive, impossible, conflicting work expectations or demands
  • Inequitable and harsh treatment
  • Invalid or baseless criticism, faultfinding, and unwarranted blame
  • Accusatory or threatening statements
  • Humiliation, public reprimands, or obscene language

This type of behavior must be repetitive and pervasive to rise to the level of a hostile work environment. It can't be something that just happens now and again.

Something that happens sporadically might just be bullying, but bullying by a co-worker can be considered as creating a hostile work environment if your employer or supervisor is aware of the situation and does nothing to stop it.

Federal Law

Speak to a lawyer about possibly filing a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission if your supervisor is bullying you and is the owner of the company, or if you get no satisfaction when speaking to their supervisor.

Many bullying behaviors can meet the definition of a hostile work environment or workplace discrimination when they're directed at you by a superior. This might be considered harassment, and you might have grounds for legal action if your superior's actions are based on discriminatory factors.

You must report the incidents in house before filing a lawsuit. You then have only six months to act after notifying your employer of the problem or asking your boss to stop the abusive behavior. 

Many areas have free legal clinics for this type of problem. Spend some time with an attorney and explain what's been happening. Find out if the bully's behavior legally crosses a line and ask about other options you might have.