Although bullying used to be seen as a childhood issue, there is a growing recognition that it also happens to adults in the workplace.
Fortunately, there is also an understanding that bullying should not be tolerated, and most organisations and employers have anti-bullying policies just like schools.
Bullying, however, has a way of reducing the strongest and most self-sufficient to an unhappy state of helplessness. It is, after all, designed to belittle and weaken the victim.
This page provides advice about handling bullying at work to prevent it from becoming a huge problem.
Tips for Handling Bullying at Work
1. Don't let bullying get out of hand
You don’t have to tolerate being bullied. Your job does not depend on it, and neither does your reference. If you start to feel that you are being made miserable by the behaviour of someone else at work, it’s time to do something about it.
Don't wait until you are so stressed that you need to take time off.
Instead, act early, while you still feel confident and competent, if just a little bit ‘got at’.
2. Tell the Person Concerned How Their Behaviour Makes You Feel
Sometimes, though not always, the person doing the bullying is unaware of the effect of their behaviour. They may be unhappy and taking it out on you. Or they may simply have got away with that behaviour for so long that they do not know how bad it can feel.
Make an appointment for a meeting, and say that you have something you would like to discuss.
Calmly and assertively, say something like:
“This is a hard thing to say, but your behaviour recently has really upset me. Some of the things you have done have felt like bullying.”
It is always going to be helpful to give specific examples, so make sure that you have some prepared. Use the formula:
When you did x, it made me feel y.
For more about this, see our page on Giving and Receiving Feedback.
Also be clear about what you would like to see changed.
3. Talk to a Trusted Colleague
It is a good idea to talk to someone else in the organisation about what is happening.
This might be someone close by, who knows both you and the other person, or it might be a friend from elsewhere, or a mentor or coach. If your line manager is not involved in the situation, they may well be a good person to talk to since their job is to coach and advise you, and help you to manage difficult situations.
In a unionised organisation, the union rep is a good idea as they have probably seen similar situations before and will also have a good understanding of the law and the organisation’s policies.
Talking to someone else:
Checks that your reaction is proportionate. After all, you too may have things going on in your life that make you react in particular ways to other people;
Enables you to discuss options for taking things forward and resolving the situation;
Makes sure that someone else knows how you feel, and can help to support you.
4. Talk to someone in authority
Human Resources professionals have dealt with workplace bullying and similar issues many times before, and will doubtless do so many times again. Seeking advice does not automatically mean escalating the situation, it simply means that you can seek advice from professionals about how to handle it, and get a better picture of what is happening.
Case Study: Better late than never?
When the time came to leave a secondment and return to her main employer, Jenny decided that she would ask for an ‘exit interview’ with the organisation’s HR Director.
She had had some trouble with her line manager, who had proved very difficult to work with, and she was worried about the colleagues that she was leaving behind.
The HR Director was happy to arrange the meeting, and Jenny quickly came to the point to explain her concerns.
He listened carefully to her story. When she had finished, he said,
“You didn’t think of coming to me earlier? I could have helped.”
Feeling a bit foolish, she admitted that no, she hadn’t thought of that.
“You’re leaving, so I can tell you in confidence. She is under investigation for two other incidents of workplace bullying, and she too will be leaving in a few weeks.”
Lesson learned: HR is there for a reason. Jenny vowed that she would never again fail to consider that option when dealing with workplace problems.
If you are not sure about going to HR, consider whether you have a union representative who may be able to help. They may be able to help you present your case, or attend a meeting with HR with you. You can also ask to take a colleague with you as support.
Confronting Bullying at Work
You may see behaviour in a colleague which looks like bullying. It is NOT acceptable to let this kind of behaviour go unchallenged.
You might, for example, say something like:
“That doesn’t seem like a great way to behave. I’m not sure that’s really acceptable.”
For more about this, see our Parenting Skills page on Confronting Bullying.
Zero Tolerance Policies
Most organisations, formally or informally, have zero tolerance of bullying. Using these steps should therefore be enough to get it managed and stopped effectively in most workplaces.
If, however, you find that your organisation is failing to manage bullying effectively, you may want to think about looking for another job, in a more tolerant and supportive environment.
Nobody should have to put up with bullying. Make your own policy zero-tolerance.