I’d like to tell you that bullying is an exclusively adolescent problem, to assure you that you’ll never again find yourself rushing to the ladies’ room, hoping you can hold back the tears (or the profanity) until you’re safely behind a stall door. And while you probably won’t wind up trapped in a locker, listening to your own breathing as you silently compare your current enclosure to a coffin, it’s entirely possible that you’ll face another bully in your lifetime: the Workplace Bully.
Like the high school bullies of days past, adult bullies use intimidation, public humiliation, and underhanded insults to manipulate those around them. But unlike high school, you don’t have to put up with them for the sake of looking cool. Now that you’re an adult, identifying malicious behavior and responding to it professionally will not only deter the perpetrator, but will show your colleagues (and higher-ups) that you’re the mature woman you wished you could be as a teen.
To thrive in your office, identify these three types of workplace bullies and learn how to respond to their assaults.
1. The Email Bully
This bully transforms a civil exchange of emails into a public brawl. One moment you’re professionally sharing your opinion on a project. And the next thing you know, the bully has cc’d half your office, bcc’d who knows how many others, and is chastising you (virtually) in front of your peers—in a drastically different tone than the open-minded one she used in your face-to-face meeting last week.
Don’t respond via email. Wait an hour or two and walk to the bully’s desk (if geography doesn’t allow this, call her). Chances are, like many bullies, this one is less likely to use inflammatory language when you confront her face-to-face. Explain that you’re not sure how to interpret the email, and ask if you could step into a conference room and chat. You’ll be surprised at just how quickly her tone changes from revengeful to reasonable.
2. The Social Media Bully
This bully uses Facebook like a weapon, posting passive-aggressive status updates about “certain people” at work, fully aware that said people are her Facebook friends. The thinly veiled remarks are clearly directed at specific colleagues, but, given her choice of medium, there’s nothing you can do about it—even if the bully posts mid-meeting about your “self-serving PowerPoints” or comments that “some people are so full of themselves” moments after your boss praises you in the company newsletter.
There’s an old saying: Never interfere with an enemy while he’s in the process of destroying himself. This is exactly what your bully is doing: marking herself with a big red flag. We may live in a world fully inundated with social media, but all truly professional organizations (and people) understand that this is not the mature way of acting in the workplace. So just ignore it. If your bully keeps it up, you won’t be worrying about her for long.
3. The Good Old-Fashioned Meanie
These bullies never learn. They use outright, in-your-face threats, they raise their voices to a level that’s far beyond “passionate,” and they turn arguments into personal character assassinations. They may bring up your private life, write you insulting emails with foul language, or gossip about you with your co-workers. And unlike the previous two bully-types, who can be talked down from their high horses, this one just won’t budge.
Go to your manager, her manager, or HR. Situations like these are best handled by the professionals. If someone’s behavior is repeatedly out of line, don’t waste your time and energy combatting it on your own. Yes, you’re an adult now, but it’s okay to tattle when a co-worker is clearly incapable of behaving like a grown-up.
Finally, regardless of the type of bully you’re dealing with, there are several important high school lessons that should stay with you: Take the high road. Two wrongs don’t make a right. Be the bigger person. After all, the only thing worse than a bully is a bully-convert. So act your age, behave professionally—and let your bully lie in the bed she’s made. Rest assured you won’t be the only one to notice her childish behavior.