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Advice / Succeeding at Work / Work Relationships

An Important Read if You Feel Like Your Office Operates Like a High School (Bullies and All)

woman upset

Cliques, gossiping, and backstabbing. We assume that these are the unfortunate realities we deal with in school, but then thankfully leave behind when we graduate. But for many of us that’s not the case. As someone who works with girls and women on these issues, I’ve lost count of the women who have shared stories of workplace bullying with me.

Here are some facts: According to the Workplace Bullying Institute, 27% of Americans have suffered abusive conduct at work; another 21% have witnessed it; and 72% are aware that workplace bullying happens. The vast majority of bullies are men (69%) who seem to prefer targeting women (57%) more than other men (43%). Women bullies were less “equitable” when choosing their targets for bullying. Women bullied women in 68% of cases.

These statistics show that women are predominantly the targets of workplace bullying by both male and female perpetrators. And while we have to figure out how to stop the bullies, this article focuses on some concrete ways to address it as the target.

Verbal abuse and threats are obvious examples of workplace bullying. But, there are more subtle examples that undermine people’s ability to work. The list below is by no means complete, but it gives you a sense of how bullying methods change as we grow into adulthood and enter the workplace.

Many of us think that because we’re adults we can handle it—seriously, do we really care if we aren’t invited to happy hour after work? And we usually do have better coping skills as adults, like we don’t take things as personally as we did when we were younger. But, the more subtle forms of workplace bullying insidiously undermine anyone’s capacity, competence, and confidence.

What Can We Do About It?

First, it’s important to clarify the unwritten social rules governing how women often communicate their anger. See if the following sounds familiar:

  • Keep it inside and suffer silently
  • Put themselves down
  • Give the person they’re angry with the silent treatment until she (hopefully) notices and ask what’s wrong
  • Deny they are angry by saying “It’s fine”
  • Finally ask for the behavior to stop, but communicate so passively that the request isn’t taken seriously
  • Keep it inside until something small (to everyone else) happens that ends up in tears or lashing out
  • Have a “You have no idea who you are dealing with” attitude and then try to destroy the other person
  • Use drugs or alcohol to deaden feelings

None of these responses give women the skills to communicate their anger in a way that people will take seriously or effectively advocate for their position. And that’s a critical problem. We still live in a culture where women often have to couch their anger for fear of making other people angry at them or opening themselves up to ridicule.

The Solution

I mostly work with teens—people who hate cheesy acronyms for talking about their feelings—but most adults don’t like cheesy acronyms either. It feels weird and awkward to talk about your feelings like, “I want to throw my coffee in your face when you undermine my opinion during staff meetings.”

So, people need a mature strategy in these messy, often intimidating situations. My strategy for handling a conflict is “SEAL.” SEAL stands for these four things:

Stop and Strategize

Breathe, listen, and think about when and where you want to talk to this person. Do you want to do it now or later—or maybe a little of both? Staff meetings and break rooms aren’t the place to have it out.


What happened that you didn’t like, and what do you want?

Affirm or Admit

Admit to anything you did that contributed to the conflict, but affirm your right to be treated with dignity by the other person, and vice versa.


Lock in the friendship, take a vacation, or lock the friendship out. That’s for friends—people you want to have in your life outside of work. With co-workers or supervisors, you just have to figure out how to work with them so you don’t have to do the “L” with them.

You don’t SEAL expecting that people are going to agree with you. They’re probably going to be defensive, refuse to take responsibility, or do something else incredibly irritating. That’s called the pushback. The point of SEAL is that you have a strategy to calm your brain down so it can think through the problem, put words to your feelings, and strategize the best place to communicate to the other person. That’s how you have the best chance of being taken seriously. That’s how you manage yourself in a professional manner.

If you get an apology, instead of saying, “That’s OK. Don’t worry about it,” say, “Thanks for the apology.”

If you get an insincere apology, SEAL it again like this: “The way you just apologized doesn’t seem like you mean it. But if I’m wrong tell me.”

By conducting yourself in this manner, you take control of your professional reputation. You come across as someone who is competent and can’t be taken advantage of.

Workplace bullying can be terrifying because it feels like your job is always on the line. Some people are in abusive work situations that they really can’t afford to leave. But, we all deserve to work in an environment where we feel safe. When you demand your dignity (and the dignity of your co-workers), work becomes an extension of your values—so no matter what happens, you can be proud.

This article was originally published on LinkedIn. It has been republished here with permission.