Advice / Succeeding at Work / Work Relationships

Are You Being Bullied at Work?

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I can’t recall the names of everyone I went to school with in first grade, but I do remember Rick, the class bully, who was tall, spit when he talked, and would take whatever he wanted from all of our lunch boxes. My interaction with Rick lasted only one year (he moved), but the fact that I remember him 30-odd years later attests to the fact that bullies in our lives can leave an indelible imprint.

And bullying doesn’t stop after we leave the schoolyard. One out of three employees in the United States are victims of workplace bullying, says Jessie Klein, PhD, MSW, MEd, associate professor of sociology and criminal justice at Adelphi University and author of The Bully Society: School Shootings and the Crisis of Bullying in America's Schools. Here’s how to identify and deflect them from hurting you in four common workplace scenarios.

1. You’re Left Out of Social Events With Co-Workers

More subtle than outright hostility, getting consistently freezed out of nearly every chance to socialize with co-workers can be a form of emotional bullying on the job. In fact, 37% of Americans have reported being systematically stigmatized at the office.

Bounce Back

This kind of covert bullying or relational aggression resembles those cliques many of us can remember in junior high. And just as likely, if you stand up to these bullies, you’ll actually become more popular, even judged more “socially competent” by superiors, found UCLA researchers. So how do you do this? First, always remain calm and friendly. Stooping to the level of anger just may get the rise out of you that a bully seeks. Then, stand up for yourself by specifically putting someone on the spot for why you were left out. When you’re no longer an easy target, most bullies move on.

2. Your Boss is Out to Get You

Maybe it’s a snide comment openly directed at you in a meeting or something snarky written to you in a group email. A supervisor who takes swipes at your character probably isn’t providing constructive criticism, and she’s using tactics not that far afield from the old bully from your school days. “This is a real problem in the workplace,” says Klein. “Without intervention, free competition is often considered a license to do anything to get to the top, regardless of how it hurts others.” A new University at Buffalo School of Management study found that bullies are so good at strategically putting others down that they often experience great success at work.

Bounce Back

Here’s the thing about managers. Good ones manage and stay professional, but bad ones get personal. Remember even the toughest bosses are still fair. So if she is trying to humiliate or mock you, then it’s not about your skill set but your boss’ inability to do her job well that is at the core of this matter. Document the comments that were out of line, then seek out your company’s HR to intercede, recommends the Workplace Bullying Institute.

3. Your Colleague is Making Rude Comments About You Online

Whether she’s making fun of you in those “Reply All” emails or posting an unflattering image of you on social media from the office holiday party, if you have a colleague who’s repeatedly putting you down or embarrassing you publicly on email or the internet, you just may have a cyberbully on your hands.

Bounce Back

According to the Cyberbullying Research Center, this kind of aggression is particularly subversive because the aggressor doesn’t have to see you face-to-face to dole out the meanness. And it doesn’t just have to happen on Facebook. “A destructive email with expanded distribution lists would certainly qualify. Also, spreading damaging rumors by electronic means would qualify as a cyber attack,” says Joel E. Neuman, PhD, an expert on workplace bullying and associate professor of management and organization at SUNY at New Paltz, NY. “Organizations are spending more time establishing communications policies and practices and, once again, training is important.”

4. One of Your Co-Workers is Being Bullied

Let’s say you’re not the brunt of jokes this time. But whenever other team members tease that one guy about the time he lost the bathroom key or put too much gel in his hair, you get the impression that he doesn’t think it’s so funny. Bystanders who witness bullying behavior but do not step in to defend the victim are also implicitly reinforcing the aggressive behavior, found a multitude of research. In fact, Norwegian research shows that bystanders have a huge influence on the frequency of bullies’ mean behavior. “Bystander intervention is, I believe, the most important element in the prevention and management of bullying,” adds Neuman.

Bounce Back

Speak up and defend the victim. “There is considerable research to support this assertion,” says Neuman. “The nature and immediacy of the intervention can change from situation to situation, but the social support of others is critical.” In fact, the most promising approaches in anti-bullying campaigns are efforts directed at the bystanders who witness hostility. So set an example, defend the victim, and don’t give the bully an audience. Remember, you’re there to work, not work out aggressions on each other.

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  • Photo of bullied woman courtesy of Shutterstock.