person confronting bully
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We all have memories of school bullies we’d like to leave behind. But bullying doesn’t end after graduation—in fact, it’s common in the workplace.

According to the Workplace Bullying Institute, bullying is actually four times more common than sexual harassment in the workplace. It’s also an issue that affects both women and men.

The thing about it is that it’s not easy to spot, especially given our cultural norms. For example, when I received a series of passive-aggressive emails, I initially brushed them off because I was told the sender was “difficult.” At the time, I didn’t recognize these messages were inappropriate.

Too often women ignore or dismiss belittling behavior in the office. As women, we’re conditioned to be nice, to not make waves, to submit to authority. The tide is turning, however. With the rise of the #MeToo movement and #TimesUp campaign, women across the U.S. (and the world) are speaking up about sexual harassment—and putting an end to it.

We can speak out to stop bullying, too. That’s why I’m sharing my story.

The Starting Point

When I experienced workplace bullying, I was starting a new job—one that required me to work directly with this colleague. Let’s call him D.

We weren’t in the same department, but D played a key role in the projects I managed. He was 20 years my senior; I was in my twenties. His work was often late, which made my work late, too. This became a problem, so I started trying to hold D accountable for deadlines.

That’s when the bullying began.

Rather than own up to his tardiness, D belittled me via email. Once, he said he’d told my office friend that it was a “big mistake” I’d taken this job. Other times, he’d find a way to twist a situation and blame me for his lateness. Most of the time, he was just rude, dealing out backhanded compliments with practiced ease.

Communicating with him made me anxious. My confidence plummeted. I started thinking maybe what he told my friend was right—maybe I wasn’t cut out for this position. D’s words had me wrapped up in a major case of imposter syndrome.

The strangest thing of all? The harassment only happened over email. We rarely saw each other since we worked in different departments.

Blame it on socialization or inexperience (or both), but I couldn’t say for sure what was going on. I knew in my gut that something was wrong, and I dreaded our interactions. I think I endured D’s bad behavior for so long because I’d come to believe some of the hurtful, condescending comments he made. He’d been actively intimidating me—and it had been working—but I was too naive to see it.

How I Stood Up to Him

One day, I got an email from D that really made me mad. I went to my supervisor and told her everything. Then I asked for help.

“You’re not going to like this answer,” she said. “The only way to stop this is for you to confront him. You’ve got to call him out.”

Surely I’d misheard her. I figured she’d step in or send me to HR. Instead, she wanted me to talk to him. I told her I couldn’t confront him—it made me too uncomfortable.

I sat at my desk, palms sweating, and thought. I thought through what I needed to say, how I would say it, and before I could back out, I picked up the phone and dialed D’s number. When my co-worker answered, he seemed startled.

“D, this has to stop,” I said. “Your emails are disrespectful and unprofessional. You can’t speak to me that way.”

“OK,” he stammered. “OK,” I said abruptly. Then I hung up the phone.

My hands were shaking, adrenaline pumping. I felt stunned. The person who spoke on the phone sounded strong, confident, and calm—nothing like the disorganized, in-over-her-head woman D made me out to be.

I wasn’t sure what the outcome of our conversation would be, but I was sure of one thing: I’d summoned the courage to confront my bully and in doing so, I rediscovered my voice.

What Happened Next

The bullying stopped. The emails became polite. My working relationship with D improved. Work became pleasant again, and I began to thrive. I thanked my boss for pushing me to be courageous and to take a stand for myself.

The experience was a turning point in my career. After I spoke up to D, I wanted to speak up more. I became more assertive and engaged in meetings and conversations. My confidence grew and I embraced my new role.

If you think you’re being bullied at work, I urge you to take action. Start by talking with your supervisor or someone you can trust outside of the office. Document evidence of bullying for your records. Identify what’s hurtful to you and how you’d like to move forward.

The next time an incident occurs, confront your bully immediately. If the bullying continues after that, it’s time to talk to HR. If your discomfort confronting the person goes beyond not wanting to have hard conversations and goes into “I feel unsafe doing this,” definitely go to HR. You should never feel like you’re in danger at the office.

My biggest takeaway? There’s nothing more powerful than standing up for yourself and summoning your voice.

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

Updated 6/19/2020