How to deal with workplace bullying

Adults who are bullied at work can take specific actions to address the situation.

As awareness increases, more adults are recognizing the signs of workplace bullying, according to research reported by Michigan State University Extension. Bullying causes increased stress in the targeted employee, as well as the coworkers who witness it. It also reduces productivity and loyalty to the organization and can cause frequent employee turnover. Those who experience it find that the stress takes a heavy toll on their mental and physical health, and often think that leaving is the only course of action available to them.

Workplace bullying is different from constructive criticism or conflict. Bullying is persistent, it focuses on a person rather than a task and the recipient feels powerless to change it. Employees who experience bullying may have difficulty naming or explaining it, and often feel isolated and excluded from the support of coworkers.

What can you do when you find yourself in this situation?

In his blog Minding the Workplace, David Yamada suggests four stages in the process of addressing bullying, cautioning that each bullying situation is different and there are no easy remedies.

Recognize – it can be challenging to figure out what is happening, especially if the person who is bullying puts on an act and is charming some of the time (typically in the presence of witnesses), but vicious and vindictive at other times (typically where there are no witnesses). Bullying is also not harassment. Under federal civil rights laws, harassment is unwelcome conduct based on a protected class (race, national origin, color, sex, age, disability, religion) that is severe, pervasive or persistent and creates a hostile environment.

Respond – carefully explore what actions to take. Enlisting support within or outside the workplace, reporting it, filing a complaint or leaving the situation are potential responses. Some tips to effectively tell your story are offered in Public Broadcasting Service’s This Emotional Life:

  • Be rational. Tell the story in a logical and organized way and highlight key points or important events.
  • Keep emotions in check. Bullying is upsetting, but your story will be better received if you remain calm. Research has found that targets were considered less believable if they showed negative emotions while sharing their story.
  • Be consistent. Document the abusive treatment by keeping a record of specific events, and save e-mail or other written communication that can demonstrate and support your assertions.
  • Be focused. Avoid sharing details that might seem unrelated to the bullying behavior.
  • Emphasize your talents and skills. Targets are sometimes viewed as “problem employees,” so it’s important to highlight your strengths and successes.
  • Show understanding of others’ points of view. Acknowledge that the bully may not recognize how you have been affected by their actions, or perceive it to be abusive treatment.
  • Be specific. Use clear, specific, concrete language and examples when you tell your story.

Recover – Yamada suggests using whatever safe coping strategies may be available, but that it may be difficult to enter this stage if the threat is not removed. Recovering from bullying while you’re still experiencing it can be  nearly impossible. One strategy might be to emotionally detach from your work and create meaningful connections related to your profession or trade outside your workplace. It could also mean ‘getting to tolerance’ by engaging in mindfulness practices, such as meditation, to take the edge off the most stressful aspects of your work experience. Another option is pursuing hobbies outside of work that provide meaning, engagement and satisfaction. Those who experience clinical depression, suicidal thoughts or symptoms consistent with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) should seek professional help.

Renewal – renewing is an ongoing process of finding ways to deal with recurrent feelings of anger, fear and resentment. People can and do find their way out of the darkness, discovering strengths they didn’t know they possessed. These qualities help them to become more resilient as they regain balance and dignity in their self-identity.

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