How to Deal With a Bully in the Office

Bet you thought you’d left the bullies behind at school! Sadly, bullying is every bit as much of a problem for adults as it is for kids.

Science has shown that bullies often act the way they do as a way of unleashing the pent-up feelings they’ve stored from their own traumatic experiences, stress, or dissatisfaction with their lot. More often than not, the bully is male – because men are less likely to feel okay with dealing with their emotions in a healthy manner, i.e. expressing them!

But plenty of non-males also struggle to understand and cope with their emotions, and the next workplace bully you confront may not be the person you expect (tip: emotion coach your kids.)

Bullies may also act the way they do because of their own low self-esteem, or because they themselves have been bullied or neglected. Or they may come from a culture of bullying, where insults are normal and kindness is considered ‘weak’ – or they’ve just not been shown how their way of behaving hurts other people’s feelings.

Bullying victims’ physical and mental health suffers. Two-thirds of them will leave their current role to get away from the bully. Likely, they just open up a vacancy for the next victim. None of this is good for the individual, the business, or society as a whole.

But what does workplace bullying look like? It can take many forms, including:

  • Threats, social exclusion, or abusive emails
  • Sabotaging work or taking wrongful credit
  • Insults, jokes, or gossip
  • Tripping, pushing, or damaging property
  • Gaslighting
  • Misuse of authority, such as forcing overtime or blocking promotions.

The signs aren’t always visible. As an HR professional, you are guaranteed to need to deal with workplace bullies throughout your career. At any given time, 19% of Americans are victims of bullying. But one-third of those will suffer in silence. If you never hear about bullying happening at your workplace, it’s time to ask yourself: am I asking the right questions?

As an HR pro, perhaps the best thing you can do is to create a culture of openness. Colleagues must feel they can talk to you in confidence and with trust. They must feel that you will be supportive of complaints against bullies, even when the bully is a figure of authority. This is why it is also important to have a clear, firm company policy on bullying.

It is important that you are there to listen. But the victim will also expect you to act quickly, to honor that trust and to stamp out the bullying swiftly. Bullying has been shown to thrive in environments with stand-offish leadership. Begin by calling a meeting with the bully, and make sure to document it in full. If you have a protocol for such meetings, follow it closely.

Talk about what has happened, and allow the victim to present their case. Give the bully a voice, too – remember, they will frequently be a victim in other areas of their life. Point out the bully’s behavior and indicate why it is a problem. Money is not the most important thing in these cases, but you might even confront the bully with the financial cost of their actions -especially if they are management level. The consequences of bullying in your workplace must be clear and consistent.

Have a look through this new visual guide to workplace bullying for some good advice to learn for yourself, and to share with your crew – secret victims and potential bullies alike. Bullies ruin careers, they ruin lives. But they are also human beings with their own troubling tales. Deal with the situation firmly and fairly to improve conditions for all.

How to deal with a bully in the office (according to science)

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