How To Deal With Workplace Bullying

Workplace bullying is the systematic targeting of someone with words and/or actions unrelated to professional concerns. Prolonged bullying can lead to a toxic work environment beyond the people directly involved, and severely undermine the organisation’s day-to-day operations. 

Even when we are willing to speak up against injustice; however, it must be handled appropriately to be effective. Here is what I have learned by having tackled workplace bullying correctly and incorrectly. 

Most of us believe that we would speak up in the face of injustice and that we would stand up for the downtrodden and the underprivileged. It is a nice ideal to aspire to but one that doesn’t always translate into real action when it comes to workplace bullying. 

Over the course of my career, I have had the misfortune of witnessing bullying at work but fortunate enough to not have experienced it personally. Immediate intervention is often the best way to nip a workplace harassment situation in the bud. However, it is neither always practical nor essentially the most effective solution. 

My approach to bullying today is much more nuanced than it was initially. The lessons I have learned along the way have been invaluable in developing my leadership capabilities and people management skills. You can apply them to foster a conducive workplace, bringing people together so they can each work to the best of their abilities. 

Bullying manifests in different ways. Certain forms may seem outwardly more intense but the negative psychological effects of each can be equally damaging. Here are the main three forms of bullying that I have come across. 

1. Loud Verbal Attacks 

This form of workplace harassment gets the most attention because it is so overt and in-your-face. It invariably comes in the dynamic of a senior, whether in rank or time at the company, victimising a junior. 

They will ordinarily yell and scream at colleagues or subordinates, intentionally belittling them in a public area. The screamer’s idea is to intimidate their victim in full view (or earshot) of as many people as possible to establish their dominance. 

2. Scheming 

Schemers are perhaps the most odious of workplace bullies. While the loud screamer lays bare his or her animosity for their target, the schemer employs deviousness and cunning to undermine them. Schemers can use these tactics not just against juniors but also colleagues in senior positions. 

What sets schemers apart from other bullies is the amount of time and effort they invest in creating scenarios and interactions to push their agenda. They are often pleasant enough to their victims face-to-face but spread malicious gossip and untruthful rumours about them behind their back. 

3. Unintentional Bullying 

Unintentional bullying is recognised as a form of workplace harassment but it can be difficult to distinguish. It covers bullying words and actions that the perpetrator does not know cause harm. Rather, they have an unfiltered approach to communication in the office, inadvertently causing offence during conversations. 

Unintentional bullies are the most benign of the lot because of the absence of malicious intent but that is no excuse. If not curtailed early on, their damaging approach can become ingrained into their workplace philosophy and entice others into adopting the same laissez faire attitude towards professional relations. 

Tackling Workplace Harassment

Some workplace bullies adopt the same caustic patterns of bullying against multiple targets; others focus on a single individual and use a variety of attacks. You may have to watch out for both. 

In my experience, schemers are the most common type of bully. I have come across them in every industry that I have worked, and have found everyone from junior interns to C-suite executives revelling gleefully in the devious misery their scheming causes. 

Awareness is the key to tackling the scheming bully. They are sometimes difficult to spot because the web of lies they create against their victim(s) may seem true on the surface. 

I once developed an extremely negative opinion of a colleague with whom I had few interactions. When we were put on a project together, I was shocked to find that almost everything I had assumed about him was untrue.  

I thought back to how I had developed those misconceptions and realised they had all originated from two colleagues. There had been no reason to suspect that they were being dishonest with me because they were otherwise professional in their own interactions with the victim. 

Since that incident, I make a deliberate effort not to develop negative opinions on people based on second-hand information. If you repeatedly find that a colleague’s comments against another colleague turn out to be false, you are dealing with a schemer. The next time they convey a negative comment that you know to be untrue, challenge them. 

Loud bullies have to be tackled with more finesse. Because they are invariably in a superior position, challenging them on the spot may not be the best tactic. Rather, whether you are a victim of this form of bullying or witness it as a third party, the first step is to document every instance.  

Sometimes, when you can show the bully their pattern of abuse, they are genuinely shocked and remorseful. It will allow them an opportunity to re-evaluate their relationship with the victim and reconsider their workplace behaviour. 

If necessary, you may want to escalate the matter to your HR department or even a lawyer. 

One thing to avoid is coming out staunchly in favour of the victim. It may come across as partisan and eventually do more harm than good. If you are in a manager’s position, it may earn the victim a ‘pet’ tag, which ultimately does more to undermine their work and credibility. 

I had this exact scenario play out a number of years ago. A mid-level executive was criticised by a senior manager for being too harsh on one of the interns. It immediately put a stop to the executive’s up-front bullying. However, it also launched whispers of the intern being ‘protected’. In the long run, even when she genuinely performed well, it was put down to her receiving a helping hand ‘from above’. 

If you do intervene, do it in a way that won’t permanently stain the victim with an unfair tag. 

Standing Up

Bullying in any setting can be an incredibly damaging experience, one that can have severe and even fatal consequences in the long term. I hope the information that I have shared with you today will help you – and the people around you – fight back against bullying in all its forms.  

Check out our career guidance page for more useful lifestyle and career tips!   

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