How to Deal with a Workplace Bully


Bullying is an unfortunate fact of human social interactions and likely has been for as long as humans have existed. Most of us experience some level of bullying as children, but expect it to end once we’re grown. Sadly, bullies exist at all ages and potentially in any situation, including the workplace. Though laws and company policies may protect us from bullies to some extent, bullying is still a reality for many.

So, what do you do if you are being bullied at work? What are your rights? And what should you never do if you are being bullied in the workplace?

Here’s everything you need to know:

The Numbers

Workplace bullying is actually on the rise. According to CareerBuilder, 35 percent of employees surveyed said they had been bullied at work, up from 27 percent the year prior. Legislation was introduced in 13 states this year that makes it easier for victims of workplace bullying to sue their employers.

The Workplace Bullying Institute (WBI), which has chapters in 36 states defines bullying as “repeated, health-harming mistreatment” by one or more individuals in the workplace that takes the form of verbal abuse; behaviors that are threatening, humiliating, or intimidating; and/or interference that prevents work from being done, including sabotage. WBI points out that bullying is not the same as meanness or a very demanding boss. Bullying has an extra level of malice.

Dos and Don’ts of Dealing with Workplace Bullies

Experts suggest the following guidelines when dealing with workplace bullying:

  • Do seek the advice of someone you trust who has experienced a similar situation.
  • Don’t allow the bully to intimidate you or make you feel negatively about yourself.
  • Do document all incidents of bullying, including the date, a factual description of what happened (resist the urge to exaggerate—stick exactly to the facts), and how it affected you.
  • Don’t react or retaliate, which just puts you on the bully’s level. As is the case with school bullies, workplace bullies are rewarded if they get a rise out of you. If you can safely speak up for yourself, make sure you keep it professional—otherwise, refuse to engage.
  • Do your job well and make sure superiors are aware of your performance so the bully can’t undermine perception of your work.
  • Do keep your friendly coworkers close and don’t allow the bully to isolate you from others.
  • Don’t solve the problem by quitting your job unless all other possible solutions have been exhausted.

When and How to File a Complaint

Most workplace bullying is verbal or psychological, but if you are in a situation where you are being physically bullied at work, you need to report it to both your employer and the police immediately. However, if it’s not physical, you may want to take steps on your own before getting human resources or upper management involved.

If the do and don’t strategies don’t solve the problem, however, or if you feel unsafe at any time, you should speak up. Bullying can be tough to prove, but more employers are becoming sensitive to the issue and have procedures in place to help. Experts recommend arranging a meeting with human resources or someone higher up in the company than the person who is bullying you. During the meeting, get directly to the reason you are there and calmly present the facts, including documentation. Although bullying is an emotionally difficult situation, it’s critical that you keep your cool. Try to answer all questions and be open to solutions.

Legal Cases

Unfortunately, the laws in most states favor employers unless the victim can prove that he or she is being singled out because of discrimination or retaliation, which is protected. There have been a few high-profile cases, though, and laws are likely to change as more hit the courts.

One such case involves the suicide of editor Kevin Morrissey at University of Virginia’s Virginia Quarterly Review after making at least 18 calls in the final two weeks of his life to university officials in an attempt to resolve the severe bullying he says he experienced from his boss, Ted Genoways. Genoways denied the allegations, but this past summer Morrissey’s family filed a $10 million wrongful death suit against Genoways, the University of Virginia, former UVA President John Casteen, and two employees in human resources. Because it will be so difficult to prove, experts don’t expect the case to make it to trial.

As of this time, there is no federal workplace anti-bullying legislation, but 20 states now have some bullying protection, following the “Healthy Workplace” bill passed by California in 2003. More states are likely to follow.