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How to Handle Bullies at Work

4 Strategies to Stay Professional and Forward Focused

Getting bullied is a tough situation to conquer for even the strongest professional. Blatant undercutting, getting set up for failure, getting yelled at, being mocked, intimidated, ignored or given the “silent treatment” is bullying, plain and simple, and it’s on the rise*. Sadly, HR Departments have established the terms “Women-Haters” and “Mean Girls, using them regularly when reporting bullying incidents in the workplace.

If you’re dealing with someone who seems intent on keeping you from success, here are four strategies to help you hold your own and handle the situation with confidence.

1. Stay Professional

An emotional reaction is exactly the response that any bully is hoping for. In fact, most bullies are delighted to see their victims embarrassed, angry or emotional. An emotional outburst from you not only rewards the bully, but it can make you appear childish and confrontational to others who did not witness the provocation. Do your best to maintain appropriate boundaries, avoid emotional outbursts. If you need to compose yourself, leave the room, and whenever possible arrange so you are not alone with the person who is intimidating you.

2. Prepare Ahead With Carefully Worded Responses

You may be tempted to respond with a quip like “Excuse me?” , “What did you just say?”, ” SORRY, WHAT?”. Or worse, you put your head down, fight back tears, saying nothing at all. Then, hours later you’ll come up with the perfect response.

Prepare yourself ahead of time to respond quietly and without emotion. Recently, I said something like this, with a curious tone and an innocent smile:  “Donna, that comment indicates that you feel I’m not qualified to work on this project. Is that what you meant to say?”  

Simple responses such as “Ouch!”, or “Wow, that stings.” can also be powerful.

3. Complaining and Whining Won’t Help

When you’re dealing with any stressful situation, complaining to others who have no power to make a change is futile, and it leaves everyone feeling frustrated and upset. When you feel like complaining, remind yourself to seek solutions instead of sympathy. Resist the urge to complain to co-workers and anyone at work who is not your bully or their manager. Instead of venting, document the incident/s and decide whether you address the bully directly, talk with their manager or leader, file an official complaint, hire an attorney, or make a career move. Your friends can help, though. Find an activity that you can do together that is fun, keeps you busy, and will allow you to stop dwelling on the situation.

4. Seek a New and Better Position Elsewhere

If your company tolerates bullying, chances are it’s never going to be a positive work environment, so polish your resume, introduce yourself to a headhunter and hire a career coach. It is usually best to find a job when you have a job, so don’t wait until the situation is so upsetting that you are forced to resign without a new position already in place. When you do move on, it’s important to let human resources or appropriate management know that you left the company because you felt threatened and intimidated.

Regardless of the path you take, learn from the situation. In the future, seek and accept positions with companies that have a transparent policy on leadership and positive workplace initiatives. When you are interviewing, trust your intuition. If it seems like a negative environment, or something feels not right, keep looking. You spend a lot of time at work, and your time there should be meaningful and pleasant.

Remember, no matter what your title is, you are always in the position to influence change, growth, and improvement. Stay positive and forward-focused because others are watching and learning from you.

*Recent studies report that 31% of Americans have been bullied as an adult. If you’re experiencing bullying or intimidation, be aware that the stress can affect your physical and emotional health. You may feel isolated and overwhelmed. Reach out for help from friends, family, your doctor, therapist or employee assistance program.

Employers get help here.

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