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Workplace Bullying

Strategies for combating toxic behavior on the job

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Working for someone who has frequent blow ups, acts passive aggressively or undermining, talks badly or sarcastically to you, or is hypercritical, is not only unpleasant, it takes a real toll on your mind, body and spirit. A toxic boss amps up your daily stress level and squashes your self-esteem. Operationally it is very akin to the impact on a child who is being regularly bullied at school. We know that bullying over time leads to anxiety, depression and low self-esteem, but it can be difficult to recognize that your problem at work is a result of bullying behavior being exhibited by your employer. Many people go through their day miserable, but with the feeling that this is just how “bosses” behave – that it is the nature of bosses who are just trying to get the tasks at hand accomplished. Alternatively, but also similar to school bullying, an employee may feel that although their situation is awful, they are helpless to change things – that this is just the way it is and they need their job so they must simply “grin and bear it.”

In reality, feeling helpless and just taking it is precisely what NOT to do when it comes to dealing with an abusive boss. Much like in the case of childhood bullying, the bully is looking for a vulnerable victim, one who they can easily dominate and make feel terrible. As adults we often fall into the trap of thinking “if I can just please this boss enough, make their life easier and do a great job then at some point the poor treatment will let up.” Unfortunately, this is not typically the case. As in most instances of bullying behavior, the more one tries to “be even nicer” the more the abusive behavior continues.


The majority of studies have found that the most effective way to combat bullying is to set limits and depersonalize the behavior. Setting limits does not mean bullying back. Being toxic in return will only have you behaving badly and risking your job. Setting limits means appearing confident and calm, stating back to your boss what they have just said to you to “clarify” what they mean as well as to allow them to truly hear what they are saying to you. If their comments are abusive it can also mean asking them to kindly refrain from the hostile part of their message. You might even choose to verbally reframe the not toxic part of their instruction to help them see how they can communicate their request in a non-abusive manner. 

To keep their behavior from taking a toll, you must recognize that this kind of treatment is not actually about you. In truth, it is about them. It is highly likely you have other colleagues who are also being treated this way. Take note of that. Realize that you do not need to internalize their abusive message, you can simply observe it. Yes, the words are there, but they say more about the individual speaking them than they do about you. By distancing yourself and acknowledging this talk is not actually personal, you will find yourself less stressed and upset.


Another extremely important aid in combating bullying can be the bystander effect. Having multiple people essentially stand up for you in a positive and yet also non-hostile manner can be exceedingly effective in having your boss self-reflect and find more instructive, less destructive ways to provide feedback and instructions. If you have noticed your employer exhibiting bullying behavior with others, you can stand up for each other, making it less likely any one of you will be forced to draw the ire of the boss.


If methods of attempting to set limits, gaining bystanders and/or gaining distance fail to change the situation, make sure that you are documenting the details of what is being said and when, as it may become necessary to go to HR with the issue. HR is obligated to look at evidence brought to them and respond appropriately. The truth is, it is mentally healthier to look for a new job, rather than stay in an unchanging abusive situation. If you do look for a new job, make sure you ask current employees about how they feel about their boss, confirming he or she treats them with respect, to avoid the risk of getting into a similar situation as the one you have just moved on from.

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