Workplace Bullies: Here’s How You Spot and Deal With Them

It comes just like sexual harassment – uninvited, unwarranted, undeserved. To some, it may even bring back bad memories of the playground bully who has now turned into the workplace bully (Oh, no!). Unfortunately, bullying isn’t something to be easily dismissed when you become an adult, unlike awkward yearbook photos and (usually) braces. Offices can have bullies, too!

In fact, they’re more common than you might think. Being bullied at work can harm both your mental and physical health—with potential effects including major stress, anxiety, depression, trauma, high blood pressure, gastrointestinal issues, and more.

Because your well-being comes first – we’re breaking down what workplace bullying actually is, what it looks like, and how you can deal with it.

Workplace Bullying, Defined

Bullying is “repeated, health-harming mistreatment of one or more persons (the targets) by one or more perpetrators.” The abusive conduct—including verbal abuse—is intimidating, threatening, or humiliating to the target. It can, and often does, interfere with the target’s ability to get their work done. Workplace bullying goes far beyond a minor disruption or small annoyance. Rather, it creates a psychological power imbalance between the bully and their target or targets to a point where the person being bullied develops [a] feeling of helplessness.

Unfortunately, unlike harassment, bullying isn’t illegal. What’s the difference? Harassment—including the kind where someone or a group of individuals create a hostile work environment—hinges on being mistreated based on a protected class, such as sex, race, religion or origin.

Here are four kinds of bullies you might encounter and the behaviour they display (bear in mind that one bully could adopt multiple tactics!):

1. The Screaming Mimi (Think: Aggressive Communication)

When you imagine a bully, what comes to mind? If it’s a stereotypical yelling, cursing, angry meanie, then you’re thinking of what Namie calls the “Screaming Mimi.” This type of bully tends to make a public scene and instill fear not only in their target but also in all their co-workers, who might understandably be terrified of speaking up, for fear of becoming the next target.

Aggressive communication not only includes yelling, sending angry emails, and other verbal forms of hostility, but also using aggressive body language.

2. The Constant Critic (Think: Humiliation)

When you start working in an organisation or a job you really believe in, at first you were excited that it would be a great gig. But then your boss or even colleague, who travels on a regular basis, starts criticising, every little thing you do – to the point that disparaging emails were pretty much the only kind of communication you received from him/her. Not only did your boss reprimand you regularly when you make mistakes – or arbitrarily decide you have failed – he or she also made sure you never take credit for any of your successes.

You start working longer and longer hours, but the harder you work the worse you were according to the boss. Your boss tells you that “every team is just as good as its weakest link and you’re the weakest link.” For a long time, you believed your boss.

We refer to this kind of bully as the “Constant Critic.” They may not yell at you in your face or in front of other people, but they’ll disparage you so regularly that you begin to doubt your abilities and wear you down so much that the quality of your work might objectively suffer. The bully might humiliate you one-on-one or in public by pointing out your mistakes, taking credit for your work, leaving you out of things, socially isolating you, or even playing jokes on you.

3. The Gatekeeper (Think: Manipulation and Withholding Information or Resources)

One of the most frustrating aspects of our work experience is when we are routinely criticised for doing things wrong or differently when the boss never gave any instructions in the first place. In some cases, a boss might angry if his or subordinates performed tasks he’d never told to tackle.

Some bullies manipulate their targets and withhold resources—whether that’s instructions, information, time or help from others—setting you up to fail. They might only tell you about three steps of the process when there are actually five, or pile so much work on you that there’s no reasonable way for you to complete it by the stipulated deadline. They might give you a poor performance review when your work isn’t actually so poor or punish you for being one minute late to a meeting (when others who are tardy don’t face any repercussions).

The gatekeeper can also be a peer or a subordinate if they “forget” to invite you to an important call or pass on pertinent details that will prevent you from doing your job and even make you think that you are a bully when in actuality you are not!

4. The Two-Headed Snake (Think: Behind-the-Scenes Meddling)

One of the most difficult kinds of bullies to detect—and therefore deal with—is the one who pretends to be your friend yet stabs you in the back when you least expect it. They’re controlling your reputation with others. They are tearing you to shreds, calling you “unreliable, unskilled, un-this, un-that. Whereas in your presence and to you, such an individual or individuals pretend to be your friends.

You might eventually find out if someone breaks rank and tips you off, but often the bully will tell others to keep their remarks confidential. It goes without saying that it’s hard to combat something you don’t even know is happening.

Why Workplace Bullies Get Away With It

Bullies are often high performers. They might be a top salesperson who brings in huge deals worth millions or a brilliant engineer who’s always coming up with efficient solutions or a marketer who managed to double a site’s traffic. Whatever it is, they’re bringing value to the company, which means the company has an incentive to keep them on board (and happy).

Some bullies also work to be “in the good books” of their superiors (and perhaps their peers, too)—even if that involves being mean to one or more of the folks they oversee or work with. Put all that together, and instead of being held accountable for their bullying behaviour, they might be getting rewarded with praise, raises, or promotions—and you might be all the more intimidated by the prospect of casting a shadow on such a star performer.

The bottom line is that bullies get away with their behaviour at the workplace mostly because of the office culture which fosters such misconduct.

Here’s how you deal with Bullies – Talk to HR or Someone in Power

Before you approach HR or someone in the C suite, it is advisable to plan your initial course of action.

First, confide in someone you trust, be it a trustworthy colleague at work or a family member and seek their advice. Sometimes bullying can be stopped with a simple and bold response – “Please know that when, (identify the incident), you made me feel bullied. Please stop or I will resort to the formal grievance processes”.

Second, take note of every incident that makes you feel intimidated and afraid. Writing is a form therapy and helps put things in perspective. Include names of those who may have witnessed the event as hearsay evidence lacks credibility.

Third, think about what it is that you want to achieve or the solution to the problem before aproaching your superiors or HR. Do you just want your superiors to know about the bullying behaviour or their intervention is crucial to address the matter with the bully? Think carefully about alternative scenarios in the event you may not be able to obtain your ideal solution.

Finally, approach HR. If matters become worse, you have the right to lodge a formal complaint with HR. Think about how you can make a business case rather than a personal plea. Your documentation comes in handy at this stage because you’ll be able to cite specific examples of misconduct which in turn affected your productivity at work or incurred increased costs for the company.

The bottom line is to “stand up and be counted” in handling bullying at the workplace. Even if you are not the victim, be ready to report any misconduct at the workplace – don’t be silent and look away when abuses take place.