Etiquette for Dealing With a Workplace Bully

Avoid Being the Target for Bullies at the Office

Business meeting
  Yuri_Arcurs / Getty Images

If you think you’ve seen your last bully when you graduate from school, you may be surprised to discover that you’ll likely face them in the workplace as well. You can’t get away from them, and trying to bully back can backfire on you. However, you can learn to deal with them in an adult manner that puts them in their place without your having to resort to rudeness. Remember that rude behavior does not equal strength.

The main key in knowing how to handle bullies is to understand that this is a form of manipulation that has worked for them in the past. They have gotten the results they want when they’ve tormented others they perceive as weaker than themselves. Their goal is to control and dominate any given situation.

You can still maintain a level head without allowing the bully to get the best of you. Do your best to separate yourself from the person. If that isn't possible, always think before you speak because everything you say can and will be used against you. Remember that the bully's main goal is to put you in a bad position, so avoid falling into a trap.

Types of Bullying

There are several ways a bully can make your life miserable. She might make an overt threat, or she may start malicious rumors that can hurt your reputation. Whatever the case, each bully needs to be dealt with on an individual basis, according to what she does.

Protect Yourself

Most bullies are weak, but there are some who can truly hurt you. If you feel that you are in physical danger, let your supervisor or someone else in authority know. Never put yourself in the position of being alone with someone who wants to torment you or cause harm. 

As soon as you see that you are dealing with an office bully, start documenting every encounter.

Include the date, what happened, what was said, and who may have been a witness. This will help you state your case if you ever have to go to your supervisor or human resources with the problem.

Be Assertive

The ideal way to prevent being bullied is to go into your job with a healthy dose of being assertive. Speak in an authoritative tone. This shows potential bullies that you are comfortable with your job skills, and you aren’t what they perceive as a weak person they can target. There is still no guarantee that they won’t go after you, but it will decrease the likelihood.

Stand Firm

Be prepared to stand your ground when a bully tries to mess with you. If he humiliates you in front of others, turn the situation back toward him with an honest defense. Don’t be silent, or you will be perceived as weak. However, you should avoid the urge to criticize the bully in public, or you may be seen as the one doing the bullying.

Some bullies simply enjoy hearing themselves talk when there is a large audience. When there is no defense, sit back and allow him to make a fool of himself because that is exactly what he’s doing when he goes on a rant.

Be an Exemplary Employee

People who bully have built-in radar and love to zoom in on the mistakes of others.

Don’t give them a reason to go after you. If you are known for doing a good job, the bully may not target you because he doesn’t want to be embarrassed later. However, there are some bullies who try to take down the person who is known for doing a good job.

Here are some ways to stay off a bully’s radar:

  • Volunteer to lead projects. This separates you, lifts you to a different level from the bully, and shows your professional muscle.
  • If you make a mistake, fix it. There is no need to call out your error to the bully. 
  • Don’t complain about your company, supervisor, or job to coworkers. You don’t want to give the bully something to use against you later.
  • Always be cautious with office email because you never know if something might be forwarded to a person who can use your communication against you.

    Working With a Bully

    If you work in a cubicle, be respectful but firm. Bullies often like to invade personal space. Never allow a bully to watch over your shoulder as you work because she is looking for something to use against you. Stop what you are doing, turn and face the bully, and ask what she needs. If she doesn’t take the hint, state with calm authority that she needs to leave so you can get back to work.

    Never fight or argue with bullies. They have practiced their bulldozing skills, and you aren’t likely to win. Instead, establish office relationships and surround yourself with other team players. Bullies prefer to go after a loner rather than a group of dedicated employees who work well together.

    Working for a Bully

    You may find yourself in the position of being supervised by a bully. This is quite difficult, but you may be able to work through the problem by doing an excellent job and avoiding too much communication. Document each incident that occurs, including what is said and when.

    If you have a bullying supervisor who is determined to make your work life impossible, go directly to the human resources office with all of your documentation. Continue to be polite to your supervisor and resist the urge to counterattack with words or actions that can be grounds for termination from your job. Remember that most bullies have practiced this behavior in the past, and they're looking for ways to torment you.

    About Bullies

    Remember that bullies enjoy the feeling of power, so when you stand up for yourself and exert authority, they are likely to move on to another target. They typically go after the person they perceive as the weakest in the group. The success of their coworkers may trigger their behavior because they don’t like to be outdone. Their goal is to drag others down to their level.

    There are different types of bullies. Some of them may have severe psychological disorders, so be very careful. An overt confrontation may create a situation that you are unable to control, so don’t ever get physical or in a loud verbal altercation with him or her.

    You can’t change a bully, so don’t try. However, in some cases, you can stop the bullying behavior toward you and other coworkers.

    If you ever feel physically threatened, let your supervisor know and be prepared to share your documented evidence. If the supervisor doesn’t respond or if the supervisor is the one doing the bullying, go directly to the human resources department with the problem.