Dealing with Bullies in the Workplace

Unfortunately, bullying doesn’t end with high school. It can follow us into the workplace paperwork

How you handle a bullying situation depends entirely on what is happening. The truth is, some people bully because they have learned it works. It gets other people to back down and they can get their way. It is toxic though and can cause trauma in the victim and in the witnesses.

Most bullying is verbal in nature and attacks a person’s gender, intelligence , race, appearance, ethnicity or social acceptance/rejection. It is unlikely that a person in an office is going to experience physical attacks, though they do occur.

If bullying is verbal, arming yourself with something you can say that will disarm the bully usually works quite well. What you want is something that acknowledges the verbal attack and shows that you aren’t upset by it but that you thought it was inappropriate at the same time. Polite compassionate and matter of fact.

If someone makes an ad hominen attack, my favorite go to phrase is to say “thank you very much for that information. It’s very helpful” while looking the bully straight in the eye.  This needs to be done every time the bully is mean. It is the consistency that gets it to stop and it is important to realize, this won’t work right away. The bully will do what all addicts do and that is to try and get you to respond the way they like again. It’s called an extinction burst and we all do it when we are breaking a bad habit.

If you are being threatened with violence, you calmly tell the bully, if you do that – I will report you/have you arrested or whatever. Again, matter of fact. If you feel the threat is real report it immediately to a supervisor or HR. Make sure there is a record of it. If necessary – you can report it to law enforcement, but try to work through your internal channels first.

And, if you are under threat of violence, you need to very seriously consider whether or not to trigger an extinction burst because a violent person responds to an extinction burst by getting even more violent, so a coordinated effort to prevent that from happening is key.

However, most bullies aren’t violent and rely on verbal intimidation. For these types of bullies you should approach the bully as someone who just need to be reminded to behave better, not as a scary out of control ogre. They are humans after all and they just happened to have learned bad habits. They can unlearn them and you can help.

By standers are the people who really need to step up to get workplace bullying to stop. Bullies pick on people that won’t fight back, so standing up for a victim lets the bully know, their behavior isn’t acceptable and puts social pressure on them to stop. I know one woman who chose to use a single word from the values of the company “respect.” So whenever she was treated with disrespect or witnessed someone else being treated with disrespect, she would simply look the bully in the eye and say, in a calm tone of voice “respect.”


If you are an HR professional  – consider taking my course – Workplace Bullying for HR Professionals. It has been approved for 6 hours of continuing education credit through HRCI. 

Seriously – you should sign up for the course!

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