What should I say to a bully at work?


My co workers keep insulting me and its getting annoying, how do I make them stop? They make stupid comments like saying how I’m useless, don’t have a girlfriend or drive and they keep doing it to piss me off. Its usually only the guys that do this, my only response would be to tell them to eff off but then I would get in trouble.


The way to stop any unwanted behavior is to remove the reward (which might not be coming from you) and to do this consistently over time. It also helps to increase the cost associated with the behavior. In this case that would be reporting it.

Because what is happening is verbal, your reply should be verbal. The goal is to remove the reward. You do this by reminding them that in this office, we treat people with respect. And then stare at them. You don’t need to argue with them or say anything else. It is up to them to behave professionally. They are not. You are reminding them to behave professionally without being rude.

This does 2 things. One, it makes it clear that their behavior is unacceptable and you will not tolerate it anymore. Two, it makes it clear to everyone listening or observing that their behavior was not acceptable. This is where the reward is removed.

If they stop and disengage, great. If they don’t, repeat your phrase as necessary until they disengage and leave.

The next thing you need to do is document what they are doing. Everything they are doing. If they are sending insulting emails, print them out. If they say something to you in the lunch room, document it. Your documentation should include when, where, what was said, anything physical that occurred, and who witnessed it besides you. You might also want to include how you responded.

The extinction process takes time, maybe a few weeks. However, with some people, they don’t just escalate their behavior slightly then stop. A small number will escalate a LOT. They will retaliate and things can get really bad. If this starts to happen, start reporting. Every instance, every time as soon as the interaction ends. If appropriate, walk to your boss while it is happening and tell them it is happening. Your documentation log will be helpful for this because it will show the pattern of behavior you have been dealing with and it will make it easier for your boss and HR to deal with this effectively.

Just know that you can’t report it once and be done with it. You have to continue to stand up, document and report until it stops. Every incident. Don’t let them get away with it even once. If you let it slide, you create a variable reinforcement schedule that will actually strengthen the unwanted behavior. Once you start this process, be consistent about it. Understand it will get worse before it gets better but the only way through to the end is to keep going.

Note: this question was asked of me on Quora. If you want to learn more about workplace bullying and how to deal with it – considering taking my online course: How to end harassment & retaliation in the workplace. Or encourage your employer to hire me to conduct your next sexual harassment training.