5 Smart Steps to Combat Workplace Bullying
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The Fiscal Times
July 22, 2014

Every time I opened my mouth to speak during staff meetings, this guy at work would cut me off. “That’s not true,” he’d say loudly, or, “I disagree with that.” Then he’d launch into his own argument – part of which would trash mine.

This became such an uncomfortable occurrence in our weekly team meetings that all I could do was back down. After the meetings, this older and more experienced worker would charge into my office and continue his diatribe about whatever point he had disagreed with earlier.

Related: Why Men and Women Still Can't Get Along at Work

A manager finally took me aside and urged me to stand up to the guy – though she herself wouldn’t. This was my moment of truth. Was there a difference between being bullied at work – and intimidated? Was this person testing me as a young 24-year-old professional to see just how tough I was? 

In the end, I learned how to stop the intimidation – a sign that this wasn’t bullying, since I had the power to change the behavior. An executive coach helped me develop specific techniques to combat the guy’s morale-damaging actions, which finally made him back off and helped me preserve both my job and my peace of mind.

While none of that was easy, today people claim “workplace bullying” at the drop of a hat – at a tremendous cost to business. Real bullying on the job, however, is a huge issue and something to take very seriously.

“I’m a big believer in letting bullies know when they’re bullying,” says Jon Gordon, a workplace strategist and author of The Carpenter: A Story About the Greatest Success Strategies of All. “Whether it’s a co-worker or a boss, you can confront that person in a constructive way. When you’re strong but positive, you create healthy boundaries that protect you.”

Related: One Terrible Boss, 10 Great Workplace Tips

Workplace bullying is defined very specifically. The Workplace Bullying Institute says it is behavior that:

  • Is driven by the perpetrator’s need to control others.
  • Has specific targets, timing, location, and methods.
  • Undermines legitimate business interests.
  • Includes acts of commission or omission (in the latter case it includes withholding key resources so the victim can’t do his job well).
  • Has real consequences for those being bullied, including physical, psychological and emotional reactions.  
  • Escalates to involve others, who often end up siding with the bully either voluntarily or through coercion.

Roughly a third of workers say they’ve experienced bullying on the job, according to a 2014 Zogby poll by the Workplace Bullying Institute – but 56 percent of employers say they have no formal procedures in place for combating workplace bullies.

The issue is now so widely acknowledged that many state legislatures have introduced bills to push employers to take action against bullies – or face consequences. Fifteen states now have active bills against workplace bullying, The Boston Globe reported.

Related: Why Getting Ahead Means Getting a Career Coach

“In 2005, Massachusetts became the sixth state to introduce the Healthy Workplace Bill, which allows a victim to sue a fellow employee, the employer, or both,” says The Globe. “If the offending party is found liable, a court may mandate reinstatement, back pay, medical expenses, and compensation for pain and suffering, among other damages. The bill exempts employers if they can prove they acted promptly to correct any abusive behavior. The bill also attempts to distinguish between frivolous claims and legitimate abuse.”

Actually suing a bully and a workplace can be an ordeal. What can employees do when they think they’re being bullied at work? Experts say that while bullying takes many forms, there are specific steps employees can take to at least identify the problem. Michele Woodward, an executive coach in the D.C. area, offered these pointers:   

Step 1: Determine if you’re really being bullied or “if the other person is just a jerk. It’s bullying when that person’s behavior prevents you from fully doing your job, such as denying you information or support, or excluding you from key meetings, or when there is a threat of violence,” says Woodward.  

Step 2: If it is bullying, do as much as you can to distance yourself from the bully, both physically and emotionally. “Rather than dwell on how the bully operates, focus on other aspects of your job. What you focus on grows bigger in your life.”

Related: You’ve Quit Your Job. Here’s What to Do Next.

Step 3: Understand you cannot change a bully. “Too many people believe that the bully will eventually stop bullying them,” says Woodward. “So they continue in a relationship with someone whose entire motivation is to dominate and belittle. This is not good for anyone’s health. You can’t change a bully, so don’t try.”

Step 4: “If you ever feel physically threatened with violence, go to an HR executive immediately,” says Woodward.

Step 5: If you cannot distance yourself from the bully and you’ve gone up the chain of command or to HR without luck, “it’s time to start looking for a new job, either internally in a different department, or outside the organization,” says Woodward.

The bottom line is that workplace bullies “are stressors, and when stress goes unabated, it compromises your physical and mental health,” says the Workplace Bullying Institute. Remember that if you are being bullied, you didn’t cause it, you’re not alone – and you don’t have to take it.  

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Managing Editor Maureen Mackey oversees scheduling and work flow and also writes and edits features and reports on a wide array of subjects. She spent more than 20 years as a senior book and features editor at Reader’s Digest.