Bullying At Work:
When The Bully Is Your Colleague

by May Bleeker, 30 July 2009

Bullying at work is a pattern of behaviour when one person, or a group of people, consistently treat someone in an unreasonable, disrespectful or emotionally abusive manner.

If the bully is your colleague, see it as an opportunity to learn how to deal with difficult people. (You will find them everywhere).

The Difference Between Bullying At Work And Ordinary Office Politics

You have to take care with what you interpret as workplace bullying. Sometimes the bad behaviour you encounter is simply someone having a bad day. Over-reacting can make you seem overly sensitive or hurt your credibility.

Here are some forms of bullying at work to help you identify what bullying is about.

How To Handle Bullying At Work When The Bully Is Your Colleague:

Prevention Is Better Than Cure

Preventing someone from ever getting the idea that they can get away with bullying you is your best protection from workplace nasties. How do you accomplish this?

Make sure you non-verbal messages are strong, confident and assertive.

Assertive behaviour can go a long way towards discouraging others from pushing your boundaries. Read this guide to asserting yourself without saying a word.

A lot of information is conveyed to people through your body stance, your tone and pitch of your voice, the way you make eye contact, the way you sit at a table, the way you move and your facial expressions.

In a way, your face and body are your 'billboards'. They tell the world what you are all about and they tell the world about your habits of thinking and feeling. They also give the world an idea of what you will put up with :)

If it is your habit to doubt yourself or feel uncertain, these thoughts and feelings become visible in your body language, tone of voice etc. Without realizing it you might be conveying the message that you are a 'soft target' for people who use manipulation, intimidation or other negative bullying tactics to achieve what they want.

Just as you don't realize the messages you are conveying, the workplace bully might also be operating unconsciously. Don't assume the person who is doing the bullying at work is approaching you with a 'plan'.

Mostly they are just doing what they feel like doing, or think they should do, to get ahead. And a lot of the time they feel their approach is justified (just as we all tend to feel our behaviour is justified in some way).

Go Towards The Problem Not Away

If you are experiencing bullying at work, or feel someone is being disrespectful towards you (and its someone you work with, not a stranger that you will never see again), then address the problem with them. Don't ignore it.

Check to be sure you haven't made any incorrect assumptions. Perhaps the reason that person hasn't greeted you all week is because they are short-sighted and pre-occupied, not because they are deliberately ignoring you.

Secondly, the 'bully' might not realize the impact their behaviour is having on you. What you regard as bullying at work might be a bad interpersonal style they have, which causes problems, but which they don't yet know how to change. Addressing it gives them a chance to do it better. We all make mistakes.

What To Say When You're Bullied At Work

You could address it by commenting on the behaviour you've noticed in a neutral way. Don't just jump in and call it "bullying at work". Using a neutral approach will give the person an opportunity to correct any misperceptions that might have arisen (in case you misunderstood), or to air their grievances if they have any. Both of these will help repair the relationship.

For example, with someone bullies you by criticizing or belittling you in public you could say:

I've noticed you often give me negative feedback in front of the others. This makes me really uncomfortable. I don't mind getting feedback, but would you mind giving it to me in private, so as not to embarrass me?

With someone who bullies you by ignoring you or excluding you and doesn't return your greetings you could say:

I've noticed that you don't greet me in the mornings when I greet you. Is it that you are pre-occupied or have I done something to annoy you?

Company Policies - Follow The Guidelines

Most companies have policies on how to handle common problems like bullying at work. If your company has a policy file, look up how to handle bullying or harassment and follow the procedures.

Sometimes, though, the bullying is more subtle and not easily addressed through work procedures. It might be a kind of low-grade hostility or passive aggression that seems more about poor relationship skills than something to make a formal complaint about. If this is the case, it is best to deal with it during your everyday interactions with the person.

Rapid Response

If you have a bullying colleague who makes offensive remarks, respond immediately, in the place the remarks were made.

If the remarks were made in private, deal with them in private.

If you are put down in private, don't add fuel to the fire by attacking the person in public! Those around you will not understand the context of your comments and you may come across as the workplace bully instead.

Be assertive , but also be calm and polite, even if you are fuming. It doesn't help to lose your cool. Count to ten or take 5 deep breathes, but make sure you deal with it in a reasonable way.

If these insults were made in a public place, where others can overhear, it is important to deal with it there, where others can hear your response.

This is so that the person who insulted you knows right away that it isn't acceptable. Secondly, in seeing you stand up for yourself those who witnessed the insult also get the message that you are willing and able to assert yourself when people overstep the mark. We teach people how to behave towards us.

Be confident! You are worth standing up for!

Make it clear you don't tolerate people speaking to you that way and end the conversation by getting back to your work. Try not to get into a discussion. Just state your case calmly and firmly and move on. For example, you could say:

I think what you've said is quite rude and I don't appreciate it.

Or simply say: Please don't speak to me that way.

Your tone of voice should be firm and neutral. Be sure to keep from being innapropriate yourself. The last thing you want is to go over the top in trying to 'defend' yourself and end up doing some 'bullying at work' yourself!

If you're not sure what is and isn't appropriate think about it this way: if it involves name-calling, insults or any kind of verbal abuse or disrespect (sarcasm can sometimes be quite disrespectful), it is not appropriate.

Take Names

If the bullying at work continues, and it is serious enough for you to take further steps, keep records of what was said and done, where and when. This may be tedious, but you will need this information to back up your claims.

It is natural that someone accused of bullying at work will try to defend themselves. They might even have forgotten the incidents. It is useful to have some facts ready should they question your accuracy or make allegations against you in return.

You might think you will remember the details, but in a very short time they will fade and it will have no impact to simply say that someone is bullying you. You will need to explain what makes you say that and provide examples.

Keep Your Eye On The Ball

Be strictly professional. Focus on your work priorities and don't engage with a bullying colleague unless necessary for work. When communicating for work, keep it short and simple. If they try to 'corner' you for some other discussion, just say:

I am really busy right now, would you mind sending an email or chatting later?

If it is a work issue, deal with it promptly and don't enter into any discussions that are not about the work.

If they approach you at your desk and it becomes clear that its not about work, smile, say

Please excuse me I'm just busy with this right now. (don't say what you are busy with)

Then get up and go to the photocopy machine with some pages in hand, or go make an enquiry somewhere. Interrupting it like this removes the opportunity for the wrong kind of conversation to develop.

A persistent person might ask what you are busy with, in which case, counter the question by asking one of your own e.g:

Can I help you with something?' / What is it you would like? / Did you need something?

Don't be sarcastic or rude in any way, simply make it clear through your behaviour that you won't be intimidated or pressured.

In this way you give them very little opportunity to engage with you, other than politely, about work.

Don't counter the question if your manager or supervisor asks you what you are busy with unless you want to get into trouble fast!

Your manager has the right to ask this and will expect an answer. Read how to handle it when the bully is your boss, as you will need to approach things differently with someone you report to.

Your Reputation Is Worth Its Weight In Gold

Keep your work in order and be professional. Someone with a good reputation who submits a complaint about bullying at work will be taken more seriously than someone who cuts corners, is always late or regularly bad-mouths colleagues.

Bullying At Work: Some Additional Tips

  • Make eye-contact when they do, but don't seek it out. Appear polite, but disinterested.
  • Be approachable, but not too friendly.
  • Be helpful, but don't volunteer for anything they suggest unless its in the best interests of the company and your manager knows about it.
  • If they try to palm their work off on you tell them that your manager is the one who assigns your work and that all new responsibilities have to be discussed with him/her. If its a small matter it will be dropped. If it is a large matter, don't be surprised if this person approaches your manager to bring about just such a change.
  • Be pro-active and make sure your manager is aware of what your work commitments are and what is going on between you and this person. Sometimes managers do re-shuffle workloads and this can be the right thing to do, as long as it is done fairly and your needs and workload are taken into account.
  • Don't whine and complain! If you're dealing with bullying at work, take the steps that you need to and get on with life. You will earn respect that way.

Assertiveness: Tiger or Teddybear?
Assertiveness without a word

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