Four ways to deal with a workplace bully

Written by Jo Owen CMgr CCMI Wednesday 17 March 2021
With social media, playground bullies moved seamlessly online; with lockdown, so did the office bullies
Person at their desk with their head in their hands

Even low-level bullying makes the mental health challenges of WFH far worse. WFH increases uncertainty and ambiguity, which leads to stress. It also reduces the social contact and support of office life, which can reduce stress. This gives the natural bully a field day: they can exploit the vulnerability of team members and colleagues at will.

Bullies are the people who fire off emails in the middle of the night and expect an instant reply. They issue vague but demanding instructions that need immediate attention. They then change their minds and blame you for failing to listen properly: you are being blamed for not being a mind reader. This amplifies the ambiguity and uncertainty that comes with WFH. In extreme cases they insist that you stay on Zoom all day so that they can monitor your activity; they may track your internet usage and install a keystroke logger on your keyboard.

Dealing with bullies depends on why the bullying is happening. Some firms have a highly macho culture in which blame and bullying is the currency of power. If this is the case, you have a simple choice: join in or get out. Attempting to hide simply delays the inevitable, and is stressful in itself.

More often, the bully is acting out of a sense of shame and failure. The three classic ways of dealing with shame and failure are:

  • Attacking others (the bully)
  • Attacking self (the victim)
  • Avoidance and withdrawal (the survival strategy adopted by everyone else).

These are also the classic responses to a bully:

  1. Attack back. This is dangerous. Anything you say or do will be used as evidence against you. If your boss is the bully, the firm will nearly always believe and back the boss in a dispute. The boss has more weapons at their disposal than you do.
  2. Attack yourself. Blame yourself for failing to deal with the situation. This is exactly what bullies want: they want complete control over you and your feelings. This is where a high sense of accountability sucks. You land up feeling worthless and stressed out.
  3. Avoidance and withdrawal. In practice, the only way to avoid the bully is to find another boss. If necessary, that may be in another firm.

In theory, there is a fourth strategy: seek help from colleagues and bosses. This works in theory by relieving you of stress, isolating the bully and forcing the bully to change behaviour. But it does not always work in practice. Bosses do not want to get involved in the “he said I said but she meant and we wanted but they didn’t” discussion. Colleagues may listen to you, but will be keen to avoid confrontation with the bully. You may well find yourself alone.

Life is too short to live with a bully. The lesson is that it pays to stay close to HR and have a good network both within and beyond the firm: you never know when you may need to make an emergency move.

On CMI’s Career Development Centre there is a short video about bullying. Consider discussing the situation with your manager, as there’s a chance they don’t know the real impact their actions and words have created. Try and stick to the facts and give detail, even if it feels embarrassing. If that doesn’t feel like a feasible option, you could try writing a letter or asking someone to speak on your behalf (a colleague or a HR rep, for example). For a more formal course of action, you can file an internal complaint or take the problem to an employment tribunal. This will be a more rigorous and lengthy process, and you might need legal representation. It will help if others can verify your experiences (either as witnesses or as bullying victims of the same person).

Here’s an environmental psychologist’s advice on dealing with microaggressions. And check out CMI’s Career Development Centre for lots more advice on overcoming workplace and career challenges. 

Jo Owen CCMI is a bestselling author of books such as How to Lead: The Definitive Guide to Effective Leadership and Resilience: 10 Habits to Sustain High Performance

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