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Workplace Bullying: How to Spot It and What to Do Next

Topics: Work Culture
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You probably thought you’d left bullying behind when you stopped hanging out in the schoolyard and started spending the bulk of your time in an office full of adults. Unfortunately, workplace bullying is all too common.

If you’re dealing with bullying at work, you need support. It helps to start by building a solid understanding of how workplace bullying is defined. Then, you can decide what to do next.

1. First, determine whether it’s bullying or something else

Bullying can be workplace harassment — but it doesn’t necessarily meet that legal standard. Workplace harassment is a form of discrimination and it’s against the law. If you or someone in your office is enduring severe or pervasive physical or verbal behavior that is discriminatory in some way, it could be harassment. You should speak with someone you trust from your organization right away.

Bullying might not be quite as severe as workplace harassment, but it isn’t just someone being mean to someone else at work, either. The Workplace Bullying Institute (WBI) has created a definition that you might find helpful in assessing your situation.

WBI defines workplace bullying as repeated, health-harming mistreatment of one or more persons (the targets) by one or more perpetrators that takes one or more of the following forms:

– Verbal abuse

– Offensive conduct/behaviors (including nonverbal) which are threatening, humiliating, or intimidating

– Work interference — sabotage — which prevents work from getting done

Once you’ve determine that your situation constitutes workplace bullying, there are some things you can do to begin to address the situation.

2. Attempt to turn things around directly

What one person considers bullying, another person might not understand in the same way. There are no excuses for cruel behavior in the workplace. But, there could be some misunderstandings at play here as well.

So, before you proceed any further, attempt to turn the situation around on your own. The next time an uncomfortable behavior occurs, address it. Be succinct. Use eye contact and address the person by name to get their attention.

For example, you might look your coworker in the eye and say, “Hey, Joe, knock it off. I don’t like it when you do that.”

Be direct and clear while also keeping it simple. Try not to become emotional or overly confrontational. You’re attempting to change the behavior in a nondramatic way here. If the person who’s treated you poorly complies, the difficulties could end right here.

You may have to try taking this kind of approach a few times before you notice a change. It’s not always easy to address an issue like this head on, but it’s worth a try.

3. If you’re a bystander, step in

Another good reason to confront a workplace bully in this way is that it alerts those around you that you’re feeling uncomfortable. Perhaps a third party will step in as a result and come to your defense. Bystanders have a lot of power in these situations.

If you are the bystander, by all means say something the next time you see a bullying behavior. You don’t have to say much – a simple, “Julie, stop it,” or something to that effect might just do the trick.

Be direct but also don’t do anything to inflame the situation. You want to move things in a positive direction, not make things worse. So, don’t name-call or escalate the matter. Just be clear and to the point. You just might save the day.

4. Document everything

Whenever something especially challenging is going on at work and you’re not sure where the situation is headed, it makes sense to begin to document what’s happening. It might come in handy later if you do decide to speak with someone from HR. But, even if you don’t, the documentation will likely prove useful.

Documenting the offensive behaviors could allow you to notice patterns or escalations, which will help you understand and navigate the situation better.

Be honest, candid and thorough in your documentation. This isn’t a place to record how you felt as a result of the behaviors. You’re simply writing down the facts of the incidents as they come up along with the date. Doing so should help you begin to gain some distance from the situation, see it more objectively and determine how best to proceed.

5. Get some support

If the problem persists, it may be time to consider calling in some support for dealing with your bully. You may want to talk to your manager or to HR about what’s been going on. Be sure to bring your documentation with you to the meeting. This will allow you to present the facts of what’s been happening in a really clear way. Explain the situation and ask for some support in improving things.

It also might be a good idea to set up a time for a follow-up meeting at the end of this first conversation. You want to hold your manager accountable here if they’ve said they’ll provide support. And, you deserve to feel better after this process and know that things are on the mend.

Finally, feel good about the fact that you’re doing something to make this problem better. Take good care of yourself during this process. Get plenty of sleep and enjoy friends and family outside of work as much as possible. Situations like this can be very taxing and you’ll likely need to invest a little time and energy in order to feel like yourself again.

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Joe Madison
Joe Madison

One thing missing from this article: If you’re a manager or supervisor you can be held accountable for the actions of your employees. Do everything you can to prevent bullying, hazing, or harassing, and if you’re aware it’s happening, take steps to stop it.

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