How Not to Be the Target of a Workplace Bully

A businessman pointing at a paper and yelling at his colleague.

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Bullies appear everywhere. The bully is no longer just the mean kid who steals school lunch money; the bully is likely the mean VP who sets his target on an employee. Many people are bullied over their lifetimes.

Some people seem to have a target on their backs. If you're one of those people, there are things you can do to reduce your chances of being the victim the next time a bully crosses your path.

Be confident, but not prideful.

Your manager hired you because you are the best person for the job. They undoubtedly interviewed numerous people and rejected many more people without taking the time to interview them. This means you can walk into a new job with your head held high.

You also know squat about this job. Sure, you may have experience in this area, but every new company and every new department is different. Don't be so confident that you reject advice or refuse to ask questions.

You'll need training, no matter what - even if you're the new head of the department, but go into that training confident that you'll learn what you need to know.

Speak up immediately.

While it's good to give people the benefit of the doubt, if you're usually a target, don't let anything pass. When someone makes a snide remark about your clothing, your presentation, or anything at all, speak up.

If the bully says it in your presence, immediately respond with, “Jane, if there is something that bothers you about my presentation style, I'll happily discuss it with you.” This response will often shut the bully down, as you're not cowering before her.

You need to take your boss (or your boss's boss) commenting on your performance, or even your outfit, as advice to follow. It's a boss's job to correct your errors and help you improve. If a coworker starts down this path, though, cut the coworker off. You can add, “Jane, thanks for your concern, but my boss likes my work.” Then walk off.

If another co-worker tells you that Jane is saying bad things about you, you have to ask yourself which person is the problem. It might seem obvious that it's Jane, but what was your coworker's goal in telling you? You can take it as a very nice warning, or it could be to set you up against Jane. Make your evaluation carefully.

If you decide that it was a nice warning, then thank your coworker and go to Jane directly. “Jane, Steve tells me that you have concerns about my presentation style. In the future, feel free to come to me directly with your concerns.”

If you decide that your coworker is trying to set you up against Jane, reply, “Thanks for letting me know.” That's it. The discussion doesn't go any further. You will frustrate your bully coworker because you're not freaking out.

Don't try to suck up to the bully.

It's possible to become part of the bully's inner circle, but the problem with that is, you then become a bully instead of the bullied. While that might make it easier for you to climb the career ladder, it comes at the cost of your integrity. Plus, if you fall out of favor, the bully won't have any qualms about attacking you later on.

Don't overshare.

American culture is pretty open, but when you start a new job and immediately dump all of your baggage at your coworkers' feet, don't be surprised when they throw it back in your face. People can't tease you about what they don't know. You don't have to keep your entire life a secret, but wait until you know people better and can trust them before dumping information.

Ask questions.

“What makes you say that?” is a great question when someone says something snotty. Don't act upset by it, just act confused. Force the bully to keep explaining themselves until they give up and go away.

“You're shoes are awful!” “Oh, what makes you say that?” “Well, they are out of style!” “How so?” “They're brown, and it's summer!” “Is there a rule about that? Where can I find it?” Just keep going on.

Don't play the victim.

Sometimes sarcastic remarks are just sarcastic. Sometimes criticism is just criticism. Sometimes feedback is plain, run-of-the-mill feedback. Sometimes the person you've identified as a bully isn't actually a bully, but your reaction makes you feel that way.

Sometimes teasing is a sign that you're part of the group. Pay attention to how others react to the same type of teasing. If everyone else is laughing, it may be funny.

There is a difference between mean and funny. Don't confuse the two. You can speak up when the remark is mean, but if it's just funny let it go. Keep in mind that sometimes people say something that is mean but they truly believe it is funny. These are nice people and a one-time correction usually does the trick.

Go to your boss or HR.

If the problem is severe and pervasive, you can get help within the company. Good bosses will stop bullying immediately. Bad ones will let it thrive. A good HR manager will help you learn tricks and tips for handling the bully.

If you choose this route, do so matter-of-factly and not over emotionally. Emotions make you look weak. Feel free to cry when you get home, but keep a straight face at the office.

Seek professional outside help.

If you're always the victim, it's quite possible that you are doing something that others do not do. It will be worth the time and money to sit down with a therapist who can help you learn how to behave differently so that others react differently. 

Many companies have Employee Assistance Programs (EAP) that can refer you for help. Often, the company will cover the cost of the initial visit. It's confidential, so you don't need to worry about your manager finding out.