How to Protect Yourself From Bullying in the Workplace

There's a fine legal distinction between bullying and outright hostility

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Bullying can take many forms, but it's generally considered to be any behavior that is unwelcome, offensive, unsolicited, or objectionable. It can be physical, psychological, or verbal

Although it's commonly associated with the playground and sometimes with the Internet among older youths, it can happen in the workplace as well. It typically manifests in some specific ways, and there are steps you can take to protect yourself.

Threats to Personal Standing

Common forms of workplace bullying can take the form of personal attacks that seem to have little to do with your job or the workplace environment. It can involve spreading rumors about someone, or hurtful gossip or innuendo about a coworker. It can include yelling, name-calling, mocking, insulting, or ridicule In face-to-face confrontations.

The abuse can become physical when it involves unwanted contact or gestures intended to intimidate or threaten an individual. It can also involve offensive photos or objects that might be placed on the victim's desk, in his locker, or anywhere else where he's likely to come across it. 

What to Do? Start by Stand Your Ground

First, know that the bully will most likely continue with her behavior as long as she knows she can do so without reprisal. It might be difficult, particularly if you're not the assertive type, but you have to draw a line in the sand. Let her know clearly that you don't appreciate what she's doing and you're not going to tolerate it.

This might not stop her, but it could. You're not easy prey anymore. Do it every time she approaches you in a negative manner. You might also throw in a threat of your own: If she doesn't stop, you'll report her behavior to your supervisor.

Document the Behavior

You don't want the situation to turn into a he-said-she-said scenario if you do report your bully's behavior, so take care to document his every action. What time did it occur? When did it occur? Who was nearby and might have seen or heard the incident? Keep a journal or a log so you have documented proof.

Take the Matter to Your Supervisor

You can take the matter to your supervisor if you're being tormented by a co-worker, but this might make the situation worse if your supervisor reprimands or otherwise imposes some type of punishment against the instigator.

There's also the risk that the bully is just so valuable to the company that no one is going to take steps against him. Your supervisor might be his best friend off the job. But in either case, you should at least try. The situation probably won't be resolved without their cooperation if you can't make the bully back down on your own.

If Your Supervisor Is the Problem

It's also possible that your supervisor is the problem. Go over his head if possible. In this case, it can be particularly important to keep notes and documentation of the incidents, including the names of those who witnessed them.

Those your supervisor reports to are probably not going to be happy to hear this information. They might want it to just go away so they don't have to deal with it...and you'll make it easier for them to do that if you jump in with unsubstantiated allegations. They might also take an unfavorable view of you for causing problems—unless you can back up what you're telling them with that documentation and cooperative witnesses.

If your supervisor is the owner of the company, or if you get no satisfaction when speaking to his supervisor, speak to a lawyer about possibly filing a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. You might have grounds to do this, but you must report the incidents before you file a lawsuit. You then have only six months to act after notifying your employer of the problem or asking your boss to stop his abusive behavior. 

Federal Law

There's no specific law against bullying in the workplace unless it occurs due to discriminatory factors, so it's important that you know your rights. Many bullying behaviors mirror the definition of a hostile work environment or workplace discrimination. If they're directed at you by a superior, this might be considered harassment and if your superior's actions are based on discriminatory factors, you might have grounds for legal action.

Many areas have free local legal clinics for this type of problem. Spend some time with an attorney and explain what's been happening to you. Find out if the bully's behavior legally crosses a line and where you stand. Ask about other options you might have under the circumstances of your own unique situation.

Bullying vs. a Hostile Work Environment 

Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 makes it illegal for an employer, manager, or supervisor to take certain actions against employees based on their sex, religion, race, national origin, or color. An employer can be held responsible for the actions of management and supervisory staff. 

Harassment becomes illegal when tolerating it becomes a condition of your employment—you either put up with it or you're out of a job. Bullying rises to the level of harassment when any reasonable employee would consider the behavior uncomfortable, offensive, or hostile. 

Some examples and warning signs of bullying crossing over the threshold into discrimination and a hostile work environment include: 

  • Denying an employee access to resources, assignments, projects, or opportunities
  • Little or no feedback on performance
  • Withholding information that's essential to performing your job
  • Failing to invite you or let you know about an essential meeting
  • Threatening job loss
  • Excessive monitoring or micro-management
  • Assigning tasks that cannot be completed by the deadline and setting unrealistic and impossible goals
  • Interference or sabotage
  • Treating you differently than your peers and co-workers are treated 
  • Excessive, impossible, conflicting work expectations or demands
  • Inequitable and harsh treatment
  • Invalid or baseless criticism, faultfinding, and unwarranted blame
  • Accusatory or threatening statements
  • Humiliation, public reprimands, or obscene language

This type of behavior must be repetitive and pervasive to rise to the level of a hostile work environment. It can't be something that just happens now and again. Something that happens sporadically might just be bullying. But bullying by a co-worker can be considered as creating a hostile work environment if your employer or supervisor is aware of the situation and does nothing to stop it.

Moving Forward

Bullies don't usually just zoom in on one person so it's likely that one or more of your coworkers might be experiencing ill-treatment as well. It can help you and them if you offer your assistance based on your own experiences, and particularly if you all band together to push back against the bully. Be a mentor. Consider getting involved to help protect others.

And remember, workplaces will be workplaces. In most cases, you have a lot of different personalities thrown into one cauldron during working hours. Drama, power struggles, and office politics are often inevitable, at least to some extent. Try to keep yourself as far removed from all this as possible. Concentrate on your own work and excellence, and let people be people.