How to confront and overcome bullying at work

Research shows that bullying at work is now recognized as a significant factor contributing to workplace stress. The costs of this can be substantial for both the individual and the company. If the leadership of the organization chooses not to be firm with an aggressor, then in a way, they are condoning the bullying by allowing it to take place. However, should they ignore it altogether, they also risk losing the respect of valuable employees.

It is shocking to discover that work colleagues can subject you to petty criticism and name-calling that you thought you had last seen when you left school. For that reason, adults on the receiving end are often ashamed to admit that they can’t cope with the bullying. So, as the child bullied at school, they do nothing about it.

Helping yourself

Perhaps the most common piece of advice given to the victim is confrontation. Unfortunately, this approach is more likely to enrage the bully than to persuade them. Confrontation is unsafe when done by the individual alone unless direct opposition to this style of behavior is established at a very early stage.

Early signs to look out for

  • The working relationship feels different from any you have previously experienced
  • Your work is being criticized consistently, even though you know standards haven’t slipped
  • The bully makes false accusations or conceals the truth about you or your work
  • Subtle undertones of blackmail and intimidation
  • You are beginning to question your capabilities
  • Some of your tasks and responsibilities are taken away, or there’s an overload of work leading to incompetency

If this is an accurate picture of what is happening to you at work, reflect on what has happened in the recent past and ask yourself if anything has changed.

If you suspect the bully feels threatened, it may be that their intention is to get rid of you. For example, they may give you impossible tasks you are unlikely to complete on time. The bully will be looking for any reason to accuse you of poor performance, which could lead to eventual dismissal. You must maintain your self-respect at this stage.

Tactics worth trying

Stand firm if you come under verbal attack. Tell the bully that you will not tolerate personal remarks. Remain confident in your own judgement and ability. If you clash over work contribution, maintain your composure, and express your views rationally. If objectives or instructions are unclear, ask for written clarification. Should the bullying continue, you have important evidence to build on.

  • Check your job description to make sure you’re not being abused
  • Retain copies of all correspondence, including memos relating to your job
  • Keep detailed, dated records of every verbal attack and every new instruction
  • Check your staff handbook or policy booklet, if available, to see the steps you can take in this regard
  • In addition, seek advice from a trade union representative or personnel

Many people view bullying as a personal trait, even though it’s unpleasant. Until organizations react in a positive way towards bullying at work, professional survival is down to three options: (1) you may leave to escape the problem altogether; (2) accept what is happening because of financial commitments and your desire to work; or (3) stand firm and fight.

Prudence Maila – Corporate communications enthusiast.

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