Do you have a work bully? Don’t be embarrassed if you do. Unnecessarily mean and aggressive peers are typically associated with high school, but don’t fool yourself: There are cruel adults out there, too, and you could easily end up working with one.
If you have, Jennifer McClure, CEO and chief excitement officer of Unbridled Talent and DisruptHR, has a few tips.
You’re not the only one dealing with a work bully
Any abusive sort of person, from an intimate partner to a work bully, relies on a standard arsenal of tricks to torment their target. One of those is making the victim feel like they’re totally alone and have no one to turn to.
Work bullying is much more common than you think, and you do have someone to turn to. You have a human resources department! And if you don’t, you have a boss. Don’t let the fear that you’re somehow the only person experiencing this stop you from speaking up; that’s just what the work bully wants.
Need proof you’re not alone? McClure herself has worked with a bully in the past.
“Yep,” she said, “I worked in an organisation where our VP of operations was a bully. He had been a high-profile recruit with an expensive relocation, and he was also getting results in the organisation, so the CEO was timid in addressing issues that employees — including other executives — brought forward about him.”
The CEO might have been “timid” there — and your boss might be, too — but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t take your concerns to them, anyway. It’s their job to help you.
Document everything that happens
If your work bully sends you a nasty Slack message or email, screenshot it and file it away somewhere you’ll be able to find it again — especially if your company doesn’t pay for long-term Slack and email storage. If they say something rude to you in the hallway, make a memo on your computer with clear date stamps. If there’s a witness, ask them to make a memo, too. The more proof you have of what’s going on, the more efficiently HR can deal with the situation — and the less chance the bully has of shutting you down when you come forward.
The work bully at McClure’s old job once instituted a companywide rule that no one without a high school degree could be hired, she said, which made her job of recruiting new talent particularly difficult. She dug through company files and found that a substantial number of employees — including high-ranking colleagues leadership positions — had no high school diploma.
“I presented this data to him in a one-on-one meeting, but included my boss in the meeting,” she said. “I recommended that we not change our current practice of having no high school degree requirement, as the data clearly showed that it was not a determining factor in an employee’s success in the jobs in question. Being confronted with the data, and in a situation where it wasn’t just him vs. me … he accepted that it would not be a good idea to require a high school degree.”
Documentation works, whether it’s compiled by you or your predecessors. Always go into a meeting with HR or your boss with as much concrete evidence for your arguments as possible.
Don’t let the bully get to you
This is easier said than done, we know. If someone is constantly undercutting you, making your job harder, insulting you personally, and/or unfairly criticising your work, it’s hard not to take that feeling of dejection home with you. But try to remember that this person doesn’t know you — the real you — and is being completely out-of-line. Like your high school teachers always said, someone’s rude behaviour says more about them than it does about you. It was true (but difficult to accept) then, and it’s true (but still difficult to accept) now.
You are not obligated to take the high road or be the bigger person, but if the situation seems like it could benefit from that approach, go for it. Offer a little kindness or try to talk through your issues calmly one-on-one.
“Try not to take it personally — even though it is often personal,” McClure said. “While it’s not always the case, the bully’s behaviour is about something that’s happened to them, something they’re trying to overcome or compensate for, or something that they learned from someone else.”
She added, “When appropriate, and if you’re in a position to do so, offer coaching and advice. If they are not interested in help, or willing to accept coaching, work with their boss directly through coaching to address the negative behaviours as an aspect of their performance. If neither of those two options work, or the boss will not engage, it’s time to make decisions of your own.”
Get outta there
If you’ve taken your complaints to HR and your boss, but nothing has changed, that tells you something about the overall culture of the place where you’re working — and it might just be a sign that your current company isn’t the place for you.
“Good leaders address and correct or eliminate bully behaviours,” McClure said. “Not everyone works for a good leader. But we all have agency to take our talents to a job/company where they do exist. Dust off your resume. You deserve to work somewhere that doesn’t crush your spirit. And no matter what your bully says, your skills are worth something — and another employer will see that.