Bully Adults in the Workplace: What to Do

Adults who thought their days of dealing with bullies were left behind on the schoolyard better think again.

A 2011 CareerBuilder study shows that 27% of U.S. workers have felt bullied in the workplace with the majority not confronting or reporting the bully.

Workplace bullying is defined as repeated mistreatment of an individual employee by a person or group that takes the form of verbal abuse, behavior that is humiliating, threatening, intimidating or sabotages the targeted person’s work, according to the Workplace Bullying Institute (WBI).

Bullying typically involves a misuse of power, leaving the target defenseless: 11% of respondents say they felt bullied by a coworker, and 14% say they felt bullied by their immediate supervisor. Another 7% say the bully was not their boss, but someone higher up in the organization.

Bullying plays out in the workplace in many ways, according to the survey:

  • 43% of workers say their comments were dismissed or not acknowledged
  • 40%  claim they were falsely accused of mistakes
  • 38% say they were harshly criticized
  • 38% report they were forced into doing work that really wasn’t their job
  • 37% claim standards and policies applied to them were not used on others

A little more than 30% say they were given “mean looks” and 27% report colleagues gossiped about them. Still others, 24%, say their bosses yelled at them in front of coworkers.

Gary Namie, WBI co-founder, senior consultant at Work Doctor Inc. and author of The Bully-FreeWorkplace, claims that as many as 72% of bullies are bosses with a misconception about what it takes to be a good leader.

Experts say “tough” managers are not necessarily bullies if they are respectful, fair and set high, yet reasonable, work expectations. But, says Namie, tough and effective can turn into bullying if a manager exhibits a need to control; repeatedly humiliates through unwarranted criticism rather than constructively corrects; and levels a mix of verbal and strategic assaults that affect the employee’s health and prevent him or her from performing well.

Bullying bosses lack vision, says Traciana Graves, CEO of Project Bully Free Zone. They hold a “myopic we-want-to-have-the-best-quarter” mentality without any forethought of what happens to the employee—or the corporation—two-or-three years down the road.

The Bullied

For a targeted employee, bullying can cause stress and physical and mental ailments like high blood pressure, heart disease, post traumatic stress syndrome, and in its worst-case scenario, violence or suicide.  The bullying also detracts from overall quality of life for the target and his or her family.

Yet, experts say, there is no easy fix. Namie says while “protected status” classes are safeguarded by Federal civil liberties and harassment laws, only 20% of workplace mistreatment incidents involve such illegal discrimination that enables victims to sue.

Namie says while 58% of targets are women compared to 42% of men, same-gender bullying is prevalent with 80% of women perpetrators bullying other women.

“Same gender, same race. There’s the rub, says Namie. “If you complain about misconduct that is “technically legal,” you are most likely to be labeled thin-skinned or a trouble maker.”

In fact, according to the CareerBuilder survey, 28% of employees took their concerns to a higher authority and reported the bully to their human resources department. While 38% of those workers say measures were taken to investigate and reach resolution, 62% say no action was taken.

Without protocols or consequential actions in place, HR becomes complicit and unaccountable for bad behavior, Graves says. This is not only harmful to employees, but also to corporations in which the diminished productivity of targeted individuals, their increased absenteeism and decreased employee retention affects the bottom line.

Still, targets often remain under a bully’s control for as long as 22 months, according to Namie in

The Bully at Work.

Expert tips to help employees cope:

  • Don’t be ashamed. Don’t keep your targeted status a “dirty secret,” says Graves. Derive sanity from people you can trust, and the naming stems your own self-doubt.
  • Keep a written record. Start a your-eyes-only journal to blow off steam, and keep a log of all incidents. The log will be a helpful tool if you should decide to fight back.
  • Stay centered amid repeated attacks. Adopt a mantra like “ignore the anger” and concentrate on the most humorous aspect of the bully’s physical appearance while under an attack. Or, use your own wit and sarcasm to create protective resistance in a safe and unspoken way, Namie says.
  • Get a second opinion. Speak to a trusted friend or work ally to evaluate a bully’s constant criticism. Identify useful points and also what’s incorrect.
  • Resist lowering yourself into a nasty fight. Personalized, emotional speak will be discounted and discredited, Namie says. Ask “Why are you talking to or treating me this way?”
  • Take time off. Sick leave or short-term disability will allow you to assess and restore your physical and mental health; you can regain well-being and develop strength to plan for your next job.

Since 2003, law professor David Yamada’s Healthy Workplace Bill has been proposed in 16 states, and 11 states have adopted variations of the bill, yet no bill has been written into law.

Namie says 64% of bullied targets lose their jobs whether they do or don’t launch a counterattack.

At some point, you may decide to fight back. “Be forewarned, says Namie. “The fight is uphill.”