Workplace bullying - What you can do about it

The bullies are being rewarded at work (and what you can do about it)

Peter Harris|

Have you ever worked in a place where it seemed like the jerks always seemed to rise to the top? Well, you’re not imagining it. According to a new study from the University of Buffalo School of Management workplace bullies are often rewarded and promoted above their more civilized coworkers.

The researchers define the bullying behaviour as “systematic aggression and violence targeted towards one or more individuals by one individual or by a group.” In other words, singling out and picking on specific people in a deliberately intimidating manner. And people exhibiting this behaviour are likely to receive high evaluations from their bosses and reach greater levels of career success.

So why is such unpleasant behaviour being rewarded? The study also found that workplace bullies are savvy enough to charm their superiors and manipulate upper management into supporting them, at the same time as they act abusively to their coworkers.

The report says that bullies are “able to strategically abuse co-workers and yet be evaluated positively by their supervisor.” Sneaky.

Few victims of workplace bullying ever report the incidents out of fear of retaliation or of creating the impression with management that they themselves are not team players and can’t get along. It is this silence in the face of aggression that allows bullies to get away with their anti-social behaviour and even to thrive.

How to deal with workplace bullying:

    Talk to the bully. The first step is simply trying to work it out one-to-one. Different communication styles, cultural differences and misunderstandings can lead to tension at work. The bully might not even know that their behaviour seems hostile to you.

    Talk to someone else. If you can’t work it out with the aggressor, talk to your manager or your Human Resources department. You need your concerns to be recorded. If there is a history of bullying, your complaint will add pressure on the organization to take action.

    Document everything. Make careful notes of every incident of bullying, what was said, who was present and what the outcome was. This will help establish that this wasn’t one occasion of someone blowing off steam on a bad day, but an actual pattern of aggressive behaviour.

    Be excellent at your job. Being bullied can be disheartening. It can kill your energy and motivation. That’s when your work (and even your health) can suffer. If you let this happen, the bully is diminishing who you are. Stay true to yourself. Remember that you are a professional. Do your work and do it well. When it comes time to make a choice, you need your company to remember how good you are and how much they value having you as a productive member of the team.

    Never lose your cool. No matter how hurt or angry the bullying behaviour makes you, don’t retaliate. The minute you surrender the high ground, you lose. If you act aggressive in return, your case against the bully disappears, and the situation becomes two people who simply don’t get along. Avoid being alone with the bully so there are always witnesses to their behaviour. Respectfully walk away whenever they get heated or aggressive.

    Take your skills elsewhere. If you have documented workplace bullying and your company refuses to act against the perpetrator, it might be time to change employers. You shouldn’t have to leave your job because of someone else’s bad behaviour, but if your organization chooses to ignore (or reward) it, you have to ask yourself about the company culture. It might not be one that you want to spend your time and talent supporting.

The Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety offers numerous resources for dealing with bullying in the workplace.

See also:

  • Prank at work leads to convictions, firings
  • What you can learn from the jerks at work
  • You’re right, pessimists, you really aren’t likely to succeed
  • No Revenge of the Nerds: Popular kids do better throughout their careers too
  • Peter Harris

    Peter Harris on Twitter

    Category: Career Dilemmas, Life At Work,
    • Tell the Truth

      Great article.

      The issue of being bullied goes a bit deeper, perhaps as a matter of self-confidence. That is, the confidence to act with confidence one has. Unfortunately, I am speaking from relatively recent and repeat experience.

      The issue is perhaps also a consequence of being a scapegoat/lightning rod for a dysfunctional family. This exploration has afforded incredible and invaluable insight.

      The “never lose your cool” became the ticket out for management who consistently referred to it as ‘conflict’ rather than what it was – a problem that pre-dated my arrival and of which the other was the common denominator.
      This other person is still there, as management. I am not.
      So, rewarded, yes.

    • Move on With Your Life

      Great article. I understand your point in keeping a cool head when dealing with bullies, but in reality it’s really hard to do. I have experienced work place bullying, and I did what I could to defend myself. I did talk to the bully, to other people at the office, to managers and to HR, and nothing was done. I stayed in that company for months after complaining to my managers/HR. But looking back and knowing what I know now and all the drama and non-sense I have to deal with EVEN NOW as a result, months after I quit that job , I would have left that company right the moment I was told to “ignore it”. My two cents, move on with your life as quickly as possible.

    • Move on With Your Life

      Another point, especially if you work for a large corporation is that if you complain about being bullied, you would most likely be “forced out”. So if you decide to complain about being bullied, be aware that the chances are you would have to move to another company. Corporations are more worried about not being sued and they do not like to keep what they view as “dangerous” people in their companies.

    • Nina Milova

      Yeah right, the best solution we always have to every problem is “go somewhere else”. Even if statisgics clearly show that the same kind of sht is going on everywhere!

    • Nammy Cool

      in short you have to be goon to rise in pvt organisation , is this what is ment

    • Sandra M.

      Bullies?? My experience has been that those who don’t follow the dress code (eg. they come to work dressed for a night out at the club) or who sit at their desks talking to their boyfriends on the phone during work hours are the ones who get ahead.

    • Laurie Fisher

      After trying to address my personal situation in a professional manner through HR and senior management, nothing concrete was done to stop the bullying, disrespect and unprofessionalism I continue to experience by new manager of 10 months. I am over 45 years old and have been a loyal and dedicated employee of this company for over 13 years. So disappointing that in the end, it seems to come down to “taking your skills elsewhere”. That is easier said than done. All the advice in the world can’t make this situation right, we have no rights with respect to being bullied in the workplace.

    • julien cooper

      Hi Peter Harris.

      Nice article.

      Bullies, including those demanding too much work load, do not belong in our workplaces, schools or other common places any more then in our homes.

      To remove a bully is to start the posses of social equality. And the more they are removed with a desire to continue their activities the more places they will be not welcomed. This practice is already used effectively. Sadly in many cases this is where a staff person is abusive rather then where a customer is abusive in the type of place where people enter for services and or goods. And sadly in cases such as that, the removal is no more then a show of powers, even in the case of a bad customer being removed, as the boss or supervisor is often abusive to his / her own staff even to the staff person who is abused by the customer. But this system does work and it can work well if used properly and in the context it is meant for, including removal of the abusive boss or supervisor. But this action has to start early no matter the age of the offender, as in child student who will be more malleable to learn this lesson and adult worker before he / she has lots of debts and recreation vehicles depending on that pay cheque. This will not only make safer the victims, but will also: prevent new victims, lessen the chance of bully or victims taking lives and bring about a better and wealthier society, that may well include former bullies who can move on and join us.

      There is also the security guard problem where some of them feel they have obtained as licence or training to bully. I know fro news that some were hired straight out of jails, for the same reason work-bullies exist anywhere, tough is believed to bring in the money to the finances and or compliance of a place. Does this still happen? I often feel there are too many of them and I am always proven right wherever they abuse, that one or those involved are the too many and they create a police state condition that we do not need. They are also given the extra tasks of police state like authority that has nothing to do with terrorism, fights, thefts, fires or evacuations as in immediate loss or danger to property and life. And they enforce these extra tasks just as a police states would have them do under a dictator government. I can imagine someone coming to Canada or to the USA from a real police state kind of country and seeing a property seemingly plucked right out of that country just by all the uniforms and strict rules even the bullying that is not a part of the task. Some people coming from terrible countries fear crossing guards and even fear girl guide instructors as it is, even though they are not normally a part of this problem. Why is it we can allow some of our uniformed members to re-enforce that type of fear and even to cause those of us living here all our lives to gain that type of fears?

      I want to add, forced and self removal of the victim is not the answer. There comes irreversible damage to resume, pension build mortgage or rent up and lots else. There are people who advocate against any type of removals of abused wives for similar reasons. It is also hard as it is to find and do job interviews then to add loss of confidence and loss of possible job references with bullying. Bullying is the road to loss of health and life, and it at least will create a cycle of poverty if the victim is not job lucky in our good jobs lotteries, especially when you consider there may well be another one or more bullies in the next workplace.

      To hear from an anti-bully law enforcer, go to radio and check the archives for July 1st. (Canada Day) 2013, People of Interest radio show. There you will hear Police Chief Walter Ostrenga tell of how and why Monona Wisconsin has gotten a new anti-bully law. Please do pass on where you got that, or google Monona Wisconsine police and Walter Ostrenga so you can copy and paste their sites to anyone you like.

      Please tell us how we can help you help us. I have tried for many years and I just do not have the support systems to do this in the many number of ways I have tried. That you are on a job site and that some of us are replying is a start. But we need any and all non-violet and in your face means to ban the actions of the bully and to ban any system and or company that supports that kind of action.


      J. Cooper

    • Miko

      Monsters fuck other monsters. How hard is this. Monsters win everything, while good people have to just sit there and be raped! Jesus, start killing these people! Maybe kill all the shit while were at it, because humans are shit.

    • bully

      Everyone is a bully and everyone is not a bully. Everyone likes and dislikes people for certain reasons. As low level workers, ie anyone below the president is low level in relation to the president, there is a hierarchy of power and you have basically none. Everyone is on the totem pole at different positions. If your supervisor is a bully thats all just part of the deal. There are better ways to help yourself than to leave. They already know they are a bully and they live in a world run by fear, they know they are bad and will lash out and do irrational things because they have crossed so many lines that they no longer see any line.

      Noone can work for a bully for very long unless they are willing and able to withstand alot of abuse. On the flip side, if you report the bullying now who becomes the bully, remember your messing with peoples lives and livelihoods and reputations. The reason upper managment doesnt do anything is that they are unwilling because the whole situation is grey to them. They dont act because if they dont act then they cannot be blamed for anything except not acting, which is unlikely to come back on them in a court ruling because court appearances are few and far between. A judges court decision could go either way so noone risks it.

      Upper managments goals vary, they are far less likely to listen to a low level unproductive complainer than do anything about a bully. In fact they love bullies because they themselves (upper managment) are usually corporate bullies, thats how they attained such lofty positions.

      In the end, your family and wellbeing are whats important. Do your job, forget what the bully does and says and do your job to the best of your abilities. Get help through a support group and if its really bad then seek legal counsel.

    • DrCaligari

      I guess you could also covertly get the bully fired.

    • Bullied

      What we need are tools to deal with the bullies and put a stop to this behaviour the first time it starts. One of the tips that I received from Workers Action Committee is, to document the conversation after talking to the bully, thanking them to agreement reached on the next steps and including the list of concerns discussed. When things are documented and sent in email, the bully will think twice before starting the same tactics. It goes without saying, these emails need to be very polite and friendly.

      I believe removing bullies from the workplace is an impossible task for obvious reasons discussed on this blog, but sharing of best practices like this will definitely provide a solid shield to push back this behaviour.

    • Colleen Robinson

      what can you do when the bully is a boss? or the big boss’s daughter? I was bullied and name-called by the boss’s daughter. what was I supposed to do go to the big boss and complain about his daughter? Standing up to this person is tricky – but I will continue to stand my ground when bullied or accused of doing something i did not do. I will converse with her on an adult level and she will realize that she cannot treat me with disrespect no matter how much ‘power’ she has.

    • Jane

      Sorry but as someone who has been both bullied and mobbed, what you are describing is a waste of time. Once targeted by someone all the ‘talk to them, inform others, document and other crap’ goes right out the window. This is the Stepford Wives version of bullying. No one plays under any rules when they are out to get you. Best advice is get out. I didn’t take my own advice because I am a Pollyanna and so I ended up with panic attacks, heart palpitations, crying jags, loss of focus, the whole enchilada. Please don’t lead anyone to believe that they can actually stop it. It is not their fault and they will end up thinking they could have done something.

    • Linda P

      Bullies know how to pick their targets, and I’ve been one all my life. From the age of 6 I was chosen by local thugs to be beaten up after school, targeted by my father who saw me as a perfect punchbag, then you grow up and you end up a target in the workplace even when I became a mother I was bullied by neighbours. Now a mental case, unemployed, isolated and ignored (and finally rejected by my family for being ‘mental’) I’m 54 and I wish I had never been born. No one has ever stuck up for me so I suppose I deserved all of this as I have now been diagnosed as borderline personality disorder