Dealing with Bullies in the Workplace

There’s no easy way to deal with an overly critical boss or a co-worker who wants to throw you under the bus. Reporting your concerns to a senior manager or HR can just exacerbate the problem sometimes, and there’s a fine line between verbal harassment and constructive feedback. When someone said on the Dice Discussions boards that he was being harassed and set-up to fail by his team lead, he got a range of replies.

Dealing with Bullies in the WorkplaceNot long ago, Laura Casey discussed the subject in the Contra Costa Times. She shared a common motive for harassers courtesy of Gary and Ruth Namie, who founded the Workplace Bullying Institute in Bellingham, Wash.

Workplace bullying can happen in any workplace, Namie says, and the targets are usually people who simply want to do their work undisturbed. The bully can be a boss, co-worker or supervisor. According to 2010 research by Zogby International, 35 percent of workers have experienced bullying firsthand, what amounts to 53 million people. The study says that 62 percent of bullies are men, while 58 percent of targets are women. Women target women 80 percent of time. Workplace bullies are usually jealous of the target’s accomplishments and drive, the Namies say.

Another challenge: Suing for harassment may not be a viable solution.

The practice is not illegal in the workplace if it’s not based on discrimination and doesn’t fit the legal definition of harassment. Therefore, if a target chooses to take legal action they rarely win cases against their employers.

So what can you do to stop a harasser? Casey suggests seeing a therapist or work with a workplace bullying expert to develop strategies for coping. In some cases, asking an employer to fix the problem is appropriate – but it could backfire. According to Workplace Bullying Institute research, in some cases complaints are ignored or the bullying intensifies. In the worst case, if your health is being severely harmed, the institute suggests taking time off work or looking for a new job. 

Identify the culprits.

What kind of bullies are out there? Here’s some:

Screaming Mimi: This bully isn’t afraid to yell at you. She controls through fear and intimidation, even throwing objects around the office. 

Constant Critic: He’s an extremely negative nit-picker and aims to destroy confidence in your competence. He makes unreasonable demands for work with impossible deadlines and expects perfection. 

Two-Headed Snake: This bully is passive-aggressive, dishonest and indirect. He smiles to hide aggression. 

Gatekeeper: Controls all the resources you need to succeed, including money, staffing and time. She keeps her target out of the loop and makes new rules on a whim. 

Have you encountered a Screaming Mimi, Constant Critic, Two-Headed Snake or a Gatekeeper? How did you stop them?

— Leslie Stevens-Huffman

19 Responses to “Dealing with Bullies in the Workplace”

  1. This is an excellent article and the comment from Maria was right to the point. Always be aware that political motives are often more important than the merits in any given situation. That incompetent, bullying co-worker or supervisor may be in their position more for who he/she knows than for his/her abilities. You will get a hint of this when the management hears you concerns about the bully but seems to sidestep the issue. Politics vs. merits seems to be an obvious dilemma that is learned the hard way by many of us. A rule of thumb might be to learn the political situation (who knows who) before you take your concerns to management.

  2. I would argue the writers comments that ¿The practice is not illegal in the workplace if it’s not based on discrimination and doesn’t fit the legal definition of harassment.¿ In some cases, it may be illegal; situations where the employee is mistreated by the employer or supervisor to the level that it affects performance and subsequent evaluations it can be illegal.
    I study group I worked with several years ago supported the idea that managers of organizations of more than 15 employees should be required to meet certain state standards that would ensure employees were properly treated and protected against harassment, bullying and unfair treatment. Barber, real estate agents, plumbers and almost all trades people are required to meet and maintain certain levels of professionalism. None has the negative impact of a bad boss, supervisor or manager. Treated badly the employee leaves work upset and mad; on the way home creates road rage, gets home and kicks the dog, raises cain with the family and in the long run becomes an unhappy, unmarried and soon to be unemployed person; all because of a bad boss.

  3. Laura C

    Why are none of the suggestions to talk to the bully? All of the examples of bullies sound like people doing things they wouldn’t be proud of, so bringing their behavior in the open should be the first part of developing a relationship with them that works. If your first response to meeting someone you don’t get along with is to seek therapy, there’s something wrong. This is not only management’s responsibility.

  4. steve c

    I am always amazed that upper management doesn’t care that their middle management is out of control. If I ran a business I’d want to keep an eye on these losers because they can destroy your business.

    I had one experience where the situation was so dysfunctional that employees would quit after only a few months. The director would bring in new business by promising the sun & the moon. Her success was that she always got enough new business to cover for what she was loosing. She also faked the results of her initiatives to her boss. Then the chickens came home to roost. After years of this nonsense she made one too many enemies, got caught & was fired.

    Till the day I often wonder why I stayed at that job for so long. After I left I found an amazing job at a different company. Change is good.

  5. Anonymous

    Mine was both a 2-headed snake and a gate keeper. He managed to keep those at the top unaware of his bullying and you’re right about reporting it – no one listens – that is except those who were also the target. Unfortunately, when the layoffs came, it was I who got canned not he, even though I was the one who ended up making him look successful.

    Regarding Laura’s comment, I did try talking to the bully. He turned it around to make it look like I was the problem. Many others agreed with me but were afraid to come out with their own complaints for fear of retaliation. So you do just grin and bear it or tuck your tail between your legs and go off quietly into the sunset.

    If anti-bullying policies can be implemented in schools why not in the workplace?

  6. I had this experience and so my wife. I’m more confrontasional than average. I deal with the issue right away. Letting the bully know that we have a problem and it better stop or I will go through the steps necessary until it reach the HR department. Sooner than later. It either stops, it gets escalated to HR, or I get fired for defending my self. Under no circunstances QUIT the job, this equals surrender. Do a great job, be honest and don’t take BS, from any Bully.

  7. Peerfectly written, the workplace is full of such snakes, mimis, critics, or gatekeepers. Unless the management is honest and supports healthy, honest and professional environment. I have experienced bullying from all of those types and I can say – those are people who do not contribute much to the company and cause corruption, hinder a progress. Their motive is pure jelousy, incapability to work, incompetency, so to hide those features they turn to agression to intimidate, lead and harrass those who work hard and have results. Many times it can be a boss who feels intimidated by more knowlegeable worker than himself. I agree women are intimidated much at work and thay bear a heavy workload. I also agree that women can be malicious towards each other and that most men are bullies. The only solution to this is to openly speak about such things, take strict actions from the site of management. So all it comes to a good management to control such behaviour and not tolerate it.

  8. You can’t expect “management” to wipe your nose or change your diaper. Each person needs to learn to take care of themselves and you can expect a few bumps and bruises along the way. Stand up and defend your own self. Most bullies are insecure in themselves and if you stand your ground they’ll back off. If you just meekly take their baloney they’ll just keep coming.

  9. Water UnderTheBridge

    Was railroaded out of job by a “constant critic” supervisor (who later got canned – too little, too late). So, basically your article is saying “Nothing you can do about it, deal with it.” That’s what I thought and that was how I reacted, but in hindsight, I have this advice to offer: If you’re going to lose your job anyway, you may as well report the a-hole to his supervisor before the fact. At least this way you have a chance of things changing in your favor.

  10. G.Priyaranjan

    The reason most people leave is because bullies (or any traits for that matter) take time to change. During that time, you do not want to be the guinea-pig.

    Also, inter-personal relations are easy to sour, and very hard to fix. Even if you get your victories, can you really count on that person’s support?

    That said, usually, the best way to get out of the clutches of a bully is to NOT be dependant on him.

    Eg :-
    1. Form your own judgements of what is a fair ask of your position, and do that, to your conscience.
    2. If doing more work will help you get your next job, or help you perform well in it, collect the experience in your current job, by ignoring the bullies.
    3. Find out what the bully really needs for his success, and help him/her out there. (Not for too long, though). Many people turn thier perceptions around at the drop of a hat.
    4. Start making friends within the organization, so, if the bully is hurting you, you look like the victim. (The most natural defense 🙂 ).
    5. Make people want to call you for your next job, by networking or upgrading skills.

    Look at life positively, and these will affect you less

    Just my 2 cents,
    – Ranjan

  11. Cathy Helgerson

    As workers we have lost our ground the Fire At Will Act or the At Will Act as they choose to call it these days to cover up the real truth is the worst thing that could have happened to the American worker so now what. I have tried to contact State and Federal reps and they just don’t really understand or care this is very upsetting and things don’t seem to get any better just worse. The managers and supervisors have created a atmosphere of power and absolute power corrupts as you can see.
    I suggest keeping a low profile and learning how to kiss ass is the only way does that sound right to you? The fight I am afraid will be with our young people who eventually get sick of this one sided situation and take it to the streets to fight back oh by the way don’t expect the unions to help they have sold out a long time ago. I am for unions but we need a better form of union with power and the will to help the people. Oh by the way the insurance benifits that the unions and people have fought for for years is very quickly slipping away and what are we doing nothing.
    Well that is that in a nut shell grass roots fight now!

  12. Excellent story but still no rsolution for those who are suffering under the hand of the bullies.

    I’ve confronted my bully at work as well and It did work! I told them to lay off the crap they were doing and they finally stopped! But same as others the next layoff happened and I was layoff and not the bully who has done nothing but be a pest at work. Thus it was a hollow victory but you know what? In the back of my mind and my situation I WON and whenever I saw the bully you can’t help smile inside that I was right and I defeat another bully ahole of this world!

    The environment I had to deal with is the bully making sly remarks to me. Trying to discredit my work efforts, making fun of what I do behind my back. Making me feel insignificant to the group and if I didnt do what they do , they try to make it a group peer pressure effort to make me conform to their ideas.

    The manager didnt help either, he was either clueless or agreed to what the bully was saying. He was just as guilty to the problem since he encourage the environment I was in as well. The stupid manager didnt even realize the pattern as to why people quit this job after a few months.

    I agree that the management can’t be there all the time, they are human also and we need to stick up for ourselves..yada, yada yada…. but there is a breaking point where there is such viral control in the workplace where the average worker can’t go anywhere to turn to. IT’s either put up or move out.

    I for one dont give a g-damn about any Management anymore. They are all overpaid humans who got up there in their rat race to claw and push down everyone else to get where they are at thus their dismissal to any issues of bullying because they were they original ones bullying to get where they are at!

    All I can say is to fight back and dont give a damn anymore you will be layoff or whatever – so what? You as a human will keep your dignity and pride and that itself is more that any money in the world. You may get a little hungry intially but you become a better human in the long run.

    In the end when you end up, it all evens out and you can stand up and say that you did it my way and nobody, no management, no jackass bully can take that anyway from you.

  13. This situation exists in each second working team (thanks God not in all of them). There is a saying “Fish is rotten from the head”, it means company environment depends on the upper management and goes from the top to the bottom. If CEO or general manager has respect to employees it reflects on all levels and even those people who are used to harass others are hiding their activity.
    On my experience, there is no way to fight bullying, no HR, no your superviser will protect you – the only way is to run away from the company in hope to find a better one, but a big chance is there will be another bully. You need to have teeth to survive!

  14. Officials are standing up and saying enough for bullying in our school systems. The individuals who were bullys in school – are they the bullys in the work place? Why should bullying in the workplace be acceptable? May be bullying should be included as part of the EEO and employers would establish guidelines.

  15. laid off

    I recently had a very good job making almost twice what I had ever made before, but I had a “mentor” that was a perfectionist in his own mind. He couldn’t type, had minimal PC skills, he could do no wrong and I could do no right. I’d ask him questions about the servers as I had no experience with them and his unvarying response was, “It doesn’t matter.” I realize now that he didn’t know the answers and only concentrated on our one little niche. He constantly bragged that he had 25 years of experience. I never bothered to ask what he had that experience in and I should have. I have 40 years in the electronics field with a very wide range of knowledge. I tolerated him and never confronted him, but I should have. I will in the future if I ever run across another nutcase like him and it will be between him or her and me without bringing in HR or the boss. I see a number of comments about bullies being insecure and I tend to agree in my most recent position. I haven’t been treated like that since boot camp during the Viet Nam era. No mas!

  16. Very Good Developer

    I like the idea of simply standing up for yourself and making it clear and PUBLIC that whatever treatment is not acceptable. Sometimes that requires being confrontational. Sadly the article doesn’t mention that.

    Even in grade school, going to the teacher when you’re bullied doesn’t work, so why should it work with a bunch of adults who feel entitled to act the way they do?

    This boils down to a very fundamental human trait….. fight or flight. Some people will do everything possible to avoid confrontation, including staying in a situation where they get walked all over.

    Bullies seek these people out, and test their limits. I’ve dealt with it many times.

    For actual software developers, it can be alienating to be GOOD.

    I’ve had plenty of jobs where the developers basically do the absolute bare minimum and under the hood, you see that every application you need to support is held together with bubble gum.

    Those bad developers will do anything they can to discredit any notion that their work is less then great, and certainly not the garbage it really is.

    Try explaining it to anyone higher up. Good luck.

    Quitting is usually inevitable and when the day finally comes, my only regret is not leaving sooner. Screw getting fired! I don’t get fired.

    Think about the a-holes you work with. Is it really worth it? Did you go there to change everyone’s world or way of thinking? If someone acts like an a-hole in adulthood, in my opinion, it’s their brain wiring. It’s not a misunderstanding. They’re an a-hole, and for the time being, you have to spend nearly two thirds of your waking life with them.

    Unless this is your first job, or you have no skills, you don’t need to put up with it and you can find work else where.

    Imagine working at a place where everyone is cool….. then update your resume and go work there!

  17. I had to sue. Find a new job, cut back your expenses, and save money…Trust me, it doesnt change. ive tried to change. Switching jobs works, as well as suing and documenting harrassment…

    You can’t always work things out with people, because while you’re here trying to get self-help, they wouldnt even pick up a book on how to be better bosses.