Protecting Yourself from Workplace Bullies


A new Harvard Business School paper suggests that employees who get into constant conflicts with colleagues aren’t worth the trouble they cause, even when they’re high performers. “We found that avoiding a toxic worker (or converting him to an average worker) enhances performance to a much greater extent than replacing an average worker with a superstar worker,” it reads in part.

Unfortunately, organizations don’t often see things that way. Toxic behavior is rampant. A survey and interview study conducted by Elizabeth L. Holloway and Mitchell E. Kusy showed that 94 percent of business leaders have worked with a toxic person.

Sometimes that toxicity rises to the level of workplace bullying, where an employee will try to withhold information, keep you from meetings, and actively try to sabotage you and erode your self-confidence. If you find yourself in those crosshairs, here are some ways to protect yourself:

Know Thyself

Self-reflection may not be your first impulse when trying to determine how to be less susceptible to bullies; yet executive coach Michele Woodward, who presented an interactive webinar on the issue for the Harvard Business Review last year, thinks it’s a good first step.

“The way you bully-proof yourself is to fully understand yourself,” Woodward said. For example, knowing that you’re very sensitive or empathic will help you determine whether it’s possible that you perceive assertive behavior as bullying behavior.

“A person is a bully when they are trying to destroy your sense of self or prevent you from doing your job,” she explained. Just as it’s possible to not recognize bullying behavior for what it is, it’s also possible to mistake extremely assertive behavior for bullying. Knowing yourself can help you make those determinations.

Pay Attention to Workplace Dynamics

Just like knowing yourself can help you better understand your reaction to abrasive coworkers, understanding the alliances at your place of work can help you determine your next move. Woodward recommends trying to determine the relationship between the person who is bullying you, their boss, and your boss.

Some bosses are shields for bullies, she added; others act as buffers to try to mitigate the harm caused by the bullying, often because the bully is high-performing and delivers solid results.

“The only way you’ll get results is if the boss is not a shield and not a buffer and is able to see and hear you and get results,” Woodward said.

Whether you’ll want to report bullying to HR also depends on the organization you’re in and the nature of the HR department. If the bullying is a pattern, Woodward recommends speaking to HR, but with one caveat: make sure you focus on the fact that you are unable to do your job, rather than your hurt feelings. That’s the business case that will draw a response from HR.

Don’t Participate

When someone attempts to bully you, Woodward recommends taking small steps to address the situation rather than getting bent out of shape about it. If the bully doesn’t invite you to a meeting that you need to attend to do your job, don’t get huffy: just tell the bully that you’re coming to the next meeting.

“A lot of times what the bully needs to see is that you’re not a target,” Woodward explained. If you sidestep their game of power and domination, the bully will often move on.

Woodward has also seen people make small corrections, minimizing the bully’s effect. “I believe that if you’re going to confront the bully, you do it in small increments, like saying ‘I’m coming to the next meeting,’ or ‘that’s not appropriate,’ or ‘back off,’ and you do it time after time after time again instead of having one big explosion where you have one big standoff.” An emotional standoff often reflects worse on the target than on the perpetrator—which is exactly what the bully wants.

Find Another Job

If you’re in a situation where there’s a bully who’s protected within the organization, you may want to spend some time thinking about whether or not you really want to work there. “That’s the moment you need to say, ‘The values of this organization are being shown to me very clearly. Is this some place I want to stay?’” Woodward said. Looking for a new job could very well be the best course of action.

Take the case of Elysia Lock, a QA manager with 10 years in technology, who found herself bullied by her boss. While she wasn’t the only target, she nonetheless felt singled out because of her gender. At one point, her manager grabbed his crotch, which led Lock to speak to Human Resources about the inappropriate behavior.

Although HR told her it would keep the information confidential, she was forced to sit down face-to-face with the company’s equally toxic CTO to explain to him what had happened.

Speaking out didn’t resolve the situation, but it did shift things a bit. “I think he was a lot more careful about what he said around me—he wasn’t cursing or making sexual comments anymore—but he was definitely singling me out and making my life harder,” she said.

Ultimately, Lock ended up finding a different job: “I had to go to another place to get the professionalism and the respect I wanted.” In her new job, a supervisor had an aggressive way of joking, and Lock spoke with him individually about it. She took a direct approach because she didn’t think the person was malicious, and was right.

“Being an advocate for yourself is really important, and being able to stand up for yourself, and saying, ‘hey, that’s not okay,’ and knowing what your lines are is important,” Lock said. “Because a lot of the time it’s really easy, especially for women, to get bullied and think that it’s about us and it’s something that we’re doing when really it’s not.”

Find A Sounding Board

Be aware that being bullied over time can erode your self-confidence, and it’s not uncommon to have a warped view of your own capacity (or the job market). “That feeling that ‘this is the way it is and there’s nothing I can do about’ it is the most harmful part of bullying,” Woodward said. “The personal agency you get from saying ‘I’m not going to be treated like this’ and doing something about it pays off in the way you feel about yourself and who you are.”

That’s why it can be important to find someone—a friend, mentor, or even a business coach or therapist—whom you can talk to. That’s what Locke did. Speaking with someone outside of the situation (who was going through problems at a similar company) helped her put things in perspective: “We’d come back to work with a fresh set of eyes, and also knowing that we’re not alone.”