Bullied at work? Avoid making these common mistakes

(Image courtesy of all-free-download.com)

(Image courtesy of all-free-download.com)

Oftentimes I am asked by reporters for standard-brand advice on how to handle a potential workplace bullying situation. I inevitably respond that because these scenarios have so many variables, it would be unwise of me to suggest a one-size-fits-all set of recommendations.

However, I feel much more comfortable identifying common mistakes that people make in dealing with bullying at work. Here is my list, based on many years of working in this realm:

1. Self-blame — While some degree of healthy self-reflection can make us more effective at work and in life generally, too many targets blame themselves for what is happening. They repeatedly try to placate bullies who will not be placated.

2. Waiting too long — On countless occasions, targets have told me that they waited too long to grasp the situation and take appropriate action. Perhaps they didn’t see the situation for what it was — a common occurrence. Maybe they hoped that the situation would go away or improve, until it was too late. It’s no fun to be treated abusively at work, but delaying acknowledgment of it can be even more detrimental to your livelihood and health.

3. Relying solely upon in-house “assistance” — Those who depend on the HR office to make things right may later regret it. Especially when the bully is a manager and bullying behaviors are common in a given workplace, HR often sides with the boss. Likewise, employee assistance offices are not going to represent a target against an alleged bully; that’s not their role. At best they may offer some coaching and coping assistance.

4. Not keeping records — Maintain a chronology of everything that happens. Save e-mails, notes, and any other physical evidence — but do not take anything that’s not yours. Although legal protections against workplace bullying are inadequate on the whole, you may have the makings of a legal claim. If nothing else, you’ll have a record of what happened in case you need to present it to someone.

5. Acting impulsively — Being bullied at work sometimes can lead people to act impulsively, saying or doing things they’d like to take back. It’s a natural reaction, but try to avoid it. If you cannot resist, it’s possible that your bully will point the finger at you for being mean and abrasive! After all, workplace aggressors can be masters at provoking and button pushing.

6. Being consumed by the battle — This is much less a “mistake” and more a common response to being threatened and traumatized, but many targets get consumed by their situation and inhabit this vocational warzone during most of their waking hours. If you feel like this is starting to describe you, then by all means consult a mental health professional who is knowledgeable about treating psychological stress and trauma.

7. Refusing to acknowledge the need for an exit strategy — This may be part of the fight or flight response prompted by a threat, and it may relate to the all consuming nature of some bullying situations. In any event, some will continue to fight a battle that cannot be won, while foregoing exit strategies that remove them from a toxic work environment and put them on the road to another position.

A better approach

There’s a lot of questionable and sometimes dangerous advice out there on how to handle workplace bullying situations, offered by people who are not subject matter experts on this topic. These sources are no substitute for understanding the dynamics of workplace bullying and how they relate to one’s specific circumstances.

Instead, do your homework, reach out for help, strategize, and act smartly. Take a hard look at the Need Help? resources page of this blog and dig deeply into some of the materials recommended there. Only after assessing options and risks should you act. It may not be easy to do this in the midst of a stressful work situation, but it’s your best bet for creating a decent outcome.


This post was revised in June 2016.


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23 responses

  1. Rule 1: Recognize bullying when it’s happening to you or a colleague. Once a name has been put to it, dealing with it becomes more effective.

    • I was bullied and after 6 months eventually terminated after working for the company for 10 years. It came out of nowhere, and from people I least expected it from. I had no experience with this type of situation and did not know what it was until it was over. It has been 8 months and I am still trying to cope. I did seek professional help, but I think I have PTSD from the the emotional abuse. I am afraid to have a corportate job again because I am terrified it would happen again. I have no confidence in my ability to judge other people because I was so blindsided by these individuals. One was a coworker and a friend of my family. I think about it every day.

      • Stillsuffering:
        I owe my ability to survive my being targeted with my training in ProEFT and even leaning on my ProEFT mentor to help me through my ordeal. I actually called it terminated and liberated because I stood up for myself when my union was impotent to do anything to help me. They said I should have never been fired but where was the fire under them to fight for me? The MD is a malignant narcissist who has gotten rid of 2 other MD’s and myself (an NP-). I can help you if you would like to contact me so that you can move on with your life. To me finding out the corruption in the legal system (attorney’s not even willing to fight Kaiser) or the one who said he could help but ripped me off for $5k (which I could have used to live on) and who did nothing to help me.

    • I’ve been working since I was 15 years old. My first serious job was food prep and chef for a restaurant. So at 15 I was grilling burgers, frying french fries, cooking eggs, making salads.

      30 years later I’m 45 years old. Time has flown by. Through all my experiences even at my first job, I had a manager who was so thankless that I was the fry cook, and the ice cream prep lead, that she used to chew me out on a regular basis. She was harsh, nasty, and mean.

      I recently took a job, days ago. A new employee that was training with me, distorts what he sees, causes trouble and is more toxic than the most toxic employee that you could imagine.

      He will back stab you the minute the boss disappears. He is the most toxic person I have ever met.

      My mistake was that I was too trusting with him in orientation. I talked up a blue streak with this nut job.

      I discovered that he has no conscience and would throw me under the boss.

      He doens’t hold jobs for more than 6 months. Which is a red flag. He complains about his past companies, which is another red flag.

      He has no emotions when talks. Another red flag.

      I was too quick to friend this monster. Now I can’t sleep.

      I have always been an effective employee. I have been lucky that many of my best managers have valued my work ethic, which is important to me.

      But I learned that some co workers are born nasty, evil and destructive.

      I had worked for a company for 5 years, another 4 years, and yet another 4 years.

      I have quite a bit more longevity than 6 months.

      They often say the sociopathic employees have trouble holding a job.

      This freak will take me with him.

  2. Dear Dr. David Yamada,

    You know how much I Love what you do!

    I have done all the steps in the mist of my experience from 10/2005 to 3/2007 which was common sense, including my journal. Now, 12/2010 the following is getting the best results with your help! I will continue to fight the good fight in faith when the opportunity presents itself, as you always do.
    What is so astonishing is: This is being done to individuals who are: PRODUCTIVE

    Thank You for being the light in the tunnel!

    I would like to point out: Bullying in not only in our Workplaces:

    It’s in Homes, Families, and Companies That We Deal With On A Day to Day Basis – Respect Has Almost Disappeared from our Culture. We need to Stand-up and Speak-out and It Can Be Done Anonymously If You Fear a Back Lash;! but, It is much more rewarding if done using your face and name.

    I Am Having Great Results By Just Expressing Myself: Confidentially with Respect – We Can Do This One Person @ A Time and That Person Telling That Person and That Person Telling….. !

    You are the Best!
    Fran Gray

    • Fran, thank you for your kind words, as always, and your steadfast commitment to responding to bullying at work. Here’s to more success in 2011 toward raising awareness and building support for legal and organizational progress, and to a good New Year for you. David

  3. Pingback: Business Ethics Roundup 1/1/11! « Pilant's Business Ethics Blog

  4. I am still employed at the work site where I have endured bullying from my immediate supervisor for more than eight years. I have kept e-mails, I have been assertive, I have confronted the behavior, described what it was, stated on too many occasions to remember that my bully’s behavior is in direct violation of one of our policy’s which is to treat one another with respect and dignity to no avail. The bullying did lessen, true, but it still has a cyclical and episodic quality to it.

    Recently, the bullying seems to have ceased and I have one or two theories as to why that may be. I have noticed, however, that one of my co-workers was recently fired, and gruesomely treated in the process.

    I still question the premise that an at-will employer can fire someone for no reason, a good reason, and/or a faulty reason.

    In other words, it seems that a line must be drawn between firing someone on a faulty premise and slander, which is basically firing someone based upon inaccurate or false information/rationale, which in return damages that person’s reputation.

    An attorney responded to an inquiry that I made on an online site and stated that the slander/libel laws were not designed to apply to employment matters. However, life has a way of not being so simple.
    I cannot fathom how an employer can put forth false and damaging statements about an empl oyee in which the statements negatively impact upon that employee’s future employability and reputation, and yet, t he employee cannot legally consider slander/libel protections.

    • Well stated…at what point is an employer held accountable for those negative statements which are defamatory and slanderous to the person’s character.

      • I wish to thank each of you for your feedback. I guess my next question, David, would be, given that it is difficult to win defamatory lawsuits against former, and I would like to include current employers, still there must be some guideline to follow in which an employee, former or current, can follow in order to gather the evidence that can substantiate the claim.

        My former colleague was fired and it was noted in writing that he was fired based upon performance.
        So, now my former co-worker has been fired, he is 68, still wishes to work, has a masters’ degree in counseling, as well as having had an impeccable work history.

        After over ten weeks waiting for the adjuster to make a decision about whether or not to give him unemployment, he hasn’t had any income coming in, and is still waiting for the decision.

        The manner in which he was told he was fired was gruesome. He returned to work at the beginning of the work week only to be greeted by the CEO, who told him to come to his office immediately.

        The CEO placed a paper in front of him. My co-worker stated that he didn’t have his glasses so he couldn’t read the document. The CEO stated that there wasn’t any reason to have to read it, as it simply stated that my co-worker was fired, effectively immediately, and that he would have to immediately leave the building. He was told that his personal belongings will delivered to him.

        In his wheelchair, my co-worker left the building. He wasn’t given an opportunity to take anything from his desk, including medical supplies that he had stored there to use while he was working during the week.

        So, to make a long story short, my co-worker is 68, unemployed (fired), due to performance-related issues, although he is not sure what it is that he did.

        How does one move forward? He is devastated, to say the least. It seems as though the employee sector has not been paying attention to how our basic protections have been taken away since the dismantling of many of the unions across the country.

        The manner in which he was treated has impacted his health as well as his wife’s health, due to the humiliating way in which he was treated. .

      • Unfortunately, there are no foolproof or easy next steps, and there are so many possible threads that cannot be hashed out via online posts. I strongly recommend the “Need Help” section of this blog to identify resources and to help sort out options.

  5. I would also be very careful and not talk to anyone. I know it sounds horrible when you are on the outs, but in a situaiton that there is workplace bullying, a number of people will try to align with the bully and will sink you in order to save themselves. It is cowardly, but that is the way that it goes.

    • Unfortunately you are right, Maria. In every job where I ended up leaving because of bullying, not one person spoke up for me. They were too scared of either being bullied themselves or of losing THEIR jobs.

  6. I have been bullied many times at various jobs, and to me the saddest thing is that you SHOULD be able to get ‘in house ‘ help. The only way a workplace can be a healthy one is if those in charge have a zero- tolerance towards unacceptable behavior. If a boss allows these things to go on, he or she will have a very stressful workplace environment where the bullies run everything.

  7. Pingback: Workplace Bullying | Dillon Job Service Blog

  8. All great points. If I were to add anything from my experience it would be: alert HR, Equity Office or the like just to have a record that you used the channels within the organization; make technology your best friend take videos/photos etc. as rigorous artifacts, and begin discussing this with your general doctor and start to look for a therapist early on in the game, since the process of finding someone local with an open schedule and/or a good fit usually takes a while. There are only a few therapists specializing in trauma in my area and of those, all full.

  9. For many targets, you will hear a common thread in their testimonies- Once I began to recover, I started to research to try to understand what had happened to me. Once society at-large is using the term workplace bullying; hopefully it will be a shorter timeline from injury to action.

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