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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