No magic answers: “What should I do if I’m bullied at work?”

I’m being bullied at work. What should I do?

As workplace bullying enters the mainstream of American employment relations, more career advice columns and blogs are addressing this question, and some are offering handy-dandy, do-and-don’t lists for targets.

I find myself very concerned by this advice. Overly specific, one-size-fits-all advice is unwise, and sometimes even dangerous. Each bullying situation is different, subject to countless variables.

No easy fix

True workplace bullying — targeted, abusive, health-harming mistreatment at work — escapes simple solutions. Individual bullying situations often defy easy categorization, even if certain behaviors start to sound awfully familiar to those of us who have studied the phenomenon for years. Advice that helps in one situation may be completely wrong for another.

For example, I now wince when I read articles urging individuals to confront a bullying boss. True, at times direct confrontation can be a useful tool when situations involve incivility or lack of respect. But sometimes it can backfire. And when the situation becomes abusive — i.e., a main difference between bullying vs. incivility or bad manners — confronting the aggressor may be impossible for many.

Starting places

Instead, the best advice I can offer is more basic:

Above all, do your homework. Learn about workplace bullying. Go to the Workplace Bullying Institute’s extensive website and do some studying. Absorb the lessons of books like the Namies’ The Bully at Work (2d ed. 2009) and Robert Sutton’s The No Asshole Rule (2007).

If you believe the situation implicates your legal rights, schedule an initial consultation with an employment lawyer (or two) to safeguard your options. It likely will cost you a few hundred up front, but assessing your legal rights earlier rather than later may prove to be helpful down the road.

Some resources on this blog may be useful. The Need Help? page provides self-help and referral information. In addition, these two posts provide guidance:

After being bullied at work, what next?

Bullied at work? Avoid making these common mistakes

Unfortunate reality

Once a work relationship becomes abusive, damage control rather than a “make whole” solution is the likely to be the best result, especially if the abuser is a supervisor or high-level manager. It remains the case that, for many, leaving a job is the only way to stop the bullying.

This is not to say that very good results never occur. On occasion, the organization supports the target and takes action to see that the bully is removed and maybe even dismissed.

Avoid self-blame

Bullying targets should avoid the common response of blaming themselves for the bullying situation and for remedial efforts that prove unsuccessful. In the vast majority of cases, this second-guessing is not merited.

The landmark 2007 Workplace Bullying Institute/Zogby public opinion survey on workplace bullying reported that when workers complained of bullying behaviors to their employers, in more than six of ten cases the employers either took no action or made the matter worse. With such odds, even the most well-thought out attempts at resolving bullying situations have only modest chances of success

Until employers take bullying prevention and response more seriously, and until the law catches up with the severity of this problem, we are left with this sobering assessment. Improving that outlook is the main objective of the anti-bullying movement, and hopefully it will result in a more optimistic briefing.

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