Should you confront your workplace bully?

This suggestion is popping up with increasingly frequency in well-meaning advice columns about bullying at work: Make your concerns known by confronting your workplace bully.

Recently I praised British journalist Jackie Ashley for calling upon us to stand up to the bullies in our society. But I should’ve been more specific. In agreeing with her, I meant that we should be standing up against bullying behaviors as a community.

That’s different than telling a target to confront her abuser individually and await the consequences.

Questionable advice

Nevertheless, career advice columns that address workplace bullying often urge targets to do just that.

Minneapolis business author Harvey Mackay suggested this option in a syndicated piece that ran in newspapers across the country (link here):

Speak up to the harasser. Your first step should be to tell the person that his or her behavior, comments or requests aren’t welcome. In some cases, the matter may end there. But don’t hesitate to inform management if you can’t comfortably confront the other person on your own.

Risks of direct confrontation

If there is one suggestion that causes me to question the wisdom behind one-size-fits-all advice columns on workplace bullying, this is it.

When objectionable behavior involves milder forms of incivility or disrespect, tactfully and directly speaking up may prove to be an effective way to address it. But targeted, malicious bullying is different; it’s a form of abuse. In any situation involving genuine abuse, face-to-face confrontation is fraught with risks. Here’s why:

First, if there’s no third party to observe the conversation, it’s the target’s word against the bully’s as to what transpired in that interaction. The bully could even attempt to turn the tables, suggesting that he was the actual “victim” of the encounter.

Second, targets of abuse usually (and understandably) are not in the best frame of mind when dealing directly with their abuser. People in these circumstances are more likely to say or do something they later regret.

Third, when bullying is covert or indirect, it’s doubly hard to confront the tormenter, who often will deny there’s any such behavior going on and may even act like she was wrongfully accused.

Fourth, even if one does not wish to confront the bully alone, the question of which third party to enlist can be a vexing one, because frequently the bully is a member of management and/or has friends at that level.

Finally, and most importantly, we know that many bullying targets have tried this approach with disastrous results. Over the years, I have spoken to scores of people who have paid a price for thinking that they could work it out with their tormenter(s).

Evaluate each situation individually

People are different. Bullying situations are different. Stock advice columns about dealing with workplace bullying can be dangerous in that they offer suggestions that may be effective in some situations, while backfiring horribly in others.

As I wrote in a post here last month, there is no substitute for doing your homework in planning a course of action. Keeping a cool head in these situations is very difficult. People who believe they are targets of bullying will benefit from learning and understanding before acting.

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For more about dealing with workplace bullying situations, please go to the Need Help page of this blog, here.

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Correction: I had erroneously summarized a column by Tia Benjamin (link here) as recommending that a target directly confront a bully. She contacted me and kindly explained that her recommendations are for organizations, not individual bullying targets. My apologies to Tia and thanks for pointing out my mistake.

17 responses

  1. Thanks for the post.

    When I finally stood up to the bully, all I got was “Too bad!” He knew the dumb boss would not do anything to him.

  2. I wish I had my copy of Gavin de Becker’s Gift of Fear at hand, because I could quote a great passage relevant to this. If I recall correctly, either he or one of the police officers he knows who deals with domestic violence kept a sign near the desk. I can’t remember the exact wording of the sign, but the gist of it was that if you’re in a violent situation, securing your safety was more important than securing justice.

    If you’re being bullied, you deserve both, but know which one’s more important to you and yours, and act accordingly.

  3. When it comes to work place bullying one size fit all is very dangerous, I would never confront a bully alone. Always have witness or contact them by email, I find them to be liar and have no ethical or consideration for others. They’re very little laws to protect the victim from the bully, so protect yourself as best as you can.

    • Amen to that!!! I agree, and you are 100% correct as I have experienced this myself to be true. A person, in particular a “target” who behaves as an adult can not and should not expect the “bully” to be receptive as an adult by confronting him/her – especially alone. A bully does not behave in an adult-like manner and therefore can not be reasoned with as such.

  4. What you say is so appropriate. There is always a power imbalance between the bully and the target It is much more appropriate to have witnesses, to document on email, and I encourage everyone to remember their safety first (both psychological and physical) and then justice. You may not get the justice.

  5. It’s important to confront the bully in a tactful documentable way to show good faith when starting the process to get relief. In fact, I would question the motives of someone who makes no attempt to solve a problem at its source but instead goes running to managment or HR. This is a game wolves-in-sheep’s clothing bullies play to hijack their targets.

    From my experience, a passive aggressive co-worker refused to communicate with me so I would be “surprised” later when confronted by management with her complaints. These complaints were exaggerated and fabricated. She even filed a bogus complaint with HR trying to accuse me of harrassment. After she admitted never telling me directly about these issues and there being no evidence of wrong doing, HR threw out her complaint. Unfortunately, that didn’t stop her from continuing the sneak attacks because agency management condoned hostile behavior.

    I did confront the PA bully when this first started happening. I asked why couldn’t she tell me what’s bothering her as it is disrespectful to go over my head about things I know nothing about. She glared and said she “didn’t know what I was talking about”. Another bully at this organization verbally accosted me on several occassions. Finally I’d had enough and told her I don’t appreciate the way she speaks to me. She demanded examples of what I was talking about, which I provided, and then answered that I “deserve to be spoken to that way”.

    Do I regret confronting the bullies? No, I know I did the right thing despite their reactions. Did the bullying stop just because I spoke up to them? No, but true bullies won’t stop without outside intervention. The target increases their credibility with those outside sources by demonstrating that they tried to resolve the matter interpersonally. Targets should document these difficult conversations and better yet, obtain witness statements or confront via e-mail to head off bully claims of ignorance.

  6. I wouldn’t confront the bully. However, I would execute what I call “exposucate” the workplace terrorist. What is exposucate?? It’s my pet term that’s a combination of exposure and educate. ;0) The main purpose of my sites and blogs is to educate and make job applicants and employees aware of the need to learn Basc Employee Rights BEFORE seeking and ACCEPTING employment!

    When a career seeker takes the time to educate him/herself to workplace issues such as a bullying they become armed with knowledge and wisdom to most effectively protect their rights from being violated. For example, Wanda wisdom learns all about workplace bully, sexual harassment, discrimination and how to prove discrimination BEFORE accepting a administrative assistant position with We Intimidate, Inc.

    Three months in after the “honeymoon” is over, We Intimidate unleashes it’s bullying and harassment onslaught on Ms. Wisdom. Since Ms. Wisdom knows her employee rights she uses techniques in proving discrimination and harassment such as documenting events, asking the appropriate questions concerning the bullies behavior when a witness or witnesses are around and documenting all relevant correspondence with the bully.

    She will Know how to cautiously interact with HR and any internal EEO officer, understanding these departments are NOT her friend. She will have advance knowledge of bully characteristics. She will understand what “mobbing” is all about from co-workers who engage in “workplace conspiracy” with the bully.

    She will know the questions and documentation to ask and memorialize about the bully and potential witnesses designed to strengthen her potential claim with the EEOC. Thus she EXPOSES the bully by her own “pre EEOC” investigation and she’s shown great wisdom to EDUCATE and arm herself with critical knowledge that unfortunately most career seekers and employees “still don’t get”.

    Most employers count on employees been ignorant of their workplace rights. As long as those entering the workplace remain largely misinformed or uniformed, problems such as bullying will continue.

    • Having essentially followed this approach, I can attest that it does not necessarily “work”. I was still forced to resign out of concern for my health, but I can assure myself time and time again that I did what I could, I tried my best, and there was nothing more I could do. I may have lost my job, career, and income, but I have nothing to regret on that front.

      I behaved as well as anyone could under the circumstances. Workplace bullying is not a problem that an individual can solve in most cases.

      • I have to agree with Kachina in that even the best documentation does not guarantee that a workplace bully will be dealt with effectively in the near term or even ever. I am proud of having stood up to my workplace bully in state government even if I did not achieve the immediate result that I was seeking and that should have occurred under all ethical and legal standards in place. Since then, additional targets have suffered as a result, and the bullying and incompetence continues at an alarming rate. If I did not stand up for myself and try to change things, I would still wonder, “What if?” I am also proud of the written evidence of workplace harassment that the bully provided for me when I told him point blank to, “Bring it on!” He even documented my saying those words to him, and I also had a witness from human resources present when I finally had enough and told him so! I am confident that one day, as more targets of workplace bullying step forward, the full details of my experience will play a role in eradicating this behavior from all workplaces. In the meantime, I highly suggest that those being targeted by bullies in the workplace should strongly consider laying the groundwork to be your own boss. It is your competence and integrity that are threatening to the bullies you are reporting to now. We need more of you to become bosses, run your companies well, and treat your own employees the right way!

  7. I couldn’t agree more David.
    Confronting the person who has used bullying behaviours is often included in organisational policy, but it can often place people at further risk of harm, rather than resolving the problem.
    It’s all about safety and well-being, and we need to start treating this problem from that frame.

  8. I believe that the future of medicine is in the power of brain scans to show the damage to the brain. Yes, psychiatric injury is a much better term to reduce the stigma. However, I do believe the damage is physiological as well and we will soon see the ability to show medical evidence in the brain scans, and other tests as well.

  9. Thank you, everyone, for these comments. The pointed stance I took seems to dovetail with the experiences of many who have dealt with bullying situations. I wish I was wrong — that dozens of people would’ve disagreed and shared stories of successful approaches and confrontations. But sadly that does not appear to be the case.

    Well, hopefully this post will help others in the same situation reach informed decisions about how to proceed. I wish we had better answers.

  10. I completely agree, and I’m so encouraged to read this post. Confronting a bully can escalate the conflict to mobbing, which is far more severe and damaging. Moreover, many workplace conflicts pass, especially if we don’t fuel them with our emotions. I know this is far easier said than done, but there is wisdom in letting some storms pass. Given time, you’ll know if it is a passing storm or time to change jobs, but in either case, a confrontation can make it far, far worse.

  11. My bully is a director. She has already been publicly documented as a bully (newspaper articles when she was in a high-profile job asked for her resignation because of her bullying style). She has very good financial skills, but yells at people, drops the “f” bomb, and in a highly emotional, eratic, unstable person. The male managers around her are afraid of her. She is documenting me to try to have my FMLA used against me (my husband was seriously ill for five years before he passed away a few months ago), trying to give me negative performance evaluations, won’t approve leave without pay for an ER visit (I have so much anxiety and stress that I am on strong anti-anxiety, anti-depressants, blood pressure, and other prescriptions). Fortunately, our union is involved in this to help me. We are at the point where we have had a lawyer from the union write a letter, informing her that her actions are legal and providing direction on how we want the situation rectified. Our agency has also hired an investigator to research my claims of retaliation (very ugly political situation I am involved in, through no fault of my own), discrimination (FMLA) and bullying. I can’t grieve for the loss of my husband (my best friend for 32 years) because I am dealing with the stress of this director who has no business managing people. I would not talk with her because she would deny that she is bullying and I’m emotionally too fragile to deal with her unreasonable behavior). She has no compassion or empathy for the situation I am in. I am devasted at the loss of my husband and all she cares about is “winning”. We’ll see how this turns out. This isn’t the first time I’ve been bullied by a manager (third time). This is by far the worst.

  12. I never thought I’d be doing this – posting comments to a blog covering workplace bullying – but I am.

    I’m making these comments and “venting” out of relief, and in some desperation. I have not slept too well or eaten too much over the past few days.

    This will be very long.

    First, though, after having reviewed and read many of the essays, articles, and blog postings to be found here, I want to express my sincere and deep appreciation to Dr. Yamada and all the other contributors, for making such a virtual “place” available to what seems to be – and hoping will be – a growing community. I’ve spent several hours here and at the Workplace Bullying Institute blog, in astonishment and relief, in discovering that I may not be as alone as I think. (Though it feels that way, at work.)

    About myself…

    I’m in my early 50s, and have two graduate degrees.

    I have a job in a corporation in a major city in the United States. Since my arrival in the 1990s, far over 50% of the original labor force has been laid off / had their jobs rendered obsolete by technology / offshored / flat out been fired / and in some cases, quit-resigned-left without having any new jobs immediately available. Other individuals have since been hired, filling a variety of new and different positions and groups.

    My manager, an extremely ambitious and “technically” intelligent person who has risen speedily and steadily higher in the corporate hierarchy ever since arriving in the organization. The attitude and cumulative actions of this person, a candidly self-described (and very proudly so) “control freak”, have, though I’ve tried to adapt my skills, behavior, and attitude to conform to their demands and requirements, have made me increasingly question my cognitive ability, mental acuity, and ultimately, the viability of my future in the organization. The quality of my skills and abilities were taken for granted and often praised by my prior managers.

    In general, my manager will only notice and comment upon – in a belittling and scathing way, and only through e-mail – the quality of the most minute aspects of my work. The person seems to have – and enjoy having – a strong and negative mental bias. I’m convinced that my co-workers do not experience this.

    I would prefer to be dismissed, so that I can at least collect unemployment benefits and start anew. Despite the dismal economy, and the extraordinary difficulty of a mid-50s job seeker in securing new employment, I’m very seriously contemplating resigning, to salvaging my health and dignity. I know this will permanently affect my vocational and economic future.

    But, this may not happen. I may simply have to leave.

    I won’t and can’t recapitulate the chain of events and interactions leading to “this” posting . Objectively, not every interaction with my manager has been negative; a few have been positive. But, those are anomalies. Thus, I don’t know if I’m hypersensitive, or validly seeing “something” that has always been there.

    So, I’ll ask for opinions about the following incident…

    My Father passed away a few years ago, after a lengthy and debilitating illness. I’d been out of the office off-and-on during his illness, without any difficulty from my manager.

    On the morning of my father’s death, just a few hours after his passing, I phoned my manager to inform the person that he’d died, and that I’d be out of the office for the next few days. This was greeted with a perfunctory “I’m sorry. I know that’s why you were out of the office.”

    Then, my manager’s tone of voice and intonation abruptly changed. “Where are the files for (so and so) project?!”

    I was already stunned – and more – from shock over the death of my father (you can’t put that into words…) but I was appalled and horrified by the callousness and insensitivity (moral cruelty?) of this demand. I couldn’t say anything. Then, my manager repeated, “Where are the so-and-so files? You remember, don’t you? Don’t you?! Come on, you remember! Where are they?!”

    Perhaps because I’m a “nice person”, have a predilection for pleasing people, and have internalized an almost Pavlovian conditioning to “do whatever the boss wants; satisfy the boss; make the boss happy”, I was able to haltingly stammer out an answer. To my shame.

    When I returned a week later, I found that my manager had neither touched nor worked with the “so-and-so” project.

    Also, my manager gave me my condolence card – signed by my co-workers – ONLY after I’d presented the person with a list of organizations to which charitable donations could be made, in my father’s memory. I was finally given the card.

    Nobody made any donations.

    I won’t elaborate on the other significant events that have happened over the years. To do so would make this message too long. Essentially, my attitude towards my manager (who is deeply admired by peers, superiors, and colleagues) is one of disgust, moral contempt, and some fear, but I mask this with a facade of camaraderie and equanimity. However, this is becoming exhausting as it’s been debilitating.

    Last week, I came to realize that my constellation of feelings and attitudes shares some similarities with what I guess battered spouses experience: A repetitive cycle of hope and placation, contempt, abuse, mistreatment, dependency (well, the company signs the checks!) and fear. And the whole damn thing starts all over again.

    Finally, I have great empathy for Ari’s comment, and those of other writers, at: https://newworkplace.wordpress.com/2011/07/19/post-traumatic-embitterment-disorder-and-workplace-bullying/: “I feel like I don’t have what it takes to make it in the world. I feel like there’s something about me that makes people target me.”

    I feel that way too.

    I also appreciate Jody’s comment, at https://newworkplace.wordpress.com/2011/09/26/should-you-confront-your-workplace-bully/.

    I’m very tired. I feel like my psychic reserves are almost depleted.

    I’ll probably quit, or be fired.

    I know I’m taking a chance in placing this very lengthy post on your site, but what will be, will be.

    Thank you for reading.
    Sisyphus

    (I’m going to hit the “enter” key now.)

    (Here I go.)

    • Typically on the Internet, when someone decides to leave a very long comment, it’s a rant, often with lots of caps and exclamation marks.

      I have noticed over the years, however, that when people comment online about their workplace bullying experiences at length, instead of getting rants and ALL CAPS, what you get is a lot of shared pain, anguish, and insight. It’s not about standing on a soapbox.

      That says something about the nature of bullying at work, and about people who are so abused.

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