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