It’s difficult to know if workplace bullying has actually increased over the years, or it is just finally being revealed for what it is. How many decades have passed where the perpetrators were excused away as being “intense”, “driven”, “focused” or any other number of descriptive terms for what really just comes down to plain bullying? As more and more people observe — and hopefully — report these kinds of unacceptable behaviors in their co-workers, a definitive means of identifying and handling these destructive personalities will become a standard instead of an exception in the workplace.

Bully, you!

“I didn’t really realize what was happening at first,” recalls Alicia, a 35-year-old executive legal assistant. “My boss was super-intense. Sometimes she’d take me out to lunch and tell me how much she appreciated me, only to return to the office where she’d berate me for a minor issue like a poorly-stapled document. She was always really aggressive in her speaking mannerisms and I chalked up the yelling and erratic behavior to the overwhelming caseload. When something went wrong, I would let her scream at me for a while, blame me for everything that was bothering her, then she’d calm down and things would be level for a few hours, and sometimes even a day.” This isn’t an unusual scenario when dealing with a workplace bully. They often will be charming and affable until it becomes clear that they’re not going to get or things aren’t going their way. Then all hell breaks loose.

“My breaking point came when my boss called me into her office. She had missed a flight two days before – a flight she’d booked herself, put in her calendar, in the office calendar and had set up text reminders for. My only involvement was printing out her boarding pass the day before the flight and handing it to her.” Alicia was informed that she would not be receiving her 6-month bonus because her boss was out the money for the plane ticket and it “had to be recouped somehow”.

When Alicia had received the same bonus seven months earlier, she excitedly told her boss and a co-worker that the money was going to cover her daughter’s after-school care. Bullies will look for the weakest points in their victims, then use that to their advantage. A bully might disguise themselves as a caring co-worker, wanting to offer a shoulder to lean on, only as a means of gaining insight into their victims’ lives and vulnerabilities. This sort of behavior puts them in “the know” and gives them the upper hand.

Taking the Bull(y) by the Horns

In Alicia’s case, she chose to withdraw herself from the situation. After the threat of withholding her bonus, Alicia decided she had to choose her mental and emotional well-being over the job. She tendered her resignation, along with a formal written complaint. It was received with little surprise by HR – Alicia had been the sixth assistant in four years to quit the position under this particular lawyer.

So what should you do if you find yourself being bullied?

Here are a few tips to help you navigate through this difficult situation:

  1. Acknowledge the problem. It is NOT you that is the problem. The bully is what is causing this – you didn’t ask for it, nor do you deserve it.
  2. Find allies. If you have close workplace friends or have noticed others bearing the brunt of this person’s wrath, talk to them. You may strike out, or you may find yourself with a strong partner or partners to take this problem head-on.
  3. Assess your position. What this means is that you need to focus on what is best for you. Are you finding yourself over-stressed, with the effects taking a toll on your health, personal life or emotional well-being? If so, consider removing yourself from the situation, as Alicia did.
  4. Take it to the top. According to research, you’re at a 66% chance of losing your job – not the bully, so what do you have to lose by reporting it? If your employer is conscientious, he/she will listen to your concerns and handle the situation, hopefully reprimanding and/or letting the bully go. If not, do you really want to work in such a toxic environment? A workplace that refuses to look out for its greatest assets – its employees?
  5. Take care of yourself. Regardless of what you choose to do, put yourself first. Ultimately, you need to make the decision on what is best for you and your mental, emotional, physical and professional health.

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Devin C. Hughes is the author of 22 books including Contrast: A Biracial Man’s Journey To Desegregate His Past, Self Talk, Moon Patrol & Agents of Change.  Devin shares enchanting stuff on the topics of happiness, motivation, diversity/inclusion, change and productivity.