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6 Ways to Handle Workplace Bullying

In the immortal words of Taylor Swift, "Why you gotta be so mean?"

you're a jerk

You spend the majority of your time in the workplace. But when the work environment becomes hostile, including various forms of bullying, you might begin to dread going to work—and then how will your life be? You might feel like you’ve been transported back to high school, and you are ducking and dodging the “mean girls.”

Unfortunately, bullying in the workplace isn’t something to sweep under the rug and is more common than you may think. According to a 2017 study by the Workplace Bully Institute, 19 percent of Americans have suffered abusive conduct at work; while another 19 percent have witnessed it. 

The study found that more than 65 percent of women are the targets of bullies that are both male and female. About 70 percent of bullies are male and about 30 percent are female. 

What does workplace bullying look like?

Jennifer Harris-Brown, the State of Tennessee’s director of talent management and employee engagement, says bullying is an unwelcome behavior that occurs over a period of time and is meant to harm someone who feels powerless to respond. “One of the key words in that definition is ‘powerless,’” she says. “Bullies thrive on taking away the powers of others by inflicting emotional harm whether is by making the victim feel incompetent or humiliated.”

Harris-Brown says there are some signs that women can look out for to see if they are being bullied. These include:

  • Threatening to remove assignments

  • Unreasonable work demands

  • Being excluded from activities

  • Have your work undermined

  • Being micromanaged excessively

  • Verbal cues like yelling, derogatory comments, harsh tones, or insults

How to deal with workplace bullying

1. You have the right to work in a safe environment

Right or wrong, women are often told to temper their emotions in the workplace, but when you add in bullying, it can wreak havoc on your emotions—and that’s not something to ignore. Women may not want to be perceived as weak or overly sensitive, but Harris-Brown says it is important to realize you don’t have to buy into the myth that you need to have tough skin and accept your circumstances. “As an HR professional, when I hear ‘you have to have tough skin to work here,’ that immediately raises questions for me about the culture of the organization,” she says. “Because sometimes women may feel they can only fit in if they do put on the tough front, therefore accepting the bullying behavior.” 

2. Find out if your organization has a policy on workplace bullying

Bullying isn’t classified as illegal in many states, so a lot of companies do not have a formal policy against it. It is worth checking your employee handbook and other documents that outline the organization’s values. “You may often see workplace bullying referred to as “abusive conduct in the workplace,’” says Harris-Brown. However, if bullying amounts to some other civil or criminal wrong such as assault, then legal action can be taken, according to the Society for Human Resource Management. 

3. Point out the unacceptable behavior

There could be the off chance the person doing the bullying isn’t aware of what they are doing. Harris-Brown suggests making the person aware that their actions are unacceptable and explain why it’s a problem. But don’t wait and let it fester; address the issue as soon as each incident occurs because bullying gets worse over time. You can set up a one-on-one meeting with them or simply pull them aside to calmly explain why their actions are inappropriate. Keep the interaction as direct and non-confrontational as possible:

Lee, I know these new projects are top of mind for you right now, but I have a few projects ahead of yours. Moving forward, let’s meet to prioritize upcoming projects so I can carve out enough time for you.

I prefer direct feedback on my work, both positive and negative. So, in the future, if you have an issue with something I’ve produced, please talk to me about it. My door is always open.

4. Talk to your manager (or someone else in a management position if the boss is the bully)

In some cases the bully is the boss, so that makes things a bit awkward and difficult. Sixty-one percent of bullies are in charge, according to the WBI study. Harris-Brown says the bully’s behavior has more than likely been tolerated by the organization because they’re either top performer or “that’s just how they manage.” If your boss is the problem, then you need to gauge the relationships within your company to determine who to talk to. You definitely don’t want to turn to the bully’s lunch partner. If necessary, talk to HR (informally) about mediating or finding other constructive solutions that don’t put you in the direct spotlight.

5. Report the issue to HR

According to the study, 29 percent of those being bullied remain silent about their abusive conduct; only 17 percent seek formal resolution. Women shouldn’t feel ashamed of reporting bullying. Once you have reported it to HR, it is up to the HR representative to take the claim seriously or you could have the option to file a lawsuit. It is also up to HR to take the appropriate steps to handle the matter moving forward.

6. When reporting bullying, make sure you have everything documented

Harris-Brown says it’s important to keep track of the bullying events as they occur. “Although you may think you won’t forget what happened, it’s difficult to retain the details of what occurs over time. The more details the better.” Track any evidence you have including emails, texts, and voicemails. 

She recommends using the four W’s:

  • Who: Name who was involved and include any witnesses

  • What: Be detailed about what happened

  • When: Note dates and times

  • Which: If there is an organization policy, be clear on which components of the policy it violates

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By Shameika Rhymes

Contributor

Shameika Rhymes is a Charlotte, North Carolina–based freelance writer who loves writing about culture, lifestyle, entertainment, and feminism. Her bylines include InHerSight, ET Online, Style BluePrint, Charlotte magazine, USA Today magazines, Shondaland, and Parade magazine. She also hosts an entertainment show Check the Rhymes TV on YouTube. She holds a bachelor's degree in mass communications from East Tennessee State University and a master's in sports commerce from the University of Memphis.

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