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  1. Blog
  2. Culture & Professionalism

What to Do When the Workplace Bully Is Your Boss

5 steps to take and when it’s illegal

Woman looking up and thinking
Photo courtesy of Tachina Lee

When we talk about bullying, we largely focus on kids, how they’re treated on the school bus, in class, and in their after-school programs. Bullying is thought to be common among hormonal middle schoolers, not grown adults.

Yet bullying, especially in the workplace, is alarmingly common. According to a 2019 poll by Monster, 90 percent of employees say they’ve been bullied at work. The most common offender? Bosses or managers, responsible for 51 percent of those cases. How is it that the person who’s supposed to advocate for you is, actually, the one most likely to be undermining and undervaluing your work?

There’s plenty to unpack there—jealousy, perfectionism, poor stress management, insecurity—but we’re not pseudo-psychologists, and honestly, you don’t need to be either. What you do need to understand is, first, how to manage a boss who’s bullying you and, second, how to stay sane while you’re doing it.

What is workplace bullying?

The Workplace Bullying Institute clearly defines workplace bullying as, “the repeated, health-harming mistreatment of one or more persons (the targets) by one or more perpetrators.” It’s classified as abusive and manifests as threats, humiliation, intimidation, or interference that prevents you from getting work done.

If you’re being bullied at work, you might also experience gaslighting, especially if the bully is your boss. They could say you’re overreacting or you’re the one with the problem. While there could be some truth to that, given the stat above, there’s a high probability that it’s not. If all signs point to verbal, emotional, or physical abuse, then trust your gut. You have the right to a safe work environment.

Read more: How to Fight Verbal Abuse at Work

How to deal with a bullying boss

1. Understand your bully

Again, there’s no need to psychoanalyze, but understanding, on a surface level, why your boss is the way they are can help you navigate the problem. Are they shouting about a seemingly inconsequential mistake because they’re dealing with pressures from their higher-ups? Do they correct the grammar in your emails because they feel intimidated that you have more years of experience than they do? Is there something happening outside the office, maybe a divorce or work as a caretaker, that’s influencing their behavior?

None of these are excuses for workplace bullying or toxic behavior, but they do help you pinpoint the problem and either track it (we’ll get to that) or manage it. During a 1:1 or a coffee break, ask your boss to talk you through their workload: What pressures are you facing that I might not be aware of? Be empathetic and aware while also being realistic about what you should have to deal with.

2. Focus on your job

Some things are in your job description, and some aren’t. Your boss’ mood swings are not, nor are they likely to change. Reread your original job description, and make sure you’re ticking all of those this-is-why-they-pay-me boxes. Try to ignore the interpersonal ones, aka the shouting match your boss is having with their computer right now. You want to remove as much emotional power from your boss as possible, which means you need to decide what matters and what doesn’t. Pay matters. Tantrums don’t.

3. Set boundaries

Just as you don’t want a bully ruling your emotions, you also don’t want them blowing up your phone at all hours, popping up at your desk unannounced, or invading your physical space. Employ boundary-setting statements that are polite and direct:

Please don’t text me when I’m at home. Let’s schedule a meeting to talk about this when I’m back in the office.

It sounds like this quick chat should be a meeting. Let me finish up what I’m doing here, then we can meet in your office. What time works best for you?

You’re making me uncomfortable. Please step back before we continue this conversation.

What you’ve done here is clearly outlined your boundaries, boundaries that are well within your rights in the workplace. As such, none of these statements is out of line, even if your boss responds negatively—and they might. Remember: People don’t like being wrong, and people who are bullies don’t like being told they’re wrong. That doesn’t make them any less wrong, though.

4. Build relationships

When your boss isn’t advocating for you, you need to find someone else who will, and that person doesn’t have to be a manager. Form strong working bonds with your coworkers so they can back you up when, say, your boss claims you’re not good at what you do. By excelling in your role, and even going above and beyond, you consistently show your character and work ethic. The people who trust you in the office will recognize that and begin to question your boss’ assessment.

Read more: How to Make the Business Case for What You Do

Tell someone

Dealing with an office bully is one thing, but when you’re dealing with a bully who has the power to fire you, you might need to call in backup. If standing up for yourself isn’t cutting it, plan on talking to HR, another manager, or your boss’ boss about the situation. Begin documenting everything that happens—time, date, place, and witnesses, if there are any. Save every email, text, or other written correspondence you think backs up your case. Ask your team members if they’d be willing to confirm events with HR. Then schedule a meeting.

The meeting should be confidential, and the results may vary. It’s common for companies with anti-bullying policies to implement workplace civility and diversity and inclusion training to address such concerns. Mediation or more direct disciplinary action can also occur.

Is workplace bullying legal?

It depends. In general, a boss who shouts, curses, or bullies everyone is considered an “equal opportunity harasser,” and what they’re doing is toxic, but not necessarily illegal. (Some court cases have won, and some haven’t. It really depends on the situation.) However, if your boss continually singles you out because of your race, gender, ability, or sexuality, then that’s a form of discrimination, and you might have a valid legal case, so long as you can prove that the bullying is severe and pervasive enough to constitute a hostile work environment. Again, document everything.

Finally, no one should ever touch you without your consent. Yes, bullying is childish, but this isn’t the playground, where someone might shove you a bit and get away with it. In real life, threats like your boss shaking their fist are classified as “assault,” and actual contact is considered “battery.” You can and should go to the police if you feel unsafe.

Read more: I Think My Boss Hates Me. Can I Win Them Back?

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