What to do if you're being bullied at work

And how to recognise bullying when it happens

Rachel Hosie
Friday 09 March 2018 13:09 GMT
(Getty Images/iStockphoto)

With the Speaker of the House of Commons John Bercow amongst various senior MPs to have been accused of bullying more junior staff in Parliament, the limelight is finally being shone on workplace bullying.

A “culture of fear” exists in many industries, and bullying certainly isn’t confined to school playgrounds.

Shouting at colleagues isn’t acceptable in any working environment, and it’s not something to be taken lightly: being bullied can leave a victim feeling intimidated, terrified and even suffering from PTSD.

If you’re being bullied by someone more senior than you at work, it can be hard to know how to deal with it in a way that won’t put your job at risk, but it’s imperative not to suffer in silence and there are ways you can effectively tackle the problem.

What is workplace bullying?

According to chartered psychologist and author of Free Yourself from Workplace Bullying: Become Bully-Proof and Regain Control of Your Life Aryanne Oade, there are three main ways workplace bullying can manifest itself:

  • One-off, frequent or repeated personal attacks which you find emotionally hurtful or professionally harmful.
  • A deliberate attempt by the bully to undermine your ability to carry out your work, or to injure your reputation, or to undermine your self-esteem and self-confidence.
  • A deliberate attempt by the bully to remove personal power from you and keep this power for themselves.

(Personal power means your right to choose for yourself how you behave.)

Oade says that in order for an incident or aggression to be classed as workplace bullying, all three of the above need to be present at the same time.

“I think this is true whether the aggression is subtle and indirect - such as a bully deciding to quietly slander you behind your back in an attempt to undermine your reputation - or outright and obvious - such as an angry verbal attack orchestrated against you by a bully during a one-to-one encounter or a group meeting,” she says.

Some managers may try and justify bullying behaviour as a “clash of personalities” or just someone’s leadership style, but this is not OK.

What to do if you’re being bullied at work

The pitfalls to avoid

When being attacked by a bully, many people’s default reaction is to comply in order to get the encounter over with as soon as possible.

“This approach results in them offering little or no resistance to the bully and is often motivated by a fear that confronting the bullying will create an escalating situation,” Oade told The Independent.

As understandable as this is, reacting in this way makes it easier for the bully to attack again in the future.

Core bully-proofing skills

Oade believes it’s essential to handle an incident of bullying at the time of the attack. Doing so is of course nerve-wracking, but it can help the target retain control and throw the issue back to the bully, while demonstrating that the target is in charge of how they act under pressure.

“As soon as a target demonstrates that they are in charge of what they say or do, even in a small way, the evolving bullying dynamic alters in their favour, sometimes sufficiently for that encounter, sometimes sufficiently to stop the bullying completely,” Oade explains.

What to do at the time of attack: mental skills

Workplace bullying is about power, and this is how the bullying dynamic is established. However if you show the bully that you’re able to handle the bullying behaviour straightforwardly and simply, you can change the dynamic in your favour, making it harder for the bully to continue targeting them.

Recognise what the bully is trying to achieve. “A skilled bully uses specific behaviour which they believe will put the target onto the back foot, retain them control of the interaction, and create a bullying dynamic between the two of them,” Oade explains. But you need to realise you have much more influence at the time of an attack than you think.

It’s also important to note that most of what a bully says is untrue. “Most bullying remarks do contain an element of truth but only an element wrapped up in a fabric of lies, slander and deceit,” explains Oade. You don’t need to defend yourself or justify your actions - put the issues back onto the bully and hold them accountable for what they just said.

What to do at the time of attack: behavioural skills

You may be wondering what Oade means by “put the issues back to the bully.” Essentially, this means countering bullying remarks (which are likely to be inaccurate or slanderous allegations about your work, character or commitment) by taking the spotlight off you and putting it on the bully by asking them to justify what they have said.

“Putting the issues back to the bully demonstrates to them that their bullying attack has not rendered the target sufficiently vulnerable that they cannot handle the situation; and it requires the bully to justify their bullying remarks – not an easy thing to do if the bullying attack consists mainly of lies, innuendo and misrepresentation,” Oade explains.

Here’s how it can work in practice: the bully has made a significant error in his handling of a key customer at a meeting. The following day, he turns to his target during a team meeting, rounding on her with the words: “You dropped us right in it in yesterday’s meeting!” The target is initially thrown at being scapegoated as she knows she didn’t speak at the meeting in question.

But she regains her composure and puts the bully on the spot by saying: “As we both know, I did not speak at the meeting you are referring to. You did all the talking. I understood what you said just then to mean that you were trying to blame me which can’t be right. So, run it past me again. What did you just say?”

The most important thing is to say or do something, however small. It takes courage to stand up to a bully and is easier said than done, but Oade believes there’s always something you can say or do at the time of the attack

Using confident body language can make all the difference too: “Appearing confident during an attack changes the energy between the target and the bully, and alters the evolving bullying dynamic in the target’s favour,” Oade explains.

Stand tall, pull your shoulders back and speak clearly and firmly. By using more assertive body language you’ll feel better in yourself and also send a strong message to the bully.

“Since many bullies are on the look-out for signs of confusion or distress which they can exploit, this form of bully-proofing enables targets to avoid appearing vulnerable even when they feel it,” Oade says.

What to do if the bullying continues

Bullying itself isn’t illegal, but if your being intimidated or humiliated by a colleague, it come could under harassment which is illegal under the Equality Act 2010.

If you aren’t able to resolve the issue informally, talk to management, HR or - where applicable - your trade union. It can help to have a body of evidence, so try to note down all incidents of bullying to show as examples.

If your company fails to help you, consider talking to an employment lawyer.

For more support, contact Bullying UK’s helpline on 0808 800 2222.

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