Fighting Workplace Bullies
Preparing Yourself to Respond
Are you ready to fight back against a bully at your job? It’s tempting to confront him immediately, now that you understand his motivations and recognize his behaviors. But that usually isn’t a good idea. It will be difficult enough to deal with the bully without adding lack of preparation.
That’s not to say that you couldn’t respond right now. It might even work out well. Perhaps he has little power in the company, or he is already on his way out. Or you might have another job lined up. In these situations, your quick action could be rewarded with a dramatic improvement in your quality of life.
But otherwise it’s better to hold your fire, particularly if the bully is highly skilled and well-entrenched. Try to make the best of your situation--consider it more training for battle.
This section covers mental and financial preparation, after which you can prepare a strategy for fighting back, covered in the next section. In later sections, you will learn specific techniques for confronting and exposing a bully.
Fighting back against a workplace bully is serious business. Make sure you have thought through all the ramifications before you begin.
You are likely to experience many ups and downs as you battle a workplace bully. To be effective, you need a resilient attitude. That will allow you to endure difficult circumstances without feeling perpetually overwhelmed, and will make you far more effective in your daily interactions with the bully.
When you display a positive demeanor, it shows everyone--especially the bully--that you aren’t bothered by his aggressive tactics. You may even convey slight amusement at his more obvious bullying behaviors. By displaying calmness and poise, and staying in good humor, you become a more difficult target.
Going it alone
Expect to be on your own in your fight with a workplace bully, with no support from within the company.
Do you have co-workers you consider close friends? Perhaps they will stay loyal to you, but don’t count on it. They are more likely to distance themselves from your problems, hoping to preserve their own position and opportunities.
It is wise to assume that management (HR department and executives) will support the bully rather than the bully’s targets. If this turns out not to be the case, you will be pleasantly surprised.
You should also prepare for the possibility that fighting a bully will get you fired. If you are alone in fighting a bully, management has an easy opportunity to resolve the situation. Are you prepared to lose your job? Do you have another job lined up? Or can you survive financially during the time it takes to find a new job? If not, caution is prudent.
People grow through experience if they meet life honestly and courageously. This is how character is built.
- Eleanor Roosevelt
Which approach will you take?
Initially, you are probably better off planning a conservative approach to fighting a workplace bully. This involves using some of the more subtle techniques described on this website
Later, as you identify possible job opportunities, or begin establishing a financial war chest, you may want to be a little more aggressive. And if you are prepared to be abruptly fired, you can take a bold approach.
Never forget that you may be dealing with a ruthless manipulator. If you act in an emotional, haphazard way, you are playing to his strengths. Instead, you must control the game through careful planning and deliberate actions. Then commit yourself to a calm and consistent course of action.
To some extent, everything on this website is intended to help you prepare mentally. Through knowledge of self, knowledge of the bully and knowledge of real-world techniques, you can develop the confidence and expertise to fight back.
Emotional roller coaster
More specifically, you must gain, and then maintain, control of your attitude and emotions. If you are currently being bullied at work, you may already be on an emotional roller coaster.
One day, the bully offers supportive compliments, causing you to feel enthusiastic about your job and your future; the next day, he criticizes you so harshly that you sink into a funk, wondering if you will ever become successful in your career. Or perhaps you were enjoying a good relationship with the bully, but then you learned he had been undermining you behind your back.
Is the bully controlling your emotions?
You may feel intimidated by his bouts of anger, or increasingly frustrated by his attempts to control you. Maybe you just have the vague sense of being manipulated. All of these factors impact your attitude, reducing your ability to think clearly as you plan a response to bullying.
Before you can even consider fighting back, you must discipline your emotions; otherwise you are giving him the power to control your mental state. Dealing with a workplace bully can be difficult enough without offering him an easy opportunity to dominate your thinking.
Who is in control of your emotions? If a workplace bully is pushing your hot buttons, you will be in no condition to deal with him in a calm and confident manner.
A valuable first step in preparing to fight back is to develop a strong personal philosophy about the challenge facing you, one that will provide you with a steadfast attitude. By adopting a clear perspective and courageous outlook on the situation, you will be better prepared to survive even the longest battle, regardless of the ongoing successes and failures, or the ultimate result.
Creating an invincible attitude
Developing a rock-solid attitude is rarely an instant event. You must systematically work your way through the process of gaining a clear perspective on the situation, preparing for the worst that may come, and committing to see it through.
But first you might want to vent a little.
Steps to an invincible attitude:
- Get some perspective
- Prepare for the worst
- Commit to see it through
Step One: Start with a little venting
Even though it is tempting to lose your temper and yell insults at a workplace bully, don’t do it. You would be playing into his hands and harming your ability to effectively fight back.
Nevertheless, you may need to vent some anger and frustration. The following may help, but wait until you are alone and not within earshot of anyone else.
Short version to vent at a bully:
“You’re a backstabbing, condescending, conniving, manipulative bastard!”
Long version to vent at a bully:
“You’re a pushy, controlling, judgmental, nitpicking, fault-finding, blame-shifting, double-crossing, hypocritical, egotistical, self-absorbed, self-centered, self-important, self-righteous, irrational, unreasonable son-of-a-bitch!”
Step Two: Get some perspective
A workplace bully wants you to be emotionally overwhelmed. When you are flustered by his attacks, he can better control you. Gaining perspective is a big step towards gaining control of your emotions. Start by considering these questions:
Identify your workplace culture
What are the essential rules for conduct? What are the acceptable and unacceptable patterns of behavior, and the inherent beliefs and values? What are the prevailing approaches to communication and social interaction? Are relationships driven by a formal, rigid hierarchy or ad-hoc interactions?
Who has the greatest power? Second and third greatest? How much power is held by others in the firm, individually and collectively?
How dominant is this workplace culture? Is it in a state of flux? Has it evolved much during the past few years? Are there any major threats facing the company? How are executives responding to these threats?
Has upper management ever fired someone for mistreating employees? Is there currently a bully who appears to have the support of upper management? Has anyone complained about the bully? What was the result? Is there any chance the bully will be harshly disciplined or fired in the future?
Do top executives display the types of leadership skills required to recognize the problems of workplace bullying and change the company’s culture for the better?
Understand the results of losing
What are the chances it will be a losing battle? How would you be impacted? Can you handle the downside of losing? Can you avoid or overcome a sense of powerlessness, a sense of social isolation, or feelings of incompetence, frustration and despair?
Evaluate the rewards of winning
Do you want to work there in the long term? Is it worth the effort to conquer a workplace bully? Is your job really worth fighting for? Could you better spend your energy in improving your work-related knowledge and skills, and then find another job?
Evaluate the alternatives to fighting
Can you avoid a workplace bully, stay in your current position, and maintain your dignity and happiness? Can you transfer elsewhere in the company without retaliation from the bully? Should you find a new job instead of fighting?
Face your fears about changing jobs
How difficult will it be to look for another job? Can you commit to doing whatever it takes? Has a bully already convinced you that you are incompetent and unemployable at your current salary level? (I once heard a callous bully explain why he wasn’t concerned about an employee quitting: “It’s not like anyone else would hire him.”)
Understand the risks of doing nothing
Is doing nothing a possible solution, or would things get worse? Will you become infected by negativity if you stay in your current job? Will your problems at work harm your personal life?
You should seriously consider whether inaction on your part would lead to far more problems than confronting a workplace bully.
Step Three: Prepare for the worst
When you expect the worst, you are less likely to be disappointed.
Don’t be too surprised by the ruthlessness of a workplace bully’s actions, the total lack of support from your co-workers, or the rewards and honors bestowed upon the bully. You shouldn’t be shocked when the bully, a few weeks after you expose his diabolical plot against you, receives a huge bonus --just when you thought he was about to be fired.
Prepare for the worst. Then no matter how nasty things get, you can keep your cool. Instead of being miserable, you can adjust your strategy and continue the process of dealing with the bully to your best advantage.
Assume the worst from the bully
When you expect the worst from a bully, you are less likely to accept him at face value and more likely to recognize his bullying behaviors.
Don’t plan on a normal, cooperative relationship. Watch for him to manipulate you, deceive you, or even slander you. Once you begin fighting back, expect him to aggressively try to diminish your power and harm your reputation in the company. Don’t be surprised if he becomes belligerent and vindictive in the process.
Always remember that a skilled, aggressive bully is capable of the worst of workplace behaviors.
Assume that others will disappoint you
Don’t expect your co-workers to stand with you in confronting a bully. Loyalty and friendship can quickly vanish in the stress and turmoil of a toxic workplace, particularly when a powerful bully is on a rampage. Your co-workers will be intimidated into silence when their own jobs and careers are at stake.
Alternatively, your co-workers may remain unaware of the deceitful, manipulative nature of the bully. If they are good, cooperative people, they’ll probably give him the benefit of the doubt, accepting the fiction that either “it’s just a personality conflict” or that you are a “negative, disruptive influence” for complaining about the bully.
You may later see these co-workers victimized by the same workplace bully. Then they will see things your way, although it will probably be too late to do you--or them--any good.
You should also expect some co-workers to betray you and others to bad-mouth you behind your back. They may even blame you for problems caused by the bully. Expect to feel a gut-wrenching loss of trust and camaraderie, resulting in isolation from your co-workers.
You should also expect the worst from your family and friends. Don’t plan on getting any sympathy at home. If your spouse, children and closest friends haven’t experienced the pain of nasty workplace bullying, they are unlikely to understand your predicament. Because of their lack of understanding, they may offer you ineffective advice, or even criticize you when you most need their unconditional support. (Asking them to look at this website could open their eyes to your dilemma.)
Expect a nasty battle
By gearing up for a long, unpleasant battle with a workplace bully, you will be prepared for anything. Maybe things will get resolved early, but if it becomes a battle of endurance, you will have a much better chance of coming out on top.
Remember that during a lengthy struggle, you are likely to make a number of mistakes. There will be many twists and turns as the situation evolves, with nasty surprises along the way. Expect things to get much worse before they start to get better.
You should also acknowledge the possibility that you will lose perspective along the way. You may become emotionally overwhelmed or discouraged. With recurring frustration and failure, it can be a struggle to regain control of your emotions. Emotional isolation will make it even worse.
Be prepared to draw on reserves from deep within yourself in order to return to a relaxed, positive attitude.
Identify the ultimate value
Now that you are prepared for the worst, you can relax. Stop worrying about the future. Learn to appreciate the challenges. Look for the opportunities that arise from your battle with a bully.
There may be long-term benefits in terms of personal growth. You can develop the skill and poise to deal with challenges in the future, or heightened emotional intelligence that improves every aspect of your life.
You can learn to make the most of every situation, no matter how difficult. After repeated setbacks, you can learn to rebound quickly. Instead of regretting the past and becoming embittered, you can learn from your experiences and become empowered. If things get bad enough, it may force a major rethinking of your life’s purpose. When it is over, you will be a better, stronger and wiser person.
You can learn more about your relationships, including the quality of your current friendships. You will learn to appreciate that rarest of things, a genuine, loyal friend. Through this process, you can become a better judge of people and what to look for in future friends. You can also learn what to look for in future employers.
Winning doesn’t necessarily mean you will stay in your current job. Most importantly, you will have dealt with your fears, behaved with integrity and stood up for your rights.
You may want to repeat this a few times every day: “I appreciate the many opportunities this job provides me for personal growth.”
Step Four: Commit to see it through
What is the bully’s level of commitment? You must match or exceed that if you want to win.
Mildly committed bullies
In the mildest form, a bully only goes after convenient targets. His ambition is limited to making himself feel more powerful as a short-term ego boost. In this case, you dramatically improve your situation by standing up to him, a relatively simple strategy requiring little commitment on your part.
He prefers to exploit those whose responses to his bullying are weak and submissive. You only need to differentiate yourself. Just gently confront any aggressive behavior that comes your way, and the bully will leave you alone and go find an easier target.
At the other extreme, the bully may be relentless in his quest for power. That means he is probably committed to either controlling you or forcing you out of the company. If you go up against him with a halfhearted resolve to fight, he will almost certainly prevail.
To have any hope of victory against an ambitious bully, you must commit to see it through. He is highly motivated and you should be too. After all, your job is at stake.
You know what you have to do. Don’t get emotional about it; it’s only business. You can feel good that you have taken the high road. With honest motives, personal integrity and straightforward dealings, you are guaranteed of success. Even if you are fired.
Let me put it this way: I would rather fight and lose to a hundred bullies than spend one day in their position, knowing that for personal gain I have compromised the most basic ethic of treating people fairly.
Letting the bully self-destruct
You should never consider long-term submission as a healthy solution. But you may be able to stomach the situation long enough to watch the bully create so many enemies that he must leave the company. Over the years, I’ve observed several individuals with a great deal of inner strength survive a series of bullies.
Let’s face it: taking on a workplace bully can get you fired, or drive you the point of quitting. Take some time to consider the consequences.
Are financial pressures making you desperate to hang on to your job? If so, you will be in no position to calmly and effectively fight a bully.
So what’s the solution?
You could line up a new job in advance, but your new employer will probably want you to start within a reasonable time period. That won’t give you much opportunity to fight a bully. Still, if your company is truly toxic and battling a bully is likely to be a futile endeavor, leaving is probably the best answer.
On the other hand, if you believe it is worth the struggle, or if you just want to test yourself on the battlefield, you should consider reorganizing your finances. Then you won’t be so concerned with the downside of losing to the bully.
Lining up a new job
There is the possibility that a vindictive workplace bully will harm your ability to find a new job. Let’s say, for example, that as you fight back, you either get to the point of being fired or you resign before finding a new job. In this situation, the bully may provide negative feedback on your performance to any prospective new employers.
And you probably won’t have any recourse, because he can cleverly paint a negative picture of you without being explicit. He may damn you through faint praise or use subtle innuendo. For example, if asked about your level of commitment, he could say: “Well, at least ____ showed up to work every day.”
For this reason, you may be better off lining up a new job before you get too far down the road in fighting a workplace bully.
When you talk to prospective employers, be careful not to complain about your current situation. Instead, explain your motivation in positive terms. Explain that you are generally satisfied with your current job but you are seeking to improve your prospects, that you believe they offer more opportunity for advancement. Don’t mention that you can’t stand your boss.
Try to find companies you admire, then describe that admiration as your reason for interviewing. Alternatively, you could simply explain that you want a job closer to home.
Employment agencies and recruiters
You may want to enlist the help of an employment agency or professional recruiter. Find an experienced professional who understands your skills and ambitions. He should be able to arrange confidential interviews.
There’s usually no reason to tell the recruiter of your difficulties in dealing with a bully. If it comes up, make it clear that your main focus is on personal advancement, not escaping from a difficult relationship, and ask them not to share your dilemma with potential employers. Your positive attitude will go a long way towards enabling the recruiter to find you the best possible opportunity.
On occasion, a bully’s reputation may precede him. In a closely knit business community or specific industry, recruiters may have recurring opportunities from the same company, both filling vacancies and helping unhappy employees find jobs. Recruiters usually figure out that a bully is involved. If the recruiter has heard of your boss, he will understand your motivations.
A highly effective method of finding good jobs is to work through your network of friends and former co-workers. By getting a personal introduction to a prospective employer, you are more likely to find a company worthy of your commitment and to get a job offer.
Make job-hunting an ongoing part of your weekly routine. Study relevant books and create a personal job search plan. Make use of job-finding websites. Investigate the latest in social networking sites as a job-finding tool.
Set aside two or three hours each week to carry out your plan. It doesn’t take much more than that. In fact, it may be as simple as using an occasional lunch break to advance your plans: search web sites, study companies, and call or meet recruiters, peers, potential employers, or even people you admire in your line of work who can give you advice on career advancement. If you talk to enough people, something is likely to come along. Remember that when it comes to job hunting, you have nothing to lose and everything to gain.
Fighting after finding a new job
With the right new employer, you can request some time to wrap up your existing job. This could free you up to try more assertive tactics with the workplace bully. (But if your new employer asks you what needs to be wrapped up, don’t laugh like a villain and say: “Because vengeance will be mine.”)
On the other hand, you’re probably better off leaving right away. There are obvious advantages to immediately escaping a stressful situation.
Reorganizing your finances
It’s important to be realistic: if you are buried in debt with a family to support, fighting a workplace bully may not be for you. However, when it is more a question of lifestyle, you could consider making major changes.
You may be living in a comfortable home in a great neighborhood, but if you’re miserable at work, is it truly worth it? Wouldn’t you rather sacrifice some unessential pleasures in order to find flexibility and fulfillment in your career?
Try to imagine making major changes to reduce your current lifestyle and build up a larger nest egg. Not worth it? Then maybe you aren’t ready to take on a bully at work.
Getting family on board
Once you decide that a fulfilling career takes priority over a comfortable lifestyle, you can begin the process of educating your family. Ask them if they’re willing to sacrifice for a couple of years, until your work situation is back on track.
If they show no sympathy for your plight, you may be left with no viable options except to endure the current situation or find a new job.
If your family fully supports you, or you’re single with nothing to lose, you can get serious about achieving a greater degree of financial independence. There are many excellent books on this subject, with a primary emphasis on more disciplined spending and saving habits, in combination with debt reduction.
By the time you finish preparing for the worst, you may have convinced yourself it isn’t worth the fight. There’s a very good chance that’s true.
I once heard a shark expert asked: What should you do when you’re swimming in the ocean and see a shark approaching? He answered: Get out of the water.
Sometimes the best answer is the most obvious one. Consider the happiness of yourself and your family before taking on a powerful bully. Maybe you can escape the situation before he pulls you under.
But if you decide to fight back, make sure you have some powerful shark repellent handy.