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How to Deal With a Bully at Work

Updated on October 26, 2016
tamarawilhite profile image

Tamara Wilhite is a technical writer, engineer, mother of 2, and a published sci-fi and horror author.

We would all like to be this enthusiastic at work.
We would all like to be this enthusiastic at work. | Source


Ask yourself the following questions to determine the best route in dealing with a bully at work. Are the demands legal? Are the expectations reasonable? Is this their management style? Is the conflict personal?

The correct course of action in response to the bullying will depend on the answers to these questions. Let's look at each question in detail.

Resist the temptation to call your situation slavery - it makes you feel helpless. You can change positions in the company, work with HR to change the coworker's behavior or find another job.
Resist the temptation to call your situation slavery - it makes you feel helpless. You can change positions in the company, work with HR to change the coworker's behavior or find another job. | Source

Are the Requests Legal?

Is the bully demanding harder work from someone they are paying to work? Or are they demanding unpaid overtime from an employee? Are they micromanaging you because you’ve had a higher than average rate of mistakes or is it an unrealistic expectation of perfection?

Determine if the request is legitimate within the scope of their job assignment or yours. If the person perceives you as slacking off or failing to do the job right, criticism may be warranted – and that is not bullying. If it is not a legitimate request, bring up the issue with your boss, their boss or Human Resources. In some situations, an illegal request needs to be brought up to the legal department. After all, if you comply with the illegal request and the boss says you did it on your own, you could be the one held legally culpable for the consequences.

Are the Requests Reasonable?

Are their expectations reasonable? For example, a manager may be bullying staff who do not work overtime because they associate overtime with hard work, regardless of the over-hours productivity.

Is the team leader upset that you don’t do system administration work over the weekend, ignoring the fact that you are not qualified to do that type of work? Is an intern being bullied for refusing to work in payroll, an area in which they have no expertise? Is someone in an office job being told to clean the bathroom? What are their expectations compared to your performance?

If their expectations are reasonable, are they related to the job? If they are not, you can push back and say that this isn't something that should be demanded of you. For example, pushing a female employee to do everyone's dishes when she works in payroll isn't reasonable. If the expectations are related to the job, such as one's attitude when dealing with the customer, can you strive to meet them?

If their expectations are unreasonable, can they be educated as to what you can do? If the requests remain unreasonable, counter the unreasonable requests with reasonable ones. If the requests are still unreasonable, ask to review job descriptions against the bully's requests.

Is Bullying a Management Style?

Is the bully’s idea of management patterned after a drill sergeant or tough coach on a bull horn? Is the bully always yelling at employees, belittling those who make mistakes or fail to make quota or using profanity? Do they humiliate you in front of others in a misguided attempt to motivate you to do better in the future? A good manager can point out an accounting error or mistake in following company procedure without screaming at their staff.

The bullying in this case may simply be a matter of training, and that requires working with someone outside the management chain. Speak with someone in Human Resources or the ethics office to bring up the manager’s management style.

Is the Cause Personal?

When “bullying”, are they criticizing something personal as compared to professional? Are they demeaning you due to race, age, education, class, background, beliefs or your politics? While a manager may be demanding when it comes to meeting professional obligations that come with the job, endlessly criticizing someone due to perceived faults with personal aspects such as their hobbies or political beliefs is wrong.

Schedule a meeting with the bully. Bring in a neutral witness, someone who is not their direct report or subordinate. Wait until you are calm and clear as to the criticisms that are out of line.

Then use the sandwich criticism method outlined in the book “The One Minute Manager”. Thank them for meeting with you or for the opportunity to work with the company. State clearly the set of criticisms that are out of line due to their personal nature. Say that you will work to improve any valid professional criticisms such as tardiness or lack of knowledge of job-related policies. However, personal matters such as those you have mentioned are relevant to work and should no longer be discussed. Do not make threats to quit or sue the company.

Let the other side give their opinion. If the criticisms may be personal, ask for time to think about it and leave. Is their criticism of where you went to school an indirect way of saying you don’t know enough accounting to work in payroll? Is the complaining about working mothers because you have lower productivity than coworkers? If the actual complaints are legitimate, discuss how they can be resolved.

If the attacks remain personal and the bully will not adjust their behavior, ask your neutral witness to come with you to Human Resources.


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