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Tips for Dealing with Workplace Harassment and Bullying

Updated on April 22, 2016
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I'm a business communications coach who teaches writing, speaking, and leadership skills to adults in the midst of a career change.

Workplace bullying and harassment can have a negative impact on your health and well-being. No one deserves to be mocked, ridiculed, or put down at work. If you're trying to cope with a bad boss, here are some tips and suggestions to help you get through a difficult situation.

Bullying in the workplace is a serious health and safety issue.

Bullying and harassment in the workplace are serious issues that can have a huge impact on your emotional and physical well-being.
Bullying and harassment in the workplace are serious issues that can have a huge impact on your emotional and physical well-being.

What do you do when your boss or co-worker just won’t leave you alone?

Workplace harassment can be subtle and mildly confusing. Or it can be downright dangerous and hazardous to your health. But no matter how mild or extreme the harassment from your boss is, it needs to be addressed. That old schoolyard adage to just ignore the bully doesn’t apply in a situation where your health and livelihood are affected.

Here are some tips and suggestions for how to cope with and put an end to harassment from your boss, supervisor, or any other staff member, for that matter:

Workplace harassment is a serious problem and it is alarming how often it goes unreported. Here are some tips to help you address bullying at work.
Workplace harassment is a serious problem and it is alarming how often it goes unreported. Here are some tips to help you address bullying at work.
Aggressive behavior from your boss or a co-worker is unacceptable.
Aggressive behavior from your boss or a co-worker is unacceptable. | Source

1. Examine what behaviors from your boss or co-worker are making you feel bullied. What is making you feel fearful, anxious, and nervous? Not every negative interaction with your boss is necessarily a deliberate act of aggression. Getting constructive feedback about something that went wrong under your watch does not always constitute harassment. Your boss’s job, after all, is to mete out appropriate and fair discipline when it's needed.

On the other hand, bullying and harassment can be so subtle that you're left feeling tired, demoralized, and worn out. What's worse is the feeling that you know something is not right, but you just can’t put your finger on what it is.

Here are some common examples of what workplace harassment and bullying can look like:

  • Verbal and written insults and comments. Constructive feedback and criticism should not involve derogatory comments or put-downs of any kind
  • Sexist, racist, or homophobic slurs and comments made privately or publicly in front of others
  • Passive aggressive communications, otherwise known as the “backhanded compliment”
  • Berating you in front of co-workers and then apologizing to you later, privately. Any apology that doesn’t include owning up to an error in front of others who witnessed the abuse is not a sincere apology
  • Withholding information, tools, and resources you need to do your job effectively. Any supervisor who deliberately sets his or her staff up for failure is engaging in a subtle and very harmful form of harassment
  • Sending rude emails, phone messages, and texts and/or leaving threatening comments on Facebook, Twitter, and other social media platforms
  • Sharing your privileged and confidential information with co-workers without your consent (Your boss doesn't have the right to share health, personal finance, performance reviews, or any other information contained in your employee file without your consent.)
  • Physical intimidation, assault, and abusive or threatening body language. A boss who jokes about wanting to slap you and then makes a gesture to that effect has crossed a serious line.

If you are being harassed, you might want to start taking detailed notes about each incident.
If you are being harassed, you might want to start taking detailed notes about each incident.

Does your workplace have clear policies to deal with bullying and harassment?

See results

2. Start documenting all instances of workplace harassment. Keep detailed records of how your boss is treating you. In the case of face-to-face harassment, especially harassment that takes place behind closed doors, keep a written record of times, dates, places, and behaviors and what was said. Context is critical to documenting harassment. Be specific. If the harassment is written or recorded, save copies of any emails, memos, notes, or phone messages that were delivered with an intent to bully and intimidate you. The more detailed your records are the more likely you'll be able to demonstrate (in court, if need be) a pattern of persistent, unwanted, and unwarranted persecution from your boss or supervisor.

3. Understand your rights. There’s an expression that goes like this: “The only rights you have are the ones that you know about.” Arm yourself with information. Review your company’s harassment policies. Many organizations have formal harassment and discrimination policies and procedures. If your company has an Employee Code of Conduct handbook, you may be able to point to specific events as violations of certain codes and ethics.

4. Assert yourself. Ultimately it is up to you to decide if you feel safe enough to speak up when your boss puts you down. Do you feel comfortable telling your boss that you're concerned about how you're being treated? Asserting yourself and standing up to harassment can be scary. But you need to take responsibility for speaking up on your own behalf. Otherwise, the behavior may continue and your boss could always plead ignorance later on down the road (i.e.; “If it bothered you so much, why didn’t you just tell me?”)

One way to assert yourself is to be specific about how his or her actions are affecting you and your ability to do your job effectively. For example, you might try something like this: “When you yell at me in front of my staff, it makes it very difficult to manage my team and get them to follow directions. If you have concerns about how I am performing a specific task, please speak to me privately so that I can listen to and incorporate your feedback into my work.”

5. Consult an employment lawyer, your union representative, a counselor, or a conflict resolution specialist. If you can’t deal with your unruly boss by yourself, you may need to get some professional support. If you're unionized, consider approaching your union for assistance. That's what they're there for. If you don’t have the protection of a union, there are many lawyers, advocates, non-profit groups, counselors, and labor rights associations who can offer support and/or free consultations.

6. Make an escape plan. Sometimes the only way to stop workplace harassment and bullying is to simply walk away. You may need to start looking for a new job and start developing new career goals and ambitions. It can feel scary and unfair to have to leave a job that you once enjoyed doing. But sometimes the stress of making a change outweighs the stress that comes with working for someone who clearly doesn't respect your right to work in a harassment-free environment.

7. Take care of yourself. Your personal life can affect your ability to cope with harassment at work. If you're stressed out at home, not eating well, and not taking care of your physical health, trying to deal with workplace harassment can feel insurmountable. Take time to take care of yourself. Nurture your creative side. Dive into personal hobbies and social activities that make you feel competent and cared for by others who value and respect who you are, just as you are.

© 2012 Sally Hayes

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