How can I report a bully without looking like a whiner?

(MoneyWatch) Dear Evil HR Lady,

I have been through a couple instances where it feels like "professional hell"-like disagreements, angry clients or bad co-workers; one involved harassment. I'm worried that I have a reputation based on instances that I wished to have avoided. I know I have made a positive impression on some people, and then there are those who I have not. I think that a lot had to do with being right out of college and not realizing how to be professional or handle situations too emotionally.

The harassment situation I went through was difficult because it involved denial and lack of support, so it ended up looking like I had made up the whole problem. I find it difficult when you have a situation where you are being harassed but you report it more than once, because you begin to look like a difficult employee.

Do you have any advice for how I can take to defend or explain myself if it is ever brought up? How does one handle explaining unprofessionalism on either your or someone else's part in a professional way? I am really just looking to have a positive career and not have instances follow me from previous jobs. I feel I am not alone but definitely do not want to appear as if I have a pattern.

Your email reminded me of an episode in my past. I was working with a higher-level person from a neighboring department. I warned her several times that what she was doing would fail and that would result in several hundred people not getting their annual raise. She insisted that she was right, I was stupid, and therefore I should shut up and do what she wanted. So, I did, and, as predicted, it blew up in her face.

So what did she do? She called my boss to complain that I wasn't being responsive to her. She said that it was my fault that the several hundred employees didn't get their raises on time. She told the head of her department that it was that dumb HR girl's fault.

My boss called me in and told me all this and I sat there in utter shock and I couldn't even defend myself. It was utterly humiliating. My boss made me make a phone call to this woman and apologize for messing up the annual increases. 

I vowed never again. And from that point on, I never spoke with this woman without thoroughly documenting what had been said and sending the documentation to her in an email stating, "Just to be clear, we've determined A, B and C. If you have any changes, please let me know." And she never pulled that on me again, because she knew she couldn't.

I was also pretty new to the working world, and it was my first time managing a huge project. But I learned and grew from the experience. And the fact that you're looking at your role in your problems means that you are looking to learn and grow from this as well. Excellent. So let's tackle how to handle yourself in situations where this type of stuff comes up. 

There are two different categories of problems here. The first is things that are illegal. If you are being sexually harassed or illegally discriminated against due to your sex, race, religion, pregnancy status, or some other thing protected by law, you must complain according to your company's procedures. This usually means filing a formal complaint with your boss and/or the human resources department. If this is the case, the subject/title on your official complaint is always "Official complaint of [illegal action]." If you don't do this, it's likely you won't have any legal recourse if something bad happens due to this problem.

The second category is legal bullying or bad behavior from coworkers, bosses or clients. There was nothing illegal about the woman I described above throwing me under the bus. Sure, it was immoral as well as being utterly wimptastic on her part. But it wasn't illegal. So, it didn't rise to the level of a formal complaint. Here's how you can handle problems in the future.

Determine how big of a deal this is. A client that is rude to you one time on the phone can be ignored. Everyone has a bad day from time to time. A coworker who is merely annoying can be ignored or retrained to knock the annoying behavior off. If it is a big deal, then you go forward.

Never stoop to their level. Screaming? That's not appropriate in a business setting. Speaking behind someone's back? No good. If someone will let you speak poorly about someone else, they'll speak poorly about you to someone else. The exception to this is if you are reporting a specific incident to that person's supervisor. Then give the facts and leave emotion out.

Don't ignore bullying. This does not mean complaining about every incident. If you do that, you'll be labeled as the problem. Instead, deal with the person directly. For instance, "Jill, I can see you are upset. When you are ready to speak in a normal voice, I'll be happy to speak with you." Then turn and walk away. Walking away is the key. A screaming bully needs someone to scream out. With no audience, she fails.

Ask the magic question. "Can you clarify?" This works well for the largely female method of trying to destroy someone through subtle methods. When Jill is spreading bad things about you among your coworkers, you go up to Jill and say, "Jill, I understand that you told Stanley that I was not capable of handling the Jones account. Can you please clarify what you meant by that?" It's not a confrontational question in and of itself, so Jill has little recourse for complaint. But it makes it clear that you are aware of what she has done and that you won't put up with it. 

Ask yourself if you are the problem. As much as we all like to think that we are good, honest, pleasant hard workers, sometimes we are the problem. If you are repeatedly having problems with coworkers, bosses and clients, it's likely that there is something you are doing. If that's the case, you need to evaluate if you can change or if you should move into a different profession or working environment that works better for you. There is no one model that works for everyone.

Ask "How can I change?" rather than "can you make her change?" If you are in a situation that you cannot handle yourself and you want to go to your boss or HR, make sure you ask from the perspective of what changes you can make. You cannot make anyone else change, but you can change your own behavior. And any savvy manager/HR person will be able to pick up from your request if the person who you're having trouble with is the problem. But this keeps the "problem child" label off your forehead. Plus, you can often make tremendous improvements in your office by changing your own behavior.

Have a workplace dilemma? Send your questions to

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