Why You Should Stop Ignoring That Bully

Last Updated Oct 3, 2011 6:53 AM EDT

Dear Evil HR Lady,

I work at a bank in a position that requires my reputation and work experience to be flawless. I love my work. However, I have a fairly young, inexperienced, undereducated, personally offensive coworker who comes to the company by way of her husband accepting a position in the US with the promise that his wife would also be employed for the duration of his tenure at a certain salary level. She is unqualified for the job she holds. She takes long lunches, disappears from her desk for hours during the day without letting anyone know where she is or what she is doing, and shirks work like the plague.

I could get over most of these issues knowing that she won't be around until she retires and it is a matter of waiting out her husband's employment term. However, where I find it difficult to work with her is that she has made it vocally clear to anyone in the vicinity of her voice that she thinks I am "stupid, unqualified for my position, not as smart as I think I am, don't deserve my salary, unreliable and unable to do my job. Thinking I was taking the higher road I continued to include her in my project work, all the while she was telling the project teams that I was being removed from the projects because I didn't know what I was doing and she was now taking over my role.

On a recent business trip, she informed teams at the other office that I was incompetent, etc. Not only was I embarrassed I was mortified that all my hard work might have just blown up in my face. I am still trying to recover by working harder and longer hours to get these teams on board again. It is not going well.

When we returned to our office, I requested a meeting with my immediate supervisor and explained what had been going on. He said he was aware of the statements this person made but said that my reputation proceeded me and I had nothing to worry about, but he said nothing to her.

I have caught her sabotaging presentations I worked weeks on. I have caught her telling my clients that she has been assigned my projects for reasons I previously stated; and I have overheard her talking about me to other employees who look embarrassed and uncomfortable when I make eye contact with them. The extent of her maliciousness go way beyond what I have recounted here, but when it comes to proving them she is clever in that she never puts anything in writing and I cannot pin any of the sabotage on her personally.

As my bonuses and raises are determined by my success on projects and she works to undermine these projects, her behavior has an impact on my financial success as well as my professional success.

Here is my question: is this something that I should take to HR rather than putting up with? I am at a loss since she seems to be a protected person and I can't seem to find any footing with my supervisor. What can I do to change this environment? Ignoring it is not working any longer.

You have your own answer. Ignoring it is not working any longer, so stop ignoring it. She may not be qualified for her job, but she's smart enough to have figured two things out. 1. They won't fire her. The company values her husband too much to mess with her. 2. You are a wonderful target because you won't do a blasted thing about it. Seems like she has this all figured out.

Ignoring bullies seems to be common advice given by parents and elementary school teachers, but those of us who have been bullied know that in most cases the bully just feels like she's gained more and more power as you ignore and avoid.

By all means, you can report it to HR, but keep two things in mind. 1. Your supervisor will feel undermined. This may not be a bad thing, but this is a consequence of the action. 2. HR is tasked with doing what is best for the company and the company clearly feels that keeping the husband in his job is the best thing for the company, so the chances of them doing more than "talking" with her direct supervisor is pretty slim. If you do want to go this route you need to approach it from, "how can you help ME deal with her," not, "you need to punish her!" The former might actually result in you getting some help. The latter will not end well.

Now, let's talk about not ignoring her anymore. This doesn't mean you say rude things about her. That puts you down on her level and we don't want that. But, when you overhear her talking about you, just walk up and insert yourself in the conversation. Here's a sample, we'll call you Jan:

Mean Coworker to Frank: You know that Jan totally messed up on that last project. She...

Jan: Excuse me, but that's not true. The only problems we encountered were when you didn't get x, y and z done on time, so I had to work over the weekend to get things back on schedule. Hi, Frank, how are you? I heard you went to the University football game this weekend. Totally awesome!

Frank: Yeah, it was awesome. [blabbers on about the football game]

Or something like this:

Mean Coworker to Heather: I heard that Jan is going to be taken off the project because she totally screwed up on that trip to South Dakota.

Jan: Hey, Heather, I don't know where Mean Coworker gets these crazy ideas. Can I borrow you for a minute? I want your opinion on [whatever you could plausibly need Heather's opinion on].

You're doing 3 things here.

Letting your mean coworker know you're aware of what she's doing. I know this seems stupid because the whole point of her doing this is to get under your skin, so of course you know what she's doing. But, since you've been ignoring her, she figures she can say what she wants when she wants and no one will say boo to her.

Removing her audience. One of the things a bully needs is an audience. Honestly, bullies don't just do this because it makes them feel warm and fuzzy. They do it because it establishes their place in the pecking order. And in an office, a pecking order is far more than 2. She needs everyone to know how fabulous she is and how terrible you are. She NEEDS other people to hear her say rotten things about you. You're removing her audience and changing the subject and you're not getting upset, you're just stating facts.

You're bringing relief to your coworkers. As you said, your coworkers feel embarrassed and awkward when mean coworker is talking to them They don't want to stand up to her because she's mean. But, they don't want to say anything against you because you are a hard worker. When you inject yourself into mean coworker's attempt to slander you and you demonstrate that you are not angry at Frank and Heather and other random coworkers, they are relieved. It will also help them to stand up to mean coworker as well.

Now, as you know, she's not there permanently, but as you might not actually realize, you're not either. You may want to actively seek new employment. There's no guarantee that after this nightmare leaves that your wimp-tastic supervisor will become a good supervisor. Because regardless of how wonderful her husband is, she's damaging the business and your supervisor should be actively working to tame her.

For further reading:

Have a workplace dilemma? Send your question to EvilHRLady@gmail.com.
Photo by peretpz, Flickr cc 2.0.

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