How to Challenge a Workplace Bully--and Win

Last Updated Jul 20, 2011 11:32 AM EDT

If you've been the target of a bully in the office, you might think, "If only I do (or say) this, he'll stop." But the fact is, it's quite difficult to outsmart or psych out a workplace bully. Usually, he is in a position of power and simply escalates his bullying if you attempt to confront him.

Some of the advice you may have heard about dealing with bullies--telling HR, confronting the person--just doesn't turn out to be effective in the majority of cases, according to Garie Namie, founder of the Workplace Bullying Institute. According to the Institute's statistics, 64% of people who are initially targeted by bullies end up losing or leaving their job. In other words, most attempts to stop it are unsuccessful. As one reader to this blog commented, "it's like cancer, easily curable if caught immediately, but impossible to eradicate in the advanced stages."

First, find out if what you're experiencing is bullying by reading these descriptions of bullying and early signs. If the bullying is affecting your mental well-being--or physical--your only recourse may be to find a new job. But there are steps you can take to preserve your own sanity, health and dignity before you do. Namie lays out an action plan, which you can read in full on his website, but here are the highlights in brief.

  1. Give what you're experiencing a name--bullying psychological harassment, emotional abuse--in order to legitimize it. And understand that it is not your fault. You did not invite the bullying.
  2. Get medical help. See a therapist to talk through your experience so that you can make the decision to stay and fight or leave. See a doctor as well to make sure you're not suffering from symptoms of stress like hypertension.
  3. Research your legal options (in a quarter of bullying cases, discrimination plays a role, according to research). Read the company's internal policies (on harassment, for instance) and see if there are violations you can report.
  4. Gather data about the economic impact the bully has had on the employer. You want to make an economic case against the bully, not an emotional one. Put a cost to each instance of turnover (at least twice the salary of the person affected) to include all expenses associated with replacement (recruitment, demoralization from under-staffing, interviewing, lost time during employee training), absenteeism, and lost productivity from interference by the bullying.
  5. Start a job search. There's a good chance you'll want to leave your job, anyway.
  6. Report the bully--but not to HR. Make your business case against the bully to the highest level person you can reach. HR people are not high enough in the company. Stick to the bottom line. If you drift into tales about the emotional impact of the bully's harassment, you will be discounted and discredited.
  7. Give the employer one chance. If management sides with the bully or rationalizes the mistreatment, you likely will have to leave the job. But, if you're lucky, your employer may be looking for reasons to purge a bully.
  8. Leave with dignity, not shame. You have nothing to be ashamed about. One reader told me that six months after she left a bullying situation, an employee called her to ask for advice--he was the new target of the bully.
Have you successfully rooted out a bully from your workplace? Share your experiences below.

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Laurie Tarkan is an award-winning health journalist who writes for the New York Times, national magazines and websites. Follow her on twitter. Photo courtesy of Flickr user akeg.
  • Laurie Tarkan

    Laurie Tarkan is an award-winning health journalist who writes for The New York Times and many national magazines. She is a contributing editor at Fit Pregnancy magazine and the author of three books, Perfect Hormone Balance for Fertility, Perfect Hormone Balance for Pregnancy and My Mother's Breast: Daughters Ace Their Mothers' Cancer.. You can follow her on Twitter at @LaurieTarkan.