Workplace bullying - What you can do about it

The bullies are being rewarded at work (and what you can do about it)

Peter Harris|

Have you ever worked in a place where it seemed like the jerks always seemed to rise to the top? Well, you’re not imagining it. According to a new study from the University of Buffalo School of Management workplace bullies are often rewarded and promoted above their more civilized coworkers.

The researchers define the bullying behaviour as “systematic aggression and violence targeted towards one or more individuals by one individual or by a group.” In other words, singling out and picking on specific people in a deliberately intimidating manner. And people exhibiting this behaviour are likely to receive high evaluations from their bosses and reach greater levels of career success.

So why is such unpleasant behaviour being rewarded? The study also found that workplace bullies are savvy enough to charm their superiors and manipulate upper management into supporting them, at the same time as they act abusively to their coworkers.

The report says that bullies are “able to strategically abuse co-workers and yet be evaluated positively by their supervisor.” Sneaky.

Few victims of workplace bullying ever report the incidents out of fear of retaliation or of creating the impression with management that they themselves are not team players and can’t get along. It is this silence in the face of aggression that allows bullies to get away with their anti-social behaviour and even to thrive.

How to deal with workplace bullying:

    Talk to the bully. The first step is simply trying to work it out one-to-one. Different communication styles, cultural differences and misunderstandings can lead to tension at work. The bully might not even know that their behaviour seems hostile to you.

    Talk to someone else. If you can’t work it out with the aggressor, talk to your manager or your Human Resources department. You need your concerns to be recorded. If there is a history of bullying, your complaint will add pressure on the organization to take action.

    Document everything. Make careful notes of every incident of bullying, what was said, who was present and what the outcome was. This will help establish that this wasn’t one occasion of someone blowing off steam on a bad day, but an actual pattern of aggressive behaviour.

    Be excellent at your job. Being bullied can be disheartening. It can kill your energy and motivation. That’s when your work (and even your health) can suffer. If you let this happen, the bully is diminishing who you are. Stay true to yourself. Remember that you are a professional. Do your work and do it well. When it comes time to make a choice, you need your company to remember how good you are and how much they value having you as a productive member of the team.

    Never lose your cool. No matter how hurt or angry the bullying behaviour makes you, don’t retaliate. The minute you surrender the high ground, you lose. If you act aggressive in return, your case against the bully disappears, and the situation becomes two people who simply don’t get along. Avoid being alone with the bully so there are always witnesses to their behaviour. Respectfully walk away whenever they get heated or aggressive.

    Take your skills elsewhere. If you have documented workplace bullying and your company refuses to act against the perpetrator, it might be time to change employers. You shouldn’t have to leave your job because of someone else’s bad behaviour, but if your organization chooses to ignore (or reward) it, you have to ask yourself about the company culture. It might not be one that you want to spend your time and talent supporting.

The Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety offers numerous resources for dealing with bullying in the workplace.

See also:

  • Prank at work leads to convictions, firings
  • What you can learn from the jerks at work
  • You’re right, pessimists, you really aren’t likely to succeed
  • No Revenge of the Nerds: Popular kids do better throughout their careers too
  • Peter Harris

    Peter Harris on Twitter

    Category: Career Dilemmas, Life At Work
    • Tell the Truth

      Great article.

      The issue of being bullied goes a bit deeper, perhaps as a matter of self-confidence. That is, the confidence to act with confidence one has. Unfortunately, I am speaking from relatively recent and repeat experience.

      The issue is perhaps also a consequence of being a scapegoat/lightning rod for a dysfunctional family. This exploration has afforded incredible and invaluable insight.

      The “never lose your cool” became the ticket out for management who consistently referred to it as ‘conflict’ rather than what it was – a problem that pre-dated my arrival and of which the other was the common denominator.
      This other person is still there, as management. I am not.
      So, rewarded, yes.

    • Move on With Your Life

      Great article. I understand your point in keeping a cool head when dealing with bullies, but in reality it’s really hard to do. I have experienced work place bullying, and I did what I could to defend myself. I did talk to the bully, to other people at the office, to managers and to HR, and nothing was done. I stayed in that company for months after complaining to my managers/HR. But looking back and knowing what I know now and all the drama and non-sense I have to deal with EVEN NOW as a result, months after I quit that job , I would have left that company right the moment I was told to “ignore it”. My two cents, move on with your life as quickly as possible.

    • Move on With Your Life

      Another point, especially if you work for a large corporation is that if you complain about being bullied, you would most likely be “forced out”. So if you decide to complain about being bullied, be aware that the chances are you would have to move to another company. Corporations are more worried about not being sued and they do not like to keep what they view as “dangerous” people in their companies.

    • Nina Milova

      Yeah right, the best solution we always have to every problem is “go somewhere else”. Even if statisgics clearly show that the same kind of sht is going on everywhere!

    • Nammy Cool

      in short you have to be goon to rise in pvt organisation , is this what is ment

    • Sandra M.

      Bullies?? My experience has been that those who don’t follow the dress code (eg. they come to work dressed for a night out at the club) or who sit at their desks talking to their boyfriends on the phone during work hours are the ones who get ahead.

    • Laurie Fisher

      After trying to address my personal situation in a professional manner through HR and senior management, nothing concrete was done to stop the bullying, disrespect and unprofessionalism I continue to experience by new manager of 10 months. I am over 45 years old and have been a loyal and dedicated employee of this company for over 13 years. So disappointing that in the end, it seems to come down to “taking your skills elsewhere”. That is easier said than done. All the advice in the world can’t make this situation right, we have no rights with respect to being bullied in the workplace.

    • julien cooper

      Hi Peter Harris.

      Nice article.

      Bullies, including those demanding too much work load, do not belong in our workplaces, schools or other common places any more then in our homes.

      To remove a bully is to start the posses of social equality. And the more they are removed with a desire to continue their activities the more places they will be not welcomed. This practice is already used effectively. Sadly in many cases this is where a staff person is abusive rather then where a customer is abusive in the type of place where people enter for services and or goods. And sadly in cases such as that, the removal is no more then a show of powers, even in the case of a bad customer being removed, as the boss or supervisor is often abusive to his / her own staff even to the staff person who is abused by the customer. But this system does work and it can work well if used properly and in the context it is meant for, including removal of the abusive boss or supervisor. But this action has to start early no matter the age of the offender, as in child student who will be more malleable to learn this lesson and adult worker before he / she has lots of debts and recreation vehicles depending on that pay cheque. This will not only make safer the victims, but will also: prevent new victims, lessen the chance of bully or victims taking lives and bring about a better and wealthier society, that may well include former bullies who can move on and join us.

      There is also the security guard problem where some of them feel they have obtained as licence or training to bully. I know fro news that some were hired straight out of jails, for the same reason work-bullies exist anywhere, tough is believed to bring in the money to the finances and or compliance of a place. Does this still happen? I often feel there are too many of them and I am always proven right wherever they abuse, that one or those involved are the too many and they create a police state condition that we do not need. They are also given the extra tasks of police state like authority that has nothing to do with terrorism, fights, thefts, fires or evacuations as in immediate loss or danger to property and life. And they enforce these extra tasks just as a police states would have them do under a dictator government. I can imagine someone coming to Canada or to the USA from a real police state kind of country and seeing a property seemingly plucked right out of that country just by all the uniforms and strict rules even the bullying that is not a part of the task. Some people coming from terrible countries fear crossing guards and even fear girl guide instructors as it is, even though they are not normally a part of this problem. Why is it we can allow some of our uniformed members to re-enforce that type of fear and even to cause those of us living here all our lives to gain that type of fears?

      I want to add, forced and self removal of the victim is not the answer. There comes irreversible damage to resume, pension build mortgage or rent up and lots else. There are people who advocate against any type of removals of abused wives for similar reasons. It is also hard as it is to find and do job interviews then to add loss of confidence and loss of possible job references with bullying. Bullying is the road to loss of health and life, and it at least will create a cycle of poverty if the victim is not job lucky in our good jobs lotteries, especially when you consider there may well be another one or more bullies in the next workplace.

      To hear from an anti-bully law enforcer, go to radio and check the archives for July 1st. (Canada Day) 2013, People of Interest radio show. There you will hear Police Chief Walter Ostrenga tell of how and why Monona Wisconsin has gotten a new anti-bully law. Please do pass on where you got that, or google Monona Wisconsine police and Walter Ostrenga so you can copy and paste their sites to anyone you like.

      Please tell us how we can help you help us. I have tried for many years and I just do not have the support systems to do this in the many number of ways I have tried. That you are on a job site and that some of us are replying is a start. But we need any and all non-violet and in your face means to ban the actions of the bully and to ban any system and or company that supports that kind of action.


      J. Cooper

    • Miko

      Monsters fuck other monsters. How hard is this. Monsters win everything, while good people have to just sit there and be raped! Jesus, start killing these people! Maybe kill all the shit while were at it, because humans are shit.

    • bully

      Everyone is a bully and everyone is not a bully. Everyone likes and dislikes people for certain reasons. As low level workers, ie anyone below the president is low level in relation to the president, there is a hierarchy of power and you have basically none. Everyone is on the totem pole at different positions. If your supervisor is a bully thats all just part of the deal. There are better ways to help yourself than to leave. They already know they are a bully and they live in a world run by fear, they know they are bad and will lash out and do irrational things because they have crossed so many lines that they no longer see any line.

      Noone can work for a bully for very long unless they are willing and able to withstand alot of abuse. On the flip side, if you report the bullying now who becomes the bully, remember your messing with peoples lives and livelihoods and reputations. The reason upper managment doesnt do anything is that they are unwilling because the whole situation is grey to them. They dont act because if they dont act then they cannot be blamed for anything except not acting, which is unlikely to come back on them in a court ruling because court appearances are few and far between. A judges court decision could go either way so noone risks it.

      Upper managments goals vary, they are far less likely to listen to a low level unproductive complainer than do anything about a bully. In fact they love bullies because they themselves (upper managment) are usually corporate bullies, thats how they attained such lofty positions.

      In the end, your family and wellbeing are whats important. Do your job, forget what the bully does and says and do your job to the best of your abilities. Get help through a support group and if its really bad then seek legal counsel.

    • DrCaligari

      I guess you could also covertly get the bully fired.

    • Colleen Robinson

      what can you do when the bully is a boss? or the big boss’s daughter? I was bullied and name-called by the boss’s daughter. what was I supposed to do go to the big boss and complain about his daughter? Standing up to this person is tricky – but I will continue to stand my ground when bullied or accused of doing something i did not do. I will converse with her on an adult level and she will realize that she cannot treat me with disrespect no matter how much ‘power’ she has.

      • hellonurse

        Leave. They’ll never change. They abuse you ’til you have no power left to defend yourself. It’s a toxic environment that needs to be left behind, period.

    • Jane

      Sorry but as someone who has been both bullied and mobbed, what you are describing is a waste of time. Once targeted by someone all the ‘talk to them, inform others, document and other crap’ goes right out the window. This is the Stepford Wives version of bullying. No one plays under any rules when they are out to get you. Best advice is get out. I didn’t take my own advice because I am a Pollyanna and so I ended up with panic attacks, heart palpitations, crying jags, loss of focus, the whole enchilada. Please don’t lead anyone to believe that they can actually stop it. It is not their fault and they will end up thinking they could have done something.

      • hellonurse

        Yeah, people like him are enablers. I would leave enablers too because they put up with harsh treatment and abusive behaviors. The bullies will NEVER be reasoned with, no matter what this article says to do!

    • Linda P

      Bullies know how to pick their targets, and I’ve been one all my life. From the age of 6 I was chosen by local thugs to be beaten up after school, targeted by my father who saw me as a perfect punchbag, then you grow up and you end up a target in the workplace even when I became a mother I was bullied by neighbours. Now a mental case, unemployed, isolated and ignored (and finally rejected by my family for being ‘mental’) I’m 54 and I wish I had never been born. No one has ever stuck up for me so I suppose I deserved all of this as I have now been diagnosed as borderline personality disorder

      • hellonurse

        I’m so sorry about this harsh treatment! I’ve been bullied too, overtly and covertly. I would avoid (not ignore) these people like the plague! These people are no good aka narcissist/BPD that should never be interacted with. They’ll draw you in and slash you to bits emotionally! For people that never stick up for you, either they are ignorant (they are enablers) or they are for the abuse (these are also enablers). Stay away from them too. You can talk but be careful!

    • scootee

      It strikes me that the reason bullies seem to thrive in the workplace is because many workplaces allow them to. Ironic, but true! In the main, management do little to help the victims of workplace bullying. Many places of work have “Anti Bullying Policies” and suchlike, and profess to zero tolerance – however, this is often little more than “lipservice”. As you point out, victims frequently do not like to report incidents of bullying for fear of reprisals; they may also fear being disbelieved, or being seen as “the problem”. Thus, it is often an issue of feeling obliged to suffer in silence, so as to maintain one’s place a work. remember, victims of workplace bullying often want, and even like, their job. Many worked very hard to get it, and they need the income that it provides to pay bills and so forth. They cannot simply walk away – and the bullies know this. Unless a victim can find a new job, they are stuck; and even finding a new job can take some time.
      It’s important to remember that bullies possess some very peculiar personality traits – ones that researchers such as Babiak & Hare (read “Snakes In Suits”, their famous book) demonstrate that they share with PSYCHOPATHS. Bullies are cold, cruel, calculating, devious, manipulative and competitive. They lack empathy (the ability to understand other people’s feelings), and are utterly self-centred. Bullies are also very good at “charming” and “smarming” people who they want or need to impress. In a nutshell, they are full of hot air… they are very good at saying all the right things when they need to (but rarely act on them). Bullies do just enough to impress the necessary people, whilst maintaining a fake front of politeness and decency around these individuals. The victim sees a totally different side to the bully; but this is always hidden from managers, and people the bully wants to “keep things cool” with. This suggests that bullies operate a sort of “dual personality” – schmoozing and fawning with people they want to impress; vicious and nasty towards the victim.
      Why is the bully like this? I suspect that it actually has very little to do with commonly-used excuses, such as poor upbringing or an abusive family background. Many people who are abused as children DO NOT grow up to be workplace bullies; some even grow up to be outstandingly kind and caring individuals. Bullying is a CHOICE. It is a deliberate behaviour in which the bully engages; a means to an end. The bully believes that his/her best chance of getting on at work, of being seen as a workplace “success”, is achievable via bullying.
      It might be noted, here, that many workplace bullies choose to bully victims who they see as “threats” or “rivals”. Whether or not the victim is an actual threat is immaterial; what is important is the bully’s PERCEPTION. A bully may, or may not, be competent at work (many are not). However, where the bully perceives another co-worker as competent, likeable, and as having potential, the bully may feel threatened. Bullies are frequently in search of power, domination and control – they want to rise to the top of the organization as quickly as they can. However, bullies also seem to be seriously lazy. They do not appear to want to have to WORK for promotions or awards; they want to have things simply “fall in their lap”. Thus, the best way of ensuring this is to eradicate all potential rivals.
      A good example of the above may be where, for instance, a person leaves school with few qualifications. They get a job, starting at the very bottom. Over the years, the bully ingratiates him/herself with important colleagues (the key to promotion), but also keeps an eye on all potential rivals. The bully hopes that, if he/she hangs around in the job long enough, a promotion will just “come his/her way”. One day, the company hires a new worker – a young woman with a University Degree – who is taken on the company “fast track to management” scheme. The bully is incensed by this. Not only does the new employee have better qualifications than the bully, but also her qualifications earned her a fast track to management. All the bully can now feel is that this person is a huge threat. The bully is jealous, and seeks to eradicate the threat as quickly as possible. The best way of doing this is via bullying, with a view to making the person leave that job!
      You might think that the victim of this bullying scenario could get help. You might think the company would value, and protect, her. However, it may NOT work like that in reality. Instead, the bully may spread malicious gossip behind the new employee’s back, telling colleagues who will listen that she is a “snob” or that she “thinks she is superior because she has a Degree”. The bully hopes this will put people off the new employee. Furthermore, the bully may refuse to assist the new employee, or refuse to associate with her. The new employee may find herself isolated at lunch, or talked over the top of at staff meetings. She may find that people, including the bully, have conveniently “forgotten” to tell her about certain office policies and procedures, or about ways of doing things. The bully hopes that this may cause the victim to make mistakes, which the bully can then cite as “incompetence”. The bully also hopes that by isolating the victim at work, this will make it look as though she can’t make friends and is not a team player. Remember, bullies are crafty, natural born LIARS!
      By the time the victim realises she is being bullied it may be too late. If she complains, who could back her, as she is being deliberately isolated and prevented from getting to know people at work? Furthermore, because the bully has been sucking up to management for ages, and is well known by them, the bully will use any contacts he/she has in management to deflect any complaint of bullying. The bully may seek to “prove” to his/her associates (or, rather, “patsies”) in management that the victim is a “liar”, is “crazy” or is actually “the bully”. The bully may even go so far as to hide, manipulate or even fabricate evidence should an investigation of their conduct proceed. The aim is to smear and besmirch the reputation of the victim, so that nobody will believe her claim of being bullied.
      Once the victim has been eliminated (often they leave with work-related stress; ask for a transfer; get a new job; or sometimes even get fired due to a fake counter-allegation made up by the bully), the bully is free to move onto eliminating the next perceived “threat” to him/herself. THIS is how bullies rise to high positions in places of work. It is NOT about hard work, ability, good qualifications or merit. It is about lies, deceit, manipulation, toadying, and… ultimately… BULLYING.

      • hellonurse

        Enabling the bullies is also a problem, especially Christians. They purposely LET the bully walk all over them and others. I’ve never seen Christians ACTUALLY STAND up for themselves because “the bible says to turn the other cheek.” And you wonder why I left the faith and other Christians are trying to bully me back into that faith. So I decided to avoid them at all costs!
        BTW, bullies thrive in positions of power such as police officer (WITH A GUN), security guard (threatening to call the police on you who has a gun to point at you and threatens to send you to jail!), president, manager (threaten to fire you!), supervisor (same with manager), coworker who is the manager’s best friend (says that you’re a tattle tale to get you fired and trick you), and such!

      • hellonurse

        OH! The smearing campaign! That’s a narcissist. Bullies are narcissists, psychopaths, BPD, and it can be overt or covert!
        I associate the blacks as BPD (borderline personality disorder), because they are passive aggressive, and I was even BULLIED by my own people, and I’M black! That’s why I lost respect for my own race (and even wished I was a different race (even though later I found out I’m also white, Cherokee, and Creole!).

    • hellonurse

      Get out!! That’s my advice. It’s a toxic environment! And don’t go back! No one has time OR money for that! Bullies will ALWAYS be bullies, and they’d rather not change because (gasp!) they actually have to care about you. It’d be best if you quit. That place is never gonna change anyway. Waiting for change will be to time infinity. AKA: never gonna happen! No matter how many times they say they will. They are also liars and deceivers.