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6 Strategies to Deal with Bullying in the Workplace

Posted on February 13, 2020
Image of a woman with target superimposed over her - she has her hand in her hands with a hand pointing at her in each corner to depict bullying

Bullying is hardly a new phenomenon, but did you know that bullying is fairly common in the workplace? According to The Workplace Bullying Institute, 19% of workers are bullied on an annual basis and 61% of those bullies are bosses. Given these statistics, I thought I would be important to examine this topic further.

When we think of bullying, most often, our minds turn to school yard incidents of name calling, kicking or hitting someone, or social manipulation – all of which is intended to hold power over the intended target. Of course, today we have to add cyber-bullying to that list as well. But what does bullying look like in the workplace? Healthline identifies the following list as common forms of bullying in the workplace:

  • Targeted practical jokes
  • Being purposely misled about work duties, such as incorrect deadlines
  • Continued denial of requests for time off without an appropriate or valid reason
  • Threats, humiliation, and other verbal abuse
  • Excessive performance monitoring
  • Overly harsh or unjust criticism

I recently spoke with a young women in her first year of teaching. She described her work environment with her colleagues as supportive and compassionate, but when she described her boss’s behavior, she described a bully. For example, her boss regularly enters the classroom and yells at the teachers, calling them out for poor classroom management – in front of the students – this is bullying and bad leadership.

I spoke with another woman who admittedly made a mistake but was wholly unprepared for the backlash. Her boss yelled at her in front of her colleagues belittling her with name calling and shaming. And I think about another women who asked if she, like her fellow colleague, could work from home one day a week. Her mother had taken ill and she wanted to be closer to home one day a week to take her mother to doctor’s appointments. However, she was told “no” and given no response when she inquired why her colleague was allowed to work from home, but she was not.

In all three of these instances, the boss was a woman, which does not follow US statistics. According to the Workplace Bullying Institute, while 60% of targets are women, 70% of perpetrators are men. The reality is, it doesn’t really matter whether bullies are men or women, what really matters is how one deals with bullies in the workplace, especially when they are in positions of power.

Sherry Campbell put forth six strategies in her Entrepreneur article entitled, “6 Effective Tactics for Handling a Toxic Boss.” She notes, “Typically bosses who bully are under tremendous pressure, love control, and feed off two things – emotional reaction and attention. They thrive on the power they have and to manipulate others.” In these situations, she recommends the following six strategies:

Shift Your Focus From Your Boss

Accept that your boss is unlikely to change, so focus your attention on doing your job versus your boss’s behavior.

Understand The Bully

Unlike children who can be punished, your boss is in a position of power, but while they may wield power, they are likely insecure, selfish, and immature. When you understand the bully, you can gain some control. For example, workplace bullies often make it difficult to follow their directions, so take detailed notes. Campbell notes that when your boss sees you taking notes, they realize you have a record of the conversation. I would add, follow-up with an email, so if the boss does not correct you, then you have a record.

Set Silent Limits

Campbell argues that body language is a key element in dealing with a bully boss. She suggests that you actually turn your body away from your boss as often as possible and when you are face-to-face, hold your head high and lift your chest. “Body language is a more powerful communicator than words which the bully can turn around and use against you; body language cannot.”

Set Verbal Limits

Facts can be your friend. Campbell points out that when we are nervous, we tend to talk more, so if you are armed with facts, you are less likely to be nervous and seek your bosses understanding or worse – their empathy – which you will not get.

Build a network

Align yourself with other targets. You can band together in documenting dates and times and conversations with your bully boss. It can be easier for several people to approach HR together to lodge a complaint.

Tell Management and HR About The Bully's Behavior

Be prepared to discuss the impact of the bully’s behavior on “your physical, emotional and mental health along with how it has negatively impacted your work performance.” Campbell further argues, “File a formal complaint and allow human resources instigate an investigation.”

Remember, no one – especially people in positions of power – have the right to bully someone at work. If you are unfortunate enough to work with a bully, remember you have options. Begin by standing firm on your core values. Do not let a bully pull you down to their level, instead, rise above it. Next, continually remind yourself that you deserve better and then follow the six strategies outlined above. If the strategies do not yield change, you might be forced to look for a new job – if this is the case, do not discuss the bullying with a potential new employer. Instead, talk about looking for new challenges, more opportunities for growth. And if you are witnessing someone being bullied, stand up for them.


Anne Converse Willkomm
Assistant Clinical Professor
Department Head of Graduate Studies
Goodwin College
Drexel University
Posted in professional-development-career-tips, interpersonal-communications, leadership-management-skills