How To Handle Workplace Bullying

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Wouldn't it be wonderful if we'd all left bullying behind in middle school? Unfortunately it's not the case, though; a study published in 2014 found that workplace bullying is on the rise in America, and that most workers aren't sure how to deal with it or if their companies have any procedures in place to stop it. And to be clear, we're not talking about annoying Doris occasionally stealing your paperclips; workplace bullying is frequent, humiliating, miserable and shocking, and can have severe consequences for the health of the person being bullied.

Trying to sit tight and wait for it all to go away (or for everybody to "act like adults") isn't a viable survival strategy, either. A study in 2016 found that psychological distress in the victims of workplace bullying seems to have a variety of effects, including a loss of emotional management, but it's also bad news in terms of the economic big picture. New research from Aarhus University showed that, while we sometimes think of workplace bullying as inherently gendered, it actually happens to men and women virtually equally, and while women often cope by taking sick leave or going onto antidepressants, men are more likely to simply "leave the labor market for a short time;" in other words, men are more likely to cut and run, with potential cuts to their salary and future prospects.

For both genders, the impact is devastating. So what can you do about workplace bullying if you find yourself in a situation where somebody is being truly awful at work?

Define What's Happening To You

What's the difference between a tough coworker or boss with high standards, and one who's actually being bullying? It's not just a matter of perceptions; it has to do with the aims and methods of the conduct. Expert Catherine Mattice gave the eloquent definition that workplace bullying is, " systematic abuse that creates an unhealthy and psychological power imbalance between the bully and his or her target, which can result in psychological damage for both the target and co-workers."

She also points out that it generally works as one of three types: aggressive communication, humiliation, or manipulation. There are, within those categories, many different kinds of bullying behaviors, and it can be very important for you to name specifically what's happening to you and how long it's been going on.

The workplace advice organization ACAS has a long, detailed list of possible bullying behaviors at work, from sexual harassment and physical abuse to threats, intentionally taking credit for work, isolation and constant unwarranted criticism. Identify precisely what's going on and specific incidents for your own records. Be as detailed as possible, as you can use this evidence later on to deal with it.

Try To Address Things Professionally

Experts tend to recommend one course of action first: confronting the bully, or bullies. But this is meant to be a very different interaction to the standing-up-to-tormentors experience you may have had in the playground. You're meant to keep it professional. MIND, the mental health charity, recommends that if you can "calmly explain the situation and your feelings," you may be able to stop the bullying behavior; this includes the possibility that your manager might be the bully, in which case they suggest scheduling a meeting, whether one-to-one or with a witness, to raise your concerns.

What do you do in this meeting? Experts on workplace conflict Joseph Grenny and David Maxfield have a few suggestions. One: keep to the facts, as if you're "talking to a jury," and "strip out any judgmental or provocative language" that might escalate the situation. Two: if there's some underlying thing beneath the bullying, like a conflict over work hours or productivity issues, make that front and center. Three: talk about the "natural consequences" of how they're behaving, from its impact on you to its potential problems for the business environment and customers. And four: explain how you expect to be treated, and attempt to get them to commit to that in future.

If this all seems too much (and the psychological impacts of workplace bullying can be immense), it doesn't mean you're weak. You just have to move on to the next steps in the chain.

Know Your Rights & The Correct Procedures

There are two ways in which your bully's behavior can be crossing boundaries: in terms of the values and procedures of the company, and in terms of employment law. In the United States, however, employment law only protects employees (and bosses) from harassment and bullying if it's based on "protected characteristics," like race, sexual orientation, religion, gender or disability. If you're going to file a suit about it, the bully clearly needs to have demonstrated that the protected characteristic is the thing they're targeting, and not something else. If they're bullying you simply because you rub them the wrong way, it's not illegal. (This isn't the case in the UK, where a 1974 law makes employers responsible for maintaining a healthy, safe environment for their employees.)

It is, however, possibly against company policy. Now's a good time to access the details of any anti-harassment or anti-bullying policies in place at your workplace and see what the details are. They might have set procedures you can follow to deal with the problem, which puts you in good stead to argue your case to higher-ups if you need to.

Escalate If Necessary & Confide In Others

Is your workplace toxic in general, or is it just one worker who's making life hell? How you proceed if one-on-one negotiation hasn't worked (or, indeed, is impossible) depends on your environment. The Trade Unions Congress highly recommends that, if you can, you don't suffer in silence; if the environment doesn't seem poisonous, sharing your concerns with a work colleague may help you discover other victims. If the whole place seems potentially explosive, tell friends or a therapist.

This sharing can also be part of the problem-solving. Now is probably the time to go to HR or your manager, armed with your diary of specific incidents, a deep breath, and the intention to remain professional. In the best possible scenario, careers expert Daniel Griffiths notes for Higher Ed Jobs, HR will have an arsenal of good responses, including "help with coping and stress management strategies, developing skills and strategies for working with or around the bully or confronting the bully in the appropriate manner, requesting HR to step in to create awareness and advise the bully against further acts or retaliation, or pursuing more formal investigative processes." Your part in this is to give your catalogue of evidence and to avoid emotional language. It's probably valid, but it may hurt your credibility.

If HR isn't a go, or if you want to make a report elsewhere at the same time, Jackie Humans at Business News Daily recommends that, if there's no protocol in place, you report the bully's behavior to somebody two or three levels above them in the company hierarchy (if that exists), as they're "less likely to be friends with the bully."

Focus On Your Own Emotional Health

While at work you have to remain crisp and detail-oriented about this, at least while pursuing the case, in private it's crucial that you note your own emotional devastation and its implications. Studies on the impact of workplace bullying have found that it has severe costs, from higher rates of anxiety and depression to emotional exhaustion and uncontrollable anger, and can also cause severe health problems linked to stress. And it's not just people who are directly bullied; those who witness it suffer, too.

Plus, a study in 2015 found that unresolved workplace bullying can become a "vicious cycle," in which bullied workers become more vulnerable and less able to cope with abuse as it continues, worsening the health costs. This is a real issue, and it's your paramount concern while dealing with this. Your emotional responses are valid and need attention, whether it's from friends, a counsellor, therapists, or other support mechanisms.

Find An Escape Route

Unfortunately, if all else fails (and it might), the only alternative might be to have somewhere else to go, in a healthier work environment, whether it's in another department or another job entirely. If the bully is protected or well-liked by management and other workers, it may be the only viable way to protect your future employment from further harassment and retaliation. This can be a heartbreaking decision if you adore your job and the problem is just one coworker; but if you've stuck it out, tried to sort it with them and with others, and just can't seem to make a change, the costs are realistically too high for you to viably continue without harming your health.