What to do about workplace bullying

Pamela Howard, B.A., M.Ed.
Counsellor, Employee Assistance Program
March 23, 2021

This article is part two of a two-part series. Read part one, What is workplace bullying?, here.

Bullying in the workplace has a long-lasting impact on those who have been targeted. Many targets feel helpless and unsure of how to handle the situation or make it stop.

Gossiping about the situation doesn't work. Some suggest giving the bully a taste of their own medicine, but that isn't a good idea. Retaliation on your part only makes it appear that you and the bully have a "personality conflict" and need to share blame for the ongoing issues. Be honest and reflect on whether you are also making the situation worse. You may have become frustrated and angry as the result of being targeted and are now engaging in unhelpful behaviours.

Here are some useful strategies if you're being bullied at work:

Keep factual records of dates, times and details. Record names of witnesses and the outcome of each event. These records show the frequency and pattern of behaviours and can be used to show that bullying is taking place. Keep copies of any letters or emails. This information should be kept in a private and safe place.

Identify the specifics of what has happened, how it felt to experience it and the precise change in behaviour that you need to see from the bully.This is not about becoming friends but finding constructive ways to move forward. Stay away from generalizations. Instead of saying, "We need to communicate better," state that the yelling and profanity need to stop.

If you think that you can speak to the person directly, focus on the specifics and how it isn't acceptable to you. Tell the person what it will take for it to work better for you both going forward. Don't speculate on the person's motivation behind the behaviour. Focus on what the person has said or done (e.g., "Can you let me know what you want without doing that?" or, "I want to hear what you have to say, but not in this way"). You can ask a supervisor, union representative or other trusted support to be with you.

You might feel unsafe or unable to confront the bully directly. In this case, investigate the established workplace procedures to make a complaint. Go through your notes and select examples that best illustrate the bullying behaviours, particularly situations that are less open to interpretation. Speak to the person identified in the policy and/or to your supervisor or manager. If necessary, be persistent to ensure understanding of the seriousness of the situation and its impact.

If you are losing confidence in your abilities or dealing with misplaced guilt or shame, seek resources and support to help you. Manitoba Blue Cross’s counselling services are available to all Manitobans, regardless of whether or not you have coverage with Manitoba Blue Cross. Find the available support that's right for you here.

Resolution of bullying situations is often complex and takes time. After the immediate interventions are completed, it is useful to request follow-up check-ins to ensure that problems haven't resurfaced. Each case of bullying behaviour is unique. Some are resolved to make it possible to continue working together into the future. Some bullies are removed from the environment due to the severity of their behaviour or after demonstrating an ongoing pattern of unacceptable conduct and overall unwillingness to modify their behaviour. Some targets ultimately choose to move to another position within or beyond the organization.

Remember that work shouldn't hurt. It can take considerable time to heal from being the target of a bully. With support, individuals can learn from the experience, restore their equilibrium, respect themselves and move on to better times.