My supervisor interrupted a meeting to announce every single thing wrong with my magazine page. In front of everyone, she ticked down a list of errors I hadn’t written in—each spacing issue, each misplaced word she pointed out had wormed their way onto the page after it left my desk and before I had been given the chance to correct them.
Not one to trade blow-by-embarrassing blow, I took my public shaming in stride, simply nodding along—until she relayed she’d belittled my ability, not just the errors, to my boss. “He wasn’t very happy that you didn’t catch these mistakes,” she spit out as our audience looked on.
“I wish you would have come to me first before my boss,” I said, “so that I could have explained the page hadn’t come back to my desk yet,” I calmly defended myself. But as I completed the sentiment, she stormed out of the conference room and into her office, slamming her door with such force our coffee mugs shook on the table.
She didn’t speak to me for a week.
Office bullies can be as catty, cruel, and cutting as the mean girls we faced in high school. Only these women in power suits have the opportunity to negatively impact our careers. Experts estimate nearly 40 percent of women have or will face an office bully over the course of their work lives.
“An bully is simply a rude and inconsiderate person who probably lacks confidence, is unhappy with some aspect of their life and is taking it out on others,” defines Rosalinda Randall, author of Don’t Burp in the Boardroom: Your Guide to Handling Uncommonly Common Workplace Dilemmas. “It is someone who uses lying, cursing, threats, empty promises, or insults to get what they want, feel a sense of superiority, or even feel ‘liked.’”
While bullies are often easy to spot, feeling bullied is relative. “To some, it can be as subtle as not being invited to a group lunch,” she says. “For others, it has to be much more blatant, such as having someone take full credit for a project without mentioning the others involved.”
And while it’s tempting to not rock the boat lest you drown in a bully’s retribution, gone unchecked, bullying has serious consequences. “Typically, if you remain quiet about the rude and inconsiderate behavior you will become very unhappy, very quickly,” says Randall. “It affects relationships, productivity, motivation, and personality; having a negative effect on your personal life as well.”
So don’t sit back. Instead, here’s how you can face an office bully head-on.
Speak up when it happens.
It’s OK to let a bully know he or she is behaving in a way that isn’t acceptable—in a professional manner, of course. Say, for example, “’I’ll be happy to complete that report. But I would prefer your spoke to me in a less condescending tone,’” Randall suggests.
Request a meeting with the bully.
You won’t win this war by immediately going above the bully’s head. Instead, ask to speak to him or her “discreetly and privately, or include a mutually agreed upon impartial third party to attend,” says Randall, to see if you can work out the issue amongst yourselves. “Refrain from becoming emotional. Stick to the facts, dates, and infractions. Listen before reacting or responding. Take it all in.”
Try to see his or her side.
Is his or her persistent bad ‘tude coming from a misunderstanding or lack of communication? “Ask them questions about where they are coming from,” suggest Hallie Crawford, career coach and founder of career coaching company Hallie Crawford. “Sometimes understanding another person’s perspective can alleviate the situation or bring out the truth. That won’t make the bullying OK, but it could reveal deep-seated issues you can deal with up front.”
Issue a warning.
If you’ve tried to work it out one-on-one but the bully hasn’t changed—or has even increased his or her assault—it’s time to let them know you’re serious. “Tell them how you feel, adding ‘I want to be able to work this out between us without bringing HR into it,’” Randall says. “It’s a bit threatening, but if it the behavior has persisted, you must make an impact.” Be ready to follow through if the warning doesn’t work.
Develop an action plan.
It’s not enough to say the situation must change. You must work together to develop goals and set benchmarks to gauge whether the situation is moving from bad to better. “Come up with the plan together, or with human resources if you choose to take a more formal route,” Crawford says. “Give yourself a timeline for how long you will allow the plan to be implemented before you take further action, or decide to leave the company, if necessary.”
Consider the source.
Before you bow out because of a bully, think twice. “If they are a curmudgeon at heart, an unpleasant soul who is a scrooge to everyone, deciding to overlook it is an option,” says Randall. “Especially, if you like your job, the company, and your coworkers.”