Help, I Work For A Bully!

When we talk about bullying we think of children at school, right? Maybe not. What about adults, adults being bullied at work more specifically?

Sometimes it’s hard to tell if the experiences we’re having at work are normal, to be expected, or bordering on something less acceptable.

Years ago in my first job after University I worked in a sales promotions agency as an exec and had the misfortune to report into a lady who would give me various instructions of things to do, then if they went wrong she would lie and say I had done them off my own back. She spoke to me like I was a piece of dirt and I was miserable as sin. I remember thinking ‘is this it, is this the world of work, is this how people treat each other?’ One day she was rumbled, one of the Directors witnessed her behaviour towards me and I felt a sense of relief that people would realise I wasn’t the calamity she was making me out to be. I can’t remember the straw that broke the camel’s back but one day I woke up, looked in the mirror and thought that’s it. I handed in my notice that day.

That was my first experience of working for a bully. But what is bullying?

There is no real definition of bullying however Wikipedia classifies it as follows ‘Bullying is the use of force, threat or coercion to abuse, intimidate or aggressively dominate others. The behaviour is often repeated and habitual. One essential prerequisite is the perception by the bully or by others of an imbalance of social or physical power.’

There are various forms of bullying which can include verbal, non-verbal, psychological, physical abuse and humiliation. What does that look like in the real world?

  • Similar to my experience it could be someone falsely accusing you of errors in your work
  • Being given the silent treatment, or excluded from meetings
  • Being intimidated non-verbally through staring or glaring
  • Being shouted at for no reason at all, or experiencing mood swings from them – happy one minute, passive aggressive the next
  • Having your ideas ridiculed or dismissed without being heard
  • Constant criticism of your work
  • Being on the receiving end of different standards….your expenses being dissected, others’ barely being glanced at
  • Taking the credit for your work
  • Making unrealistic demands such as that you drive through blizzards to get to work, regardless of how much danger that might put you in

Sounds like a miserable environment to work in doesn’t it. And it certainly has an effect on us too. The Workplace Bullying Institute identified the following effects of workplace bullying: stress, fear, emotional exhaustion, panic attacks, clinical depression, loss of concentration, pervasive sadness, insomnia and migraine headaches.

So why would we put up with this sort of experience? Well sometimes we don’t realise that bullying is taking place and sometimes it boils down to a lack of self confidence and fear. Fear of…..

  • loss of job
  • loss of money
  • people not supporting our claims
  • wondering what our next employer would think if they knew we had complained
  • what will happen if we lodge a formal complaint
  • maybe we’re being weak
  • maybe we should be trying harder
  • maybe this is normal and we’re reading too much into things

If you’re experiencing any of this behaviour it is not normal, it is not acceptable, it is not respectful and you are not weak or reading too much into things. In fact Maarit Varitia, a workplace bullying researcher found that 20% of interviewees who experienced workplace bullying thought they became a target because they were different. Maybe they spoke out about things they disagreed with, maybe they were quieter than others thought they should be, maybe they just rubbed someone up the wrong way. Doesn’t matter, none of it is acceptable.

So what can you do if you’re on the receiving end of bullying, well the first thing is to Recognise the Behaviour. Call it what it is and realise that this is what is going on. Then what… Patricia Barnes who wrote ‘Surviving Bullies, Queen Bees and Psychopaths in the Workplace’ suggests the following:

  1. Ground Yourself – stay calm when the bullying is actually taking place. The bully is looking for a reaction of some sort from you, don’t give them one.
  2. Write It All Down – keep detailed records of who said what, when and where. You may need this further down the line if you choose to take out a grievance procedure. Did anyone hear what they said to you? If so make a note of their name and the date.
  3. Turn The Tables – use their own words on them. If they say ‘you always make mistakes like this’ ask them ‘what would you have done differently’.
  4. Find A Champion – speak to someone in HR or another superior or leader in the organisation who can step in for you and speak to them.
  5. Escalate Your Complaint – read your employers guide to employee welfare and see if they have a policy for bullying and harassment, then use it.

Ultimately, don’t put up with this. When I left the agency all those years ago, it led me into a career I had never considered before. There are always brighter things around the corner so don’t stay with anything that is making you miserable because you think you won’t find anything better. You will.

And if you’re reading this and recognise your own behaviour, take a minute to think about this. Your job in any management or leadership role is to develop your people. A happy, thriving, high performing team can only reflect well on you. Equally, one in which your people are miserable, treading on eggshells and avoiding you also sends a very clear message to the business and your colleagues about your performance and capability as a leader. Now how would you like to be seen?

Nicola Lyle is the Managing Director of Fired Up Leaders and an Executive Coach & Leadership Trainer. She started her career in the drinks industry where she worked for over 15 years in sales and customer marketing. She has been a qualified and practicing coach since 2005, was a trainer for the Ministry of Defence for 3 years in Germany and currently works as a leadership and management trainer working with Executives in a wide range of industries.

Nicola is hugely passionate about helping people to have the career that fulfils and empowers them to live their best life. She offers Executive coaching, group coaching programmes and occasional retreats. Just drop her a line, she’d love to help you get your career on track.

You can contact her at or find Fired Up Leader on Instagram

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