Workplace bullying: Six ways to deal with a bully at work

Workplace bullying costs businesses billions in lost revenue each year.

Workplace bullying costs UK businesses around £18 billion a year, according to data from government body Acas.

A high staff turnover, less staff productivity, sickness and absences are all symptoms of a bad workplace culture.

And recent data from the US Workplace Bullying Institute (WPI) shows that 60.4 million Americans are affected by workplace bullying each year. 29 per cent of those who are bullied remain silent and just 6 per cent of workplaces punish the perpetrator. It is more likely for the perpetrator to keep his/her job than the victim.

Bullying in advertising, sport

This week, Sir Martin Sorrell was accused of bullying junior employees and creating a ‘toxic environment’ and a ‘fear culture’ at WPP’s HQ which is said to have led to his resignation.

Unfortunately, bullying is present in all sectors, including sport. Former Wales full-back Lee Bryne claims in his autobiography that he was subjected to “bullying treatment” by coach Rob Howley. ‘I felt he was trying to undermine me, in a subtle yet insidious way,’ he said.

According to the WBI, 70 per cent of perpetrators are men while 30 per cent are women. A third of bullies are colleagues at an organisation.

Men and women process it differently

It is not a criminal offence to bully someone, but if you feel that a colleague or manager is behaving in an intimidating or offensive way, it could be harassment, which is illegal under the Equality Act 2010.

Men and women deal with bullying very differently, researchers at Aarhus BSS and the University of Copenhagen found. Men are twice as likely to leave the labour market for a period of time after suffering bullying, while women are twice as likely to take antidepressants to deal with the issue while experiencing poorer health, it found in a 2016 survey of 3,182 of employees in the private and public sector.

‘There are still many things we don’t know exactly. For example, if the bullying follows the person or the workplace or both. But it’s an expensive problem for society and for the individual, so we’d like to dig deeper,’ says Tine Mundbjerg Eriksen who researched the report.

One thing that might help is taking part in improv. It is said to be an antidote to anxiety and ‘being in your head’ and you may be able to act out your workplace bullying frustrations with a scene partner in a safe way, which will take the power out of the bullying situation. Companies such as Apple have invited improv teachers to their workplace to help improve collaboration and communication at work.

Business coaching and mentoring service Gedanken has written six useful tips if someone is making you feel miserable at work.

Don’t believe you’re weak

The misuse of power by one individual does not mean that you as an individual are weak. We are all different and we all respect each other’s values and rights. Frequently the bully exploits one’s own observance of the rights of others. To be the victim of a bully is not about your own innate weakness. It may simply be about your gentleness, sensitivity and respect for others. So don’t buy into the concept of weakness, buy into the concept of seeking solutions.

Bullying is unacceptable

Avoid acceptance, the danger is, by sufficient strategies of conflict avoidance and accommodation of other people’s behaviour we can somehow get by. We can somehow not attract too much attention to ourselves and drift through a bullying relationship by making it ‘passable with care’. This, unfortunately, does not address the issue for you or for other people who may be on the receiving end of bullying. Be clear, bullying is an unacceptable dynamic in a workplace relationship and should not be tolerated.

Boundaries are key

Bullies often exploit an inability of a person to draw a line, to say that that is enough and to indicate that they would be prepared to press their own rights if constant transgressions of those rights continue. All too often, the bully exploits the fact the individual will not do this and continues to constantly have their victims in a state of psychological retreat with such high levels of anxiety that they are unable to reassert themselves. When dealing with a bully, it is important to draw lines. Often doing that, will reduce the gain that the bully gains from the transaction. Their ego needs, their sense of a need to feel superior or powerful, is nullified when one draws a boundary and says enough is enough. All too often, the bully will go elsewhere and visit their attention on someone else.

A problem shared…

Talk about the experience. It is important to seek help either from friends and colleagues or, from independent sources such as counsellors, coaches, helplines etc. An opportunity to talk through a bullying experience can contemporise that experience and give you an opportunity to gain greater insight into your own role in the situation. It can often strengthen you to develop new strategies to counter bullying behaviour manifested by another person.

Talk to HR in confidence

Companies vary enormously and some HR professionals can be in an over enmeshed relationship with their managers. Most, however, are in a position of providing a genuine service to support employees and are an appropriate source of self-referral for help where bullying may exist. Remember is it not in the interests of the organisation to tolerate bullies. However successful they may be, however much business they may win for the organisation, ultimately if staff are bullied and oppressed, liabilities for the organisation far outweigh any advantages that can be conferred by the particular skills a bully may have that result in their bullying behaviour being tolerated. Bullying behaviour needs to be made apparent to managers so they can take appropriate action. Often management teams and HR are in blissful non-awareness of the fact that bullying occurs. It is only when a staff member makes an approach that the beginnings of awareness ensue.

Don’t tolerate it

Only leave the organisation for something better. All too often, people tolerate bullying behaviour than simply find another position and go to it. This leaves them with unresolved feelings of injustice and in many cases a sense of personal ineffectiveness that is not addressed by the next work experience. It is important that leaving an organisation for another should be a positive experience, not one of escape and it is far better to deal with bullying experiences on an “in-house” basis rather than simply effect a retreat

Further reading on workplace relationships

6 ways to counter a condescending boss

You can find your next career move over at the Growth Business Job Board

Michael Somerville

Michael Somerville

Michael was senior reporter for from 2018 to 2019.