It often starts off small: a joke from a co-worker that feels mean-spirited, or a scolding from a manager that crosses a line. You force yourself to laugh it off, or shrug it off, and you go on with your day.
But when that isolated incident becomes a pattern — every interaction with that co-worker contains an uncomfortable needling, a boss continually serves up more anger than constructive feedback — it begins to look a lot like something we tend to associate more with the middle school cafeteria than the office: bullying.
That’s exactly what happened to Magan (who requested that her last name be withheld to protect her privacy) in 2017, when she was working as a staff development coordinator at an addiction treatment center in Tennessee. A co-worker made it a habit to needle Magan, 33, about the fact that she was single, and while she initially laughed it off, things began to escalate. Colleagues would join in and egg the co-worker on, she recalls, even when Magan said she didn’t want to discuss her dating life at work.
Whenever she got visibly upset, she says, the offender would tell her she was being too sensitive, or, sometimes, tell other people that Magan was moody. Although some colleagues confided in Magan that their co-worker’s behavior made them uncomfortable, no one was willing to call out the bullying.
“I didn’t feel like anyone was willing to be a public ally,” Magan says.
Workplace bullying, defined by the Workplace Bullying Institute as repeated mistreatment that’s verbally abusive, threatening, humiliating, or interferes with work performance, is more common than many people realize. A recent report from the recruiting firm Jobvite found that more U.S. employees have been bullied at work in the last two years (14%) than sexually harassed (9%).
Despite the number of people who are bullied at work, though, few report it. According to the Jobvite report, more than half the employees who were bullied at work in the last two years didn’t file a complaint. While the #MeToo movement has brought more awareness to the issue of sexual harassment in the workplace, human resources consultant Lynne Curry, PhD, doesn’t believe that it’s had much direct impact on curtailing workplace bullying more broadly. “We haven’t yet had that social revolution,” she says.
By the time an employee decides to talk with HR, they’re often so frustrated that they present their issue as anecdotes rather than facts, which can lead to their complaint being dismissed.
One reason bullying often goes unreported is because there aren’t any specific employment laws that prevent it, says Curry, author of Beating the Workplace Bully: A Tactical Guide to Taking Charge. As a result, employers often deny it (doesn’t happen here), discount it (it’s not that bad), or justify it (it’s a tool this manager uses). “People say, ‘That’s what being a boss is about,’ and we accept that,” says Gary Namie, PhD, director of the Workplace Bullying Institute.
Meanwhile, people who do confide in human resources are often frustrated by the response they receive, says attorney Meredith Holley, author of The Inclusive Leader’s Guide to Healthy Workplace Culture. When Magan finally took her complaint to HR, she says, she was told that the team needed to get better at working together, and that she should apologize to her co-workers to help make that happen. (Less than six months later, after nearly six years at her job, she left for another one.)
Responses like these are not uncommon: By the time an employee finally decides to talk with HR, Holley explains, they’re often so frustrated by the situation that they present their issue as a litany of emotional stories and anecdotes rather than facts, which can lead to their complaint being dismissed as an issue of clashing personalities.
In comparison, Holley says, think about how much effort goes into correcting an employee who leaves dirty dishes in the office kitchen. “None of us has ever been in a workplace where someone was afraid to talk about the dishes in the sink,” she says. “But when the problem is yelling and passive-aggressive behavior, we can’t find the words to discuss it.”
While it can seem daunting to call out bullying, there are small things you can do to shut down the behavior or call attention to its inappropriateness without stepping too far outside your comfort zone. Holley recommends pointing it out immediately, rather than downplaying it in the moment with the intention of saying something later (or just letting it go entirely). If someone makes a mean-spirited joke, for instance, the default response may be to nod uncomfortably and change the subject. One subtle but meaningful tweak is to say something that points to the inappropriateness of the moment — even something as simple as “let’s not go there” — before moving on. Or if your boss is yelling at you, it’s acceptable to say, “I don’t think this is a healthy discussion. Let’s table this until we can both talk more calmly.”
The key is to do this in a way that doesn’t come off as accusatory, Holley notes, which could make the situation worse. “People get mad when they’re called out,” she says. Instead, frame your exit in terms of productivity: You’re not getting anything accomplished now, so it would be better for both of you to revisit the issue later, when you can both work toward a solution.
And you can always call in backup. If the situation feels like it’s getting out of hand, Rachel Bitte, chief people officer at Jobvite, recommends telling human resources that you’re having a difficult situation at work and asking them for advice. “HR can provide a wide spectrum of services,” she says, “from coaching someone behind the scenes on how to have an effective conversation to bringing the two people into a room and making them talk.”
Even if you’re not comfortable having them bring in the bully for a conversation, that coaching can be valuable preparation for next time you have an incident. “We practice before a presentation,” Bitte says. “Why not practice before a difficult conversation?” Rehearsing what you’re going to say, she notes, will allow you to approach the issue more calmly in the moment and help you get the emotion out of your voice.
For a little extra motivation, consider this: Workplace bullying doesn’t just impact those being targeted. It also affects those who witness it. Being a bystander to workplace abuse can raise stress levels, increase job dissatisfaction, and have a negative effect on mental health. And rampant bullying also feeds on itself, degrading the office culture to create more tolerance for bad behavior: “When we see discrimination, we are absorbing information about the power in the office and that your co-worker doesn’t deserve respect,” Holley says.
And on a personal level, tackling the problem head-on may be preferable to finding a new job. “Your career is worth saving,” she says. “There are solutions. We do a disservice to ourselves and the people [hired] after us when we quit rather than get help.”