If you are on the receiving end of hurtful, controlling, or offensive behaviour at work over a long period of time, it can certainly take its toll. You often don’t feel very powerful or able to take action to stop the bullying. Of course, management can do their part to help, but there are also things you can do as well. Assuming you have not already made a decision to leave the workplace, consider which of the following are a good fit for your situation.
- Double-check your perspective: Yes, it may well be a case of clear-cut bullying, but there may be occasions when you are mis-reading the situation. Search for a kinder perspective if one is there. For someone who is speaking disrespectfully to you, is it possible they are highly stressed or having problems at home? Perhaps they are not aware of how they are coming across?
This doesn’t excuse their behaviour, of course, but it does help you to be slightly less offended. If you are feeling deliberately excluded by others at work, is this really the case? You can’t be friends with everyone. I encourage you to double-check your perspective with someone who can give you an unbiased opinion as to whether you are over-reacting or mis-reading the situation
- Find the right mindset to help you take action: So often, we are fearing the worst or thinking the other person is incapable of change. We may be right, but you can see how such thoughts will stop you from taking constructive action. When you have the right mindset, this can help you to project the right demeanour as so often it is not what we are saying that people are reacting to, but our manner.
Which of the following would work for you? Would it be a compassionate mindset, appreciating that the other person is stressed or that you may be contributing in some way? Would it be expecting the best from a discussion you are to have, rather than fearing the worst. (With some, you might have to expect the best, but prepare for the worst, just in case). Would it be a ‘let’s work it out’ mindset that will help you to take action and project the right ‘vibes’. Or would it be seeing the other person as a teacher, where you ask them to help you understand what is going on for them?
Sometimes, making a commitment, such as an appointment to speak to that person, may help you to get you over the start line. Even when you have the right mindset, you will still need some courage.
- Start on a positive note: You could ask if they are OK. You could say that they seem to be acting out-of-character perhaps. Often people who are coming across badly are very unhappy at work or home. They might confide in you what they are dealing with. At the very least, this approach will get them thinking about how they are coming across. You could start on a positive note by saying ‘Something is not working for me’ or ‘I want to work things out’.
You might say that you want a fresh start or speak of the common purpose you both share. You could also ask why they think things are not working. Remember it is not just what you say that counts, but how you say it – you need to not look or sound like a victim.
- Define the problem in a face-saving way: You could say, for example, that you know that they are under a lot of pressure, are not behaving in a particular way intentionally, that you may be mis-reading the situation, or that you are both different people but need to find a way of working together. This is better than starting with a complaint, an accusation, or using the ‘B’ word – Bullying.
There is a time and place to use that word, but when you are trying to work things out, I would speak more about specific behaviour rather than labels they will want to dispute. Speak more about their behaviour is coming across rather than putting a label on it or them. If you suggest that you both put the effort in for the future, this is face-saving as well, instead of simply insisting that it is only the other person who needs to change.
- Communicate specifically what you find helpful: This is preferable to a list of what you find offensive or hurtful. Be as specific as possible. Don’t just say you want to be treated respectfully. Say it helps when they keep their volume down and ask for your ideas (rather than simply telling you what to do).
Of course, this is no guarantee that people will change. All I can guarantee is that if you don’t communicate your expectations, you are relying on their maturity and sensitivity to work it out for themselves. Some people won’t know unless you tell them.
- Talk about the natural consequences: You could say, for example, ‘Sometimes it comes across as you getting others to side with you and then no-one in that group speaks with me. When this happens, it hurts and it makes it hard for me to come to work.’ Of course, you are choosing language that is appropriate for you and the situation. You could also speak about the flow-on consequences to the morale and cohesiveness of the team.
You could also bring out the heavy artillery and start speaking about lodging a grievance or, if you are their manager, speak about performance management. But assure them that this is not your preference. You would prefer to get things working better. You could also discuss the positive consequences if change occurs and how this would make it easier for both of you to work together.
- Interrupt the usual pattern: Here you are doing something different, anything, to disrupt the usual pattern and to notice what helps. It could be changing your behaviour in some way with the hope that a change by you will also lead to a change by them. You might also consider whether it would be helpful for someone else who they respect to speak with them. I have known some people who have made the decision to leave and figure they have nothing to lose, to strongly challenge the person who is behaving disrespectfully. Sometimes this is not done in the most civil way.
Sometimes, it has helped with the other person apologising and changing as up until then, they were not aware their behaviour was a problem. Other times, such a challenge only made things worse. You might feel more comfortable experimenting with safer changes to the usual pattern – what you say to them, when it is said, where you speak to them, how you say it, or who speaks to them or is present in support.
- Document your interactions: When challenges are ongoing, it becomes important to write down what occurred and when, any witnesses, what you did in response, and what you have done to get the relationship working better. If there is an agreement reached about actions they or you will both take, consider putting it in writing with both of you keeping a copy.
If you need to take formal actions such as speaking to your or their manager, lodging a grievance, or commencing performance management, this documentation will help you to be taken more seriously and also provide some record for the future. I think it is tragic when I hear stories of a new team leader dealing with a problem team member who has a very long history of being challenging. When their personnel file is looked at, there are no records the new manager can look at to help decide a course of action.
- Seek help: Check out your workplace’s policy on bullying, if one exists, which may well be able to give you some guidance. Seek also the help of your or their manager, your workplace harassment officer, or perhaps someone from Human Resources or your Employee Assistance Program. None of us are made to suffer alone. Even if they cannot change the situation, they can at least support you while you are dealing with it.
Keep in mind that there are many managers who fear difficult conversations just as much as anyone else. And not everyone who workS in HR or your Employee Assistance Program is confident in giving good advice in this area. So search out someone who inspires confidence. If you have a manager who is reluctant to take action, your documentation may help here. Otherwise, you may need to speak to their manager.
- Take formal actions: Nobody likes to lodge a grievance or commence performance management as these are stressful for everyone. But there is a time and place for such actions. I find a number of workplaces are reluctant to go down this path, even with very problematic employees or managers, and as a result these individuals cause tremendous costs and disruption.
At the other extreme are individuals who choose this option too quickly, often having taken no other action apart from stewing on the perceived slights and letting things build until they become major issues.
On the brighter side, a number of people who are performance managed will leave within six months of their own accord. And when management demonstrate a willingness to investigate and take action in relation to complaints of bullying, other staff know that such behaviour will not be tolerated and that problems at work will be addressed.
Of course, we know that taking action can be very hard. Consider the above, discuss them with a support person, and decide which of the above may be of help. We all deserve to feel good going to work and respected as a colleague.