Bullying at Work and How to Stand Up for Yourself
The workplace can be a very tricky environment. There are so many dynamics at play, and the struggle to remain professional in the face of unacceptable or overwhelming behavior on the part of others is a very difficult challenge.
Today I would like to address two specific scenarios: 1) someone who is being inappropriate with their touch or innuendo, and 2) someone who is exhibiting bullying behaviors.
Let me first go back to one of my favorite topics, which is boundaries! The factor here is whether or not you should tolerate being made uncomfortable in your work environment, and there is no scenario that I can imagine where being consistently made uncomfortable by your coworkers or superiors is acceptable. You have been hired to do a job. Having your boundaries crossed and being made to feel regularly uncomfortable or upset within your environment implies a toxic work culture.
As a person who always likes to think the best of others and prefers to first assume that bad behavior is unintentional or a miscommunication, let’s first go over what to say in order to address these problem behaviors. As I speak about in many places, losing your cool is the equivalent of losing your foothold on the issue. Boundaries can be conveyed with a very clear but calm insistence. This actually gives them more strength than attempting to force others to change their behavior or becoming loud because of your anger or frustration.
When it comes to unwanted touch or uncomfortable innuendo. The situation is tricky because often the offending person can simply claim that it was a misunderstanding, that they are unaware of any problem, and that you are simply making a problem out of nothing. In this scenario, I would suggest being very clear about exactly the behavior that makes you uncomfortable so that you can communicate it clearly without emotion or assumption.
Instead of: “You make me uncomfortable all the time and I don’t like it.”
Say: “It makes me uncomfortable when you put your hand on my back like that. Can you please not touch me when we’re having a conversation?”
The exact behavior has to be specified (“when you put your hand on my back”). It needs to be followed by a clear request (“please don’t touch me” or “I am happy to speak with you, but I don’t want to be touched”). You are not getting emotional. You are being matter of fact (because it’s not negotiable!). This would be said in the same tone of voice as correcting your child by reminding them, “don’t chew with your mouth open, please.”
Here are the most common ways someone will push back and how to respond:
Them: “It’s not that big of a deal!”
You: “Maybe not to someone else, but it is to me. It makes me uncomfortable, and I’m asking you to not do it anymore.”
Them: “You’re being too sensitive.”
You: “I’m not being too sensitive. It feels inappropriate to me and I’m letting you know. Surely you don’t want to make me uncomfortable!”
Them: “You’re turning this into something it isn’t.”
You: “No, I’m just letting you know how I feel so that you can be aware. Surely it’s not necessary to touch people’s backs to make your point?”
Them: (doesn’t matter what they say or how grouchy they are when they finally concede)
You: “Wonderful. Glad we got that cleared up. Now…”(move on and change the subject)
You are matter of fact. You are insistent. What they think or feel or want is completely irrelevant. There is no sound reason why a person would insist on having the right to touch you after you have clearly and calmly stated that it makes you uncomfortable.
Any further instances like this should be reported to HR. I would make a note of the time, date, and details of this interaction and keep it to yourself for future reference to bring up to HR if needed. A work environment where this is not being handled appropriately is toxic and you don’t need a job like that! There are plenty more out there.
What about coworkers who are making rude comments about you or to you? This is terrible behavior for anyone to exhibit. We are not in grade school anymore! Again, I would encourage someone in this situation to address specific comments calmly and directly. How to handle an ugly comment?
Instead of: “What’s wrong with you? Why would you say that to somebody? You need to stop!”
Say: “That’s a very mean thing to say about someone. I don’t make rude comments about you to other people. I would hope you would do the same for me.”
I would discourage you from arguing about the comment specifically. The goal here is not to win an argument about the rude comment or get them to say they are sorry. The goal is for you to call out the behavior itself as rude and unacceptable and to clearly state your expectations. You expect to work professionally. You expect everyone in the office to refrain from name calling.
They don’t have to like you or be your best friend. They don’t have to agree with you or be sorry about what they said. This is work, and the expectation is that the people who work together will be able to behave professionally with each other. You are calmly and clearly giving your thoughts on the behavior. Everyone here should be respectful toward each other. We’re all here to do a job. I don’t say mean things toward you or about you to other people, and I expect that we’re all treating each other with that same level of respect and courtesy. You are not attacking them specifically. It’s the same expectation for everyone.
Instead of: “You are being mean and it needs to stop.”
Say: “My expectation is that we are all being respectful toward each other.”
If you think that there has been a specific personality conflict, but you’re not sure exactly what it is, you can feel free to address it if necessary. I would suggest a comment to the tune of, “I feel like there is tension between us and I’m not sure why. I don’t have a problem with you, but I feel like you might have one with me. Is there something specific that has happened in the past that caused a problem between us that I’m not aware of?”
You are not accusing them of anything. You are leading with the ‘olive branch of peace’ that you do not have a specific problem with that person. It places the responsibility for the tension on them, and most people don’t want that responsibility. You are offering to have a conversation with them to straighten out whatever it is that is wrong. You are calm, open, and willing to listen. (Let me be clear: your attitude has to TRULY be one of peace. If you come across as bossy or condescending, this will backfire.) Most of the time, this person has no good reason for the way that they are acting. By being called out in this way where their behavior is being put on display, and you are not being aggressive in any manner, they will usually decide its not worth it to continue acting that way.
They would rather drop it and be done with it than risk things escalating to the point where they are now being considered a bully at work. Most of the time that is not what they’re going for at all. It also gives them the chance to bring up any real issues that exist that you might not be aware of, and you can work through those together and neutralize the problem.
If the person is a true bully, then your calm and matter-of-fact approach to the situation will really take the wind out of their sails. Bullies get their excitement from watching their victims’ upset emotions. They also feel very emboldened when there is no confrontation or opposition to their behavior. By ignoring them completely, you are giving them full reign to do and say as they please. By addressing the issue, but doing it in a very calm and matter-of-fact way, you are cornering them into changing what they’re doing. (And again, going to HR may be necessary. If the situation is not able to be fixed, moving on to a better environment may be the only solution.)
Having high levels of tension at work is incredibly frustrating and causes a lot of anxiety. I hope that this information arms you to feel more confident in handling these very upsetting situations. If you are currently dealing with this, I am very sorry that you are going through something so difficult, and I’m sending calm and confident energy your direction for a quick and complete resolution.
Do you feel like you could address these issues in this way? Please let me know your thoughts!
Julie Crenshaw is a Conversation Coach and author. Her book, “Navigating & Avoiding Awkward Conversations: How to speak to anyone about anything,” has helped readers all over the world improve their communication skills. Follow her on Instagram to learn more about the art of conversation.