How To Defang the Office Bully

Nearly a third of workers say they’ve been bullied at the office. If you’re among them, here’s what to do.

Nobody disputes that peer-on-peer workplace bullying remains a huge drag on organizational efficiency and psychic harmony. According to the Workplace Bullying Institute, 35 percent of workers report having been bullied, by peers or a superior. The Institute says that bullying on the job is four times more common than racial discrimination or sexual harassment.

Problem is, psychiatrists, academics, authors and attorneys who specialize in workplace-related matters can't come within 100 miles of a consensus about how to combat it. Some say that victims should stand up to workplace bullies right away, while others believe that is waving a red flag in the bully's face. Some think that human resources should be notified at the barest hint of conflict, while others warn that HR shouldn't be brought into the loop until attempts by the bullied party to address the situation have proven fruitless. All this is compounded by the fact that 62 percent of respondents to a Workplace Bullying Institute poll said that their employer lacked a formal anti-bullying policy.

The Institute defines workplace bullying as "repeated, health-harming mistreatment of one or more persons (the targets) by one or more perpetrators that takes on one or more of the following forms: verbal abuse, offensive conduct/behaviors (including nonverbal) which are threatening, humiliating or intimidating; or work interference (sabotage) which prevents work from getting done… [It] is akin to domestic violence at work, where the abuser is on the payroll." Any number of harassments might qualify as bullying under this definition: taunts about physical appearance or professional ability, dismissive sighs when the victim offers input during meetings, you name it.

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For a marketing firm sales coordinator, it came in the form of indirect intimidation. She says a coworker was envious of her advanced computer skills and professional demeanor ("things she lacked completely"). As a result, the coworker alternated between yelling for trivial reasons and ignoring the woman.

"She would insinuate that I'd get fired for making one small mistake," the sales coordinator recalls. "I couldn't go to HR for her indirect intimidation because it was, precisely, indirect." She ultimately left the company and looks back on how she handled the bullying with some regret. "I should have voiced my displeasure to my boss and let her know how miserable [the bully] was making me and how it contributed to my dissatisfaction at work," she says.

While the prospect of absorbing abuse at the place where you spend 40 hours per week is daunting, there are a number of ways to handle peer-on-peer bullying.

Don't… run to human resources at the first sign of trouble: Unless the first sign of trouble is a brandished handgun, or another unignorable threat. HR departments are cautious because the law requires them to be. Unless the victim can document a sustained pattern of harassing behavior -- with times, dates and places -- HR will likely make note of the incident but take no action. "Unless bullying is physical or involves physical threats implied or otherwise, there is very little institutional support for dealing with it," says Al Bernstein, author of Emotional Vampires at Work.

Do… frame everything in terms of an efficient, productive workplace: Nothing prompts change faster than a dent in the bottom line. To get superiors to take a bullying report seriously, the accuser should make a business case for addressing it. "Talk about the bullying behavior and what it's costing the organization," suggests Catherine Mattice, president of Civility Partners and author of BACK OFF! Your Kick-Ass Guide to Ending Bullying at Work. "Make a spreadsheet, if you can, of all the costs -- time spent gossiping about the behavior, lost customers or whatever else you can think of." Such an approach is guaranteed to get everyone's attention.

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Don't… assume the bully knows he's a bully: Before an alleged victim tars a coworker with accusations of bullying, he or she should be sure that there's no other reasonable interpretation of the act in question. What the victim views as an intentional shove could be something else entirely; maybe the "aggressor" tripped. "Many employees do not have a clear understanding of workplace bullying," says Dr. Daniel Bober, founder of Psychiatric Consultants of Florida and an assistant clinical professor at Yale. "Educating employees about these behaviors is essential to preventing them. Workers should know what bullying is, how to recognize it and what they can do to stop it or prevent it from happening."

Do… attempt to address the problem before reporting it: Some degree of interaction with the bully should precede the trip to the HR office, in most cases. Otherwise, employers may, unfairly or not, view the victim as eager to deflect his problems rather than deal with them. "You have to be able to say that you tried to end it on your own. It's the only way you will come across as a solution-oriented team player," says Mattice. "If you show up to HR and say, 'I haven't talked to this person yet, but can you help me?,' you appear as a whiner."

Don't… drag coworkers into the fray: It's one thing to chew a friendly ear; it's another to give thrice-daily play-by-play recaps of the alleged conduct to anyone within shouting distance. This isn't to suggest that victims should keep their distress or concern for their well-being to themselves. "Isolating yourself makes you an easier target," warns Lis Wiehl, a Fox News Channel legal analyst. But office-wide broadcasts tend to create a mammoth distraction, and HR execs and corporate higher-ups alike won't be favorably inclined towards any individual who frustrates productivity.

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Do… mind your body language: Bullying victims tend to shy away from eye contact, hunch their shoulders and cross their arms. To project a stronger physical presence, Mattice suggests instead to "stand tall, with shoulders back, arms to your side and chin up." Doing so will not only suggest to the bully that you aren't cowed, but also have an effect on your self-esteem. "You'll actually feel courageous," Mattice promises.

Don't… use accusatory language: If the bullying prompts a confrontation, Heather Beaven, CEO of anti-bullying initiative SUPERB, suggests keeping the encounter low-key and free of finger-pointing. There's no boilerplate solution, but it's helpful to begin with a validating statement (Mattice recommends something along the lines of "I understand that you are frustrated by the way I did this project") and then a straightforward statement about the bully's actions ("But when you talk to me like that, it comes across as unprofessional and it's hard for me to hear what changes you would like me to make"). Beaven adds that the setting is as important as the actual language. "Discuss the situation on neutral ground, using 'I' statements, like, 'I feel like there is strain between us,'" she suggests.