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Workplace Bullies

“Did you fall down and smack your little head on the pavement?” snapped Miranda Priestly to her assistant in The Devil Wears Prada. With that one line, played with abandon by Meryl Streep, the character instantly personified the worst kind of boss—the bully: those men and women who take credit for your ideas, make unreasonable demands, and are verbally abusive. And if you’ve ever been humiliated in front of your co-workers by your boss or witnessed him or her throwing a temper tantrum rivaled only by that of a four-year-old, then you most certainly have a big, bad, bully on your hands.

While these browbeaters make compelling and often hilarious fictional characters (think Franklin M. Hart in Nine to Five or C. Montgomery Burns of The Simpsons), in real life they turn the workplace into a highly toxic environment for everyone involved.

Although the state of today’s economy might make an abused worker think twice before confronting a perpetrator, the abused employees often have more power than they think.

In recent years, I’ve observed that fewer companies are willing to put up with this kind of behavior. They can’t afford the disruption to productivity or the potential lawsuits. In larger firms, bullies are generally weeded out at the middle-manager level before they get to the top. Yet workers beware: some still slip through! And when they do, it’s important for your own sanity and for the good of the company to bring the torture to a complete halt ASAP.

So how can you stop a bully boss in their tracks? Try these strategies for carefully navigating yourself out of the shark-filled waters: 

Recognize the enemy.
Don’t confuse a demanding boss with a bully boss. Someone who holds you accountable or expects you to arrive at work on time is not a bully boss. A true bully boss is verbally abusive (screaming or belittling you), doesn’t listen to and respect your ideas, and doesn’t hold the good of the company and its employees as the top priority. True bully bosses rarely apologize for their bad behavior.

Join forces. 
I never recommend going to the boss’s boss to report bullying behavior—unless you want to be fired. Think about it—the boss’s boss is most likely aware of the poor behavior and already allowing it to happen, so he or she is often at fault as well. Additionally, you never know what the relationship between your boss and your boss’s boss may be. Instead, recruit allies in your effort. Compare notes with coworkers whom you trust. Seek out the support of an HR person.

Nip it in the bud.
The workplace is like the playground, but with bigger people. Bullies can’t bully if you don’t let them. Taking a stand will earn you respect and can break the pattern of abuse. Respond to your boss with simple and factual statements along the lines of, “In the past two months you have on more than one occasion screamed at me in front of colleagues, saying that I was incompetent and stupid. Not only are these assertions not true, but this is not the way I expect to be treated in a professional workplace environment. In the future, if you have a problem with the way I do things, please tell me in a normal tone of voice, without assassinating my character in the process.” It sounds simple, and it is. But it works.

No excuses.
Never make excuses for a bully boss’s atrocious behavior. And never befriend the bully. This will only encourage the behavior to continue or even escalate.

Talk in private.
Bullies love an audience, and tend to humiliate others in public. Resist the urge to take them on then and there. It’s best to confront bullying behavior behind closed doors and/or put your grievance in writing.

Avoid psychobabble and focus on specific behaviors.
Now is not the time for armchair psychology. You may have all kinds of theories regarding why your boss acts the way he does—an inferiority complex, he wasn’t loved enough as a child, Napoleon complex, etc. Instead, stick to the specific behaviors you want changed. For example, don’t tell your boss, “You put down everyone at work to build yourself up after a lifetime of being picked on for being short.” Instead, it’s far more useful to say, “In yesterday’s meeting you belittled my character and acted in a very unprofessional manner. In the future, I won’t put up with this kind of humiliation. If you act this way again, I will simply walk out of the meeting and wait for you to calm down.”

Practice being in a Zen-like state. 
I call this technique “being Buddha.” Start by breathing and slowly counting to ten. If you are still agitated, count to ten again. Then use a soothing inner monologue, such as, “This, too, shall pass,” or, “Don’t take it personally.”

Never tolerate a bully boss—even if you have to quit.
If you’ve tried the above strategies and nothing’s worked, it might be time to move on. Even though it’s definitely a hard time to voluntarily enter the job market, I firmly believe that it’s never okay to be in an abusive relationship, whether it be with a lover or a boss. If your job is slowly eroding away your overall health and well-being, then it’s just not worth it anymore. You’ll eventually find a new job. You’ll have a boss who listens well, asks questions, probes, and knows he doesn’t have all the answers.

Now won’t that be a refreshing change?

Originally published on Work Her Way