Are you being bullied at work? How to spot it and stop it

office worker being patronised
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Are you being bullied at work? Would you know how to spot it if you were?

More importantly would you know how to stop it? It is a very sad fact of life that bullying is quite common in the workplace. Sometimes it’s obvious, sometimes it’s subtle, but it is always undermining.

I know this from first-hand experience myself, when from a very young age I was bullied, and this pattern followed me into the workplace. It wasn’t until I became more confident and resilient, that I learned to handle the bullies and send them on the way. You can too, as soon as you learn to spot it and stop it.

How to spot it?

  • Taking credit for your work. Bullies often operate from a place of insecurity and as a result are unlikely to allow others on their team to outshine them. One of the ways that they can do this is to take credit for your work. This can be very undermining, but this is where a clear email trail and your wider network of colleagues can really come into their own.
  • Unexpected outbursts, anger and aggression towards you and others in the team. Some bullies can have a barely veiled grip on their seething anger. They were probably angry and aggressive in childhood and whilst they know that the same level of outbursts is not acceptable as an adult, when under pressure their rage will boil to the surface. When facing anger, calmness and a neutral tone can be your best approach. It’s hard for someone to carry on raging against you, if they are seeing it having little effect on your own disposition.
  • Putting you down for the quality of your work in front of others. Some bullies need an audience to feel they have the upper hand and one of the ways they do this is to attempt to demean others. This can be very disconcerting if you have never experienced such behaviour before and it can be difficult to know how to respond. But the lack of response can give the bully exactly what he or she wants; someone to be the outlet for their own feelings of inadequacy.

How to stop it?

It’s important to realise that bullies can only get away with their behaviour when we become complicit in allowing it to happen. We don’t do this from a place of acceptance, often we feel baffled, shocked and unable to respond when it first emerges. But that is what the bully thrives on, the element of surprise and being able to isolate and undermine your own feelings, whilst they bolster their own inadequacies. Take some practical steps to redress the balance.

  • Cover your back. Remember that email is your best friend when it comes to someone who will seek to blame or undermine you when things go wrong. Make clear notes at every encounter. Follow up with an email of agreed actions, even if they sit opposite you. Copy in relevant colleagues so that you build a quiet coalition of witnesses, if the fingers is getting pointed at you.
  • Widen your network. One of the things that the bully relies on, is a sense of isolation from his or her victims. The best way to counteract this, is to widen your network. Go out of your way to get to know colleagues in other departments. Reach out to your boss (or if your boss is the bully to your boss’s boss) to learn more about the company and how to do well there. Ask who you could contact to be your mentor as you are keen to progress and do well there. The more people you build up a trusting and supportive relationship with, the harder it is for the bully to isolate you.
  • Speak up. Bullying only goes on so long because people refuse to speak up. The first place to start is with the bully themselves. Adopting a firm and non-confrontational approach is best. Acknowledge their comments and the if it is either inappropriate or has been delivered in an undermining way, tell them that you are very open to feedback to help you to improve in your work, but not willing to accept comments that are personal and inappropriate. Also contact your local HR person to share concerns, or if your company has a welfare line, call them up to get some advice about your situation.
  • This one simple act has an immediate effect on our own sense of well-being and a positive impact on our relationships. You may need to choose your moment for this if you are dealing with a hot-headed bully, as it might make it worse. But for those who use insinuating or undermining tactics, the smile can be very disarming.

Remember, bullying is like a dance, it can only work if we both accept the respective parts of the routine. As soon as you learn to spot it and stop it, the less power the bully can have over you and your work.

Mary McGuireAbout the author

Mary McGuire holds an MBA and MSc in Human Resources and is Chartered Fellow of CIPD. Her early career as a social worker, led on to becoming a Chief Executive of a charity for people with Autism. For the last 20 years she has worked as an international business consultant, working with companies and leaders all over the world. Her first book ‘Coming Home to You’ is available on and on Amazon. Email [email protected]

Coming Home to You by Mary McGuire is out now, available from Amazon, priced £12.95



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