Crucial Conversations QA

Bullying at Work

Dear Crucial Skills,

I would like to ask about dealing with workplace bullying, and how middle managers handle it from the top? New York State just adopted a bill to address workplace bullying, which has become the “new” harassment “just under the waterline” methodology.

I would love to hear from you and would offer that more of us are experiencing it than we think.


Dear Curious,

I have to admit that when I hear the word “bully” it makes the hair stand up on the back of my neck. Like many boys growing up (I was small for my age) I faced bullying at every turn. I had friends who didn’t take a single shower after PE during their high school years because bullies would snap them with wet towels and otherwise harass them. A few months ago a local TV station shot video of a group of teenage boys abusing their peers during lunch, so it appears as if the problem hasn’t changed much. Couple this with the recent release of the terrific book Odd Girl Out: The Hidden Culture of Aggression in Girls by Rachel Simmons (which makes it clear that bullying isn’t gender restricted), and it’s not hard to imagine how aggressive, intimidating behavior has found its way into the workplace.

Bullying is now finding its way into the corporate vernacular.  As the government continues to enforce harassment laws, many employees are beginning to wonder if certain behaviors that aren’t necessarily gender, race, or belief related, but still seem highly inappropriate, should be outlawed—or at least prohibited at work as well. These “under the waterline” behaviors include actions such as making false accusations, glaring, discounting others’ ideas, backbiting, threatening work life quality, gossiping, constantly criticizing, giving people the silent treatment, making impossible demands, etc. All are examples of not treating people with the respect they deserve.

It’s important for leaders to make it clear that all forms of disrespect, dishonesty, and lack of teamwork are unacceptable at work. Perhaps it’s time for companies to begin talking not only about harassment, but also about social abuse in general—giving specific examples of unacceptable behavior that fall under the rubric of bullying. To get a feel for the various forms bullying can take, search “workplace bullying” on the Internet and check out the Workplace Bullying Institute.

At the personal level, if you fall prey to bullying, you have several responses. Most of us, like the boys who wouldn’t shower, remain silent. We don’t want to look weak. We also don’t want the bullies to find out that we’ve tattled on them, only to have them increase the intensity. When we do speak up, we tend to talk to a friend or loved one. If pushed at work, we may talk to HR, but that’s pretty rare. And frankly, when it comes to subtle behaviors such as glaring at you or giving you the silent treatment, it’s difficult to document the problem, so you won’t get much help from HR (you’ll have to keep a detailed behavioral log of times and behaviors).

With many bullying behaviors, you’ll probably need to talk to the other person or people directly. When this happens, it’s time for a crucial confrontation. When others bully you, that’s a violated expectation. You’ll need to start by explaining what was expected versus what was observed. However, don’t allow yourself to become upset before you do address the problem. Maybe others are unaware of what they’re doing. In fact, you’ll probably want to start with a statement to that effect.

For example, “I’m not sure you intended this, but in our last meeting you laughed at two of my ideas. I expect people to disagree sometimes, but to me it felt as if you were making fun of me. Is that what was going or am missing something here?”

This beginning sentence should at least get you to the point where you’re talking openly about bullying and should help you get started on the right foot.

Best of luck,