How to Deal With A Bully at Work: 10 Complete Steps

Elizabeth Openshaw
Elizabeth Openshaw

12 min read

How to Handle Bullying in the Workplace and Safeguard Your Mental Health

While a lot of people would expect bullying to stay in the playground once you have left high school, a recent study in 2023 has revealed that up to 35% of employees have experienced bullying at some point or other while at their place of employment. This type of behavior can lead to both mental and physical harm for the victim, seriously affecting how they perform at work and resulting in high staff turnover rates. So not only is it bad for the person involved, it’s bad for business as well. In the US alone, there are approximately two million people a year who are subjected to violence in the workplace.

Do you know how to handle bullying in the workplace? If the answer is no or you are not sure, then you have come to the right place.

In this post, we will explore the many faces of bullying in the workplace, how to deal with a bully at work, and offer 10 complete tips that can help you stop workplace bullying once and for all. Your mental health and well-being could be at stake, so let us show you how to deal with a bully at work or how to avoid it altogether.

Is workplace bullying really a problem?

As illustrated by those stark statistics above, unfortunately, it is. The reality is that many people who were either perpetrators or victims of a childhood bullying culture often carry those experiences over to their adult and working lives. According to the Workplace Bullying Institute, over 76 million workers are affected by bullying at work, whether that is directly or indirectly.

In fact, that same organization estimates that workplace bullying may occur four times more than sexual harassment and impacts both men and women equally. Unfortunately, this bullying culture appears to have permeated into the adult work environment to an alarming extent in ways that can threaten workers’ emotional, mental, and physical well-being. But the fact that it exists in the workplace does not mean that you have to tolerate it.

Recognizing workplace bullying

Before you learn how to deal with a bully at work, you have to understand how to recognize it. When you were young, it was easy to spot a bully in the playground. They were the ones pushing other kids around, calling them names, and terrorizing them in any number of ways.

But as you move into the workforce, those bullies are not so easy to spot. Instead of openly harassing and physically tormenting their prey, workplace bullies resort to more passive-aggressive forms of abuse. Yes, some of those bullies may be just as physically intimidating as their schoolyard counterparts, but most bullying tactics at work involve mental and emotional abuse.

So how can you recognize this type of bullying behavior? There are a number of tell-tale signs that could indicate someone is bullying you or someone you know. Check out the list below, answering “yes” or “no” as you go.

  • Do you have a coworker or superior who constantly criticizes you or the work that you do?

  • Is there someone who regularly goes out of their way to dismiss your input during meetings?

  • Has a coworker or superior spread rumors or false information about you?

  • Have you experienced negative comments about your family, heritage, culture, or appearance?

  • Are you regularly blamed by a coworker for issues that are not your fault?

  • Does someone at work constantly try to intimidate you by invading your personal space, moving into your path in the hallway, or otherwise engaging in covert physical challenges?

  • Have you had a coworker or superior consistently try to take credit for your achievements?

  • Does a boss or coworker constantly bring up past mistakes that you have made but are now irrelevant?

  • Are you being denied resources or assistance that is provided to other employees?

  • Does your boss raise their voice when criticizing you?

  • Do you have a boss who constantly holds you to different standards than your peers?

  • Have you experienced sexually suggestive or discriminatory comments?

  • Has a coworker published inappropriate social media posts that are designed to embarrass you?

If your answer was “yes” to any of those questions, there’s a good chance that you have a bully at work.

Different types of bullies and how to recognize them

It is also important to understand the type of bully that you are facing if you want to know how to deal with a bully at work. Most bullies in the workplace can be classified into one of four different types.

The Aggressive Communicator

The aggressive communicator is basically the adult version of a childhood bully. They scream. They curse. They make scenes everywhere they go in an attempt to exert control over their environment. In the workplace, they may also send nasty emails, utilize aggressive body language, and attempt to show their dominance in any setting.

The Humiliation Eater

These bullies are less aggressive in their terror tactics, preferring to wear down their opponents over a period of time. They will criticize their target repeatedly, regardless of whether there are any grounds for this. Their sole goal is to humiliate others to feed their need to mask their own inadequacies. Like other bullies, they suffer from a lack of self-confidence and aim to lift themselves up by bringing others down.

The Gatekeeping Manipulator

This type of bully will usually be in a position of authority, with access to resources and information that you need in order to succeed in your role. Their bullying may involve things like conveniently forgetting to give you vital instructions or not allowing you to get the help you need to complete a task. Basically, they do things that are designed to set you up to fail.

The False Friend

You may be the last person at work to identify this type of bully since it is someone who pretends to be an ally while working behind the scenes to undermine your job. This can be the hardest kind of bully to deal with, as their malicious work often goes undetected unless someone else informs you of their identity.

How to deal with a bully at work: 10 effective tips to address the problem

Knowing how to deal with a bully at work involves using real-world strategies to confront the problem before it gets out of hand.

As you consider these tips, focus on the one simple and clear truth: You do not deserve to be bullied. Nobody does. But unless you are willing to act, you cannot expect the problem to simply go away on its own.

With that noted, here are 10 tips on how to deal with a bully at work.

1. Set yourself up for success

This might sound odd, but it is the way to go to protect yourself from bullies before they start. Identify a way to defend yourself from them by working hard, achieving goals, and providing added value to the company. Doing the right thing and following official procedures at all times can shield you from their gaze while giving you a sense of security and helping you stay on track.

Building a close network around you can also help. Taking the time to cultivate those vital relationships with your peers, subordinates, and superiors could make all the difference. It is like having your own “bully-proof” vest, so to speak.

2. Make sure that it really is bullying

Bullying, by definition, is the use of force, coercion, hurtful teasing, or threat with the aim to abuse, aggressively dominate, or intimidate. This type of behavior is often habitual and repeated over a period of time.

Before steaming in, assuming that you are being bullied, make sure that you take the time to accurately assess the situation, taking a moment to weigh it up. 

Interpersonal relations are often sabotaged by mistaken intentions and misread interactions. If the actions that you are interpreting as bullying are isolated instances that may be honest mistakes, you might want to consider approaching the situation with a little tact. One option is to pull that person aside and inquire about their intentions. If an honest inquiry results in a civil conversation (and perhaps an apology from the offending party), then it is probably safe to assume that the incident was an honest mistake, and you can all move on.

On the other hand, if all you hear is excuses or evasions — one common plot is for the bully to deny that they did anything wrong — then you can assume that the bullying was intentional and proceed accordingly.

3. Act immediately and directly

Once you know that you are the target of a bully, it is important to act decisively before things escalate. The moment that bullying begins, you should address the problem head-on by confronting the issue with the bully. This may be the hardest approach if you lack confidence, but it is also the most effective. Remember that bullies target easy prey; they rarely persist when their bullying is directly challenged.

Of course, you must be restrained in your response. One potential solution is to confidently reject bullying by calling attention to the bully’s actions.

For example, you could say to the bully:

“I see what you are doing, Ted, and you need to stop. Like everyone else in this office, I have always treated you with respect. I expect you to treat me with that same level of respect. If you can’t do that, then I suggest we address this with our superiors.”

One thing to remember, though, is that this type of direct response usually only works if you do it early on in the bullying process. If the abuse has continued for any significant length of time, chances are that your bully will ignore your reasonable approach and may take it as a challenge to escalate the bullying.

4. Don’t let emotions get the better of you

Getting upset, feeling tense, and being angry are natural reactions to have when being bullied. It can lead to becoming distracted from your day-to-day tasks and interfere with your home life.

But you are a professional. You can’t lash out at work. By reacting instinctively, guided by negative emotions, you may end up making the conflict worse, which could damage the chance of future collaboration.

If you feel safe enough, start a conversation with the bully by being respectful yet direct. Say your part, then listen carefully to their side. There may be a chance of reconciliation. If not, you might have to escalate the problem to your line manager or the HR department.

5. Don’t take it personally

Of course, that is easier said than done, but try not to think of the bullying as a personal attack. It is more about their jealousy, insecurities, or need for control than you as a co-worker.

Also, remember that victims of bullying are often high-performing individuals who succeed at work. So, prevent yourself from reacting or feeling bad about yourself by practicing healthy emotional boundaries.

6. Document your work performance and any instances of bullying

Part of knowing how to deal with a bully at work involves knowing how to properly document your performance and instances of abuse. Your performance journal should pinpoint achievements, positive evaluations, and other highlights of your work. That can be invaluable if you ever have to take legal action to stop abuse, especially if the bullying is from a superior. Documenting the instances of bullying is important as it means there will be a record of the abuse that can be used as evidence.

7. Research your company’s policy on workplace abuse

Most companies, in 2023, have some form of policy on workplace abuse. If you are being bullied, there is a good chance that the actions are in violation of company rules. You need to know what those rules are if you plan to have them enforced against a bully. On the other hand, if your company lacks that sort of policy, you should talk to management or HR about implementing such protections.

8. Bring the problem to a superior

If the direct approach does not work, you will need to escalate your complaint to a superior. This is where your evidence will come in handy so that you can show the pattern of abuse. Keep in mind that you may have to go even higher up the chain of command if the bully is your direct superior.

9. Take steps to reinforce your mental health

Bullying can be a serious threat to mental health, so make sure that you are doing everything you can to safeguard your own well-being throughout this ordeal. Find activities that relax you, make you feel safe and valued, and provide you with enjoyment outside of work. Focus on family, friendships, and other relationships that have a positive impact on your mental and emotional health.

10. Consider a job change or hire an attorney

If the bullying continues and the company refuses to intervene, then you really only have two options: look for another job or consult with an attorney.

The one thing you cannot do is stay there and continue to be a victim of workplace abuse. Depending upon the severity of the bullying and how well you documented everything, a good attorney may be able to help you seek justice. 

Recognize and overcome

Bullying, or negative behavior in the workplace, is never acceptable, regardless of whether it takes place in the schoolyard, in an office, or in a corporate boardroom. By learning to recognize bullying tactics and understanding how to deal with a bully at work, you can better protect your mental health and avoid being the victim within a truly toxic work environment.

If you do decide to seek another job, then you will need to make sure that your resume is in good order and updated to showcase your value as a potential hire. Our professional resume experts can provide you with a free resume review

Recommended reading:

Elizabeth Openshaw

Written by

Elizabeth Openshaw, Editor & Content Writer, Elizabeth Openshaw, Editor & Content Writer

Elizabeth Openshaw is an Elite CV Consultant with over 12 years of experience based in Brighton, UK, with an English degree and an addiction to Wordle! She is a former Journalist of 17 years with the claim to fame that she interviewed three times Grand Slam winner and former World No.1 tennis player, Andy Murray, when he was just 14 years old. You can connect with her at Elizabeth Openshaw | LinkedIn.

Person working on laptop outside. ZipJob Branded.

Our resume services get results.

We’ve helped change over 30,000 careers.