How to Protect Yourself from Workplace Bullies and Harassers

Many workplaces are run with less consciousness than a fifth-grade playground or an eight-grade lunchroom — but with way more power for the bullies and harassers.  At the least this can create havoc for employees and everyone they impact, from their families, to and anyone the employees happen to encounter on the highway after work.

Employers also lose big-time when they don’t stop workplace bullies and harassers.  As we recently reported here,  attorney Stephen M. Paskoff notes that “uncivil, abusive treatment—whether legal or not—causes business risks that exceed the economic costs of employment claims.”  The more we can help make employers see the business benefits of stopping workplace harassment and bullying, the sooner it can stop. Some Workplaces Can Be Really Mean and Hostile

You have to be clueless not to know that it’s illegal to harass or discriminate against people at work on the basis of race, creed, sex, national origin or sexual orientation. Still, at some workplaces it’s considered okay horseplay to drape a rope over the neck of an African American.

At other workplaces, slander based on religion is common.  Many managers turn a blind eye while employees (sometimes other managers) debate the sexual habits of co-workers, or play grab-ass games where participants try to pull each others’ pants down.

You Can’t Stop Workplace Bullies and Harassers Without Saying No

Based on the maybe 1,000 employment law depositions I’ve seen as a employment paralegal or the hundreds of people I’ve interviewed about meaningful work over many years, many employees try a lot of ineffective tactics to stop the bullies and harassers:

  • make a joke or laugh it off;
  • think only positive thoughts and try to ignore it;
  • focus on not letting the bully or harasser see how hurt they are;
  • change the subject;
  • act nicely in the hopes the bully will stop picking on them; and/or
  • hope that any or all of the above will make the abuser get the message and change.

Such tactics may help some people remember their humanity. But when someone is really being abusive, the only thing harassers and bullies understand is “No!” followed by a clear, clean, simple description of just what is not acceptable.

To the Extent We Haven’t Grown Up, It’s Harder to Get Others to Act Like Grown-ups

When the workplace feels like middle school or high school, it can push those painful buttons of any childhood stuff we still haven’t overcome, like an overwhelming fear of being teased and judged by people who so obviously don’t care.

I’ll never forget Jane (assumed name), the only woman in a group of men who acted like prepubescent kids whose teacher had left the room. On the witness stand, she was confronted with how it appeared as if she condoned the bad behavior.  Under questioning, it became obvious that her coping strategy at work was pretty much the same one she had used in junior high: trying to be part of the gang, and not trusting anyone outside the gang to help her.

To Jane and anyone like her:  many of us have been there, done that and found it didn’t work.  It does help to face the old pain or misconceptions with the help of great allies and role models.  I can’t overstress good therapy, buddy sessions, or assertiveness training.

A Personal Experience of Stopping a Bully and Harasser

Years ago, a temporary boss never had time to give clear instructions and always had time to scream in great detail about what I did wrong.  He was so demeaning that sometimes I began to doubt my own intelligence and worth.

After much prayer and emotional venting outside of work, I told him, ” I am here to serve you and want to serve you well. To do that, I need to be really clear about what you want, and I can’t be clear when you give me your instructions in a hurry, like when you are late for a meeting.”

I imagined myself surrounded by wise, strong women who modeled confidence and self-respect. After a deep breath, I continued, “I know you also want me to do a good job.  Here’s what I need from you so I can do that.”  I then said I needed him to 1) make sure I was dis-engaged from the work I was already doing before giving new instructions (so I could pay attention to his new needs), and 2) take time to affirm that I understood his request.

The strategy worked miracles for a while, then I had to remind him again and he behaved better again. With practice, I became more confident and self-assured. Now that I’m an entrepreneur, it’s much easier to avoid clients from hell and draw more of the kind of clients I can serve joyously and well.

We Can’t Stop Bullies and Harassers On Our Own

“Why didn’t you complain?” employment lawyers inevitably ask in a deposition when people like Jane get so fed up they finally bring a legal case. “Because I didn’t know anyone I could trust not to retaliate against me,” is the most common answer.

Because the law is designed to protect you from abuse at work, you have more allies than you probably know.   The better informed you are about your rights and how to defend them, the better you can get help.

Here’s three of Steve Paskoff’s tips:

  1. Go to your supervisor or HR, say, “I’ve got to talk to you,” and affirm your desire to do a good job.
  2. Lay out the specific behaviors you confront at work.  Include details like the tone of voice in which people speak to you or their body language.
  3. State  clearly and unemotionally how these specific behaviors affect your ability to do a good job.  Never forget that the better you can link your complaint to performance, the stronger your case is.

This post is just the beginning of what I hope will be a fruitful dialogue on how to create a more satisfying workplace for everyone. I’m looking forward to getting Paskoff’s book, Teaching Big Shots to Behave and Other HR Challenges. Until then, very best wishes,

Pat McHenry Sullivan