In my previous post, I introduced the Anger Solutions decision making tool of T.S.A. “T” stands for THINK, and heretofore I suggested that the first part of the the process for coping with workplace bullying is to carefully consider what is happening and what it means. I left two questions open on the “Think” chart, and I want to spend some time expanding on them in this post. The questions are:

1. What can I do to resolve this?
2. What is the best/worst thing that can happen if I do… ?

The first question is really about taking back your power. Harassment and bullying are forms of abuse. To clarify, I am not referring to singular, isolated acts of belligerence or typical office conflict. Bullying and harassment are repeated forms of intimidating, aggressive behaviours (verbal, non-verbal, or physical) that the person using them ought to know are unwelcome and distressing to the target. Bullying behaviours in the workplace can include icy silences, ignoring co-workers, sabotaging another’s work, taking credit for another’s work, belittling or ridiculing in front of co-workers, assigning meaningless tasks, discrediting one’s efforts, trying to make one’s contribution appear stupid or insignificant, and the list goes on.

So what can you do to resolve these types of behaviours? Often bullying is done in secret, or when there are no witnesses. People who are targeted by bullies tend to feel backed into a corner, and eventually, they may feel that their only recourse is to resort to bully-like behaviour in turn. This typically results in the target receiving discipline rather than the bully, and nothing gets resolved. Another typical response is to withdraw into oneself, fearing that no one can be trusted, and that it is safer to just be a lone wolf. This type of isolation contributes to depression. When low mood is coupled with the increased anxiety of having to work in a toxic, unpredictable work environment, you can be sure to see a decline in mental health, and an increase in absenteeism and poor work performance. This only serves to feed into the bully’s M.O., which is to make you seem incapable of doing your job.

Resolution then, must be a strategic measure, one which begins with knowing what your desired outcomes are. When determining your desired outcomes, you must first consider what outcomes are in your control and which outcomes are not. For example, you want the bully to stop what s/he is doing. This is completely outside of your control. You want to feel safe within your working environment: this is something you have power over. You want the administration to discipline the bully. You may have some control over this outcome, but you must be strategic in how you accomplish it. Here are some suggestions:

  1. If your desired outcome is for administration to hold the bully accountable, learn all you can about the company’s policy on workplace harassment and bullying. Is your company compliant with Bill C168 (Ontario) in having a workplace harassment policy set up, and placed in areas of the company that are visible to all employees? What is the wording of the company policy?
  2. Document EVERYTHING that happens to you. When did it happen (date and time)? Who was present? Where did the bullying event occur?
  3. On at least one occasion – preferably when there are witnesses, make it very clear using strong assertive language that the behaviour (name it) of the bully is unwelcome and inappropriate, and that you would like it to stop. E.g. “Jane, while I welcome constructive feedback, this harsh personal criticism is unwarranted. I would appreciate it if in future you could tell me exactly what it is about my work that you believe needs improvement, and leave personal attacks out of it.” I promise you, the bully will not appreciate being called out, and it is possible that s/he may even try to launch further attacks, but the purpose of this “conversation” is to make sure that there is no misunderstanding that you do not welcome the behaviour of the bully and that it could be construed as distressing.
  4. This perhaps is the most important thing: PREPARE YOUR RESPONSES. In many of my posts, you have seen me mention the equation E+R=O (Event + Response = Outcome). The key to changing your outcomes is the responses you choose. This is where working with an experienced counsellor or coach can help you. Role playing amusing, disarming, or strongly assertive responses with a safe person can help to increase your self-confidence when interacting with bullies. You see, one of the best tools a bully has is the element of surprise. Consider a bully to be like a sniper. Snipers never stand out in the open, they try to blend in with their environment so they can be hidden, stealthy, and strike from a place and a distance that keeps their identity secret. A sniper’s effectiveness is reduced to ZERO if s/he is discovered or if the element of surprise is compromised. By preparing for possible “snipe” attacks, you take away the element of surprise, and in fact, the bully will be the one surprised by you. Surprise attacks tend to leave you feeling shocked and off-balance, without enough time to retrieve the perfect snappy comeback, or to find the words necessary to properly defend yourself or your work. Bullies rely on the expectation that you will be so embarrassed by their attack that you will not be able to respond effectively – making you appear as stupid and incapable as they make you out to be. When you have safe, appropriate, but pointed comments ready to lob back at your sniper, they will realize that they are no longer operating in the shadows. If you can shine a spotlight on their behaviour in a way that maintains your integrity and causes no one to lose face, you will post a win, and take away ammunition from the bully’s arsenal.

Here are some questions/statements you can practice with a counsellor, coach, or friend:

– [Bully says, “That was the worst presentation I’ve ever seen.”] What is it specifically about the presentation that you think could be improved? [this question deflects the attack away from you as a person and forces the bully to provide tangible, constructive criticisms]

– [Bully makes an insulting comment about you or someone else] Wow! (laughing in surprise) I can’t believe you said that with your outside voice! That is soooo rude! (keep laughing!) [this is a great way to call the bully on his/her inappropriate behaviour without either of you losing face. It also shows the bully that you can’t be rattled by his/her petty tactics]

– [Bully says, “This plan of action you have laid out is stupid. It will never work. I would never have done it that way.”] That’s an interesting comment. I wonder if you could share with us how you would have done this differently. [Like the first example, this response removes the criticism from you and focuses on the work instead. It also makes the bully accountable to explain his/her ideas. If they are valid, you can work with them. If they are not, they will quickly be proven to be so. Either way, you come out ahead.]

– [Bully swears s/he told you about some important information, but you know s/he never did. The bully is trying to make you look incompetent and will typically try to do this in front of witnesses.] You know, it is possible you may have told me this in passing; this is all the more reason why I have asked you to send me all important information by email. From now on, please confirm all our communication with a written follow up. [Everyone respects people who can admit that they may be wrong from time to time. Conversely, those who ALWAYS have to be right tend to win nothing but resentment from their peers. Clarifying that you have already asked for important information to be transmitted by email, and re-asserting this request in front of witnesses makes it clear to onlookers that this is a recurring issue, one which you have already tried to resolve. Using assertive language and tone of voice demonstrates that you are respectful, while the bully is not.]

Having a toolbox filled with appropriate responses like these will help you to more easily answer the question, “How would I like this to be resolved?”

In my next post, I will tackle the question, “What is the best/worst thing that can happen if I do/say…?”

If you live in the Golden Horseshoe (GTA/Hamilton/Niagara areas) and feel like counselling could help you through your workplace bullying challenge, please contact me through my website at You can also call toll-free, 1-866-754-6169.

Julie Christiansen