How To Deal With Bullies In The Workplace

It’s like ‘Mean Girls,’ only not high school

by Ashley Laderer

Like a lot of people are following their college graduations, I was scared of joining the workforce. The thought of being in important meetings and meeting deadlines while making potentially job-ruining mistakes was extremely daunting. I was so consumed by my professional fears, though, that I didn't even think about the social aspect of work and its potential for intimidation. But, now, after having worked in various office settings, I've come to realize that this part of work is just as scary. All to say: Have you ever cried in your office bathroom because of something someone said to you? Same.

And we're not alone: I spoke to several young professional women who experienced everything from being constantly berated by supervisors (who would call as early as 6am to make professional demands) to finding out that coworkers had been gossiping about them on Gchat to having a non-supervising colleague record the time they came into the office every day for two weeks. For some people, the accompanying anxiety and stress led to them to seek medical attention.

But why do these situations exist past high school? Alicia Henry, LCSW, tells me, “It is quite common, especially among the younger set. The driving factors for these types of behaviors are feelings surrounding worth, self-esteem, and inadequacy that trigger anxiety and leads to acting-out behavior. People are often threatened by others’ perceived strengths and successes and this can lead to anxiety. When people are anxious, they act out in various different ways.”

Sometimes, it's not always direct bullying that can be the problem; you can still be having a miserable time thanks to work cliques. As one woman told me, "[Coworkers in cliques will] make you feel left out by not inviting you out to drinks, just like they would have left you out of letting you sit at their lunch table in school.”

Katie*, 32, experienced this when she went to work at a start-up, where she originally had hope that the culture would be different. From day one, she did not feel welcome, and continued to be alienated. “They always had birthday parties for everyone and ordered all these exciting snacks, and they purposely didn’t do anything for mine. I actually cried about it because they were so exclusionary,” she laments.

Samantha Levine, LSCW at the New York-Presbyterian Hospital, explains the social psychology behind cliques. “We as humans naturally gravitate toward a group that we would like to define our identities... people in the ‘in’ group want to emphasize that they are different from the ‘out’ group which creates an ‘us’ and ‘them’ mentality."

So, what are we all supposed to do when it’s inevitable we’re going to deal with this problem?  It’s easy to take things personally when you’re the target, but, Henry advises, “You can cope with 'mean girls' first by depersonalizing the situation; realize that the targeting behavior isn’t as much about you as it is about what you represent to the individual doing the targeting.” Levine adds, “Take a step back, don't engage, and come back to it when you are able to deal with it in a professional manner. Try not to engage in gossip or negative bonding because then you are creating a wider gap in the ‘us’ versus ‘them.’”

Never forget the golden rule. Treat others how you’d like to be treated. Instead of lashing out, you can also follow through with this plan laid out by Henry. “I encourage [people] to take appropriate, professional action. This begins with pulling the individual aside to have a private, respectful conversation about their experience and how they’d like this to be addressed moving forward. This first step is very important because it gives the offender the opportunity to make amends, it sets an expectation that the behavior will not be ignored, and it helps to maintain appropriate boundaries. If this does not resolve the issue, it may be necessary to escalate the issue within the hierarchy of management or HR.”

Unfortunately, the mean things that people have said to us will linger and haunt us. But you know what else people will remember? The time you went out of your way to be kind to someone, to give them a genuine compliment, to tell them you appreciate their help, to take the new girl out for coffee, to share a cookie, whatever! In a world of corporate bullies, be the nice person you want to see in the workplace—and world.