How to Deal with an Office Bully

Dear Rita: I have a really awful co-worker -- Gossip Greta -- who is making me miserable. She goes out of her way to be rude to me and badmouths me behind my back. Once I made a minor mistake and she started yelling at me, calling me "stupid" and "incompetent" right in the middle of the office! I've complained about her, but my boss says, "Oh, that's just how she is." She even spread a rumor that I'm cheating on my girlfriend. I never did anything to her and I don't know why she's being so awful to me. Can I sue my employer for creating a hostile work environment? Or should I just quit? Signed, Fed Up

Dear Fed Up: Greta is more than a gossip. She sounds like a bully.

Bullying involves repeated instances of unreasonable mistreatment. I think of bullying as an aggravated case of rudeness. Such behavior might include the bully making the target the repeated butt of "jokes."At its worst, bullying behavior may be physical and interfere directly with the target's work.

Although bullying behavior may be used as evidence of discrimination, it is not by itself, a separate legal claim. A "hostile work environment" is a type of discrimination based on the employee's status as a member in a protected class (e.g. race, age, national origin, etc.) or the explicitly sexual nature of the harassment. The conduct must be so offensive that it effectively alters the conditions of employment. Courts have held that these civil rights protections for employees are not intended to create a "general civility code." If bullying conduct is so severe that it causes psychological injury, workers in many states can file a workers' compensation stress claim, seeking medical treatment and lost wage benefits. However, the burden of proof in stress claims is pretty high.

While a lawsuit regarding Greta's behavior will probably not get you very far, I do think it is very important to escalate this issue to your management.

Progressive management

Start by making a list of specific instances of Greta's conduct including the names of your colleagues who witnessed the behavior. Set up a time to meet with your supervisor and make it very clear that you want and expect Greta's behavior to stop immediately. Ask your manager to take action and if possible suggest actions that would make the situation more tenable for you. Actions may include bringing in an outside mediator or additional workplace training, for instance. If you don't have any success with your manager, escalate the issue to their manager, involving your Executive Director/CEO if necessary.

I recommend that nonprofit personnel policies clearly explain the expectations for personal conduct between colleagues, as well as listing examples of prohibited workplace behavior, such as:

  • Insulting or derogatory language
  • Yelling
  • Communicating in "all caps," and
  • Other rude, offensive, or outrageous behavior.

Managers counseling employees for workplace bullying should always document the issue. I'm going to say that again: managers should always document instances of discipline for bullying behavior. Provide specific examples and expected standards of conduct, citing the applicable policies for your organization.

In fairness, I have consulted with nonprofits in situations where an employee claims regular performance management or counseling means they are being "bullied" by their manager. These are typically situations where the employee is oversensitive, or may be making a disingenuous complaint in an attempt to deflect legitimate criticism about their performance. Having workplace policies that describe the types of prohibited conduct will help manage the distinction between a spurious complaint and a bullying situation.

Fortunately, workplace bullying is getting more attention as a source of friction between employees and a drain on productivity. If you would like to learn more about how to handle bullying behavior in the workplace, I recommend reviewing the materials produced by the Workplace Bullying Institute. The Healthy Workplace Campaign is promoting anti-workplace bullying legislation at the state level. Finally, the Washington State Department of Health and Safety has produced materials with some practical suggestions for dealing with bullies.

Fed Up, the way you are being treated is completely unacceptable. If your organization does not put a stop to Greta's behavior, then you may decide it is better for you to move on to a healthier work environment.

Siobhan Kelly is an employment attorney with the Nonprofits Insurance Alliance Group (NIA Group), where she counsels members with human resources issues. She sometimes finds she has to bully the toast before it is willing to get out of the toaster.

Comments (7)

  • Anonymous

    It sounds like Fed Up is dealing with a sociopath - someone who has no conscience, no empathy, and will say anything to get their way. It's bad when you get targeted by a sociopath. People who are not subject to the abusive behavior can be oblivious to the problem, as exemplified by the clueless boss who makes excuses. That's another trait; the sociopath sucks up to people with power, and gives the appearance of being a good employee, currying favor from those who are in a position to help them. Of course, the personally destructive behaviors do create a 'hostile work environment' and are not conducive to a productive environment. If leadership cannot be made to see the harmful effects, the only option is to move on and find a better work environment. Document every single instance of abusive and inappropriate behavior, and every single instance where the problem employee is violating any personnel policies. Insist that this documentation be added to their employee personnel file, and yours, so there is a record of these problems. Go to the HR director (which may be the careless boss) every single time there's a documented issue. Update your resume. To 'win' (i.e., secure a work environment free from abuse), you will have to go out of your comfort zone, and engage in conflict, and shine the light of truth on abusive and destructive behavior. It sounds strange to normal people, but some really do seek to create conflict and use it for their own advantage, or just to tear other people down. This is something I wish had been taught somewhere in school or grad school that I never knew about until I encountered a sociopath myself.

    Aug 20, 2013
  • Anonymous

    What's worse is when someone above you (a boss or a supervisor) is a bully! In some institutions, going to HR becomes a pointless circle. All too often, the staff under this individual all know what is going on but everyone is petrified to speak up thus leaving one of those "the emperor has no clothes!" I have lived this situation and live in it now....there is little one can do but polish up the resume and emotionally protect yourself. I personally have found that HR is there to protect the managers.

    Aug 22, 2013
  • Anonymous

    Bullying behavior flourishes where it is ignored or tolerated by persons in authority. This supervisor is clearly very weak and out of their depth.

    Aug 22, 2013
  • I agree 100%. Responding to Fed Up's complaint by saying "that's just how they are," is totally unacceptable, but unfortunately quite common. There are really two problem employees in Fed Up's workplace, aren't there? Gossip Greta is one and Fed Up's supervisor is the other. We all accept that employees are accountable for their behavior, but we also have to make the leaders who tolerate bullying responsible for allowing such conduct to continue.

    Aug 23, 2013
  • Anonymous

    In these days of workplace violence, I don't think anyone can afford to overlook bullying behavior, as a matter of safety and ethics. I used to be a teacher. If it is behavior that is unacceptable in children, then it certainly shouldn't be tolerated in adults.

    Sep 17, 2013
  • Anonymous

    There's most definitely something can be done. I'm sure management can stop this office bullying.

    Oct 06, 2013
  • Anonymous

    While I agree with everything that the author said about documentation and escalation, I find at least one element in the feedback missing. It appears as if Fed Up has never chosen to confront Greta directly herself. Instead she has relied on management - which she had every right to, and to expect some action - and has narrowed her options to two; sue and/or quit. I am well aware that the prospect of direct confrontation makes many people extremely uncomfortable, but often a simple "I statement" along the lines of, "I feel (fill in blank) when you do thus-and-such behavior, etc" will have the desired result. And document the conversation.

    Oct 24, 2013

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