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How to Address Workplace Bullying

ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Kerry Patterson is coauthor of the New York Times bestsellers, Crucial Conversations, Crucial Confrontations, and Influencer.Kerry Patterson is author of three bestselling books, Influencer, Crucial Conversations, and Crucial Confrontations.
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Crucial Conversations

Q  Dear Crucial Skills,

I just left a job I loved because I am older and the young team I worked with never seemed to accept me. Unfortunately, even when the manager said I was a victim of new employee hazing, the problem was not addressed. Since I made the choice to leave, would it be appropriate to write a letter to the administrator? I don’t want to be seen as a disgruntled employee but it is a hostile environment and some of the young girls working at this office are scared. Do bullies always win?

Feeling Bullied


A Dear Bullied,

I have to admit that when I hear the word “bully” it makes the hair stand up on the back of my neck. Like many boys growing up (I was small for my age), I faced bullying at every turn. I had friends who didn’t take a single shower after PE during their high school years because bullies would snap them with wet towels and otherwise harass them.

Clearly, bullying has found its way into the corporate vernacular. While the government continues to enforce harassment laws, many employees are beginning to wonder if certain actions that aren’t necessarily inspired by gender, race, or belief biases, but still seem highly inappropriate, should also be prohibited at work. These “below the waterline” behaviors include actions such as making false accusations, glaring, discounting others’ ideas, backbiting, gossiping, constantly criticizing, giving people the silent treatment, making impossible demands, etc. All are examples of not treating people with the respect they deserve.

As leaders, it’s important to make it clear that all forms of disrespect, dishonesty, and lack of teamwork are not permitted at work. Perhaps it’s time for companies to begin talking not only about harassment, but social abuse in general—giving specific examples of unacceptable behavior that fall under the rubric of bullying. To get a feel for various forms of bullying, visit the Workplace Bullying Institute.

So, what’s a person such as yourself to do about the bullying you experienced—and in a letter, no less?

Start by thanking the administrators for giving you a chance to earn a position at the company. Explain that you’re sorry it didn’t work out but are grateful for the opportunity you received. Point out what you enjoyed and admired—the leaders need to know what’s going right as much as what is going wrong. Then, tentatively bring up your concern. You’re not calling for action in your case—you’ve moved on. However, you are concerned about others’ experiences at the company. Explain that, at first, you wondered if you were simply being hypersensitive to taunts and insults, but when you mentioned it to your supervisor, he or she confirmed that you were experiencing common hazing.

Now you’ve laid the appropriate groundwork that allows you to talk about the actual hazing and bullying. Present your information, as if talking to a jury. Stick with the detailed facts. Realize that statements that contain your judgments or conclusions—”I was hazed and bullied”—provide a framework for the discussion but not the details required to make the destructive practices go away. While your conclusions let others know how you felt, they lack any information about what your coworkers actually did. To help others eliminate bullying, you have to describe the exact behavior you saw and experienced.

Think of yourself as a novelist and describe several poignant interactions—complete with the script. Include the verbiage along with the tone of voice, posture, body language, etc. Describe the insulting words and expressions that were leveled at you. Then, once you’ve detailed an instance or two, thank the administration for taking the time to review your concerns and wish them the best when it comes to their efforts to eliminate a problem that, in your view, is still causing grief to lots of people.

In closing, I hope by now you’ve found a healthier place to work—one where employees treat each other with dignity and respect—maybe even take special care to help new people feel welcome. And thank you for having the courage to talk about a problem that often goes unmentioned and consequently continues to plague thousands of people every day.

Best regards,
Kerry Patterson

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Kerry Patterson

Cofounder of VitalSmarts, Kerry has coauthored four New York Times bestselling books as well as co-designed the company’s line of award-winning training programs. As author of our most popular column, Kerrying On, Kerry shares his vision, experience, and advice through fun and insightful stories from his past. read more

19 thoughts on “How to Address Workplace Bullying”

  1. The guidelines on how to write the letter are very appropriate, but I would add one thing. Send a copy of the letter to the President of the company and either the local HR Manager or Vice President of HR. I am an HR Manager, and I know from experience that often one manager will tolerate some types of behavior that are destructive to the workplace environment because they don’t know how to address it, or they don’t think it is a big deal. Senior managers may not know what is going on, but are often quite willing to bring about change when something is brought to their attention.

  2. It is unfortunate that corporate bullying is so prevalent. A company hiring adults should feel confident that their employees will act as adults. Though even I dissapoint myself at times with my childlike behavior. Time to get back to the Golden Rule!

  3. I imagine that this problem will only get worse, and I am suspect in has to do with a change in our culture. I grew up in high school in the late 60s and there was some bullying. But it has become a way of life. When we heard the news of students shooting others, I could not help but think that these kids were reacting to a culture that has developed among young people about always getting “in the face” of others. The behavior I witness on the Internet, at football games and at bars shows that they people feel that talking smack and degrading others is just normal. I see respect for others just going out the window.

  4. I once worked in an HR Office where bad supervisors used their evil pawns to make their competition look bad so they could win promotions and cash awards. I can sympathize.
    Presuming that you are a reasonable person, there are several things you MUST do:
    1. Realize that 6% of people are egotistical ad 60% are reactive. It will be difficult to get along with them. Teach them that bad behavior toward you will earn them negative consequences and they will go pick on someone else.
    2. Do not put it with harassment, right from the beginning. You know when harassment is occurring, so courageous! In a professional manner say something like “Harasser Hugo I feel offended when you said I was too told to work here, and I won’t tolerate comments of that kind.”
    3. The very next time Hugo does it again, immediately go up the chain of command and tell them exactly what you want to happen to redress the situation. Saying Hugo is harassing me is a waste of you and your supervisor’s time. Saying “ I would like Hugo to apologize to me in front of Lucy and Bill whom he insulted me in front of, and for you to ensure that these type of comments aren’t made again” are detailed actions your supervisor can (or not) take.
    4. The very next time something happens go over the head of the last person you spoke to.
    5. Keep notes of conversations and dates and times of occurrences. Realizing that you are documenting these conversations should put the fear of God into harassers and supervisors.
    However, after I left an organization I wouldn’t bother documenting/complaining/etc. I won’t do you any good, and you could be remembered as a complainer who gave them no opportunity to redress the situation, so I would stay silent.
    A good book to read is “Take the bully by the horns”.

    Leaders: harassment, infighting, politics, etc are a waste of organizational time that should be invested in producing results for customers, and increases turnover. Do not tolerate it by retaining bullies.

  5. I really enjoyed reading the response on how to handle this situation. If only I could remember to lay the groundwork for handling all of my crucial conversations in the same manner. As for the individual who authored this letter, I can only hope that as this door closes something better is on the other side. Even having a passion for what we do or loving our job is unfortunately sometimes not good enough. Good luck with your future endeavors.

  6. I agree with reply #3. It seems that we have lost the respect for others. It doesn’t get any better. I graduated in the 80’s and grew up being bullied as well, all because I wore dresses to school and manifest my self in that matter. However, when I moved to a different state and changed my look, dressed nice everyday (still in school) I was viewed as being the rich one therefore I was somewhat popular. Nothing changed, other than clothing, I was neat, clean wore nice clothes while wearing dresses before, but for some reason I was laughed at. That was in middle and High school, so you expect such. However, in the work place, it’s no different, it’s just done in a settled way, and believe it or not it’s overlooked even by Supervisor’s as well as Human Resources.
    I myself have experienced such bullying, being discounted, not informed of information needed to perform my job, and talked about, again nothing has changed, look dress attitude what have ya. However, I am of a different culture, but we probably should not mention that.
    I hope writing a letter will open some eyes, and maybe someday these types of bullying semi harassment will be viewed much more closely and changed.

  7. I am so thrilled to read about this topic. I have been subjected to bullying at my work place for over 2 years. It wasn’t until I filed a compliance complaint did it seem to get some of their attention. I think bullying doesn’t happen in isolated situation. It’s a work culture. The management either set the bad example themselves or turn a blind eye on the behavior. If the management clearly demonstrates what professionalism is and his/her expectation of others, it’d be very hard for the bully to operate. At least this is the case for my situation. After working for corporations for 18 years, unfortunately I can’t say I truly believe the letter will do much good. My experience is that management will only try to fix a problem if it could affect the bottomline, such as a potential law suit. My experience and many other coworker’s sentiment is that HR ultimately is there for the management, and management is ultimately only concerns with money especially short-term financial goals.

  8. I have seen bullying in several situations at my company over the past several years. It has been from managers and co-workers. I spoke with my manager’s boss when I felt I was specifically harrassed about my parental responsibilities for caring for sick children. As an older worker, I was the only one on the team with school-age children. My director corrected this situation and things got better immediately. Other instances of harrassment continue and it seems that difficult people are not confronted by management. I have dealt with one particular person for over eight years and have confronted them several times. Things get better for a while, but then we are right back where we started. I have talked to management and they see the problem but no one does anything.
    This person creates bottlenecks in our work because of their behavior and because they do not complete tasks on time. I have seen four people leave either their position or the company as a direct response to this person. It is very frustrating. This person belittles people I think from their own feelings of inadequacy. The person is not clear about what they expect from others but then they hold them accountable and deride them for not living up to expectations. If you approach this person about work you need from them, the person attacks and retaliates. There is no good way to approach them. I have considered talking to my HR representative about how to handle this situation or even lodging a hostile work environment complaint.

  9. This was a terrific article. It’s a shame that bullying in the workplace is still alive and well. Unfortunately, I can say I’ve experienced it myself. This type of behavior stifles performance and damages confidence. It also greatly impacts those who are not being bullied, but are witness to the act.

    Fortunately for me, I am now launching my own business so will not need to tolerate this kind of behavior in the workplace any longer.

  10. I would submit that this particular issue illustrates the point of Crucial Conversations — to deal with problems head-on, in a non-confrontational/non-accusatory manner, BEFORE issues escalate out of control. Quitting one’s job, and THEN writing a letter complaining about conditions, is exactly what individuals should NOT do. Bite the bullet, and raise the issue in a Crucial Conversation while still at the company. Credibility is lost (not to mention opportunity to work in an improved environment) by complaining after resignation.

  11. Unfortunately because the term bullying is so new in the corporate world, and because there are no laws against it, often targets of bullying are met with, “That’s just the way it is, try not to worry about it.” So of course while the advice given here is extremely valuable, I think it should be noted that research indicates talking about bullying to HR is not easy because they don’t always know what you’re talking about. Think sexual harassment pre-Anita Hill.

    As such, the folks at Project for Wellness and Work-Life wrote an article about how to talk to HR about being bullied. http://noworkplacebullies.com/yahoo_site_admin/assets/docs/HowtoBusttheOfficeBully.71152410.pdf

    Complaints about bullying SHOULD be greeted with the same fervor for resolution as sexual harassment complaints are. But because this is not the case, bullying often lasts up to 5 years before targets finally leave the organization with a multitude of unhealthy feelings such as anxiety, depression and even PTSD. I’m happy to hear the writer of the question got out earlier than that – bullying can be extremely detrimental.

    I’m also excited to see Crucial Conversations addressing this issue and helping bring the topic into the spotlight. As an SME in workplace bullying and a consultant in the area, I am often met with “You’re an expert in what?” So thank you. http://www.noworkplacebullies.com

  12. The article made me sad. I worked for a while in a coven of mean girls – all old enough and smart enough to know exactly what they were doing. Our staff meetings were constantly focused on talking about other people, in very derogatory terms. When a female walked in the room, the up and down glance, glance at one another signaled “one of us” or “not one of us”. I was stunned for about a year, then finally realized how debilitating this behavior is to everyone who experiences it, sees it and does nothing, and sees it and attempts to do something. The energy in the group could never get above a slow slog, as a result.

    Bullying isn’t something that HR departments want to hear about or do anything about. I thought it was interesting that Kerry’s suggestion really soft pedaled compared to some of the other crucial conversations suggestions we’ve seen on this valuable website.

    When it comes down to confronting bullies, nobody – not even the professionals – really want to step up and take on the behavior as a respect issue. It’s ingrained in us to “ignore it and it will go away”. Sadly, this will never solve the problem.

  13. Dear Catherine,

    Thank you very much for everything! I truly enjoyed the informational interview we had. I admire the 7-step guide to a bully free workplace. I plan on using that fully in interviews. Is that a good idea? Also, would using a tape recorder at work secretly be legal and ok in order to document behavior? Hope all is well!

    Sincerely,
    Samar

  14. Went to the top of the organization to inform them that a person that is firmly entrenched in their organization is using bullying to keep everyone in line including their customers. Not a very nice place to work. They seemed aware of the problem but needed someone to speak up about it. Now they want a one on one with this administator to try to get to the root of the problem. How do I tell this person in a formal meeting that his morals, prejuces and bullying are not acceptable, without making it personal.

  15. Hi Bob,
    Good for you for speaking up about this behavior. Often, people in administrative roles seem to enjoy real insulation from the consequences of bad behavior. Not to assume the expert role here, but I have found that the first step to having a crucial conversation that has the potential to be personally offensive is to avoid terms like “morals” and “prejudices.” Limit your comments to descriptions of observable behaviors and how they made you feel. Making value judgments about someone else’s morals or prejudices assumes you can read their thoughts, and is bound to put someone on the defensive right out of the box. Good luck!

  16. To “Feeling Bullied”… and to others who have felt the pain of being bullied in the workplace… and the even-worse pain of finding yourself without support or protection from this type of abusive behavior: I applaud you for speaking up and telling your story. Being one who has been ‘targeted’ by a bully at work, I know first-hand that it’s hard to speak out when you have had the additional wounding experience of knowing that there will be no consequence to the incident(s) and that the bully will not held accountable. It’s even more difficult if you are forced to leave a job that you love, as the outfall of being bullied and speaking up about it. I, too, was forced to change my workplace because of bullying and intimidation. Such behaviors, I found, often fall under the category of ‘gray areas’, legally-speaking. The Workplace Bullying Institute has wonderful information and support; however, I remain in awe that the bullying persists and, in my estimation, seems to be as pervasive as ever in the workplace. In my experience, it is usually the person being bullied that suffers most… not the person who is doing the bullying. Ultimately, it is the responsibility of administration to address this harmful and inappropriate workplace matter. If administration does not recognize, and attend to, malicious employees (bullies), then they are just as much part of the problem…. perhaps even more; by allowing such behavior to continue, they are sending the message to everyone that they condone and permit bullying; they are also sending the message that they do not care to get involved with situations of mistreatment within their organization and that they do not respect the rights of their employees to work in a collaborative, productive, and healthy environment. Doesn’t administration see that a bully in the midst of an organization is pure poison? Perhaps if ‘OSHA’ was to get more involved, things would change.

  17. Hello Athena…. I liked what you had to say. I feel the same way. I was reminded by 3 attorneys that ‘HR works for the company, not for you.’ That was an eye-opener for me. I am still shocked that there isn’t more of an accountability factor attached to this issue. Most companies have a code of conduct policy that clearly states the types of behaviors that are expected and those that will not be tolerated. So how does hurtful, bullying behavior persist? I think that bullying is a huge and serious problem, and should never be diminished in any way. @Athena

  18. I also went through a similar experience. I am having to leave a job because of being bullied by a co-worker. From the day she moved into our department she barely spoke to me. She never gave me a chance, and she got away with it all. She had stronger friendships with people around the organization, and she got along well with other people. Any little thing that I did, she would go straight to my boss – even if I didn’t do anything. The other people in my office area joined suit. One guy wouldn’t really speak to me when she was around, but when she and another woman were out of the room, he would suddenly be nice to me. He was trying to get along with both sides, and I guess he rightly assumed I wouldnt do anything – he was right – what could I do? She was very good at treating me as badly as she could without doing anything that I can could call her on. As people always say, just ignore it. But ignoring it never works, and it seems the bully always wins. Unfortunately, this woman will go on to be teaching your children someday. It is truly unfortunate because I’ve seen her treat kids badly. She yells at them, puts them down, and picks favorites. If she doesn’t like a kid, she doesn’t help him or her. If she thinks the kid isn’t what she considers smart, she also doesn’t help him or her, either. If I had a kid, I’d shudder at the thought of her being the teacher. The amount of pain and hurt that I feel from having to leave my job is tremendous. All my confidence is gone. Imagine what she’d do to a kid? This woman was awful to me from day one, and no one cared about my feelings. She ignored me, and whenever I tried to talk to others, she’d cut in to draw their attention away with something “important.” She would monopolize the conversations, and always, always, always, exclude me from things. Furthermore, if I went to my boss and said anything, then I would be perceived as the trouble maker. When I got my yearly evaluation, sure enough, I was blamed. I was the problem because the others didn’t like me. I received a poor review, and I knew there was no point in staying. With a poor review, I knew I’d never ever get a promotion or ever move on. I am an older worker, my chances of moving on in my career are getting slim. Do people even think about the impact upon other peoples’ lives when they gang up on a co-worker? Why is it funny or entertaining to push people out of jobs that they need? Furthermore, why is it that once this cycle starts, you can never stop it. As the target you are blamed for the situation.

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