Addressing Workplace Bullying

October 27, 2020 | Denise

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Bullying is a thing of childhood. Something you do or that is done to you when you are a kid. But then you grow up and move on. Right? According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, bullying is the "abuse or mistreatment of someone vulnerable by someone stronger, more powerful, etc.". Nowhere in that definition does it say that bullying ends on graduation day. 

Most conversations and resources about bullying still focus on the school years. However, there is increasing recognition that bullying carries forward into adulthood. And that experiencing it is just as harmful as it was when we were children. As adults, we might not have recess and gym class but we do have coffee breaks and lunchrooms. Be it a construction site or an office building, the workplace is the stomping ground of the adult bully. 


Dealing with a Bully

So what do you do if there's a bully in your workplace? A lot of the current resources that discuss workplace bullying focus on addressing a single person's behaviour, either the bully or the bullied. And these resources can be very useful, especially if you are right in the midst of a difficult situation. If you're being bullied by a co-worker, strategies for how to react are a handy thing to have.

The Bully-Proof Workplace: Essential Strategies, Tips, and Scripts for Dealing with the Office Sociopath by Peter J. Dean and Molly D. Shepard

Cover image of Negotiating with a bully : take charge and turn the tables on people trying to push you around

Negotiating with a Bully: Take Charge and Turn the Tables on People Trying to Push you Around by Greg Williams and Pat Iyer


Are Bullies Just Jerks?

The difficulty with a lot of these resources is that they often put the onus on the person being bullied to deal with the situation. It's not unlike telling a child to fight back or to just ignore the bully. Neither of which are particularly useful suggestions. I also think that the concept of bullying is more complicated than some of these resources might suggest. It's true that sometimes when we say "bullying," we are talking about someone who is rude, condescending or an all-around jerk.

Cover image of The asshole survival guide : how to deal with people who treat you like dirt

The Asshole Survival Guide: How to Deal with People Who Treat You Like Dirt by Robert I. Sutton


Systemic Change

However, sometimes when we say "bullying," what we actually mean is discrimination. This could be racism or homophobia or ableism or another form of discrimination. These are big words. They carry big weight and have big consequences. Possibly even legal consequences. Because of this, a lot of people shy away from using these words to describe the things that are happening in their workplace. It's hard enough to call someone a bully; it's a whole lot harder to call them racist, even if it's true. But it's important that we do, and it shouldn't only be the person on the receiving end of the discrimination that has to speak up.  

Creating a bullying- and discrimination-free workplace is about more than just dealing with specific instances or individuals. It's also about dealing with the culture of the workplace and working towards systemic change. This involves having difficult conversations and uncovering institutional biases. It's hard, potentially uncomfortable work but it's worth it to have happier, healthier employees who feel respected and valued in their place of employment. And the results will show in their productivity too. 

Erasing Institutional Bias: How to Create Systemic Change for Organizational Inclusion by Tiffany Jana and Ashley Diaz Mejias

Cover image of Breaking the silence habit : a practical guide to uncomfortable conversations in the #MeToo workplace

Breaking the Silence Habit: A Practical Guide to Uncomfortable Conversations in the #MeToo Workplace by Sarah Beaulieu

Cover image of Subtle acts of exclusion : how to understand, identify, and stop microaggressions

Subtle Acts of Exclusion: How to Understand, Identify, and Stop Microaggressions by Tiffany Jana and Michael Baran


An Intersectional Approach to Bullying

Preventing bullying through systemic change involves adopting an intersectional approach. Merriam-Webster dictionary defines intersectionality as "the complex, cumulative way in which the effects of multiple forms of discrimination (such as racism, sexism, and classism) combine, overlap, or intersect especially in the experiences of marginalized groups or individuals." This means that those difficult conversations and newly developed policies need to recognize that different people experience the workplace differently. This can be based on factors such as their race, sexual orientation, gender, etc. 

Race, Work, and Leadership: New Perspectives on the Black Experience by Laura Morgan Roberts, Anthony J. Mayo and David A. Thomas (editors)


Out and Proud: Approaching LGBT Issues in the Workplace by Jacqui Lloyd

Cover image of #MeToo in the corporate world : power, privilege, and the path forward

#MeToo in the Corporate World: Power, Privilege, and the Path Forward by Sylvia Ann Hewlett


Doing the work needed to prevent workplace bullying is hard. It's an ongoing process that involves education and change at both the individual and systemic level. It can be uncomfortable and you might not feel it's necessary or worth the effort. But we should all try to do it anyway. Whenever possible, push your managers and employers to do the work too. Employees deserve a respectful, equitable workplace. And that includes you.