4 Signs You’re Being Bullied at Work, Plus Expert Tips for Moving Forward

Photo: Getty Images/Ridofranz
It's no secret that bullying is a serious issue that transcends far beyond grade-school recess. It's rampant in adult life as well, whether on social media, passive-aggressively in group gatherings, or anywhere else. Unfortunately, it's very much alive and well in the workplace, too. In fact, a 2017 survey conducted by the Workplace Bullying Institute (WBI) found that 60.4 million Americans are affected by it, meaning they have either witnessed acts of it or have been bullied at work themselves.

While in practice, bullying can take a number of different shapes, when it occurs on the job, it tends to be heavily in the realms of psychological and verbal. The WBI defines the situation as “repeated, health-harming mistreatment of one or more persons by one or more perpetrators. It is abusive conduct that is threatening, humiliating, intimidating, prevents work from getting done, or verbal abuse.” In practice, being bullied at work can present in so many situations, from micromanaging and not receiving proper credit to being subject to excessive criticism, being excluded, being expected to deliver on unreasonable demands, and being humiliated.

Sometimes a coworker is the person who's committing the acts of bullying, but often it’s a toxic boss, in which case, the situation gets much more complicated. Regardless of who is doing the bullying, the target is likely to be left feeling devalued, stressed, and anxious, which can even negatively impact their physical and mental health. In fact, that same WBI survey found that 40 percent of those who have been targets of bullying deal with health issues as a result of the situation.

Although some instances of being bullied at work are obvious to spot, they can also be subtle and trickier to identify. So, in the spirit of making sure you're not gaslighting yourself, find signs below that you are, in fact, being bullied at work. Then, find expert tips for what to do about it.

4 signs you’re being bullied at work

1. You feel personally attacked

It’s normal and necessary to receive constructive criticism at work on things such as your communication skills and ability to generate results. But, executive career coach Elizabeth Pearson says, you know you’re being bullied at work if those critiques start to encroach on non-work-related things, like your intelligence, gender, race, or sexuality, and as a result, you feel personally attacked.

2. You dread going into work

If, come the end of every weekend, you absolutely dread going back to work, that’s another red flag that something is up, Pearson says. Maybe you live in fear of being fired or just feel overly stressed out and anxious about being at work. This constant dread could be a sign that you’re being mistreated or bullied at work.

3. You put on armor

If you feel the need to protect yourself at work, or as workplace equality advocate Ann Ayers, Dean of the Colorado Women’s College at the University of Denver, puts it, “put on armor,” this a sign that there is a potential bully around you. “Every time you see that someone at work, or—if it’s really bad—even when you don’t see them but just know they are in the building, you put on your armor,” she says. “It’s a metaphor, sure, but you can literally feel it. It’s heavy, hard to move in. You might even sweat!"

4. You’re speechless

In some cases, being speechless is a good thing, like, say, when your significant other proposes. But being speechless at work? Usually not a great thing. “If you regularly find yourself at a loss for words, it’s likely that you are the victim of a sneak attack,” Ayers says. “Kind, thoughtful people who have integrity rarely catch people off guard.”

6 strategies to deal with being bullied at work.

1. Report it to the higher ups

Although it might feel a little scary, reporting the bullying is often the best way to handle the situation. “Reach out to your boss, or go straight to Human Resources, but come prepared with specific examples of who, when, and how you experienced bullying,” Pearson says. “Most companies have a zero-tolerance policy for harassing and bullying behavior, which includes but is not limited to verbal abuse. Do your research on your state’s anti-discrimination laws and be prepared to speak to specifics if need be.” The same holds true if your boss is the one who is doing the bullying. Don’t be afraid to go above them and take the issue to their direct superiors.

2. Speak up for yourself

Just because someone is your colleague or supervisor doesn’t mean you should stay mum when they mistreat you. Mirande Valbrune, author of #MeToo: A Practical Guide to Navigating Today’s Cultural Workplace Revolution suggests speaking up for yourself and setting boundaries. In a calm, professional manner, of course (this is still the workplace, after all). Remember, we teach people how to treat us. So by saying something like “don’t speak to me that way” or “I can’t hear you when you’re yelling at me,” you let people know what’s not okay with you.

3. Document the bullying

The unfortunate side of workplace bullying (besides the actual bullying) is that often, the targets retaliate, and when this happens, targets may end up losing their job. (According to findings of the WBI survey, 65 percent of people, in fact.) This is why Valbrune recommends documenting the bullying incidents, if possible: Save those emails. Keep a log. Write everything down. You can then bring this information to HR when you report it.

4. It’s not you, it’s them

No, but really. Although being bullied at work might feel like a blow to your character, know that it’s really not about you. “Abusers abuse from insecurity,” says workplace-abuse expert Deb Falzoi. In other words, bullies often feel threatened in some way by their targets and will exert dominance to try to fill that insecure void.

“You can take solace in the knowledge that if you’re finding yourself the subject of a bully’s attacks, it’s likely because they feel intimidated by your accomplishments, skills, and likeability,” Pearson says.

5. Seek support

Bullying is not something you have to deal with alone. Falzoi recommends seeking support to help you through it, whether it’s from a therapist, a family member, a trusted friend, or a peer support group.

6. Quit your job

If you’ve done everything in your power to rectify the situation and nothing seems to change, perhaps the time has come for you to use the Q-word: quit. The sad truth is workplaces don’t always take action to remedy bullying situations. “Employers most often ignore the problem and consider the target the problem in order to avoid liability,” Falzoi says. “They use performance reviews as weapons to discredit hardworking employees.”

If this is the case for you, Valbrune suggests coming up with an action plan for leaving. Save up money, polish up your résumé, and start applying for new jobs. Everyone deserves to work in a warm and welcoming environment. As Pearson puts it, “Life’s too short to be miserable 8 to 10 hours, 5 days a week.”

Other tough workplace situations: How to go about dating a coworker without breaking any rules and how to set boundaries to safeguard you from weekend work messages.

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