Are you one of the many victims of bullying at work? If so, you are probably torn between three choices – run, fight or put up with it. Before we look at these options in more detail, let’s consider the psychology behind it all.
What is bullying?
Society is stratified with individuals and groups of individuals at all levels – some above, some below you. All around us, there are people giving orders, telling us what to do (or what not to do) and not always in the politest form – e.g. ‘Keep off the grass’, ‘No parking’ and ‘Keep out’. The messages or words are abrupt, overtly aggressive and often with threats (e.g. ‘Fine £50’) but, despite what those who do not agree with the notices might say, this does not constitute bullying. The fact is that we operate like one vast ant colony and we need people both to give and obey orders. Without this stratification, we would have chaos.
Thus, the ordering of someone around, no matter in how unfriendly or inconsiderate a manner, is not bullying by itself. That said, it might constitute unreasonable behaviour on the part of a fellow employee or boss or it might one day develop into full-scale bullying so it bears monitoring.
No, a bully is someone who deliberately chooses to inflict pain or misery on another individual merely for the gratification obtained by the performance of the act – i.e. they are a sadist. Dealing with a bully is a world apart from dealing with a boss or colleague who is intolerant or over-bearing. Although these latter are going about things the wrong way, in their eyes they are acting in the interests of themselves or their business. It’s incorrect but, nevertheless, logical behaviour. A bully is illogical.
There are two sorts of bully – the most common variety wilfully and consciously aggresses; the much rarer variety is so sociopathic that they have no awareness of what they are doing.
In the case of the latter, a word with a boss or a joining of forces with some of your colleagues and then a representation to the bully might well be sufficient. Draw their attention to how unacceptable their behaviour is. If it is the boss who is being the bully, then you need to explain the phrase ‘constructive dismissal’ to them and suggest they look up the fines for bringing it about.
Assuming that you are facing someone who actually just revels in making your life hell, what do you do?
You have three choices – fold, flee or fight.
If you fold today and carry on putting up with it, you are just going to be subjected to more bullying. Bullies are superb at spotting and exploiting weakness.
Understand this, and forget any pacifist claptrap; a bully does not have a better side to their nature. They aren’t going to reform, you won’t persuade them of the error of their ways and they will get worse. If you fold now, sooner or later you will come to a watershed where you have no choice but to fight or flee. Therefore dismiss any idea of turning the other cheek and hoping they’ll give it up – they won’t.
That’s the same psychology that battered wives who hang around hoping their lame “He’s changed. He’s sorry, really” stories come true. That’s fairy tale land – not reality.
OK, so, flee or fight.
Well, with jobs so hard to find are you sure you’re going to walk into another one? If so, then maybe it is the best option as long as you can reconcile it in your head that you quit because of the bullying. I’m not being judgemental (although it might sound like it). The fact is that it’s quite normal to look back and wish you’d done something different. That can eventually eat you up so badly that it can spoil your new job and even wreck your domestic relationships. Only flee if you have somewhere to go and can live with it.
That leaves fighting.
If you’re going to do that, expect it to be bloody. Well, not literally – actual bloodshed is unlikely and, if a bully should lay a finger on you, that is grounds for instant dismissal. There is no appeal against violence unless you are acting in self-defence.
Workplace bullies rarely resort to physical violence these days because of this. However we’ve seen that physical contact is not necessary – witness the rise of cyber-bullying.
When being attacked by a bully, it’s easy to become defensive. For example:
Bully: “You stink, do you know that?”
You: “That’s not true. I’ve showered this morning, my clothes are clean and I’m wearing deodorant.”
Lame, lame, lame. Bullies feed on this. You’ll just make them attack you all the more because you are acting like a prey animal. Far better is to go on the offensive. Make them fight in their own backyard, not on your territory. Let’s try the same example again but with the new approach.
Bully: “You stink, do you know that?”
You: “I think it’s your bad breath you’re smelling. You really should do something about that, you know.”
Bully: “How dare you.”
You: “Sorry, do you mind? Don’t come too close. You’re a bit … niffy.”
Bully: “I’ll get you for that.”
You: “Woah. I thought they banned chemical weapons.”
Watch them flounder. They just aren’t geared up for it. The prey animal has suddenly become the predator and they won’t like it. Humour is a powerful weapon. Work on a batch of responses and play to the gallery. If everyone laughs at them for a change, they’ll start giving you a wide berth.
If the bullying is more physical, like stealing and eating your lunch – make two versions and dose one up with laxative (for example). Be careful never to use anything which could be construed as poison as your bully may (sadly) be allergic to it. Keep your actual sandwiches out of sight and let them munch into a whole load of trouble.
Should the bullying take the form of sabotaging your equipment then it does get a bit harder to deal with. Returning the favour will only leave you liable for any injury that should occur to them. Wouldn’t that be ironic?
If the property belongs to the company, your boss will take a dim view. If it is your boss doing it or they don’t want to know, consider reporting it to the Health and Safety Executive Inspector. Accidents in the workplace are not considered humorous and what starts out as a simple (I won’t say ‘innocent’ because it isn’t) prank can easily backfire and become something a lot worse.
There are no easy answers to handling a bully. The fact is that you are in an unenviable situation and you are dealing with someone who is unlikely ever to be ‘cured’. It’s the age old battle between the immovable object and the irresistible force.
I still say humour is a powerful weapon. If you’re reading this, you are clearly someone with an above average intellect, so use the full power of your brain to lampoon and harass your bully with wit and sparkle.