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How to Handle an Office Bully

Older workers may be targeted because of ageist stereotypes

an illustration of a man in a work shirt yelling at another man in a work shirt on a red background
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After working for roughly 30 years in the software industry, Minette Norman’s hard work had landed her in the role of global vice president of engineering at a large company. After her employer went through a reorganization, Norman, then 59, says she became a victim of bullying.

“The public bullying started when [my coworker] literally put his hand inches from my face to stop me from answering a question in a meeting and [started] shouting at me to stop speaking,” she says. There were 17 witnesses at that meeting, she says, including human resources (HR) representatives.

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Workplace bullying is different from rudeness or other poor behavior because it is a pattern of targeted behavior that escalates, says workplace consultant Paul Pelletier, author of The Workplace Bullying Handbook: How to Identify, Prevent and Stop a Workplace Bully. And it’s not uncommon, adds Pelletier, an attorney who has personal experience with being a target of workplace bullying.

A 2021 report by the nonprofit Workplace Bullying Institute found that one in three people have experienced bullying in their jobs and 19 percent have witnessed it. Research from job search website Monster found the situation even more dire: Nearly half (47 percent) of those surveyed experienced workplace bullying, and 78 percent witnessed others being bullied. More than half (55 percent) said the pandemic made workplace bullying worse. Typical bullying behavior may include repeated and escalating rudeness, withholding necessary information, mockery or ridicule, exclusion or other damaging actions.

Bullying behavior is often rooted in stereotypes and lack of information, says Yiduo Shao, professor of management at the University of Iowa’s Tippie College of Business with a research specialty in aging and the workplace. Bullies may make assumptions about an individual based on preconceived notions rather than actual competence at work. “Instead, they are relying on some social membership like age or gender or some other demographic characteristics,” Shao says. Mature adult workers may not realize that there is a stereotype being applied to them — for example, that they’re less tech-savvy or less able to learn new things — or even identify as being an “older worker.” Shao is concerned that the rise in remote work could create more isolation and make bullying worse.

Bullying can make a workplace toxic

Workplace bullying can affect both the employee and the workplace in general. Pelletier says his bullying experience included a series of escalating behaviors that ultimately led to health issues and caused him to faint at work.

If you encounter behavior that makes you think you’re the target of a bully, addressing it early can help derail it in some cases, Pelletier says. Bullies tend to “test the waters” with small acts, such as interrupting, eye-rolling or disrespectful encounters. If those go unchecked, bullies may increase the frequency and intensity of their actions. When that happens, you may be dealing with a bully.

Here are some steps you can take to manage the situation.

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Document everything. If you suspect you’re the target of a bully, keep a written log of the incidents, where and when they happened (including via videoconference), and any witnesses, says career expert Vicki Salemi with Monster. When possible, keep copies of emails and text messages if they’re relevant.

Norman began keeping notes on her bully, “from the smallest encounter to the largest incident, with times and dates,” she says. That documentation was necessary when she turned to company representatives for help. She now consults with companies about creating inclusive workplaces.

Stop it in the moment. Because bullying behavior typically escalates if left unchecked, Pelletier suggests addressing it early when it happens. Responding to rudeness from a peer with an objection such as “That was uncalled-for” or even a humorous “Wow, someone got up on the wrong side of the bed this morning” can put the bully on notice that you’re not an easy target.

Of course, if the bullying comes from a supervisor or someone higher in the organization, such exchanges may be more challenging because of office politics and hierarchy. In some cases, addressing the issue privately with the individual can help you understand whether you’re dealing with someone who has a legitimate issue — and may be handling it poorly — versus an actual bully.

Enlist support. Salemi encourages people who are experiencing bullying to turn to trusted coworkers and allies within the company for support and to corroborate the events if they witnessed the behavior. She suggests seeking external support because bullying can be an emotionally and psychologically trying experience and have a “ripple effect in terms of depression, anxiety and stress.” Seek out a mental health counselor to help you manage those feelings, she advises. A mentor, wise friend or family member can also be a good source of support and advice.

Escalate your case. If the behavior continues, you may need to involve your supervisor or the HR department. This is the point at which your documentation of incidents and support from witnesses can be helpful. The HR department will follow its practices to address the behaviors from your coworker that are making you uncomfortable.  

Pelletier cautions that the role of HR sometimes is to mitigate the risk to the company rather than to advocate for employees. If the HR department is unable to resolve the situation to your satisfaction, you may have to consider other options.

Like many bullied employees, Norman decided that leaving the company was in her best interest. Pelletier sued his employer and reached a settlement with the company. Now, he works with companies and individuals to help prevent bullying from happening to others in their workplaces.

“The more I speak about it, the more I don’t give [the bullying] any power anymore. So it’s good for everybody,” he says.