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What to Do If You Are Bullied at Work

A recent survey says 1 in 3 people has been tormented on the job. Here's what you can do to protect yourself

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On-the-job bullying is relevant and rampant. Handle workplace bullying and harassment correctly.
Andrew Bret Wallis/Getty Images

There's a lesson in the news of alleged harassment of players on the Miami Dolphins football team: Bullying isn't just about schoolkids or athletes. It's rampant in many workplaces, no matter the industry.

According to the Bellingham, Wash.-based Workplace Bullying Institute, one-third of people surveyed say they've been bullied on the job. Half of the organizations surveyed by the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) reported incidents of bullying in their workplaces. And it's not usually coming from that proverbial bad boss whom we all like to gripe about: 82 percent of workplace bullying incidents were peer-to-peer.

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The problem takes many shapes and forms. It might be verbal abuse from a coworker, such as swearing and intimidation, snide comments or unrelenting teasing. It could be someone taking credit for your work or trying to make you look incompetent. If it is the boss who's the problem, bullying can mean shouting, constant criticism, the creation of impossible expectations and the shifting of those expectations at the last minute to set you up to fail.

And yes, bullying occurs through technology, such as Facebook or other social media. This kind accounted for about one in five incidents, the SHRM survey found.

It may surprise you to learn that workplace bullying isn't actually illegal (although legislation has been proposed in 25 states). So speaking up can be complicated. Whom do you talk to — the bully, the boss or the people in HR? What are the possible repercussions of speaking up?

Here are five moves you can make to handle a tough situation at work.

1. Size up the situation

Do some soul-searching to be sure that your side of the street is clean. Is your work truly top-drawer? Is your attitude positive? Being able to answer yes will be a huge help if you go public with a complaint.

Consider whether you're doing anything to trigger the bad behavior. Face it, you might bear some responsibility. Be certain that you're not being too thin-skinned about things that you probably should let roll off your back.

Another question to consider is whether anyone else is getting the same rough treatment.

Finally, ask yourself whether the problem started when you reached "a certain age." If it's age-related, you'll have special rights under federal law.

If you need to vent or get advice, be discreet and talk to someone not connected to your workplace. You don't want to be the one feeding the rumor mill.

"Choose your moments carefully," says George Schofield, an employment expert and author of After 50 It's Up to Us. "Decide when you need to stand up for yourself and when it simply isn't worth it." (Not reporting, it turns out, is a common decision: About 43 percent of bullying victims said they didn't report their bullying to anyone in the organization, the SHRM survey found.)

2. Document it

Write down what's happening — time, dates and locations. This journal should detail specific volatile behavior and give an explanation of what started it and your recommendations for how it would be better handled the next time, says Schofield: "A grievance list alone won't be enough." Keep your log stored in a safe place such as a home computer rather than a work computer.

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3. Talk to the bully

If and only if you feel confident and physically secure, have a one-on-one talk with the bully. Be positive and do your best to be polite. Calmly explain that it's not OK to treat you this way. It's possible the person is unaware that what he or she is doing is upsetting you and will apologize and back off. You'll need some backbone here. But it's not in your job description to accept rude behavior or irrational work demands.

4. Take your complaint to a higher power

Bullies can be tenacious and unreasonable, so you may need to call in the big guns. Your first line of defense is to talk to your manager, assuming he or she is not the culprit. But you may have to go to HR.

Many employers are well aware that workplace bullying can put a damper on morale and raise employee turnover. Both of these repercussions can increase costs and nick profits — something near and dear to an organization's heart.

Little wonder that though bullying isn't illegal, the SHRM survey found that 43 percent of employers had some kind of policy against it and 13 percent were planning to institute one. It's usually tucked into an employee handbook or code of conduct. Many workplaces have mandatory classes that teach employees how to recognize harassment. Employers typically respond to provable bullying allegations with actions like reassignment or obligatory anger management training. Suspension or firing is a last resort.

If you take your complaint to your boss or HR, frame it as something constructive, not whining. Yes, it's an emotional grievance. But you must make an objective case about the cost of bullying to the organization. Appeal to bottom-line issues — turnover, absenteeism and litigation. Have your documentation pulled together. Describe what's been happening in precise detail and explain how the situation is taking a toll on your ability to do your work.

"Avoid locking yourself into the good guy vs. bad guy trap," says Schofield. "Remember there are always multiple viewpoints … Focus on the potential solution more than the existing problem."

If you've concluded that you're being bullied, targeted for schedule changes or harassed by a boss or coworkers after you hit a key age milestone, or if you notice that other older workers are also targeted, you should report it to your employer's human resources department right away, says Donna Ballman, an employment lawyer and author of Stand Up for Yourself Without Getting Fired: Resolve Workplace Issues Before You Quit, Get Axed, or Sue the Bastards.

You should call your filing a "Formal Complaint of Age-Based Harassment." It should lay out how you (and other older employees, if any) are being targeted for treatment different than younger employees, Ballman says. Ask the employer to take prompt action to correct the situation. If there is no corrective action, or if you are retaliated against, it may be time to talk to an employment lawyer or the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Complaints about age discrimination are protected by law against retaliation. You can read more on age discrimination at this website.

Complaints about discrimination based on race, sex, national origin or other statuses are also protected against retaliation. If your situation doesn't cross any of these legal lines — in other words, if you're not being targeted for bullying due to them — Ballman suggests that you find other employees who are also affected and complain on behalf of them and yourself. "While complaining alone and just for yourself may not be protected against retaliation, once you act on behalf of others you may have legal protection," she says.

If your employer retaliates against you for complaining, you can report it to the National Labor Relations Board if you're a non-supervisory worker in a private company.

5. Come up with Plan B sooner rather than later

The unpleasant truth is that many employees who get caught in a bullying scenario wind up moving to another department within the organization or leaving altogether. "You don't have to change jobs or employers soon, but waiting to create Plan B until you're out of time is a very weak approach," Schofield says.

Don't spread the word at your workplace that you're looking, but go ahead and update your résumé. Strengthen your job marketability by updating or expanding your skills. The Plus 50 Initiative by the American Association of Community Colleges aims at students over 50. Most colleges and universities offer distance and adult education programs as well, and there's been an explosion of online education programs such as Coursera.

And there's no time like the present to subtly tap your professional network. Reconnect with old friends and colleagues through lunch, coffee or social media such as LinkedIn and Facebook. Attend industry or alumni networking functions. At this stage, you're not asking the people you meet for help landing a job. But you never know where you might hear of that lead that just might spring you from your current situation.

Kerry Hannon, AARP jobs expert, is a career transition expert and an award-winning author. Her latest book is Great Jobs for Everyone 50+: Finding Work That Keeps You Happy and Healthy … and Pays the Bills.

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