Assertive people–even aggressive people–thrive in American workplaces. If your boss is intimidating or a coworker has a temper, even the most well-meaning business experts will often tell you to “toughen up” or move on. As the old saying goes, “If you can’t stand the heat, get out of the kitchen,” right?
Not when you have a workplace bully on your hands. According to a 2014 survey of employees in the U.S. by the Workplace Bullying Institute, more than a quarter of respondents reported that they had experienced bullying, harassment, or verbal abuse at work–and the actual number may be much larger. Unfortunately, our pervasive “tough love” work culture makes it hard for employees to acknowledge that they’re being bullied–even if they have a boss who regularly yells at employees. It’s even harder to know what to do next when you do realize that it’s bullying, and it needs to stop.
However, there is a silver lining. Two years after high-profile stories about harassment and bullying in the workplace–like Travis Kalanick’s resignation as Uber’s CEO and the arrest of Harvey Weinstein–these issues in the workplace have gained more national attention. October is National Bullying Prevention Month, which means there’s no better time to talk about how we can prevent more situations like this from happening. Here are some tips on how you can diffuse common bullying situations that you might encounter in the workplace.
When your boss or coworker is yelling at you
We get it–it’s normal to get emotional at work, and you can’t control how your boss or coworker reacts to confrontation. However, if you notice that yelling is their de facto response to conflict and irritation (and they do it regularly), that’s unacceptable behavior.
In this instance, the best course of action is not to yell back. Truly, the best thing you can do during an outburst like this is resisting the urge to fight fire with fire. Wait patiently until your boss or coworker has finished, and then acknowledge and summarize what you have heard them say to you. You should note that this doesn’t mean you agree with them, but you’re relating what you just heard.
Next, take time before you respond. During this pause, ask yourself: “How can I tell them what I need in a way that they will hear it?” This could be immediate (a calm request for them to lower their voice, with the right body language) or longer-term (“I have a lot of projects on my plate right now, and I need more time to complete this one.”) This conversation could take place in the moment or later, in a private meeting–depending on the context and your relationship with this boss or coworker.
Above all, in all of your communication with this person, focus on respect. No matter what you are doing to de-escalate the situation (and no matter what the other person might be doing in response), you’ll benefit more by communicating from a place of respect and being the bigger person. After all, most people don’t change their minds about something because someone yells at them, but they’re more likely to be receptive to hearing your views when they feel like you’re listening to what they have to say. Of course, if this behavior is ongoing even after attempts to de-escalate the situation, you need to report it to HR.
When you witness an act of bullying or harassment in real-time
Many of us have been in situations where we see someone at work get yelled at, belittled, intimidated, sexually harassed, or made uncomfortable. These colleagues may not be speaking up for themselves, and it might be hard to determine what to do (especially if there are office politics involved). However, as a bystander you can speak up, and often should. Here are three things you can do during the interaction:
1. Distract. This is a temporary action you can take in a situation where something needs to be done immediately, but you don’t have time to plan or go to someone else. For example, if you are concerned about two people in an isolated space, find a reason to go in that space and make your presence known.
2. Delegate. If you don’t feel that you have the ability to confront the situation, go to someone with more power who can stop the action and take appropriate steps. This could entail speaking to the offending person’s supervisor, department head, or HR.
3. Direct. Taking a direct approach means confronting the situation openly through effective communication that stops the action in the moment.
As a bystander, there is a fourth communication technique that is as important, or even more so, as the first three. That is the dialogue you have with the target or person responsible after the harassment has occurred. This is, by far, the hardest and least appealing step for bystanders to take.
If you don’t take this final step, you would have put a bandage on the situation, but not addressed the underlying issues. Of course, how you do this depends on what’s happening, and your relationship with the people involved. You should, however, continue to employ basic principles of respect. Be sure to open with lots of “I” statements, for example–“I noticed Jane looked uncomfortable when you two were alone earlier,” or, “You seemed pretty emotional in the meeting, especially when it came to Joe’s numbers.” Even simply stating that you observed what happened, after the fact, can make the offending person more aware of their behavior.
Bullying in the workplace doesn’t benefit anyone–and it’s unfortunate that office bullies continue to exist (and in some cases even thrive) in the workplace. However, one small step that we can take to stop them from inflicting further harm is to hold them accountable for their actions and refuse to accept their behavior. Over time, we can start to create a healthier work culture in America as a whole.
Steven P. Dinkin has served as president of the National Conflict Resolution Center (NCRC) since 2003. He has coauthored two books on conflict resolution: The Exchange: A Bold and Proven Approach to Resolving Workplace Conflict and The Exchange Strategy for Managing Conflict in Healthcare.