A workplace bully could be your boss, your division's honcho or even your company's chief executive. Other workplace sociopaths could be peers who openly slander you or gang up to intimidate or isolate you. So when considering a response to this form of psychological abuse, it's critical for bullying targets to consider organizational relationships.
Perhaps the most common workplace bullying relationship is between an abusive boss and a targeted subordinate. Some 71 percent of targets report that the bully outranked them, according to a survey by Gary Namie, PhD, president of The Workplace Bullying Institute in Bellingham, Washington, and author of The Bully at Work.
What can you do if your boss is the bully? If your HR department collects 360-degree evaluations for performance appraisals, you may be able to use your colleagues' documented perspectives to demonstrate that your boss's assessment of you doesn't add up. "Everyone was happy with my work except my boss," says a technical writer who eventually left her employer under duress. The positive opinions of coworkers may have contributed to her winning a severance package.
Another option is to transfer to another group, department or division. Cast your move as a positive change for you and the company, not as an escape hatch. A geographic move, even if it's just to another floor, may help assure a successful transfer.
If moving within the company won't work, start an external job search immediately. It's always better to leave on your own terms, when you want to go.
Sometimes a clique within a work group turns against a colleague. In an online forum on workplace bullying, one woman writes: "Coworkers began to group up and fire insults, doing anything and everything to agitate me, bumping into me in the halls, banging doors open in my face, ‘stalking' me every time I left my desk."
The woman temporarily tuned out those catty comments with earplugs. But in the long run, a worker in the crosshairs of a group of peers faces an unenviable choice: She can rat out the offending colleagues and risk losing management's respect, or she can let the bullies have their way, thereby putting her own career and health at risk.
The long-term solution to persistent peer bullying is to leave, either for another group or another employer. If you remain with your employer, transfer far, far away. If you stay too close to your bullies, your reputation as a bullying target could haunt you in your next assignment.
At some dysfunctional employers, especially smaller businesses, the chief executive or one of his top managers is also the bully-in-chief. In this difficult situation, reaching out to someone within the organization, including human resources, for help can be risky and ineffective. And with a bully at the top, there's little chance an organizational change could improve your situation. You've simply got to get out of there.
Be discreet in your search for employment elsewhere. Top-brass bullies sometimes use the full weight of the organization to trash the careers of workers who turn on them.
When you interview with prospective employers, don't discuss the negative aspects of the company you're leaving. Instead, emphasize your accomplishments. If you describe your interpersonal skills, avoid discussing your relationship with the offending executive. Any mention of the bullying will probably trigger more wariness than sympathy.
Have all your ducks in a row before you give notice. Assume security will escort you to the curb within minutes of announcing your resignation, so get any critical personal property off the premises before quitting day. At the same time, don't telegraph your impending resignation.
The UK site Bully OnLine has more information on workplace bullying.