Ask Women in Product: What can I do to deal with bullying at work?

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Answer from Rachel Bodnar, Product Management Professional

What is bullying?

Bullying at work is a serious issue, with a damaging impact on both the person being bullied and the people around them. According to the Workplace Bullying Institute:

“Workplace Bullying is repeated, health-harming mistreatment of one or more persons (the targets) by one or more perpetrators. It is abusive conduct that is: threatening, humiliating, or intimidating, OR work interference — sabotage — which prevents work from getting done, OR verbal abuse.”

Bullying is different from harassment or discriminatory behavior, though it can occur with these. It’s more than mean, unkind, or unfair behavior. It is persistent, abusive behavior. It creates a negative and damaging environment for everyone, most especially the target.

In this post, I want to share some of the tactics that I’ve found helpful when I’ve encountered bullying in the workplace.

What can I do if I’m being bullied at work?

Dealing with bullying at work can be stressful, damaging to your health, and lead to poor job performance. The behavior of the bully is meant to cause harm, to undermine who you are as a person. While you may feel pressured to remain silent or think it’s better to ignore the bully, there are more productive steps you can take to improve the situation.

Remind yourself that this is not your fault

It’s important to remember that you did not cause the bully’s behavior. Being bullied is not a sign of weakness; even a strong person can be attacked by a bully. Bullies target people for a variety of reasons, but you are not to blame for what is happening to you. The fault rests entirely with the bully.

Get support

Find a network, inside or outside the company, to support you and encourage you to shine a light on the situation. A support group can also help you cope and find ways to address the problem, for example, by helping you practice things that you want to say or do when faced with bullying behavior to give you more confidence.

Keep a record

Document each situation where you felt bullied, including the date, time, what happened, the person involved, and any witnesses. This type of record will help you separate isolated incidents from repeated behavior that is bullying. If you decide to report the behavior, this documentation will be useful.

Set boundaries

You cannot control the bully’s behavior, but you can try to control your reaction to that behavior. While it can be challenging, you can try to address the situation directly with the bully, making sure to keep to the facts and avoid talking about your feelings. Let them know which of their specific behaviors are not okay, how their actions are affecting your work, and that they need to stop. This type of feedback may result in them becoming angry, so choose the time and place for such conversations wisely. And while setting boundaries doesn’t always work, it could be enough to stop the behavior.

Report the behavior

If you’ve been keeping documentation, you can use this to report the behavior. Check your employee handbook to learn the process for reporting violations of applicable policies. Generally, you can report to your manager (if they are the bully, go to their manager) or Human Resources. Again, try to keep things fact-based rather than dwelling on how it’s making you feel. You can also discuss how it is impacting your work as there is a cost that the company can understand. Keep in mind Human Resources exists to protect the company, not necessarily you as the employee. A good organization will handle this with the seriousness it deserves.

Leave

There are times when the situation has become so bad that, for your health and safety, you must leave. Your support group can help here by enlarging your network and helping you find opportunities to leave the bully’s sphere of influence or the company altogether. Realistically, this option may not be available to you right now; in that case, concentrate on the things you can do as you prepare to leave, like updating your resume, gaining required skills, or expanding your network.

How can I be an ally when someone is bullied at work?

Being an ally can take many forms, which I cover in more detail below. Gauge your comfort and that of the person being bullied when deciding how best to help. You may be in a more privileged situation than the person being bullied; use your privilege to help them when possible. As product managers, we often have privilege and even authority in group situations. Using your privilege to help someone without is the key to being an ally.

Here are some of the things you can do to support people who have been targeted by bullies.

Believe them

If someone tells you they are being bullied, believe them. It takes courage to admit you’re being bullied, especially when the bullying creates feelings of shame, inadequacy, or helplessness. Letting someone know you believe them helps them know they won’t have to deal with the problem alone.

Listen and help

Talk to the person being bullied about how much support they would like, but more importantly, listen to them. Perhaps they want to talk and get confirmation that what they are experiencing isn’t normal. Maybe they want assistance in reporting to HR. Or they could need help to build a support network or find a new job. Do what you can to assist. Don’t pressure them to do something they aren’t comfortable doing.

Stand up

Let the bully know their behavior is not acceptable. Focus on why the behavior isn’t treating colleagues with respect or doesn’t meet the company’s values. Refrain from using words like bullying, which can cause unhelpful emotional reactions. You can confront the person without arguing or fighting while being respectful to everyone involved. Polite and direct communication is essential.

Defuse gossip

Workplace bullies often rely on gossip networks to spread disinformation and damage their target’s reputation. You can help stop this by making statements that counter the criticism. For example, if the gossip is about how difficult the bully’s target is to work with because they aren’t knowledgeable, you could say something like “When I worked with X, they were so easy to work with and willing to share their knowledge.” Don’t lie to defuse the gossip, but speak the truth as you see it. Alternatively, you can decline to listen to and participate in gossip.

Real-life experiences

Through my career, I have seen bullies at work many times. Below I share two of those experiences in the hope that they help you recognize bullying and encourage you to take action when you encounter it.

I can’t read minds!

Following a large reorganization, one of my peers (let’s call her Katie) met with her new manager (let’s call her Jane) to discuss Katie’s new responsibilities. Katie was excited because Jane mentioned new projects on the horizon and opportunities to grow. That enthusiasm was soon destroyed when she realized that Jane changed priorities regularly, didn’t communicate the changes clearly, and yelled when things weren’t done according to her schedule.

Katie felt she needed to be a mind reader to get things done. She was yelled at and blamed for ‘mistakes’ when she didn’t have the right context and information to do her job. During private and public meetings Katie was told “you’re incompetent” and “you’re terrible at your job.” Her health began to deteriorate as she desperately tried to make Jane happy. She couldn’t think or talk about work without becoming sad and frustrated. I reassured Katie that she was doing nothing wrong.

In the weeks that followed, Jane’s behavior worsened, and I began to speak up whenever I saw the bullying behavior first-hand. Katie and I agreed to start documenting the behavior we witnessed. When Katie requested support, I promised to stand with her if she reported Jane to HR.

Katie ended up taking a leave of absence, supported by her doctor, for her health. While on leave, she reported Jane to HR for bullying. The much-needed break allowed Katie to focus on improving her health and enabled her to recover from the experience, become healthier and happier, and find a company where she was respected.

Stop thinking and do as I say!

A new manager (let’s call her Debbie) was hired to run two client-facing teams that previously had varying levels of management support. Everyone was hopeful that a new manager would bring exciting new energy to the team and their goals. Rather quickly that excitement waned as people experienced Debbie’s behavior.

Debbie demanded that the team comply with new workflows that created more work without adding any real value to the business. For example, rather than making changes to documents directly, Debbie sent the document back with a detailed list of the desired changes. Her new processes required her teams to report the same data multiple times in multiple formats without any obvious benefit. In addition, she created an environment of mistrust by instructing the team to blind copy (bcc:) her on all internal and external email communication.

After a few weeks, team members began discussing this behavior with me, and we brainstormed options to alleviate the issues. The team attempted to suggest improvements, but their feedback was dismissed as them ‘just being lazy’ about the additional work. A few team members attempted to explain their concerns by pointing out the cost to the company, but they only received angry responses and were told not to question direction. Debbie didn’t want them to think; she only wanted them to obey. When I saw the bullying behavior first-hand, I confronted Debbie but did not achieve any positive results. Eventually, the team and I agreed that the next step was to talk to Human Resources. Separately, a few people also reported the behavior to HR without using the term bullying. Unfortunately, HR failed to make them feel like their issue was being understood or addressed.

Some of the team eventually opted to leave the company rather than continue to be bullied. They found great opportunities that allowed them to thrive. I continued to provide support and encouragement to the remaining team members as best as I could. Eventually, Debbie was managed out of the company. The few staff members who remained were relieved and excited to be working for new managers who treated them with respect.

Summary

Bullying is very serious and should be treated as such. It can push people out of careers and industries through no fault of their own. It can damage their health, their self-esteem, and their ability to deal with life’s challenges.

If you’re being bullied, remember that this is not your fault, and you don’t have to face it alone. Set boundaries if you can. Find allies and create your support network. Keep a record so you have supporting evidence if you decide to report the bully. Prepare for the possibility that leaving the company may be your best recourse.

If you see bullying, be an ally — talk to the person being bullied, become part of their support network. When you see bullying first-hand, speak up if you’re able. Help targets of bullying by documenting incidents, and wherever applicable, being a witness that corroborates their accounts.

Finally, you can learn more about how to deal with bullying and how to be a good ally in the resources below.

More resources

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