Workplace bullies thrive in a culture of silence. They recognize fear and capitalize on it to maintain power, to look confident and in control to their superiors and, in some cases, further their own careers. These types of people look for colleagues or employees who appear to be passive or docile. Workplace bullying experts Gary and Ruth Namie put it like this: "What makes someone a target is when the bully is testing her or his humiliating tactics on several people at work, the target does not fight back or confront the bully immediately. That yielding opens the door to future mistreatment because the target failed the test of being a jerk just like the bully" [source: Namie and Namie].

The emotional and physical impact a bully may have on a co-worker can be extreme. As mentioned earlier, the fear of losing one's job can be a powerful motivator to stay put, despite the abuse. It is not unusual for adults being bullied to exhibit the following behaviors:

  • Dread going to work
  • Lose a significant amount of sleep
  • Suffer from depression
  • Obsess over their job performance
  • Rationalize the bully's behavior or begin to believe he or she deserves to be mistreated
  • Have difficulties at home due to extreme stress at work

Bullied adults often feel they have no recourse but to endure the situation. They may put up with the treatment because they are the sole income provider for their family, think there are too few opportunities for work where they live or need the health insurance provided by their company. Perhaps they view quitting as giving in or validating a bully. People will often create justifications for staying in an unhealthy environment; don't fall into that trap. If you are the target of bullying or witness such behavior, there are steps you can take to right the wrong. In the next section, we'll explore what you can do to fight back against a workplace bully.

Dealing With Bullying in the Workplace

It can be difficult to take legal action against your bully or employer. Depending on the situation and the various legislation, laws and acts within your state or country. There are state and federal laws that protect one from discrimination based on factors such as race, religion, national origin or sex. Also within your workplace most employees sign a 'contract' which outlines 'codes of conduct', and 'standards of behaviour' as well as general company Policy and Procedures; including relating to Harassment and Bullying. So it is important to obtain a copy of these and identify which areas the bully has broken to record the incidents in relation to the violated 'company standards', this can be used to present to HR and to take to your lawyer. Generally, unless your bully is subjecting you to discrimination or harassment that falls into one of these categories, the bully is probably doing nothing illegal. Although it causes pain, it is difficult to prove their behavior is causing you harm. This is not to say you shouldn't talk to a lawyer if you feel it necessary to discuss your immediate options and likely outcomes.

The first step in dealing with a workplace bully is learning how to protect yourself against abusive behavior that is technically legal.

Confronting bullying requires bravery on your part. It will not be easy and may result in some unintended consequences. Bullied people have a 64 percent chance of losing their job once they've been targeted [source: WBI]. Being prepared with strategies to deal with the bully can help to increase your chances of success.

The WBI suggests three strategies for dealing with bullying.

  • Legitimize bullying behavior by naming it. (Example: emotional abuse)
  • Take time off work.
  • Expose the bully.

According to Robert Mueller, author of "Bullying Bosses," one of the first steps to warding off a bully is limiting the amount of personal information you share. Bullies will often use what you have mentioned in passing as a weapon. Maintaining personal boundaries is an important line of defense. Mueller also suggests the "Restroom Retreat" strategy. When you find yourself being bullied, don't wait for your manager to finish his or her tirade. Calmly excuse yourself and leave. By ending the "conversation" on your terms, you are sending a clear message to your bully that his or her behavior will not be tolerated.

Mueller also recommends talking to trusted co-workers in a professional manner when instances of bullying occur. Approach the abuse as "bullying for all." In other words, a bully who targets one person indirectly targets the entire team. Bullying is demoralizing to the group; it can hamper productivity and have a negative impact on the business as a whole.

At some point, you may decide that the best way to remedy the situation is by leaving. This is not a retreat or a failure to cope on your part. It is simply a decision based on your experience. If you have worked to find a solution, and the administration is less than helpful, you may want to consider going elsewhere. No job is worth losing your dignity and mental health. To leave on an empowered note, try the following tactics:

  • Ask colleagues and allies for a positive reference letter.
  • Understand the laws regarding defamation of character.
  • Review your documentation of bullying, and decide whether there is justification for legal action.
  • If an exit interview is required, bring along a letter from your attorney

[source: Namie and Namie]

If you want to go beyond simply dealing with the bully and have decided it's time to take action, read on to find out the best way to report what's been happening.