Lynne Curry: How to avoid attracting the dreaded office bully

Lynne Curry

Q: My work life is a living hell. I resigned this morning and am taking the rest of the summer off to heal.

For the last six months, I've dreaded coming to work. It started when "Bill" joined our company. Everyone liked his sense of humor. At first, I did too, but then he turned it on me, mocking everything I said.

I tried ignoring Bill because I didn't want to appear defensive, especially as his comments made everyone else laugh, but his barbs got more and more pointed.

I'd always thought my co-workers liked me even though I'm one of the quiet ones, but others followed up Bill's jibes with their own. I became the butt of jokes. I stopped going to lunch with the gang because I didn't feel welcome.

Night after night, I left work drained. My husband has been supportive but doesn't understand why I let Bill get to me.

Yesterday in a staff meeting my supervisor asked a question and I couldn't even come up with an answer because in my head I could hear Bill's put-downs to everything I might say.

Before I take another job I need to figure out what I did to become Bill's target so it doesn't happen again.

A: Some people attract bullies and those who excel at office gamesmanship like moths to a flame. Others become a target because they have something the bully wants and plans to gain by taking the target out.

While you appear sensitive and vulnerable, making you an easy mark, your answer lies more in what you didn't do rather than in what you did.

You ignored Bill because you didn't feel secure enough to handle his snarky remarks or to tell him to back off. Your silence let Bill know you were easy prey and allowed him to get the upper hand.

When someone snipes at you once, you can ignore it. If you don't counter the comments, non-bullies generally realize they've been a jerk and take the hint.

If an ill-tempered office gamer or bully insults you and you don't counter it, he'll take a second poke, testing your boundaries. If you don't counter the second jab, you prove you're an easy target. The situation then spirals downward, with the bully escalating how he puts you in your place, particularly if the audience rewards him with laughter.

Your best strategy: Turn the bully's joke on him. If no funny retorts come to mind, call the bully out by saying: "That's both funny and nasty. Please cut it out." If that seems too harsh, ask the bully a question. If he answers, you've subtly taken control. If he doesn't answer, bystanders may conclude he can dish it out but not take it.

What you can't do is what you did -- let a bully romp over your ego. You deserve better. What kind of work life do you want to live? If it's one of respect, learn to stand up for yourself.

You may have expected to receive help from your co-workers or supervisor. Because many bullies reveal their true selves only to their target while maintaining a charming front toward others, and because the rest of us give the benefit of the doubt to everyone unless we personally experience otherwise, bystanders rarely help those slammed by bullies. When those on the sidelines finally realize what's going on, they may run for cover or consider the fight yours -- not theirs.

None of us expect formerly friendly co-workers to turn on us; however, they often do. When you allowed Bill's teasing, others saw it as accepted fun, and it brought out similar aggression from the worst of them. The nicer ones simply stood by.

Finally, you let Bill get into your head, isolating yourself by avoiding lunches, thus losing connection with your co-workers. Worse, you turned on yourself and began critiquing everything you might say. Take back your power. Don't let anyone -- even you -- disrespect you. Kill the judger in your brain. Banish Bill.

Lynne Curry is a management-employee trainer and owner of the consulting firm The Growth Company Inc. Send your questions to her at lynne@thegrowthcompany.com.


Lynne Curry
THE WORKPLACE