Home > bullying, office politics > What to Do If You’re the Target of Bullying at Work

What to Do If You’re the Target of Bullying at Work

women bulliesBy the time you realize you’re the target of workplace bullying and mobbing, it’s usually the beginning of the end. The ultimate goal of the bully/mobbing ringleader is to eliminate you from the organization. Unfortunately, most organizations neither acknowledge nor address workplace bullying in a way that protects the target.

In fact, Human Resources and management usually further victimize you by siding with the bully. Unless you can document acts of sexual harassment, racial or religious discrimination, pressure to engage in unlawful activities or discrimination for a physical disability, bullying/mobbing isn’t illegal in most states unless you can tie it to these specific acts of harassment. Therefore, it’s important that you come up with a plan to protect and remove yourself from this unhealthy and stressful work situation.

The following are measures you can take if you’ve become the target of mobbing at work:

1. Assess your professional options. What can you do to protect yourself in the short-term while working on a long-term solution? Do you know people who can connect you with other job opportunities? Do you need to learn new skills to transfer to another department or to seek employment elsewhere?

If management won’t address the problem, you’re going to have to leave or continue to suffer the abuse. Bullies don’t stop until they force you out. Their attacks escalate in severity and in frequency. The more they get away with their behaviors, the more vicious they become.

2. Play it cool. Don’t react with anger at work. Even though your anger is completely justified, don’t blow your top. Find an outside person with whom to vent your frustrations.

A common tactic of bullies is to provoke you into anger in front of co-workers and management. They then pretend like you’re the one who is out of control and hostile, “See. What did I tell you—s/he is uncooperative and people are afraid of him/her.” Of course, they don’t mention the dirty tricks and psychological torture they used to push you into it. They want to destroy your professional reputation. Don’t give them the ammunition to do it.

3. Don’t give your employer “cause.” The bully/mobbing ringleader is looking for reasons to have you terminated, so you have to be beyond reproach. When you’re bullied, you feel demoralized, unappreciated, attacked, and frustrated. Consequently, you lose interest in your job. Your heart just isn’t in it anymore and you let things slide. This is referred to as “presenteeism” or “discretionary effort.” The mindset is, “I’m being mistreated. The company isn’t doing anything about it, so why kill myself working any harder than I have to?”

Try not to do this. Your goal should be to leave your current organization on your own terms. Don’t give them grounds for termination. Demonstrate that in the face of a hostile work environment, you did your best. Once you’ve secured a comparable or better job, let the HR person know exactly what happened during your exit interview. If the company gets enough victims of the bully on record, they might eventually do something about it. The bottom line of any organization is money and recruiting and training new personnel is costly.

4. Create a paper trail. Document everything: dates, times, witnesses, detailed descriptions of their behaviors and events. Send emails describing what’s going on to yourself or a trusted colleague. If you meet with HR, take notes and submit a signed copy for your personnel file.

If your manager or boss is one of the people bullying you and they pressure you to sign a false or unfair performance evaluation or disciplinary action, draft a counter statement explaining your position. Stick to the facts and try to keep anger and emotionality out of it. State that you were made to feel belittled or persecuted. Document that it’s a hostile work environment, which is highly stressful and makes it difficult for you to do your job. Most importantly, keep the original copies and store them in a safe place—i.e., not at work.

5. Get a second opinion. Reality test with a trusted colleague, therapist, coach, or lawyer. One of the most damaging aspects of workplace bullying is gaslighting. You begin to doubt your own perceptions because most of these behaviors are diffuse forms of innuendo, done behind your back or, even worse, if you’re publicly humiliated, the participants deny or minimize how you were treated.

6. Use available resources. Do research on the web. Study your organization’s HR handbook, particularly work grievance and harassment policies. Although, keep in mind, workplace grievances usually aren’t an effective way to deal with a bully. Either the bully has friends in HR or management or is your boss. HR usually sides with management. Plus, most bullies are practiced liars who deny, minimize and distort the facts with ease. Additionally, your company has already failed you in allowing the bullying to occur and not stopping it.

If you have access to a labor attorney or are able to obtain a free consultation, consult with him or her about your rights. Look for other work options. Seek support from friends, family or a therapist.

7. Take care of yourself. Bullying is a form of emotional abuse and violence in the workplace. It takes a very negative toll on your physical and psychological health. Work becomes an active war zone, which causes you to maintain a defensive stance and become hypervigilant. It’s incredibly stressful, exhausting, and traumatic. This toxicity will eventually spill over into your personal life.

Minimize the effects of the abuse by reframing or changing how you see things (Sutton, The No Asshole Rule: Building a Civilized Workplace and Surviving One that Isn’t, 2007, pp. 131-147). If you change your mindset about what’s happening, you can reduce the amount of damage you experience. For example:

  • Avoid engaging in self-blame.
  • Hope for the best, but prepare for the worst.
  • Develop indifference and emotional detachment.
  • Learn when and how not to give a damn.
  • Lower your expectations about your co-workers and management.
  • Remind yourself that you’ll recover and move on from this ordeal.
  • Look for small wins. Gaining control over little things will positively impact your well-being.
  • Limit your exposure with the bully.
  • Build areas in your life that provide support, safety, and sanity.

8. Use your free time to develop your career outside of your organization. If you’re not being given assignments anymore or your responsibilities have decreased because of bullying/mobbing, use that time to network in other departments, attend professional trainings, work on your résumé, and network outside your organization.

Quantify how these activities are related to your current job in some way, so that you can’t be accused of working on personal activities on company time. For example, hand out business cards when you attend an outside networking event and mention your company and what you do in conversation. Do not, however, bad mouth your company to anyone outside the organization. This will reflect poorly on you. Additionally, you don’t want to be accused of disparaging the organization as grounds for termination.

Workplace bullying and mobbing are insidious forms of psychological and emotional abuse. You can survive with your professional reputation intact if you don’t fall into the trap of reacting or shutting down at work (i.e., not fulfilling your responsibilities). Educate yourself, protect yourself, and develop a plan to get out and move forward with your life.

Counseling, Consulting and Coaching with Dr. Tara J. Palmatier, PsyD

Dr. Tara J. Palmatier, PsyD helps individuals work through their relationship and codependency issues via telephone or Skype. She specializes in helping men and women trying to break free of an abusive relationship, cope with the stress of an abusive relationship or heal from an abusive relationship. She combines practical advice, emotional support and goal-oriented outcomes. Please visit the Schedule a Session page for professional inquiries or send an email to shrink4men@gmail.com.

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Related articles:


Sutton, R.I. (2007).  The no Asshole rule: Building a civilized workplace and surviving one that isn’t.  NY, NY, Warner Business Books.

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Talking behind my back on Forbes.

  1. March 23, 2011 at 10:50 am

    Is bullying considered a matter that should be taught in Business Schools? Because I noticed that in Spain, for instance, specially in the Public Administration, bullying is one of the most common complaints from workers. Managers are supposed to learn a lot about finance, methods, etc, but nothing about human behaviour and emotions.

  2. Aapeli
    August 24, 2010 at 11:58 pm

    Someone at a workplace abused me by mocking my physical appearance more than once. One time at the coffee room he laughed together with other people at me. They were making comments that were no doubt about me but they were not saying my name. But they all looked at me and laughed. What hurt me the most about this was that the person I trusted most and liked the most at that workplace laughed with them! I could accept the bully laughing because I had already understood his nature and so I could ignore him, but it really hurt when other people who I thought were good people joined him into laughing at me openly in front of me.

    Sometimes I wish I had had the guts to “show them the finger” or something like that but then I would have had to do it to the person I liked the most there! And I am a kind and a polite person and will most likely not do rude things to others so if someone wants to mock me then it will probably be easy as I am unlikely to hit back at them. Sometimes I wish I wouldn’t be like this but then again maybe it is right that I am like this and that I don’t have to change myself to try to please the bullies.

  3. March 23, 2009 at 2:08 pm

    2009-2010 Legislative Summary

    A5414/S1823– The Healthy Workplace Bill

    A2247/S1948– The Study Bill

    A6207- Unlawful Worklace Abuse Bill

    http://assembly.state.ny.us/ Contact your NY State representative to ask thenm to support the above anti-bullying legislation.

    • shrink4men
      March 23, 2009 at 8:22 pm

      Thanks, Cadphael!

      Dr T

  4. Gina Knight
    March 21, 2009 at 3:47 am

    This is so prominate in nursing they have a name for it lateral violence or eating their young. Managers realize that it chases out the young nurses and cared when there was a nursing shortage but now that the shortage is over they no longer a big concern. It is sad but I don’t understand how mobbing benefits the company? It must or the company would not tolerate it.

    • shrink4men
      March 24, 2009 at 11:11 pm

      Hi Gina,

      Sorry for my delayed reply. I’ve been traveling and had intermittent web access. “Eating their young” is an expression I’ve used to describe the mental health profession as well. Research shows that the healthcare professions are one of the fields with a greater incidence of bullying and other workplace incivilities.

      As a woman, I’ve found that my fellow female supervisors and peers were often the most vicious. In fact, in 70% of bullying cases reported by women, it is another woman who is abusing them. Actually, I don’t think the nursing shortage is over. In major urban areas, there’s an ever growing need of nurses that is expected to grow worse over the next 5 years.

      Companies turn a blind eye to these abuses for a number of reasons: they don’t know how to handle conflict; they believe fear and intimidation are good motivation techniques, it’s an acceptable form of hazing (this is especially true in healthcare), in cases of woman on woman bullying, the typically senior bully was subjected to the same abuse and doesn’t believe younger professionals should have an “easier” time of it, the bully has friends in management or HR or is part of management, etc.

      Companies need to be educated. Harboring a bully, no matter how much revenue she or he might generate, will always be more costly to an organization in the long run.

      Dr T

  5. loupsolo
    March 20, 2009 at 8:44 am

    Though I generally agree with you, I do have some issues with the following 2 points:

    1. Assess your professional options.

    I find it difficult to accept that I should change job since I’m not the one starting it. Why should I be the one “punished”? And what happens if the same situation occurs at my next job…

    3. Don’t give your employer “cause.”

    It’s not fair that I should be the one making efforts to cope with an unfair situation without employer support. He has the responsibility to intervene and stop this.

    However I have to admit that it seems more continuous to follow your advice.

    Anyway, as a receiving end, I now know what I can do to stop or get out of this situation and I also know (unfortunately) what can happen if I don’t take immediate measures (in my case: depression).

    I would also like to better understand, as a future manager, what to do to stop such a situation between members of my team. Is that part of your long list of articles to write :) ?

    Thanks again for your instructive article.

    • shrink4men
      March 20, 2009 at 3:47 pm

      I agree—in theory.

      1. You are the one being punished for other people’s bad behavior. Bullies and their henchmen and henchwomen are the ones who should change or be expelled from the workplace. Unfortunately, a lot of organizations don’t know how to handle bullying and often encourage these behaviors. It’s unfair and sick, but organizations that tolerate or, worse, promote a culture of abuse rarely change. They chew up good employees and spit them out.

      Take your experience from this current job and use it as a guideline when looking for a new job for organizations to avoid. Research and interview your next prospective employer. Find out what their turnover rate is (how long do most employees stay or do they constantly have to replace people). Talk to the people who work there if you can. Are they open and friendly or do they seem guarded? Are they energetic and excited about their work or do they look beat down? Ask what the company’s policy is on workplace harassment. Do they have a good reputation for taking care of their employees? You never know exactly what a new job is going to be like until you begin it, but there are some warning signs you can look for in prospective jobs.

      3. Again, yes, this is very unfair. I don’t know which country you live in, but find out what their laws are on workplace harassment and bullying. Many of the Commonwealth countries are beginning to take workplace bullying seriously and beginning programs to address the issues.

      As a future manager, I think the most important advice is that you cannot harbor a bully. Your other employees will feel unsafe, betrayed and resentful. Most managers don’t want to have to fire people, but bullies are disruptive and destructive to the workplace. It’s like allowing a highly poisonous snake to live in the office. Document their bad behaviors and terminate them. Send a clear message that bullies and workplace incivility will not be tolerated under any circumstances.

      Thanks again for reading and commenting, LoupSolo.
      Dr T

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