Bullying in the University Workplace

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Stress doesn’t just come from the pressure of study (as if that isn’t enough). Universities are workplaces (even for students 🙂 ) and like any other workplace you may encounter bullies. So how do you deal with them? What follows are suggestions based on 30 years’ experience in the workplace. I offer them in the hope that they might help you to develop your own strategies.

Dealing with bullies

As far as you can you need to gain some control. Remember that simply by addressing the bullying you will wrong-foot the bully.

Pick your battles

If you try to fight each and every time you may well weaken yourself so much that you’ll be too exhausted to face a bigger challenge. Waiting for an appropriate moment is not weakness, it’s strategy. You know that you are going to say something, they don’t. That gives you the advantage – you can plan, they cannot.

If you can, plan when and how to say something

Set the time to say something – either by requesting a meeting or simply in your own mind eg determining to say something at the end of a seminar. This helps you to regain some feeling of control and to ensure that you speak up in a safe place with an easy graceful exit!

Prepare something to say in advance – practice potential comments. Do your best to avoid saying anything that will escalate the situation. By all means write down what you really want to say then bin it 🙂  and think of one or two strong phrases to use.

Try not to rush what you say, keep your comments calm, professional and polite.

Keep the encounter as short as possible. This will do nothing to decrease its impact and will avoid a draining confrontation which is unlikely to give you the resolution you’re aiming for.

Stay calm and unemotional

Perhaps the English stiff upper lip and no emoting is public is too deeply ingrained in my DNA 🙂  but shouting and crying and letting someone see how upset you are is rarely the most effective way to deal with them. Oscar Wilde commented that the smile is a civilised snarl. Dogs snarl as a warning. There is no reason why your calm politely worded comments can’t give a clear message, particularly if they are accompanied by eye contact.

Bullies derive power from other people’s fear and distress. Do not feed them with your emotion, your attention, your time. You may not be able to control how you feel but you can control how you behave around them.

The very fact that you are making a stand will shock them.

Be specific

Be specific if you can eg a turn of phrase, not respecting people’s personal space etc

Focus on the most recent / glaring examples, not a whole list.

If they’re being deliberately evil you’ll have to tackle them head-on but still keep it short and impersonal eg ‘Please don’t speak to / treat people that way. It makes for a horrible working environment’.

You can practice something more clever at home but what counts is to stay calm, polite and focused and to keep the encounter short (by leaving).

Keep it as impersonal as possible

If you can, object to the bully’s behaviour indirectly eg ‘Students / colleagues are uncomfortable when you stand too close to them and lean over them as they work / at the way in which you speak to them when you criticise them. I thought you would want to know.’ If ‘I thought you would want to know’ sticks in your throat because you know they don’t care, ‘I thought you should know’ may be better. Either way, approaching it sideways gives them some leeway to improve things and it makes it clear that you expect them to do something about it.

Leave as soon as possible after making your comment

If you can’t leave, smile and turn away markedly to focus on work, make a phone call, go and speak to someone else – indicate clearly that the conversation has ended.

The key is to stand up to them; their response is in many ways irrelevant. They are extremely unlikely to apologise and reform immediately. At best you can hope that they will behave better for fear of consequences.

Then go and find a quiet place where you can breathe and recover because at this point you will probably feel like you’ve run a marathon. You may well be breathless, feeling a bit sick, even faint and weak. Your limbs may shake a bit. That’s ok. You’re human. Breathe, get some fresh air if you can (walk up and down a corridor if you can’t), go to a safe place. The library is a pretty good place for quiet and safety but you may want to dash to a bathroom (preferably one in a different building to the bully) because you can lock yourself away for a few minutes. NB please don’t send the rest of your day in the bathroom, however tempting it may be 🙂  . At some point you have to come out and get back to your life.

I’ll be posting more practical stuff on bullying in the next couple of days, including an example of how to deal with a misogynist tutor / colleague (he remains anonymous 🙂  ), potential problems eg fear of confronting the bully, fear of their response, together with some examples of lessons from eighteenth-century literature. I really feel the need to get back to some eighteenth-century literature 🙂 .