How to Confront a Bully

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Practical Stuff – I Feel Small Literally and Figuratively When I’m Around This Colleague

Take a Step Back – Literally

If they are taller than you walk up to them but keep a good step away – this evens up the eye contact levels.

Manage Your Space

Bullies often try to stand too close to people, to invade their personal space. You may be able to avoid this by thinking about how to use office furniture such as a chair or a photocopier to help you to claim your space. Do not allow yourself to be backed into a corner. You may be able to speak to them when they are behind a desk and you are close to the door, for example. Being close to the door is a good plan, partly because you control when you leave and partly because other people are close by and this will affect the way in which the bully can operate.

Eye Contact

You may find eye contact difficult. If so focus on a spot just above their ear or something – you’ll be looking at them but not having to deal with their eyes. If you can manage to engage their eyes directly as you leave that may be a powerful signal in itself but it may also escalate the hostilities so you’ll need to judge that. Don’t dismiss the power of a vague fixed smile (contemplating Oscar Wilde’s comment that a smile is a civilised snarl all the while 🙂 ) to help you to get through.

NB Eye contact and slight smiles indicating fake confidence are fine with colleagues but should not be applied to your boss 🙂 . If someone is in a position of actual power over you then you will need to speak to someone of at least equal rank to that person. If your boss is a bully then you are unlikely to be the only victim. If possible talk to other colleagues and see if someone will go with you to speak to Personnel or another senior colleague. Be polite, give specific examples with specific requests for what you would like to happen. This is a really tough issue. If your boss is on very friendly terms with other management colleagues then you may not get a fair hearing.

The more measured, professional and reasonable your approach the better their response is likely to be. If your boss is the problem and you know you won’t get support from your colleagues the sad truth is that you are likely to have to leave. When you have your new job in place you can make an appointment to see your old boss or send them a letter (possibly copied to Personnel or senior management) to try to set out as calmly and specifically as possible why you left. That may well have some impact on them and you will feel better but there are some battles that can’t be won. If you’re in one, plan to leave as soon as possible and when things are tough, do the best job you can and focus on your escape plan.

The sad fact is that bullies are sometimes not punished. Things are much better than they used to be but sometimes bullying is systemic and you may well have to change department or even leave your job / University. I do hope this doesn’t happen to you.