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  • Janeen Shaffer, PCC

What to do if you work for a bully

There are often discussions with my coaching clients about how to handle workplace conflict and abrasive behavior. Everyone can have a TBM – what I call a Temporary Bully Moment – where you lose your patience or temper and don’t communicate very well. Usually, as you reflect back to the moment, you wish you could hit the replay button. Then, there are individuals that are always in a FBM – what I call a Full Bully Movement – where an individual is consistently inflicting a threatening, intimidating, or humiliating behavior on someone at work through their words and actions.

What do you do if you are working with or for a bully? How do you do to maintain your composure? How do you keep focused at work? How do you create options for yourself?

According to The Workplace Bullying Institute 2010 study, 35% of workers have been bullied and 72% of bullies are bosses. When you experience workplace bullying, it is draining and distracting. Bullied employees experience anxiety, depression, high blood pressure, and other stress-related health issues. And often as a result of bullying, employees see a decline in their work performance. Your strength, advocates, and confidence are your biggest weapons in dealing with a bully to prevent yourself from being derailed or even fired.

There are three steps to prepare and protect yourself.

1. Take Care of Yourself Daily. How do you prepare yourself for a difficult workday? How do you interact with the bully? How do you keep calm?

  • Breathe. In armed forces training, they teach the 4-4-4 breathing technique for handling stress in combat situations. When the body is in a “fight or flight” mode, the heart rate is elevated, the blood pressure is high and there is little ability to think clearly. Breathe in for 4 seconds, hold your breath for 4 seconds, and breathe out for 4 seconds. Do this a couple of times before you do anything with a bully (phone, video, email). Now, you have prepared your body and mind to be in a place that is more calm and you are able to think more clearly.

  • Posture. Be sure your posture is supporting you. When I would talk to bullies on the phone, I would stand even though they could not see me. My spine was straight, my shoulders were back, my legs were slightly apart as if I was ready for a kick to my gut and could take it. In video meetings, I would be sure to keep my chin up, my shoulders down, no slumping in my seat and my arms would be on the table or by my side.

  • Voice. My voice is high in tone. Before meeting with bullies, I pictured myself talking from my gut versus my chest. It helped my voice to be stronger. This is a similar concept to a martial arts practice, where you tighten your stomach muscles while yelling out a sound. Also, most people speak fast when they are nervous. Be aware of the pace of your conversation. The goal is to keep your voice even-toned and even-paced.

  • Visualization. Every morning be still for a couple of moments. This stillness trains your brain to go to a place of calmness during times of stress versus going to a place of fear. For me, I sit in silence and picture myself in a place that brings me joy like the ocean or mountains. Then, I picture myself standing tall, being unbreakable, being strong, and calm. This visualization is something that I would picture before talking with a bully to approach the situation from a place of calmness and strength. Visualization is a tool used by athletes – they visualize making the high jump or alpine ski run. Workplace professionals can use these tools too.

2. Watch your self-talk. When you are degraded on a regular basis, your confidence can begin to erode. It is important to protect yourself from the onslaught of demeaning behavior by a bully.

  • You worked too hard to reach your current role. Don’t let this person beat you down. You may begin hearing yourself say, “I am not good enough. Maybe he/she is right. I don’t belong here. Maybe they are right, I could do better.” Every day review a list of your strengths and accomplishments to counter the self-doubt that inevitably happens when being bullied. “I am confident. I am smart. I am courageous. I am capable, etc.”

  • Perhaps keep a quote on your home desk that is inspiring to you. I used to keep a quote that said, “I am your lighthouse amidst the crazy storm. Let me shield you, protect you and guide you to safer shores.”

3. Understand your options. You may forget you have options when you are bullied and nervous about keeping your role and your job.

  • It is within your right to establish boundaries with a bully. This can be extremely challenging if the bully is your boss. Most bullies are in a position that is more powerful than the individuals they target. It is easy to intimidate and influence when you have authority over others. You must communicate boundaries that feel appropriate to express to the bully. For example, you could say, “I will discuss business information, but when the conversation turns into yelling or disrespectful conversation, I will end the conversation. We can discuss the topics at another time.” Sometimes, the only option individuals feel comfortable with is keeping the peace and enduring the bullying behavior. If you are in this scenario, I recommend looking into getting out of the situation permanently.

  • Understand you have advocates who support and respect you. They may have recommendations on how to handle the situation and be willing to solicit leadership support in handling the bullying behavior such as attending meetings with you or coming up with politically savvy solutions to influence the individual privately.

  • I recommend writing down the conversations or situations and recording the facts – what was said, what actions were taken, who was present, what others said. This information will be important if you talk with the Talent/HR team. Some organizations do not have a strong culture that protects individuals who report bullying. If this represents your organization, it is time to look for a position outside of the organization or on a different team.

Experiencing bullying is extremely challenging to handle. It threatens your confidence, your job, and your financial security. Prepare yourself so that if you need to look for other opportunities, you lead with your confidence and strength intact. If we learned anything over this pandemic, it is that life is precious and can turn on a dime. It is not worth working for an individual who is emotionally unstable and influences your emotional and physical health in an unproductive way. Focus on your wellbeing and your options. You deserve it.

Janeen Shaffer is a PCC certified coach helping individuals and leaders with their internal development and external performance. If the article resonated with you, follow me on LinkedIn and check my other articles. Contact me at,, IG @janeen.shaffer, Pinterest Shaffer Coaching + Consulting.


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