Stand Up Against Bullying: A blog to help stop workplace bullying
Targets Leadership

Unhelpful Responses to Victims of Bullying: What Not to Say

pile osf post it notes with Don't do this written on the top one
Original Publication: August 5, 2021; Edited and Republished January 2, 2023

As a higher education professional, I experienced workplace bullying in pretty much every university I worked at. While I would love to tell you that my experiences are unique, unfortunately, this is often the norm rather than the exception. Many organizations and institutions, including higher education, are plagued with workplace bullying and do nothing to address it.
My experiences with workplace bullying were made even more challenging by others' advice and suggestions. In order to determine what was happening and how I could stop it, I sought assistance from co-workers, friends, family, and other trained professionals. Even though I know they were well-meaning, the advice I received was not helpful, but harmful and worsened my situation of workplace violence and retaliation. 

The following are five things you shouldn't say to a target of bullying because the consequences could be severe.
1.    Report the bully.
2.    Stay
3.    Trust the process
4.    Go talk to the bully.
5.    The bully is going to get theirs.
Let’s go through each of these to better understand why you should not say these to vulnerable workers.

1.    Report the bully

In cases of mistreatment or bullying at work, targets are advised to use organizational policies (if available) to report the incident. The advice given here seems logical and even good for a target. Our supervisors, human resources, and unions should really be able to stop workplace bullying by using policies. However, this is not actually the case.

It is not uncommon for bullies to be supervisors, administrators, or leaders. The reporting process was not effective for me because in every situation, my supervisor and occasionally their supervisor were avid bullies. As a result, when I reported the workplace bullying, it actually got worse. I experienced more bullying and retaliation. Sometimes, a supervisor would start bullying me after a complaint was made.

A good workplace bully spends a great deal of time building relationships with people in power including supervisors etc.  They also use this time with these people to bad-mouth the target(s). Bullies work hard to get the organization and everyone in it to believe a false narrative about the target. As such, when a target goes into report, it is most likely that the supervisors were expecting it and they are already convinced that think the vulnerable worker is the problem.  The bully has been telling the supervisor, human resources, and union members that the target is the problem and planting the seeds that they are really the troublemakers in the workplace. So, when a vulnerable worker reports, they are reinforcing this.

Many supervisors, human resources, and unions just do not know what workplace bullying is, let alone how to effectively manage it. They often treat it like conflict which is not effective and makes the bully culture worse. Because they don’t hold the bully accountable, the bully is given the green light to keep bullying. As such, bullies retaliate against target because they know there are no consequences, and the bully culture intensifies.

2.    Stay.

Ideally, when we take a job, we want to be able to stay and invest in the organization, especially in jobs like higher education. First and foremost, the bully culture cannot be changed by the target(s) nor will bullying stop without leadership and accountability. With that being, said staying in a workplace bullying environment is taxing to one’s physical and mental health and your work will suffer.

We tell targets, many times, because we like them as co-workers, and we do not want them to leave. We also truly want to believe that a bully culture can change. Staying can be extremely devastating.

For myself, staying in bully cultures caused my diabetes to rage out of control. For weeks, my blood sugar would not go down and it skyrocketed. It was out of control. On the day I turned in my resignation, my blood sugar fell back into the normal range. It was affecting my physical health in a way that I was incapable of managing, nor did I connect my high blood sugar with bullying. As a diabetic for a long time and as I aged, I attributed it to these factors.

The reality is that some work environments are not going to be repaired because bullying is part of the culture. They are doomed. As such, it may be best for the targe to leave.

3.    Go talk to the bully

Of course, targets are frequently advised to talk to the workplace bully directly. This is not surprising because many professions and organizational conflict resolution policies require that this is done before any other intervention(s) can occur. I would like to point out that most targets have already tried this without any success in stopping the bullying.
In general, this is a bad idea without careful planning, but unfortunately is often necessary as a result of organizational policy. In the eyes of the bully, a target making accusations of workplace bullying is an act of deviance and one that challenges the workplace bully. They see the target as weak and in no way, shape, or form will they allow any accusations of workplace bullying to go unpunished. Similarly, to reporting, this puts the target at a higher risk of bullying and retaliation.

4.    Trust the process

It is important for organizations to implement policies that mitigate conflict between employees. Some workers join unions who negotiate working conditions through collective bargaining. If an administrator is bullying a worker, the union should step in to protect the worker. There is usually a process that has to be followed to resolve worker issues. Unfortunately, a process is just a process and if it is not followed or applied fairly, the process is worthless.

I worked in universities that had policies and unions. I heard repeatedly that I should trust the process because policies and procedures would ultimately win. Wrong. Processes never work unless policies are actually followed and if the people implementing the policies are not themselves the problem. Following the process would mandate that leaders self-reflect on their own behavior and change it, so they are better leaders. But that requires leadership skill development. 

The process requires leaders to understand the intricate components of the bully culture and to follow the process set forth by their organization fairly. We assume that the leaders who manage the process are operating logically and rationally. But that goes against everything in the bully culture. The bully culture is not normal. It is the exact opposite. So, trusting the process means that the policies and procedures are effective. No matter how much you want to, you cannot apply the rules or processes of a normal organization to the bully culture.

Policies are frequently not implemented fairly and objectively, which is one of their downfalls. This was only because I was being bullied. Guidelines are great if they are followed, but they are useless if they are not applied by the union or leadership. 

Telling a target to trust the process is ludicrous in bully culture. This is like telling someone they won't sink if their boat leaks and has holes. This kind of advice goes into direct conflict with what they are experiencing. The process refused to let me trust it because it had penalized me for workplace bullying. 

5.    The bully is going to get theirs.

Workers who are hurting others and infesting the work environment with bullying should be held accountable and have consequences for their actions. We tend to tell others that bad people will get what they deserve. We want to believe that and so we tell this to vulnerable workers about the work bully. In a perfect world, this would happen. But the bully culture is not a rational or logical environment, and this does not apply.

I heard this so many times that I lost count. I know that it was an attempt by others to make me feel better, but it did not work. What I saw in the workplace was the bully was getting regularly rewarded and I was not. Not only was I being bullied, but I was being punished for the target. They were rewarded for their bullying behavior and there were no consequences for them. 

This was a huge disappointment and hurt me deeply as I was doing my job and working hard. The bully was the one who was responsible for the chaos. But because they spent so much time building their relationships with leadership, they were believed and rewarded.  As such, give words of support and believe what the target is saying. Reconsider talking to the target about what consequences the bully will receive. This might just bring them additional harm and disappointment.

Workplace bullying is traumatic to targets. Most people do not understand workplace bullying and assume that they can offer advice that treats workplace bullying like conflict. Workplace bullying is a systematic problem and complex in nature. As such, the best thing you can do for a vulnerable worker is believe what they are saying. Support them as best you can but be careful about offering advice. It may simply be impossible to cope with the consequences.