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Guest Opinion: Combat workplace harassment — and start by dealing with the office bully


Harassment has many forms and as we continue a much-needed conversation on the issue related to work, a good starting point is dealing with something everyone can relate to: the office bully. Everyone knows a colleague who is negative, judgmental, picks apart your work, and ensures their opinion is known without being asked. The office bully is everywhere and they seem to undermine everything you do.

According to the Workplace Bullying Institute, 60 million Americans were affected by workplace bullies in 2017. The numbers are saddening: 70 percent of workplace bullies are men and 60 percent of targets are women. This issue is costly in many ways. There’s the mental toll on those being bullied and there’s the cost of lost productivity  up to seven hours a week and $8,800 in lost wages annually for the target.

These statistics can and should change. Bullying is a form of harassment that can be summed up as exercising power and control over another person, regardless of the situation. It’s less about you, your work, and personal choices and more about making it about them – shifting the focus from you back to them.

What can you do about the office bully? First, verify that this person is singling you out and/or truly hard to work with. Most likely, you’re not the only one they are picking on. If others are going through similar experiences it’s worth knowing about. Do your verification process discreetly. Sixty-one percent of office bullies are managers so it’s important to understand your company’s HR policies. Remember, it’s not illegal to disagree with someone at work or to share an opinion of you; it’s when those opinions become frequent, how harsh the comments are, and to whom they are directed that becomes concerning.

Second, document the bullying. Keep a notebook close by and write down details of the incidents: who was present, what was discussed, how you felt. These notes will help you later. Once you start documenting, you’ll be able to see patterns or triggers you may have missed before and that are potentially helpful to you for future encounters.

Third, kill ‘em with kindness. This is a trick I learned from my mother that works to diffuse almost any situation. Kindness is like Kryptonite to the office bully. It’s unexpected and lightens the mood. Ultimately, you must decide on the severity of the bullying. Is it merely annoying or is it life-changing — affecting your work and mental well-being? If it’s the latter, take steps by discussing the situation with a manager or human resources representative you trust. You may even consider seeking out a new professional environment through an internal transfer or employment outside the organization.

Finally, be kind to yourself. Reaffirm your self-worth by spending quality time with friends and family, and remember, even office bullies experience karma.

Kirsten Anderson is a passionate communicator who found herself an unlikely advocate for those facing harassment in the workplace after she took a stand against her former employer: the state of Iowa. On May 17, 2013, she was fired from her job as communications director for Iowa Senate Republicans just seven hours after formally complaining about repeated harassment and retaliatory behavior by staff and lawmakers at the Iowa Statehouse. She sued the state for wrongful termination, harassment, and retaliation, and was awarded a settlement by a jury of her peers. Anderson now works to support others who have experienced harassment in the workplace. She is determined to see all workplace harassment end in her lifetime through education, victim support and continued dialogue. To ensure a safe working environment, Anderson is advocating to end victim shaming and start a conversation on the issue. 

Anderson has a degree in broadcast journalism from Northwest Missouri State University. Her professional experience includes running a nonprofit, working as a communication coach and trainer, and managing an award-winning professional development program. She is a 2008 Greater Des Moines Leadership Institute graduate and former Leadership Institute Board of Governors member. She is currently president-elect of the local chapter of the Association of Women in Communications and in her free time enjoys sharing the hilarious random things her 8-year-old son says and enjoying just about any live music show with her husband. Anderson can be reached at Kirsten@KirstenAnderson.org.

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