How can I rise above the level of the office bully?
May 5, 2010 2:11 PM   Subscribe

I share an office with a bully, and things have come to a head. How do I keep cool and not resort to hollering?

I work in academia, and share space with a lead investigator who has a reputation for being a tyrant and a loudmouthed bully. This person has office-political reasons to hate me that are entirely unrelated to me, and has had it in for me since I started. I've been here about a year. This person has no direct authority over me.

Put succinctly, this person takes every opportunity to yell and belittle me in front of others. This pisses me off, and my initial reaction is to defend myself by retaliating in kind. I do not want to seem an 'easy target'. Responding in this way is not good for me to move up and keep my good reputation in the workplace.

I have gone through appropriate channels, but I feel that despite whatever happens, this person is not going to change. Academia is strange this way. Despite my long career in academia, I have never experienced a coworker like this before -- maybe I'm lucky.

Therefore, I must learn some new skills for coping with this person. So I ask you, what are your ways of coping with assholes and bullies in the workplace? Remember, yelling and belittling is involved here, so the old standby of 'ignoring' is really not an option, and hasn't worked previously. I do have headphones, but this person does not stop until they get a response from me. Moving my workspace might be in my future, but not right now.
posted by anonymous to Work & Money (38 answers total) 17 users marked this as a favorite
Honestly keep on ignoring. If it isn't working you are not ignoring hard enough.
posted by BobbyDigital at 2:19 PM on May 5, 2010 [1 favorite]

I work with some prime assholes. I ignore them, as they don't exist in my little world. They eventually get bored and go away, sometimes it takes a while. But, if ignoring doesn't work, I also like to choose a programmed response and repeat ad nauseum.

Me: programmed response (very generic example: I am busy right now. Thanks.)
Coworker: blahablahblahblahblahablahha
Me: I am busy right now. Thanks.
Coworker: BLAH BLAH BLAH BLAH BLAH pay attention to meeeeeee!
Me: I am busy right now. Thanks.

Rinse and repeat until they get bored.

Depending on who it is, I also like to be a sarcastic, snotty bitch, but be careful. You must word your responses carefully, so that they can't be used against you. Go with relatively benign, yet undercutting. No yelling, though. Because you want to be the better person.

If you feel that doesn't work, why not try harassment charges. Nothing gets the attention of administration like "harassment".

Chances are, your coworkers don't view you as an easy target, and are more focused on the fact that you work with an asshole.
posted by bolognius maximus at 2:21 PM on May 5, 2010 [5 favorites]

Which appropriate channels have you pursued? If you feel this person is threatening you or even merely making it difficult to do your work then HR needs to know.
posted by Fiery Jack at 2:23 PM on May 5, 2010 [1 favorite]

"Please don't speak to me that way."

Said once, and then very deliberate and clear detachment from the situation from which you do not deviate unless the behavior changes.

A more aggressive form of the above is to say clearly and loudly, "No," once, like you were addressing an unruly animal. It helps if "No" is a non-sequitor.
posted by OmieWise at 2:31 PM on May 5, 2010 [14 favorites]

I forgot to mention that under no circumstances should you get into an actual discussion about his behavior. Just a simple redirect and then detachment. Ignore any attempts to pull you into discussion about the behavior.
posted by OmieWise at 2:33 PM on May 5, 2010 [1 favorite]

Definitely talk to HR; it's possible that there are mediation options available to you. In the meantime, even though this isn't exactly "rising above" anything, keep really good notes: what the person says, how they say it, when they said it, who else was present, etc. While you're right that the bully isn't going to change--and in academia especially, it can be really difficult to get rid of toxic people--you're at least building a case for getting yourself into a new office.
posted by 2or3things at 2:34 PM on May 5, 2010 [1 favorite]

Interesting. What were the results of working through the appropriate channels? My gut response would be not to ignore him/her but rather to respond with a statement along the lines of:

Excuse me, you're yelling (combined with raised eyebrow and astonished look).

If belittlement or yelling continues:

I'm sorry, this isn't acceptable. If you continue to yell or insult me, I will report this to HR. I've had enough.

Proceed to clearly transcribe his/her statements in front of him/her. Let them watch as you type it into an email, send it to HR with the subject line of "Continuing Harassment", and an initial sentence of:

Dear HR,

As pursuant to our previous conversation, please find the following record of my interaction with *lead investigator* etc.

The only appropriate reaction is to rise above it and create a massive paper trail to cover you *ss. This is assuming that you've already spoken with HR. If you're lucky, having them watch you type the email will escalate it to a level at which they will respond in an extremely inappropriate manner, providing you with additional mounting evidence of the problem.

Without knowing your office dynamics or your position in relation to the lead investigator, this may or may not be appropriate to your situation. I wish you the best of luck though.
posted by valoius at 2:35 PM on May 5, 2010 [2 favorites]

Carry a voice recorder around with you. When this person gets loud, click record. If he stops, say, "You were saying?". If he continues, the tapes can serve as documentation of his harassment. No one should have to work in such a hostile work environment, academia or not.

Don't engage him in a shouting contest. You'll cede the higher ground that way when you go to his level.
posted by inturnaround at 2:37 PM on May 5, 2010 [5 favorites]

Why not get some sort of recording device? Maybe something fairly conspicuous? When he starts his tirades, just push the record button, maybe so he can see it. Don't warn him, don't make any announcement. Your continued silence will be increasingly suspicious to him and he'll figure out what you're doing soon enough. Just keep recording and doing your work, and let him keep talking as you collect evidence against him. At most, say to him, "Don't talk to me like that," or something similar. Don't retaliate on tape. It would just water down your evidence.

On preview, exactly what inturnaround said.
posted by The Potate at 2:41 PM on May 5, 2010

Personally, I'd just say, "Go to hell," any time he gets abusive, but recording and going to HR are probably better options.
posted by notsnot at 2:45 PM on May 5, 2010 [1 favorite]

"Mind if I get this on video?"

*Whip out videocamera*

"Now, what were you saying?"

If nothing else, you'll be able to get a funny YouTube video out of it.
posted by MrVisible at 2:46 PM on May 5, 2010 [1 favorite]

Obviously, my reply above is assuming that doing what I suggested is completely legal in your jurisdiction/circumstances. IANAL, make sure you have your ducks in a row, etc.
posted by The Potate at 2:47 PM on May 5, 2010

Go ahead and engage him. You both might be on unequal political footing, but you are both adult humans, and the best way to solve a problem is to confront it.

(Note: sarcasm WILL NOT work on a true bully. Nor do threats. Direct, dispassionate, nose to nose confrontation is all that works.) (Philosophical nose to nose, not actual physical getting in his face.)

What is he bullying you about? What kinds of things is he saying in front of others? That might help determine the course of action.
posted by gjc at 2:55 PM on May 5, 2010

I've used these line with good results:
"If you would like to have a civil relationship with me, do not EVER talk like that to me again."
"What makes you think that it is okay to talk to me like that?"
posted by lois1950 at 2:56 PM on May 5, 2010 [2 favorites]

"When you are ready to discuss things in a civil manner then I will speak with you."

Then put your headphones back on.

He's acting like a toddler; I would treat him as one.
posted by St. Alia of the Bunnies at 2:59 PM on May 5, 2010 [2 favorites]

"Sorry you feel that way."

"Yelling is awfully unprofessional."

"I don't think I'll partake of this conversation until you can calm down and talk like an adult."

"Is there some sort of medication you're supposed to be taking there, Hotty McHothead?"


(Okay, mostly kidding with the last two.)
posted by bunji at 3:03 PM on May 5, 2010

Book Review: The No Asshole Rule by Robert Sutton

How to Deal With Assholes

Let’s say that you’re not an asshole, but you have to cope with assholes. What can you do? That’s the second $64,000 question that Sutton answers.


Hope for the best, but expect the worst. One of the most frustrating aspects of dealing with assholes is that they disappoint you--making you wonder the very value of humans. Lowering your expectations can help reduce disappointment. Don’t solely lower your expectations, though, or you will slip into cynicism (and possibly turn into an asshole too.) Continue to hope for the best.

Develop indifference and emotional detachment. Sutton may be the only author who has the insight and courage to recommend that being indifferent and detached may be a good thing in work environments. If it permits you to survive, then it is. In other words, don’t let the jerks get to you.

Look for small wins. Small victories can keep you going. Most assholes pride themselves in total control and absolute domination. Any victory, no matter how small, can keep you going. Rest assured that small victories can lead to winning the war.

Limit your exposure. You can do what you can to avoid meetings and interactions with assholes. This involves finding or building pockets of “safety, support, and sanity,” to use Sutton’s words. He cites an example of a nurse’s lounge as a refuge from an asshole doctor.

Expose them. In Sutton’s blog he mentions Marge’s Asshole Management Metric. This refers to four-point system from 0 to 3. Marge, the boss, would point to people who were behaving like assholes and hold up one, two, or three fingers according to this code:

1 = You are a normal person who can occasionally assert yourself on an issue you are passionate about, but you handle yourself in a non-confrontational way in nearly all occasions.

2 = You can consistently assert yourself in a non-confrontational way and are occasionally an asshole, but you feel horrible about it afterwards, and you may or may not apologize (but you probably will have to confess your remorse to someone).

3 = You can consistently be an asshole and you either do not recognize this or you simply enjoy it.

By the way, 0 in her system means this:

You are a very nice person, and very passive. No one can say a word against you and would never think to call you an asshole.

If you are safe in your position, then calling assholes out is a good way to deal with them.

De-escalate and re-educate. This strategy requires that the asshole you’re dealing with isn’t a “chronic,” “certified,” and “flagrant” asshole. It means meeting asshole behavior with calmness (instead of either similar behavior or fear) and trying to re-educate the person about how he’s behaving.

Stand up to them. Funny thing about assholes: Standing up to them shouldn’t necessarily scare you. While I was an Apple employee, I was in a meeting with a highly placed Apple exec and Apple’s ad agency. The ad agency person showed the new television spots and said he’d give a copy to the Apple exec and me. The Apple exec told the agency person not to give one to me. I spoke up: “Are you saying you don’t trust me?” The Apple exec answered: “Yes.” To which I replied, “That’s okay because I don’t trust you either.” You know what? The sun rose the next day, and my family still loved me.

posted by infini at 3:05 PM on May 5, 2010 [5 favorites]

I'd go with, "I'm sorry, did you think that I was interested in your opinion? I'm actually not." Then the comment that you're interpreting their actions as harassment and will start to record and report to HR if it continues. It's just my opinion, but I think that a warning before the recording is a good thing, because if your office mate is that dedicated to belittling you and really can't restrain himself, then it seems like that would strengthen your position.

Also, don't make the threat unless you're willing to follow through. If you don't really want to go to HR, then don't say that you will--it just undermines your credibility.

Good luck in any case, this sucks.
posted by _cave at 3:05 PM on May 5, 2010

It might be helpful if you give some context for the yelling to suggest some tangible strategies.

I usually imagine myself as a transparent pane of glass or water, and the negative vibe passing straight through me without affecting me. It took a while to learn this strategy, but it's effective since bullies often persist in their abusive behavior. Focus on your own priorities and try your best to let your interests make the bully irrelevant.

Also, if you can see patterns in their behavior, you can start to predict what they will do and circumvent their routine to your advantage.
posted by effluvia at 3:05 PM on May 5, 2010

You're in academe.

1) Document each and every incident (time/date/description) for a while and build up a record.

2) Then go to your superior and threaten a lawsuit over the hostile working environment you're experiencing. (I know, I know, this is obnoxious and I hate it, but it will get others involved in resolving this.)

It's not like the person's yelling and belittling is acceptable behavior, right? Don't put up with it.
posted by teedee2000 at 3:14 PM on May 5, 2010 [4 favorites]

Don't ignore this. Report it. Every time it happens, report it. Document it on paper, talk to the people you report to, keep at it. If they're not taking it seriously, go to the faculty association. They will defend your right to have a reasonable work environment. I don't know what school you're working at, but I'm certain you have a code of conduct; this behaviour is unlikely to be in keeping with it. Seek some help from any other colleagues, let them know how uncomfortable this makes you.

Good luck.
posted by Hildegarde at 3:16 PM on May 5, 2010 [2 favorites]

I would suggest interrupting him only with, "Do you have the correct time?" and then making a note of the time in your logbook, as you take notes on what he is saying to you.

Other than that, the only thing you should be saying is "Could you repeat that?" so that you can transcribe what he says more accurately. Beyond this, don't engage with him at all on anything he says.

I would also keep careful logs of all your own actions: hours worked, breaks taken, outgoing and incoming phone calls and emails etc. Because people like this quite often fixate enough to build cases against you to get you fired. It won't matter that the case is completely fictitious if you don't have evidence to prove that (for whatever reason, the accuser has the advantage and as you point out, your workplace seems to approve of this guy's bullying). Do not assume that because the guy has a reputation as a crackpot, he won't succeed in doing you harm. I've seen situations where nobody believes the bully, but everyone submits to him - probably because he's better at being unreasonable than they are and may go nuts with nuisance lawsuits if fired. Or whatever. Who knows. The unfortunate fact is, acting like a raving psycho seems to bring a lot of rewards, and academia is not special in this regard. If anything, industry can be worse because of weak or absent unions, and arbitrary practices and levels of competence within each company's culture.

Since you're in academia, I assume you've consulted your union. If they couldn't or wouldn't take action your next recourse might be a legal advice line to find out what you could accomplish through legal action.

If you possibly can, find another job somewhere else. Not much help, I know.
posted by tel3path at 3:22 PM on May 5, 2010 [2 favorites]

I've gotten pretty far with the ignoring thing. The fact that the person just waits for a response makes it even better in my mind.

I've had pretty good luck taking the wind out of someone's sails by laughing at them too. Something along the lines of " Okay buddy nice chatting with you too." Then just walk away or put the headphones back on and get back to your work.

If all else fails, then when they try that on you again in front of a group of coworkers just call them out on it and tear into them. I realize you are trying to keep your reputation but being a scapegoat for the office a-hole is not exactly a good thing.

Also by appropriate channels do you mean reporting them to HR. Because if anyone pulled that on me in a work environment more than once, then I would probably do everything in my power to have them fired.

Absolute last resort. As in, no one at your work is helping you a-hole is just getting worse, If you have a big scary friend, ask them to have a chat with the person in the parking lot.

posted by WickedPissah at 3:27 PM on May 5, 2010

"You can keep yelling, or we can try to solve the problem. Pick one."
posted by BitterOldPunk at 3:44 PM on May 5, 2010 [3 favorites]

One thing I found helpful when I was in a corporate situation and being bullied by another coworker: I found pictures of people I admire that did great, groundbreaking acts of courage and posted them in front of my desk, like Rosa Parks, to list one example. Remembering their courage, their refusal to allow others to stop them from their goals was very helpful for me.

You might also to find some sort of thing the bully responds to in a positive way so you can derail their rant in a more productive direction. Gamelan, maybe. ;)
posted by effluvia at 3:44 PM on May 5, 2010

This case regarding a professor at the University of Oslo, Norway, might be of interest to you. His abusive e-mails over a period of more than ten years was not the reason why he was fired. He was fired because he failed to show up a meeting regarding the complaints:

"Faculty and university leaders had attempted mediation without any success, the court was told. A third factor contributing to the sacking was the fact that in spite of 15 calls to meet the department head for consultations, Nedkvitne had not attended - hence the argument of gross neglect of employer's rights."

Sometimes complaining helps.
posted by iviken at 4:06 PM on May 5, 2010

I love an answer I read once in an interview with Mythbuster Adam Savage:


You: "You have something stuck in your teeth."

Apparently, it is pretty disarming and puts people on the defensive.

If the bully keeps yelling, I guess you could just say every so often, "Still there."

If you want to mix it up a bit, replace "You have something stuck in your teeth." with "You have something hanging out of your nose."
posted by 4ster at 4:54 PM on May 5, 2010 [11 favorites]

This is a difficult situation, and I sympathize with you. Other than ignoring this person or directly detaching with the aforementioned "I'm busy" or "No," the only thing to do is egg the motherfucker's house. This will not solve the problem, but at least you will have gotten to hurl some eggs for a good cause.
posted by solipsophistocracy at 5:08 PM on May 5, 2010 [1 favorite]

Ignoring NEVER works. You're better off responding in small ways than letting them needle you without responding. They're hoping you'll keep it bottled up until you explode and embarrass yourself.

Ask what specifically their problem is and write that down. I found that bullies get a freaked out when you're keeping track of their rants.
posted by bonobothegreat at 5:20 PM on May 5, 2010 [1 favorite]

"Ignoring NEVER works" (I meant for me, personally).
posted by bonobothegreat at 5:24 PM on May 5, 2010

Some historical, secondhand anecdata: Several years ago, I worked with a PhD student, Colin, who worked with a prof that no one could stand. (I never met this prof.) One day, an incident occurred, and the prof wanted to speak to Colin in the parking lot. Colin was all set to go and have this confrontation. The prof started to point out Colin's behaviour about something, but Colin started talking about the prof's behaviour - "You know what, no one likes being around you, etc. etc." And when he was done the prof said, "Really? I had no idea." And from that day on, the prof was so much nicer to everyone. I think what worked here is that Colin believed in himself, was honest and not nasty. It also helped that the prof had no idea that his behaviour had any impact on others, and that he was willing and able to change.

I don't know if that helps at all. Looking at your situation as a random internets person, your prof has some serious issues. People who bully and belittle probably don't like themselves and the world. Just remember it has nothing to do with you and everything to do with him. Do not retaliate in kind; you can't fight fire with fire. I think your message to him has to be that his behaviour is totally unacceptable; you've got some suggestions on that above.
posted by foxjacket at 5:36 PM on May 5, 2010

"Please don't speak to me that way."

Don't say "please". It will make you look weak.
posted by KokuRyu at 6:28 PM on May 5, 2010 [2 favorites]

One thing that worked for me (after the HR and reporting stuff didn't) was laughing. Like, every time where in a normal conversation you would respond, or counterattack, you just act like he is the funniest thing since Steve Martin riding a unicycle shaped like Robin Williams. Laugh, point, slap your knee, wipe your eyes ostentatiously, gasp for breath...

In my case, it got the guy to stop picking on me. In the case of the person who first told me about it, though, it gave the screamer a minor heart attack. So you might want to be careful.
posted by Etrigan at 6:39 PM on May 5, 2010

"Please don't speak to me that way."

Don't say "please". It will make you look weak.

I agree. Whenever people try to treat me this way at work, I tell them that I expect them to treat me with respect and I will not tolerate that behavior. There's no please about it. You expect to be treated with respect, you should be treated with respect. But you have to call them on it explicitly. Don't be passive-aggressive about it, don't be dramatic about it, just be upfront and unyielding.
posted by ch1x0r at 8:37 PM on May 5, 2010

Don't be passive-aggressive about it, don't be dramatic about it, just be upfront and unyielding.

Yeah, you need to be direct. You need to communicate clearly.
posted by KokuRyu at 9:26 PM on May 5, 2010

"Please don't speak to me that way."

I'd turn this into:

"Your behavior is inappropriate."

It works on kids. It's devoid of your feelings. It is a statement of fact.
posted by Foam Pants at 11:13 PM on May 5, 2010 [1 favorite]

It is quite hard from your post to really get a feel for the situation but I do have sympathy.

I am somewhat surprised by the linear element in the suggestions thus far. My suggestion to you would be to ask said person if they have five minutes for a chat. Then get a meeting room - just you and him and talk it through. Just be completely upfront and say there seem to be some issues between us and ask him if there is anything he wants to discuss. Yelling and belittling you sounds like your man is insecure and feels threatened by you. If he refuses to sit down like an adult and have a rational conversation then I would inform HR you demand to be moved and put the ball in their court. Are there other people watching when he behaves this way? Going back to school days it seems these sort of people like the reaction but also other people observing the behaviour. This is why I'm wondering if getting in a room mano-o-mano is a feasible way forward. Working in such an environment is bad for your health and if you put it in those terms to your HR department (there is an easy solution to this which is within your reach - move me or move him).

One other solution is to get his boss (there must be someone responsible for him right?) to ball him out and make it a problem for his manager. He may feel he can act like that to you but probably not to the person holding his career in their hands. Good luck to you.
posted by numberstation at 3:07 AM on May 6, 2010

Document your experiences in a purely descriptive, not emotional manner in a letter to HR. State that you do not feel you have been provided with a safe work environment and are being unlawfully harassed. State that this is a formal complaint, and that you are considering legal action unless immediate steps are taken to address these issues.

This will:

1. Get their attention fast.
2. Probably get the guy or you moved - fast.
3. Protect you (somewhat) from being fired anytime in the near future.
4. Go on his permanent record. There are only so many formal complaints a business or school can receive before the school is liable for the employee's behavior.

Do not:
1. Respond in kind to this person anymore. You cannot yell, etc.

You really should consider getting a lawyer. The behavior you are describing is beyond the pale.
posted by xammerboy at 8:56 AM on May 6, 2010 [3 favorites]

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