How to deal with bullying in the workplace?
September 9, 2015 7:47 AM   Subscribe

My son says he is being bullied in the place that he works. When I talked to him he was very distraught and frustrated. I had a hard time giving him advice, so I came on here to ask you all. Hopefully, you can give me some insight into this situation.

My son was a bullied a lot during middle school and high school. He was a quiet kid, always very sensitive. He told me that's what bugs him most about himself. Something happens to him and he runs it over and over in his head and starts to work himself up. He says it's incredibly difficult to break this chain. He has OCD and I'm thinking that plays a part. He tells me he feels he is unable to judge situations accurately, and always wonders "Is how bad I'm feeling directly proportional to what was done to me?"

There is a situation at my son's workplace where he thinks a coworker is trying to make him look like an idiot in front of other people by commenting and asking inane questions when there are other people around. He is generally disrespectful and unpleasant according to my son. Now, I realize that in the workplace, it's unrealistic to have everyone like you. There are going to be 'those people' and I'm sure you all know the person or people I am talking about. Someone who just doesn't like you and never will like you no matter what.

My son tells me he has been working himself up about it and imagining a bunch of worst case scenarios and how he would deal with them. I told him to try and get those thoughts out of his mind but he says they are extremely persistent. To be clear, this guy is being rude but he's not calling my son names or anything. He apparently brushes off questions my son asks or replies with gibberish, I don't know all of the details. He's just getting in the way on purpose, perhaps to get a rise out of my son or make him feel uncomfortable.

I am interested in everyone's feedback about this. How should my son react in these kinds of situations? Thank you.
posted by BuddyBoo to Human Relations (18 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
I'm sorry he's having such a rough first work experience and it sounds hard on you, too.

It sounds like your son could really use to develop his assertiveness skills. I think the only way to stop it is to take it head on, seriously, in which your son talks directly to the bully confidently, says he notices the behavior, and would like to ask him to stop. If it doesn't stop, then your son can go to the manager and do the same thing - letting the manager know he did talk to the bully first - and on up the chain, as needed.

Bullies often pick on people who aren't assertive because they suspect they will turn the bullying inward and not stand up for themselves. This is something you could do with a therapist, or maybe just Google around for some resources and strategies. But I think it's really important that you help him take it on, because he's leaving the protected and regulated world of school, and this does happen in workplaces and will happen throughout his adult life, unless he can develop the skills to respond in a healthy way.
posted by Miko at 7:54 AM on September 9, 2015 [12 favorites]

I have a close friend who was exactly in this situation. It was his first job out of college as well, so he was very unsure of where he stood and how to deal with it. He stayed there for a lot longer than he should have, because they wore him down so much he felt worthless.

In the end, it took therapy (CBT I think) to convince him that he deserved better, and give him the conviction to job-hunt until he found something better. I think some kind of therapy could be a great idea for your son - either to help him feel more confident where he is, or to help him steel himself for the search for something better.

Incidentally, I have worked with people like this. Some people are mean and bitter, and pick out someone they see as weak or vulnerable to take out their anger and frustration on. The only way I have ever found to deal with them is to grit my teeth and get a new job.
posted by greenish at 7:57 AM on September 9, 2015 [5 favorites]

Eventually, if this jerk keeps acting this way towards your son, he's going to wear out his welcome with everybody else in the office. The thing to do with this type of behavior is to answer every question as if it were asked sincerely, with a big smile and offers to help further. If there are snarky comments being made, then treat them as if it's criticism to be taken on ("I'm sorry to hear you feel that way, Jim...can we explore your objections further? I'm happy to make an appointment." That sort of thing.)

Being professional with people who are acting unprofessionally is something that generally puts you in good stead.
posted by xingcat at 8:04 AM on September 9, 2015 [12 favorites]

If your son is experiencing workplace bullying, the best thing to do is report it to HR or the equivalent (or, if the company is particularly dysfunctional, just getting out). But it sounds like it may just be that interacting with a generally grumpy, rude coworker tends to stir up your son's anxiety. It's hard to tell without more detail. Does he see a professional for his OCD? That person would be more equipped with techniques for him to manage his own feelings. (Personally I find ACT helpful for stuff like this.)
posted by thetortoise at 8:14 AM on September 9, 2015

There are two issues at play here: a jerk coworker and your sons ability to accurate gauge and respond the behavior of others.

Priority 1 is getting some help with OCD and social anxiety and running the tapes in his head over and over. This is priority 1 because it will follow him throughout his life if he can't get a handle on it. CBT is frequently recommended. If he's not in therapy, then he should consider it.

Priority 2 is the coworker. Changing jobs is probably not going to work - bullies exist all over the place. For now, avoid contact when he can. Often you can get bullies to backdown by being assertive, but it doesn't sound like your son is ready for that.
posted by 26.2 at 9:58 AM on September 9, 2015 [1 favorite]

Go to HR. A lot of companies have anti-bullying or -harassment policies; your son's may. This sort of conduct can also sometimes be reported anonymously.
posted by resurrexit at 10:01 AM on September 9, 2015 [2 favorites]

I came here to mention assertiveness training, which I see was helpfully in the first comment.

I work in science policy, in which quiet, solitary science types are routinely thrust into the cut-throat environment of federal/international policy. Political types can run roughshod over science types, speaking very generally, and even academics who come to this environment after having been feared, powerful research scientists are handed their asses on rusty platters as a matter of routine.

For the last several years, I've helped incoming folks go through assertiveness training as a response to this. It sounds weird to hear brought up--"assertiveness training" still sounds a bit like an oxymoron even to me--but the benefit of the process has been so apparent for most people who've gone through it. It's a skill that you can learn to mimic even if it feels unnatural at first, and that's a good thing when you're getting used to interrupting a congressional staffer in a meeting that they're driving into really wrong-headed scientific territory (for example). I mentally think of these meetings as "coordinated bullying as a way to try to get you to stop talking," so the fit is natural to anyone in need of pointers, examples, and even practice asserting oneself in an environment that feels loaded (like work).

Highly recommended.
posted by late afternoon dreaming hotel at 10:02 AM on September 9, 2015 [9 favorites]

It's a little unclear from your account (and maybe unclear to your son as well), the extent that this is intentional bullying versus just having to deal with a dickish coworker. If your son concludes that it really is intentional bullying, then approaches like going to HR, talking to his supervisor, etc. are appropriate. If this guy is just a difficult personality with everyone, I'm not sure if it makes sense to make such a big issue about it. Based on your example, a coworker who sort of brushes off questions is annoying but not necessarily trying to be a bully -- they may just be busy or not very polite/helpful.

When I've had to deal with obnoxious people at work, I find just trying to minimize interactions with them and also having some friends at work to commisserate with makes the situation a whole lot more bearable. It sounds like this guy is not your son's direct supervisor, so I'd just try to avoid him when possible and be over-the-top professional/polite when it's not avoidable. (Dude wants to ask inane questions in group settings? Just give a short, sweet, and professional response along with one of those slightly blank stares that implies "Um, yes, you've worked here for 5 years, I think you know the water fountain is on the 4th floor!" or whatever the case may be.)

It will also probably help to build social connections with coworkers who are NOT jerks. I know whenever I've had that asshole coworker, it helps so much to be able to glance over at a friend during the middle of one of their "episodes" or to later run a scenario by them and be like "Um, confirm I'm not crazy, this email from X is super inappropriate, right??" This may also help your son get a better sense of how his perceptions match up with reality -- unless the whole office is full of giant assholes (in which case, I recommend finding a new workplace!) I bet other people are annoyed with this guy too and can help confirm his asshole behavior (and whether it's reached an HR/complain to the boss level of inappropriateness).
posted by rainbowbrite at 10:13 AM on September 9, 2015 [5 favorites]

Assertiveness training is not going to be that helpful if your son's OCD is currently untreated.
posted by DarlingBri at 11:10 AM on September 9, 2015 [3 favorites]

I'd remind your son that work exists to pay his bills. I'd tell him to focus on making the person who writes the checks happy. I'd advise him to invest in the quality of his work so that his humanity and creativity are engaged every day in a way that can do him some good in the long run, rather than in getting people to like him, or leave him alone, or notice him, or stop noticing him, or what have you. Impress upon him that it's important that he get along with people rather than be liked by people in the workplace.

I'd probably advise him, too, that this person is undoubtedly insecure and trying to make themselves look good by putting somebody else down, that it's probably an unconscious thing on their part, and that he can only make himself look really, really good in the eyes of his other co-workers and his bosses by being tolerant yet firm with this person and not rising to the bait. I'd tell him to do one of a couple of options when confronted with this weasel:
1.) Ask the guy to speak up every time he says something shitty. A simple, "I'm sorry, could you repeat that?" can work wonders in a situation, because it automatically puts the other person on the back foot, and it makes them (and others) hear what they are actually saying when they're being shitty.
2.) If that doesn't work, ask the other guy, nicely, every time, "Could you just put that in an e-mail for me?" (Or, if this is a retail situation or something similar, "just write that down for me? Thanks.") Then just walk away. Same reason, same result, and has the added bonus of being a conversation ender.
3.) Laugh as if the guy couldn't possibly be doing anything other than joking. This is hard for introverts like your son but, trust me, it's very, very effective with jerks. This accompanied by a clap on the back and something along the lines of "you should have been a comedian!" can take the wind of even the biggest blowhard's sail.
4.) Try to make friends with the person by asking about their day. This one is really tough if you have nothing in common with the other person and/or if the other person has hurt your feelings. But sometimes, the lion who's been roaring everybody's head off really does just want somebody to stop and pull the thorn out of its paw. You don't have to make friends with a bully, of course, but these people can surprise you sometimes.

Lastly, assuming your son is young and just starting out in the work world, just remind him that this likely won't be his only job, and that the skills he acquires in this situation could be of great value him to down the line. After all, there will always be a difficult person in a work situation and his confidence and tolerance for other styles of being will grow and change with time. And the more he understands that his work and his reputation are more important than putting other people in their place, the more he'll be able to focus on what he's at any job to do, do it, and leave the other juvenile crap at the [office, store, restaurant, etc.]. Good luck.

Good luck.
posted by TryTheTilapia at 11:14 AM on September 9, 2015 [6 favorites]

Since your son has a history of obsessing about these things, I would suggest that you get him in to be evaluated by a psychiatrist. He may need medication to help him sort things out. I would do this sooner than later. He may only need therapy but it sounds like he certainly needs more than mom on this issue.

As the mom, your only part to play in this is getting him medical help. If you egg him on or take his side on everything, you will only make it worse. Try to get him to focus on the positives in life while you wait for the medication and/or therapy to kick in. Don't obsess with him. Change the subject if you can.
posted by myselfasme at 11:36 AM on September 9, 2015 [1 favorite]

Have him also document everything. If the job becomes untenable and he feels forced to quit as a direct result of the bullying, the more documentation he has, the more proof he has to possibly file - and win - a UI claim against the company.
posted by spinifex23 at 12:01 PM on September 9, 2015 [1 favorite]

I am shocked that almost all responses here focus on suggestions like "assertiveness training," medical help, etc.

This is a problem for management. This is not a call for your son to "fix himself." He needs to go to his boss, or to HR if the company is big enough, and tell them what is going on.

This is a form of psychological violence that is being directed at your son. This is no different in severity from, say, sexual harassment, which everyone would say needs to be reported to management/HR.

Good workplaces take stuff like this very, very seriously. If they don't take it seriously, then he can find another job. But the main course of action needs to be to escalate this to management. It's unacceptable and not the fault of your son's OCD.
posted by jayder at 12:38 PM on September 9, 2015 [5 favorites]

I think it's just hard to determine what's going on from the question. BuddyBoo, if your son is not comfortable giving more details or you're just unsure, he could look up websites on workplace bullying or harassment. If the descriptions there fit his situation, it's worth taking to HR.
posted by thetortoise at 12:55 PM on September 9, 2015 [2 favorites]

But I would add, one day you won't be nearby to help him go to HR, or to prepare him to sit in the kind of mediation that sometimes results from that, or to go back in to work the next day to deal with escalation and/or potentially more subtle aggression - and not every place has a decent HR staff. Then, too, though HR groups do many fine things, the purpose of their existence is to protect the company from liability, and they may not be great at mediating. This is why I recommend looking at assertiveness- because it's an opportunity to teach him the skills to deal with these problems on his own, when they arise - and they will - later in adult life. I'm not suggesting "assertiveness, not HR," I'm suggesting that you need asssertiveness to proceed through the chain of steps that may lead up to, include, and continue past any report to HR.
posted by Miko at 7:24 PM on September 9, 2015 [1 favorite]

I've recently joined a DBT group which has been very helpful. As opposed to talk therapy, it's training and practice in how to handle conversations and relationships with others. Three of the four main tenets are Distress Tolerance, Interpersonal Effectiveness and Emotion Regulation. I'm in a twice-weekly group that meets to talk about issues we have with relationships and emotions and learn effective ways to handle them. It focusses on mindfulness, non-judgment and practical ways to get what you want without sacrificing self-respect. It may be something to look into. Also, there are a bunch of books and workbooks available for self-study if a group is impractical.
posted by bendy at 8:26 PM on September 9, 2015 [1 favorite]

One suggestion that might be a good starting place is seeing if your son's workplace includes an employee assistance program (EAP) - a call to them and explaining the situation could help him get a couple of covered sessions with an appropriate person to figure out what the next steps could/should be.

They could help him decide how to frame it with other people (like how to ask his boss or another co-worker for feedback about what they're seeing, how to approach HR), talk through whether some techniques on your son's end might help control the unwanted worst-case mental loops, whatever makes sense once someone has all the details.
posted by modernhypatia at 6:43 AM on September 10, 2015 [2 favorites]

Being rude and acting like a jerk is not psychological violence. It happens everywhere, all the time, particularly in work situations, because people are human and don't always understand their own motivations, and because work situations are competitive, and because not everybody is your or your son's definition of "nice".

The good news is, it's not your son's job to understand everyone else's motivations or get inside everybody else's head. It is his, however, his job to learn how not to personalize other people's irritating, provocative behavior or get derailed from the point of his job, which is doing his job to his own high standard and his employers' requirements.

If your son can't defend himself by not engaging in bs, deflecting said bs unemotionally, and/or managing difficult people with humor while keeping his eye on the prize, then HR (if he's even in that sort of field) or management will not help him. They will help the company, perhaps by labelling him a hothouse orchid who needs to be gently steered out of their company and into another workplace. Management doesn't care about jerks in their workforce, really. I've seen more jerks get ahead, actually, because they kiss up to management and go about quietly using their co-workers as a stepladders to their own enrichment. I'm sure I don't need to tell you this but you might need to tell your son this.

If he cares about this job, he needs to mentally consign this irritating person to the Irritating Person bin, open his bag of Irritating Person tools, and start using them now. Or he needs to find another job. Unless he in an invaluable member of a team or very, very important to the success of the business or unique in some quantifiable way to this organization, he will be identified as the problem if he cries to management that somebody is being mean to him at work.
posted by TryTheTilapia at 10:37 AM on September 10, 2015 [4 favorites]

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