How to Handle a Bully at Work – Five Tips

Anti-bullying training is a now part of many youth education programs, and this wave is – thankfully – starting to hit the workplace, too.

Several corporate bullies I know, however, have missed or flunked the training. These bullies may not be the biggest kids on the block physically, but they have organizational power – they are often bosses – and they abuse that power.

I bet you know some of them:

  • The boss who verbally berates and demeans a direct report on a team call.
  • The screaming supervisor who thrusts a pointed finger at a worker who messed up.
  • The overly demanding executive who routinely expects others to cancel personal commitments and work late on last-minute crisis projects.
  • The manager who pressures workers to do personal errands for her.
  • The senior leader who sends people to corporate Siberia when someone crosses her or makes her look bad.

How do you deal with a corporate bully without getting a black eye? Here are five tips:

  1. Deal with it sooner rather than later – The longer you let the bullying go on in your relationship, the harder it is to break that dynamic. And, the more you feel powerless and resentful.
  2. Set limits – Bullies are less likely to bully when people stand up to them right away. One manager I know developed health issues because her boss spoke in demeaning ways and pushed her too hard, and she never spoke up. Another manager in the same group didn’t have the same stress level. The biggest difference was that the second manager pushed back – respectfully – against the boss’s unreasonable demands. He didn’t carry extra stress home every night like she did.
  3. Learn to say “no” – Saying “no” is a key skill for setting limits and keeping your sanity when you’re feeling pushed beyond where you want to go. Some ways of saying “no” are more effective than others; click here for further suggestions.
  4. Speak directly – Resist the urge to say nothing, retaliate or talk behind the bully’s back. These tactics usually make it worse for you. Tell the bully you need to talk. Be assertive, specific and as objective as possible; say what you need to say in a way that makes it as likely as possible that the bully will hear it. Try using the Setting / Action / Impact approach. E.g., “On the team call yesterday [Setting], you said my idea was stupid [Action]. No one said anything after that. I felt humiliated, and we didn’t get any other ideas from others. [Impact.]” Then state your request or suggestion, if needed.
  5. Ask for help – Sometimes talking with a trusted friend, mentor or coach will open up options and provide encouragement and support to help you do what you need to do. Consider consulting another trusted leader or Human Resources contact.

Handling a bully at work is difficult. And sometimes it’s not always possible. If the situation is toxic and you’ve tried everything else, plan your escape.

Joe Baker is a Partner with PeopleResults. As a leadership consultant and executive coach, he helps leaders, teams and organizations thrive. You can reach him at or on Twitter @JoeBakerJr.