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How to Handle Workplace Bullies & Interrogators

by Mary Bauer

If you think bullying ends when kids grow up, think again. Surveys conducted by the Workplace Bullying Institute in 2010 found that 35 percent of U.S. workers reported being bullied and an additional 15 percent said they had seen bullying in the workplace. Bullies are more likely to be male – 62 percent – and women are slightly more likely to be victims -- 58 percent. About 80 percent of female bullies pick on other women. The list of bullies includes interrogators, who use a particular abuse tactic to try and get their way.

Relationship between Bullying and Interrogation

Bullying often involves threats, verbal abuse or intense scrutiny designed to humiliate the victim. Interrogation is part of the bully’s toolkit because it is designed to produce “evidence” of deficiencies that the bully can use to threaten the victim. This serves the dual purpose of humiliation and control. The victim feels threatened because of her alleged deficiency and also is less likely to report the bullying behavior for fear of her inadequacy being revealed.

Why People Bully

Bullies usually struggle with inadequacy. Belittling others is a way to feel superior, according to the information website BullyingOnline.org. For example, when a manager harshly criticizes subordinates as a way to explain his team's underperformance, he deflects blame from himself to others. Bullying can also stem from peer pressure. An individual bully can sometimes entice others to join him in picking on one or more victims. Eventually, the office may become so divided that workers have to choose between being a victim or being a bully.

Victim’s Options

If you’re a victim of bullying, you might be reluctant to report the abuse because the bully has convinced you, through repeated criticism, that you are incompetent, and you are afraid he will expose your deficiencies to the boss. However, don’t be intimidated into staying in the victim role. You can try to confront the bully directly by telling her in a calm and professional way that you will take the matter to a higher authority if the bully doesn't change her behavior. If you’re afraid to approach your direct supervisor -- or if she's the bully -- you can go to the company’s grievance officer or to a human resources professional. You also can request a transfer to another department or office.

Management’s Role

If you’re a manager, be alert for subtle signs of bullying, such as an employee who is afraid to speak up or acts uneasy in front of a particular co-worker. If a subordinate reports abuse, take immediate action to send the message that bullying is unacceptable. When confronting the bully, be specific and avoid generalities like, “You’re pretty hard on Sally.” The bully might try to charm you or justify her actions by pointing out the shortcomings of the victim. If this happens, redirect the discussion to the bully's behavior and tell her firmly that it’s not acceptable, no matter what the other person did. Document the conversation to protect yourself against allegations that you failed to take action. Escalate the punishment for any subsequent incidents. Punishments might include verbal or written warnings, removal from key projects, a letter of reprimand or time off without pay.

About the Author

A retired federal senior executive currently working as a management consultant and communications expert, Mary Bauer has written and edited for senior U.S. government audiences, including the White House, since 1984. She holds a Master of Arts in French from George Mason University and a Bachelor of Arts in English, French and international relations from Aquinas College.

Photo Credits

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