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Assertiveness with Workplace Bullies

bullyA lot of us assumed bullying was over when we left high school.  Turns out, it’s still happening in the workplace.

So what do you do about it? I wrote in my last post that we shouldn’t assume the inhumanity of the parties involved.  That means that you need to start by asserting yourself and seeing what happens.

Approach your co-worker or your boss, in private, and explain what has felt hurtful to you.  If the person involved is a bully, he or she might be dismissive or might try to demean you further.  Go into the conversation expecting this.  State again the impact of their behavior.  Request clearly that it stop.

This second part–the request–is important.  And that’s because of what I’m going to recommend next: that you document, document, document.  Every time you have a demeaning interaction with that person (co-worker or boss), write it down.

Many companies have policies about harassment and proper conduct.  Educate yourself as to what your company’s policy is.

You might even want to do your assertiveness in writing.  As in, send an e-mail that details what you feel is happening and that you would like it to stop. You might want to reference the relevant parts of your company’s harassment policy.  You might want to cc your supervisor (or if your supervisor is the bully, then his/her supervisor or someone in HR.)

Then you’ll have the other person’s response in writing.  Or if they fail to respond, that can also add to your case.

I don’t mean “case” in a legal sense.  I’m a mental health professional and not a lawyer.  I’m not qualified to dispense legal advice.  But I know that it has never hurt to have more documentation of the events in question, if you do choose to consult an attorney.

Maybe the bullying will stop there.  Maybe the person will realize the error of their ways and feel genuinely remorseful.  Maybe they’ll stop because they fear for their own jobs.

But maybe it doesn’t stop there, and you need to go up the chain of command.  If you’re dealing with a co-worker, you might go to your supervisor or to HR.  If you’re dealing with your boss, you might go to their supervisor or HR.

Now, I’m not saying any of this is comfortable, or easy.  It’s not a sure thing that you will get the responses you want, or the support you feel you deserve.  You might find that co-workers don’t see the situation as you do, don’t agree with your actions, or worry about their own jobs and therefore distance themselves.

These are all very real risks.  However, the risk to one’s self-esteem of doing nothing while being systematically harassed is, from a mental health perspective, one of the biggest.

If you stand by and allow yourself to be mistreated, you may begin to feel you deserve such mistreatment.  Or you might just feel a slow building anger inside you, or a sense of powerlessness, that infects other areas of your life.

This is not an exhaustive list of all you can do, or all the contingencies that may be involved in your personal situation.  I’m sure people will have all sorts of other advice that may be more relevant.  This is just a starting point for thought, and discussion.

Assertiveness is about saying, “I’m a person, and I have rights.”  Bullies want to trample on these, in order to feel better about themselves.  They don’t have that right.

Workplace bully image available from Shutterstock.

Assertiveness with Workplace Bullies

Holly Brown, LMFT

Holly Brown is a marriage and family therapist in the San Francisco Bay area. She has a private practice in Alameda ( ). She is also a novelist ( Her latest is HOW FAR SHE'S COME, a workplace thriller which received a starred review from Publisher's Weekly: "This provocative tale will resonate with many in the era of the #MeToo movement."

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APA Reference
Brown, H. (2013). Assertiveness with Workplace Bullies. Psych Central. Retrieved on June 2, 2020, from


Last updated: 13 May 2013
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