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10 Tips on Dealing with Female Bullies at Work

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How to Deal with Mean Girls at Work


There’s a new breed of female bullies cropping up in workplaces across the country. According to a nationwide poll by the Employment Law Alliance:

  • 45% of American workers say they’ve experienced workplace abuse.
  • 40% of workplace bullies are women and female bullies pick on other women more than 70% of the time.
  • Female bullies want to undermine, berate, and intimidate the weaker women in their midst.
  • Being a target of a bully not only affects your work life, but can also affect your health—possibly causing headaches, loss of appetite, high blood pressure, insomnia, clinical depression, panic attacks, and even post traumatic stress disorder.

Clearly workplace bullying is not something to be taken lightly. So, why do some women bully others in the workplace?

  • They enjoy feeling powerful, especially when the other person doesn’t stand up for herself.  Also, women are often less confrontational when attacked. They tend to turn their backs on bad behavior in a way men might not.
  • They are threatened by the potential success of others so they want to stop you before you outshine them or reveal their shortcomings.
  • They have a perfectionist or nit-picky personality combined with superiority about their skills and abilities.
  • Stress and pressure to be high performing, with more work to do and fewer people to do it.
  • They have mental health problems or a personality disorder.

How do you know whether you’re being bullied or simply dealing with a difficult boss or co-worker?

  • The clearest sign is that bullying is something that happens again and again—it’s not just your boss having a bad day every once and a while.
  • The abuse can include: yelling; intimidating or humiliating behavior, like angry criticism and personal insults; or sabotage, whether it’s vicious gossip or taking credit for someone else’s work.
  • Generally, though, women aren’t openly abusive: In fact, there’s evidence that their style of bullying is usually subtler than men’s.
  • Women are better at reading emotions, so they’re good at little digs that most men wouldn’t even register—the quick glare, or turning away and talking to someone else.

Ten tips on how to deal with being bullied at work:

1.     Don’t get emotional. Bullies take pleasure in emotionally manipulating people. Stay calm and rational to diffuse the situation.

2.     Don’t blame yourself. Acknowledge that this is not about you; it’s about the bully.  Don’t lose your confidence or think you are incapable or incompetent–they are usually beating you at a mind game, not based on your actual work performance.

3.     Do your best work. The bully’s behavior will seem more justified if you aren’t doing your best work or if you do things like come to work late, take long lunches, turn in work late, etc.

4.     Build a support network. Instead of allowing the bully to make you retreat into your office, work on building your relationships with your coworkers so that you have support and the bully doesn’t turn them against you as well (although she will try and will may even be successful).

5.     Document everything. Keep a journal (on your personal computer or in writing but never leave it in the office) of what happened when (and who witnessed it) so that if you need to escalate this problem to Human Resources, you have the information you need to make your case.  Keep emails and notes.

6.     Seek help. If you think you’re being bullied, it’s time to start talking to others who can help you manage this situation. Try a mentor, advocate, seasoned/experienced friend, even a legal advocate who specializes in bullying and inappropriate or discriminatory behavior in the workplace. Tread lightly when approaching your human resources department. They work for the company, not you, so you have to be careful about what you share depending on how well liked and supported your bully is within the organization. HR doesn’t have the luxury of keeping everything you say confidential so don’t treat a meeting with them like a counseling session where you should share everything you think/feel or assume that they can or will fix the problem for you.

7.     Get counseling. It will help you deal with the stress, especially if the bullying is already affecting your physical and mental health.  You have to take care of yourself.

8.     Stay healthy. Maintain a healthy and balanced lifestyle outside of work to help you cope with the madness at work.  Work out, get a good night’s sleep and eat a healthy diet.

9.     Educate yourself. Learn everything you can about bullying, your company’s policies on inappropriate behavior and occupational law regarding this kind of experience.  The more you know the better your chances of successfully dealing with this situation.

10.   Don’t expect to change the bully. Real behavior change is difficult and it takes time.  You have no control over a bully’s willingness to accept that they have a problem and to work on it.  You can do your best to manage the situation but it’s really the company’s responsibility to be observant and responsive to the needs of their workers and the general work environment.  In the worst-case scenario you may need to leave your job or be prepared for a long hard fight with your bully and your employer.

3 responses to “10 Tips on Dealing with Female Bullies at Work”

  1. compalena says:

    Great article! I would add that if experiencing bullying behavior, you should not take part in it or try to participate in throwing “the shit behavior” back in someone’s face. What happened to me is that what I thought was “simply” bullying was actually discriminatory behavior and workplace sabotage. I could’ve filed a successful Human Rights complaint. But what did I do instead? I started to get aggressive, answer back, play mind games with the other woman who initiated the bad behavior. Basically, I tried to bully back my bully. My attitude at the time was: “Now who does she think she is to bully me around? She doesn’t know who she’s messing with. I’ll show her whose boss!” I was raised to fight back against any and all forms of oppressive behavior or authoritarianism by my family and community. Basically, I don’t take shit! Of course, I lost sleep, exhausted precious energy better spent elsewhere, and eventually lost my cool and broke-down in anger. Job over. Lesson learned.

    Currently, I’m in a similar situation but my analysis and approach has changed. I realize that this woman (my new tormentor) actually lacks self-confidence and has to pick-on me to feel better. I actually think she has internalized the sexism of the dominant society so that she has trained herself to see strong women as a threat to her own power. Just knowing this makes me calm down because I know it’s not my problem; it’s hers. Unfortunately, I’m still stressed out. This woman has over one year tried everything to outshine me and belittle my work performance. She’s created a negative climate and has bullied me with three other colleagues. Fortunately, she hasn’t been able to “break me” because my work is ALWAYS professional, thorough, and on-time. I have more allies than she (thinks she does) and most of these allies I’ve cultivated are powerful. I’ve spent more time building a strong community which has saved me so far. Nonetheless, this game still EXHAUSTS ME. Trying to outwit, outlast, and outplay the other person everyday is like playing the Survivor game without the possibility of winning a million dollars. I LOVE MY JOB but can’t always stand the pressure. I suffer from migraines and insomnia…and have become a perfectionist in my own work. Basically, I still feel like I’m losing this battle even if I’m doing everything right.

    Anyway, great article! Thanks for sharing.

  2. Deborah says:

    I disagree with #6. Never, ever take a bully aside, always speak to them with witnesses around. I did that once and the bully, Joanne B, told everyone that she told me to back off. I was the one that told her to back off. No witnesses and everyone believed her. I cannot believe that after 20 years my life, my reputation, even my personal life has been destroyed by this person. She first started with saying that I was staring at her in the office. We worked in a call center environment with open cubicles. She told everyone that I was staring at her out of the corner of my eyes. I didn’t think anyone would believe it. To my horror they still do. Then she would start saying over and over again “sick, sick, sick. You’re a sick girl.” Well, that seemed to catch on in the office, in the company, then being in little pathetic staten island, ny, on the ferry and in the only two terminals. I would have people that knew her yell at me as we were boarding the ferry “you’re sick, get some help, get some help!” Well, at 5:15 in the early evening rush hour with a room full of people that meet every single day and in a small place like this one, it catches on. It never leaves. That happened in 1990. There was a cop that witnessed the yelling in the ferry terminal and said “I hope something happens to you just so I won’t have to help you.” That scared the hell out of me. I would be paralyzed with fear. On other days she told me that she hated my eyes. I then broke out in eczema around the eyes, giving me a raccoon effect that no doctor could seem to help. It was a full decade before I could finally get a light peel and lift the dark scarring around the eye area, the lip area, the neck, my hands all afflicted with eczema from the constant yelling.
    I moved onto the next job in the company and my desk was right by the front door. As each person would pass by, they would say “sick” and it would feel like a physical blow. I had constant bronchitis. One day while laying there racking from the coughing I just got tired of taking huge pills and always being sick. I simply stated, no more, I will not be sick… and it stopped!
    I worked full time and went to college at night and on weekends. They would yell at me at school, into the classroom, sometimes the professors would jump in or laugh. The deckhands on the ferry would harass me terribly also.
    My neighbors would yell at me and complain to the landlord that too many people were making too much noise because of all the damned yelling. Thank God he and another cop told me that they watched me for two years straight and noticed that I don’t commit crimes, don’t do drugs, no prostitution and I’m not the one yelling at people in the street. I kept a cool head because I can’t yell at the entire world. However I still have people yell at me and tell me that since I let people yell at me I deserve what I get. I am thus punished by perfect strangers for the action of others.
    One day some idiot was standing by the front of my building and started calling me dogface. Now that has caught on. I can be just walking to the ferry or somewhere and have someone say “oh, that’s the one they call dogface.” I can confront them but they never stop laughing and the humiliation is deadening. Still I go on but the consequences from those words being spouted everywhere and that name has consequences I could never imagined.
    My last job was as an assistant to a CEO. The man was a maniac. His HR person got hold of the name dogface. The job required two assistants but the boss always pits one against the other. The HR guy brought in interviewees and told each one that they must as tough as nails like I was. He told them that people called me dogface and I don’t fall apart, I don’t crack.
    Whenever I look back at my life and pinpoint the yelling and the hate, I link it back to that fateful day when Joanne Boyne and I were in the office while everyone was at lunch and she said “we are watching and we are going to get you.” Then she started yelling “sick, sick, sick” and then it seems like not only the entire office but the entire world started doing it. I did not have people yelling at me before then like this.
    It may sound horrible of me but when I saw that guy in CT shoot up the place I know that I wasn’t the only victim who understood what his girlfriend was saying that they harassment was occuring over and over and over again and they won’t stop. Those so called “nice” people were harassing him off the job. People don’t want to acknowledge that but it’s true.
    I will hold onto my sanity and “freedom” tooth and nail but my right to walk as a dignified human being deserving of respect has been shattered. I will never understand how people will believe anything they hear and act on it and there was nothing I can do in the first place. Sure, random strangers aren’t important but when they turn to the next stranger and say “don’t talk to her, she is sick”, it does damage.

  3. drmichelle says:

    That is such a great point about not becoming a bully yourself. As you pointed out, it makes it easier for people to blame you for what you’re going through, rather than inspire them to help you. And of course, you never want people to have the power to drag you down to their level. As you shared, then you end up doing things that you regret and cause you even more stress. Retaliatory bullying only escalates things, rather than improving them or ending the problem. Since it sounds like you’re going to tough it out, please do things to care for your physical, mental and emotional well-being in the process. You’re describing how exhausting your job is so be sure to find ways to relieve that daily stress. Thanks for sharing your story!

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