1. It’s up to you—first. HR professionals can’t be present in the employee’s work area, monitoring conduct like cops. Nor can they save the employee as if they were occupational lifeguards. Employees suffering mistreatment need to understand that management can only help them to the extent that they help themselves. Targets of bullies may be abused and reasonably withdrawn, but they are not helpless.
2. Don’t take it personally. Believe it or not, bullying is not about you—your performance, your competence, your work style. For the bully, it’s about political power. No matter what the bully might say, it’s not about you. It’s about a superior who exploits institutional power to torment an individual.
3. Treat the bully problem like any other work problem—professionally. Take objective notes. Collect a history that can be used to document a pattern of abuse. From the data, identify outcomes to strive for and action plans leading to them. When things get tough, you’ll find protection by focusing yourself, HR, and others—including the bully—on operational goals.
4. Be the most knowledgeable employee possible. To maximize your defensibility and value, become the one who is most expert on the employer’s personnel and operational rules, procedures and policies. It’s surprisingly easy to scan all the relevant materials. Information is power. Be prepared to reference specific section numbers and headings for each bullying incident and other deviations from the employer’s interest as well. Collect copies of all relevant company documents, including e-mails and reports of various kinds.
5. Trade objectivity for anguish. Becoming objective is probably the only effective way for an employee to get relief from torment both during and after a bullying campaign. There are simple tools that make objectification a rather easy thing to do.
6. On note cards, jot down just the succinct details of each policy deviation—whether bullying occurred or not. On a separate note card or incident report form for each event, jot down just the time, place, people, and salient quotes and/or distinct behaviors of concern. When the cards are presented coherently, others shift their view from the supposedly neurotic employee, to the note cards, to the bully.
7. Look beyond immediate incidents for a pattern of behavior. A bad day on anyone’s part does not constitute bullying. A pattern and practice of intimidation over time does. Bullies are not creative people. They create patterns of misusing employer resources—including its human ones. To discover the patterns, document each event evenly, simply and regularly. This makes otherwise obscure patterns evident to HR and others.
8. Share the patterns and their details with family and, when ready, management. It is not helpful to go to HR and recount the horror story of the day. When you are ready to seek help, present well-organized information that illustrates a pattern and practice of maltreatment.
9. Create and nurture allies. Bullies normally target only one employee at a time. A bully’s first goal is to isolate his/her target from co-workers to deny the target support from the team. Be mindful that bullies can never successfully sell their ugly bullying problem to others. It’s unlikely anyone will buy it. The best way to gain support and increase credibility with co-workers is not by complaining, but by listening to others’ concerns and being a helpful and valuable co-worker and team player.
10. Don’t cower and don’t escalate. It is not possible to retreat in a workplace. Avoid using sick leave or otherwise withdrawing from processes. The bully will not see this as sensible avoidance, but as cowering that he or she can exploit. Also, there is no point in arguing with a bully. Bullies can’t believe anybody except themselves anyway. An argument can too easily turn into a confrontation. The best approach is to stand tall and strong but in a very obviously relaxed way.
11. "Touch the market" for strength in the freedom to leave. Look for specific employment opportunities, but not necessarily to take another job. The freedom to leave your job—even if you have no intention of doing so—fosters strength and good humor in a negative environment.
12. Arrange vacations for serious contemplation. Use your vacation time not only to unwind but also to contemplate the larger scheme of things. Come back sharp, strong, focused and organized for your well-planned, strategic self-defense campaign.