The social rules of the workplace are a pretty complicated balancing act: You have to be friendly and likeable, while remaining professional at all times. You need your boss to like you, but you don’t want your co-workers to think of you as a suck-up. You often have to navigate generational and cultural divides, and still get things done. And because you want to keep your job, the last thing you want is to be the person causing trouble.
The best advice is to just keep your head down and do your job, which is what most of us do.
But when you throw working with a total jerk into that mix, things can get confusing: People who are actively being bullied by a co-worker have trouble even recognizing it’s happening, and because they’re afraid of not being believed, most people suffer the abuse in silence, according to a new study in the journal Management Communication Quarterly. “A lot of people don’t know that bullying is something that occurs in the workplace, so when it happens they almost don’t know what to make of it,” explains lead study author Stacy Tye-Williams, assistant professor of communications studies and English at Iowa State University.
But the reality is that it’s not that uncommon. Roughly 1 in 4 American workers say they’ve dealt with bullying at some point, according to a 2014 survey from the Workplace Bullying Institute. And the stress it causes can really affect your health. “Previous research has linked it to depression, anxiety, and increased sick days,” Tye-Williams says. “It causes this constant state of pins and needles.”
Sound familiar? Here are 6 ways to spot a true office bully, plus what to do.
|Your boss takes his job way too seriously|
If you have a bully, chances are it’s your boss. More than half the people in the latest study pointed to their supervisor as the person causing problems for them. “There is certainly a power dynamic aspect,” Tye-Williams says. “One person told us their boss would yell at them, I am your God and when you are here you will do what I tell you to do.” Talk about a hostile work environment! While that may seem obviously inappropriate, there’s something about it happening at your job that can make behavior like that disorienting. “We found that victims have a really hard time even putting the events in order,” Tye-Williams adds.
|You notice a nasty pattern|
“The key is that it’s not just a one-time thing. It’s repetitive,” Tye-Williams explains. “It’s more than one person snapping at you on a bad day. It’s the person who snaps at you repeatedly to a point where you go, this is systemic. This is how they work.“
|You hear whispers when you enter the break room|
It can make you feel like you’re back in high school, but gossip is another big weapon in the office bully’s arsenal. “Gossip is a good example of mobbing, which is when the bully gets multiple people involved in harassing you,” Tye-Williams says. This can be even more isolating than one-on-one bullying because you may feel like you have no one on your side.
|You’re being conspired against|
Another example of mobbing is bullies working together either to get you in trouble, make you look bad, or steal assignments from you. “We had someone tell us how coworkers would come together to make sure they always got the worst shift,” Tye-Williams says. This can lead you to feel ostracized and very isolated.
|You’re being watched|
It can also be someone who really wants to see you fail, or who takes micromanagement to the extreme. “Another story that stood out to me was one guy who’s coworker constantly watched him, hoping he’d catch the victim doing something wrong, presumably so he could tattle on him,” Tye-Williams adds. “So to combat it, this person would actually use a picture frame on his desk, so he could check the reflection in the glass to make sure no one was behind him.” Note: you should not have to put up with daily paranoia.
|How to stop it|
Aside from getting a new job, putting an end to it can be tough because every work situation is different. “If the problem is your supervisor, it’s especially tricky, of course,” Tye-Williams says. “What’s important is understanding the organization and the dynamics that are specific to your workplace, so you know who it’s safe to tell. But you also have to have a clear story before you do so.”
“The number one thing you can do to sort that out is to tell someone you trust,” she continues. “Having someone ask questions and simply listen helps you form a coherent story. This ultimately helps your case because how clearly someone tells the story impacts whether people believe them.”
After you’ve done that, it’s a good idea to find and keep any documentation you can: make a log of instances as they happen, save e-mails, and get co-workers to back you up. One study participant shared how the supervisor had actually manipulated multiple people in the office into hating one another (using gossip and other malicious techniques). Once they all realized it, they were able to band together and have the person fired. “It’s a very difficult problem to fix, but there are things you cans do,” Tye-Williams says.