How to Deal with a Workplace Bully

Q: I work in a very small office. There are only two other women who work with me and we all report to the same supervisor, and most of our work is quite collaborative in the sense that we are all focused on the same strategic goals. We have independent work, but amalgamate a lot and share a lot of work as a unit.

Lately, I have felt really disrespected by one of my colleagues. When I first started in the department, she was wonderful and I relied on her a lot to get up to speed and I really appreciated her support. Recently, however, things have changed; the other day, she yelled at me, in front of other people from neighbouring departments, for not citing her as a collaborator on a document we had worked on for our boss.

The reason I had not cited her was because I felt there was nothing to cite her on. I had submitted a one-page document for my supervisor to take to a meeting, which outlined the main points which she needed to draw attention to at the meeting. Yes, we did collaborate and generate the list together, but this is a task which either her or myself have done together numerous times in the past, and then one or the other has emailed in the submission. I had not realized that she would have taken this action negatively. 

Prior to this event, she also had accused me of disregarding her work/life balance by texting her work question on a Friday, which she had taken off from work. She made this claim, rather harshly, in front of colleagues, my supervisor and strangers. Asides from being unprofessional, it was rude and I left the situation feeling quite embarrassed. 

I feel that both of these incidents could have been handled privately, in a much more respectful manner and I am starting to feel very angry towards her on a daily basis. 

Every day, when she comes into the office, she spends about thirty minutes filling me in on her evening and what she and her family got up to and quite frankly, I am fed up with it. I am fed up with it because I feel like she has now assumed she can speak to me disrespectfully and even insultingly, never acknowledge, apologize or amend it and then go back to acting like we are good friends and colleagues. 

The odd thing is that we are also, or have been, friends outside of work. I can also confidently say that I am one of her few friends, so you would think she would treat me better? Not in an arrogant way, but should you not value your colleague who is also your good friend?  

How do I deal with this? What is the best way to proceed, to ensure that I am being respected, but also, I kind of don’t want to be this person’s friend anymore, but have to see them for forty hours a week? What do I do?

A: In this specific scenario, I would have a very clear, honest and respectful conversation with this colleague. I stress the word colleague because I really do feel you need to start putting her in that category and removing her completely from the friend category because she is not a good friend. 

I would ask her for a coffee, so that you can have this discussion outside of the office, thereby emulating to her the manner in which you too would like to receive feedback in the future. 

I would even go so far as to let her know the thought put behind the action with a statement, such as, “I invited you for coffee today because I wanted to discuss a couple of events which have recently occurred at work, which left me feeling uncomfortable and I want to have a private conversation with you about them.”

Let her know how the events made you feel and that you are sorry that you made her upset. I would not apologize for the actions themselves, but rather her reaction to the action. Now that you have apologized for upsetting her, ask her for how you can ensure to mitigate this event from happening in the future. By asking her directly you are making her responsible for coming to a positive solution as well.

If your colleague is receptive to this conversation, you should receive clear information as to how to best work with her in the future. This allows you a clear guideline which, if followed, should ensure no further outbursts from this colleague. 

I would reiterate what she says to you as well so that there is no confusion. Something along the lines of, “So what am I hearing from you is that you would like me to indicate in the email to our supervisor that the work was collaborative and to ensure that you are cc’ed on the email,” this allows the person room to clarify, but also for you to show them that you are comfortable with confrontation, want to avoid issues in the future and are in control of this situation.

I would also take the time here to let her know that her morning thirty-minute updates are not conducive to how you work. You do not need to be the only one accommodating another person’s expectations, but rather, assert your dominance in this position by asking for what you too want, not just appeasing her needs. You could say something along the lines of, “Since we are already having a discussion about workplace expectations, I also wanted to bring up social chatting at work. I know that we are a small office, and I do really appreciate and like working with you, but I also value my work time and will be more clear with you, if I feel it is being overutilized with idle chatter. Personally, my mornings are my most productive time period and I like to get right down to work when I arrive, instead of catching up.”

Also, clearly articulate to her that your professional image is important to you and that in the future you would like to avoid public discussions about work matters. Let her know that this setting, having coffee, is something that works best for you, for future feedback. This way, not only does your colleague know that her needs are being met, but she too can reflect on her own areas of improvement.

The hardest part of this whole journey is standing your ground on your boundaries. From your explanation of the situation, I am assuming that you have absolutely no interest in continuing to be this person’s friend, outside of work or in, so do not be. You can be an absolutely great colleague, but not someone’s friend. Be courteous, engage in small, brief conversations, but do not go out for coffees, grab lunch or make weekend plans with this woman anymore. 

There will be days, weeks or months even when you will feel your boundaries weaken because she has been on good behaviour. At that point, the choice is yours, as to what you would like to do next. Perhaps, she learned her lesson and will become a cordial colleague and respectful friend, but she could also see this acceptance as a weakness and you may be simply doomed to wait out the time until her next unprofessional outburst. 

The best course of action is clear communication. See this as a task, you need to find a solution in order to increase the efficiency with which you work with this person, so that’s how you should attack this problem. Also, do not be afraid of hurting her feelings because she has not been concerned about yours whatsoever when you have upset her, but do not seek out trying to make her feel bad. Be clear, be firm, be confident and hopefully she will reciprocate with respect and finding a solution that works well for both of you.