How to Handle a Workplace Bully

*We know a lot of you aren’t going to the office today and your workday is going to look very different for the foreseeable future. You might not be face-to-face with a workplace bully situation today, but that doesn’t mean you won’t still be dealing with a tough situation. (Maybe your inability to make a video conference call because your children are around won’t be met with much grace from your peer or manager.) We hope this blog still encourages you, even in this new temporary season of work!*

Conflict in the workplace sometimes appears in the form of a bully. This could be a co-worker or it could be your boss. What do you do? How do you react without compromising your reputation or position? Julie Bolton, VP of Casualty Risk Engineering at Zurich Insurance and 4word: Houston board member, shares her tips for handling a bully in your workplace and how to make sure you react in a way that is conducive to resolution, not detriment.

Tell us a little about yourself!

I am someone who struggled with being identified as a female leader. I’d always preferred to be thought of as a great leader who happens to be female. It was one of my male colleagues who corrected me and said, “Being a woman matters as much as being a good leader.” I very much believe in the strength of women as leaders and our ability as a community of creative, caring, and highly intelligent human beings to come together and make a difference in our communities, workplace, and the lives of those around us.  

I’m an engineer by degree and currently lead a team of casualty engineers across the US. I love my team and what I do. I’ve lived in the US, Canada, and Scotland, have had an amazing career, and love to see people find happiness in what they do every day.

How has going through bullying affected your personal leadership style?

Having had a “bully boss” at a former employer taught me how much damage one individual can have, not just on their direct reports but on the entire culture of a company. It taught me early on the need to address behaviors and not ignore them. It gave me more compassion as a leader, as well, because understanding bullies is the only way to help them see how their behaviors impact others in a negative way.

In hindsight, would you have changed how you reacted in any of the past situations you’ve been in with a bully boss?

The thing I would change is the amount of energy I put into my response and reactions. I didn’t respond negatively, but in standing up for myself and others, I did use “verbal force.” If I had taken the time to step back, pray, and compose myself instead of taking things personally, my “standing up for myself” may have been less fueled and possibly resulted in a true change in my boss versus just an external change. 

If I could go back as a more experienced and “wiser woman,” I’d channel my inner Mr. Rogers and respond in kindness, perhaps saying, “I know your intent is to challenge me to think. I’m just feeling more belittled at the moment.” I’ve learned if I can step back and ask, “What is really going on here?”, I can limit the energy expenditure I put into a situation or at least make sure it’s positive energy, not draining energy.  

With the advent of the #metoo movement, do you think bullying in the workplace has decreased or just evolved?

The #metoo movement may have reduced some behaviors that bordered on bullying, so I would say it’s between decreased and evolved. True bullies will still bully, and women are as capable of it as men. Most people see the #metoo movement as harassment. While bullying is an element of harassment, it is different. Bullying is harming others, either physically or verbally, through things such as humiliation. The #metoo movement, I believe, has opened the dialogue and made people more aware of how they are treating others. It’s made women more aware of how we are treated and made it OK to speak up and say, “That’s not acceptable.” As we continue to speak up, we will change behaviors.

What are some behaviors to watch out for to make sure you aren’t being a bully presence in your workplace?

As I stated previously, women are equally as capable of being bullies. There are women who unconsciously bully and keep other women down to preserve being the only women at their level/in the boardroom. For these women, I’ve often used the term “Queen Bee” because there’s only one queen bee in a hive. 

To ensure you don’t bully requires understanding what bullying is. In general, it is defined as acts or words that cause harm. In the workplace, not resorting to bullying behavior can be challenging, especially in a performance management situation where someone is underperforming. Holding someone accountable for doing their job is not bullying but if you do it in a degrading manner and use the wrong words, you can slide into that arena. 

Tone and phrasing all come into play when coaching an employee. Truly understanding and taking on a servant leadership approach is the best way I have found to ensure I can motivate and hold people accountable without being seen as a bully.  

What advice or tips would you share with anyone being bullied in their workplace?

If you feel you are being bullied, the first thing I would ask is, “Is it really bullying?” Is this individual really trying to harm you personally or emotionally, or are they just a poor communicator, holding you accountable, or a combination of both? Read and understand what it means to be bullied. Speak to a mentor about what is happening and most importantly, pray for wisdom and discernment. 

It’s very easy when being held to a high standard to feel bullied, but it may be that you just need to up your game. If after reflection you conclude that yes, you are being bullied, you will need examples. If this is a workplace situation, many companies have specific departments for these types of complaints, so make a call. HR may very well already be acquainted with said bully. If your preference is to handle the situation personally first, find a public place like a coffee shop where you can have a private conversation in a safe place. Pray for the conversation to be productive, not destructive. If possible, do so after an incident where you felt bullied, so the feedback is timely. 

Try to avoid statements like “You made me feel…” This is where examples or quotes are key. For example, if I could go back to my experience where my boss was known to belittle people to the point of tears, I may have said, “I’m not sure you realize how belittled I am feeling right now based on how you are speaking to me.” versus what I did say which was, “WHY DO YOU HAVE TO BE SO BELITTLING ALL THE TIME?”

Currently VP of Casualty Risk Engineering at Zurich Insurance, Julie Bolton is degreed in mechanical engineering and holds a master in civil/environmental engineering “from back when it wasn’t so cool to be a ‘girl’ in engineering.” She’s a 30+ year veteran of manufacturing and service environments in the US and abroad, specializing in leading cross-functional teams to address complex capital projects for both internal and external customers. Her passion for first understanding and then further developing the visions of customers and employees alike makes her and her teams stronger players as they provide technical insights to customers and underwriters on exposures and emerging issues that could lead to losses. In her words, her teams “save lives and keep businesses running.”

Julie joined Zurich 14 years ago as a regional manager in Canada and has steadily climbed upwards in an industry and field that is strongly male dominated, bringing skills traditionally viewed as “female” but which Julie insists are “human.” A native of rural Massachusetts and the only girl in a family of five, she has lived and worked in Boston, New York, Virginia, Toronto, Scotland—and now Houston.