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What should I do if my boss is bullying me?

Bullying by a manager broadly comes in two forms:

  1. Direct sexual or non-sexual harassment – this is the kind of behaviour that can make you uncomfortable or fearful because it is aggressive or inappropriate.
  2. Abuse of managerial power – this involves making unreasonable requests, setting impossible deadlines, withholding resources and opportunities and generally making work life extremely stressful.

Direct harassment tends to be easier to identify and label as inappropriate. Rudeness, shouting, getting physical: these are all aggressive behaviours that are clearly inappropriate in the workplace.

Abuse of managerial power can be much harder to pin down. When is a boss being “demanding but fair” vs “unreasonable”? We reward leaders that push their teams to high performance so how can you know when it crosses a line?

Tough boss or bully?

There are a few questions you can ask to get a feel for whether a team leader is engaged in bullying or is just setting demanding but reasonable targets:

  1. Is everyone in the team subject to the same standards and workload or are some people being treated worse than others? If some are being single out for poor treatment, this is more likely to be bullying.
  2. Is feedback given with respect or is it insulting? Does the manager use insults and put-downs to “encourage” performance? Insults are not reasonable managerial behaviour.
  3. Is it reasonable to assume the workload is achievable or are the demands clearly impossible to fulfill and setting up employees for failure?
  4. Are deadlines set because of genuine business needs or are they arbitrary? Do deadlines make sense or seem to be set to simply torment the victim?
  5. Where are the demands coming from?  In some cases, there may be a resource issue beyond the control of the team leader. If the stress is coming from higher up in the organisation, this does not mean there isn’t a management problem, but it may not rest with the manager tasked with ensuring targets are met.

Should I report?

How you choose to handle the situation depends on a few factors:

  • Are you unsure you are being bullied? If you are feeling afraid and stressed out, you are probably a victim and there is power in just being able to recognise the behaviour as harassment. But if you are not sure, get some clarity on this first, as per the questions in the previous section.
  • Do you have evidence to corroborate your experience? As explained above, it may require more evidence to document abuse of managerial power compared to direct bullying. Documentation of your experience and/or witness support is helpful.
  • Does your organisation have clear policies and procedures for handling reports of harassment? You should be familiar with how to make a formal report and what you can expect to happen when you do.
  • Does your organisation have the ability to protect you from retaliation if you make a complaint? Most policies on harassment also emphasise that retaliation is not permitted. However in practice, it may not always be easy to provide this protection. Transfers, while helpful, may not always be possible particularly in a small organisation. Some firms are willing to offer one of the parties (typically the victim) to work from home or take paid leave while the matter is being investigated.
  • Does your organisation have a good track record for supporting victims of harassment? While an organisation may have good policies and procedures, employees will not have faith in those measures if there have been cases where either victims or the accused are believed to have been treated unfairly.
  • Is everyone in the organisation accountable for their behavior or is the bully “untouchable”? The unfortunate reality of some organisations is that they permit certain employees to behave badly without consequences – for example star performers, or friends and relatives of powerful decision makers. Some people behave badly because they know they can get away with it.
  • Has the bully already poisoned the organisation against you? In extreme cases, by the time you understand that you are a victim of bullying, your manager may have already convinced senior management and/or HR that you are unreliable or a poor performer. This makes reporting – and being believed – a lot harder.
  • Is there an effective mechanism to report bullying anonymously and safely if you do not feel safe to lodge a complaint through the regular process? Some organisations offer a whistleblowing option for anonymous reporting. Anonymous reports make it hard for firms to take action because they are unable to investigate fully. But this option might be the only one a victim is comfortable with.
How to document harassment
Send an email to yourself with details of the incident. Because an email is time-stamped, it shows the record was made close to the time of the incident when your memory was still fresh. It provides a “contemporaneous” record of the incident.

1. Provide as many details as possible: time, date, who was there, what was said, witnesses, etc.
2. Say how it made you feel.
3. Keep it as factual and professional as possible: consider that this note may be used as evidence one day. Avoid seeming unreasonable, biased, or rude.

So what can I do?

You have a number of options and strategies you can consider:

  1. Document – this means take notes every time you experience or witness harassment. Do this Every. Single. Time. Even if you ultimately choose not to proceed with a formal report, these notes give you options and help document patterns of behaviour. See the insert on how to take good notes.
  2. Talk to somebody – find a friend, ally, or confident to help you talk through your feelings and uncertainties. It is normal to feel unsure of how to proceed and talking about it with someone you trust will help you figure out how you want to proceed.
  3. Seek assistance/intervention – is it possible there is someone who can speak to the bully and get the behaviour to stop without the need to lodge a formal complaint? Sometimes an informal approach can help mend a situation and maintain a good relationship. The right person may be a peer of your boss who you trust and think could help. Sometimes it could be someone in HR. This option is particularly useful if you think the bully might be open to changing.
  4. Lodge a formal report – file a complaint under your organisation’s harassment policy
  5. Seek legal advice and representation – if you are not satisfied with your organisation’s response, you might consider seeking legal advice. This could be to pursue legal remedies against the perpetrator or the firm.
  6. Go to the police – Sexual Harassment is against the law in most countries. Protection against non-sexual harassment tends to vary more depending on where you live.
  7. Resign – In some cases, you may feel the best thing you can do is move on with your life. Not everyone wants to go through the stress of pursuing a formal complaint. Likewise you may not be willing to continue to put up with regular harassment. Leaving is sometimes the healthiest choice. Prolonged exposure to harassment can lead to both physical and mental health issues. Take care of yourself.
  8. Get advice and counselling – Call a helpline, see a counsellor, get help. Harassment is stressful. Talk to someone about it. What you have been through is traumatic and grossly unfair. You need to heal and put this behind you. This can be hard and you don’t have to do it on your own. Get help. The trauma can bubble up months or even years later if you suppress your feelings about what happened. Please do not underestimate how important this step is.
Get Help
For advice on workplace harassment:
Workplace Harassment and Discrimination Advisory
6950 9191
Monday – Friday, 10 a.m. – 6 p.m.
For advice on all forms of gender based harassment:
AWARE Women’s Helpline
1800 777 5555,
Monday – Friday, 10 a.m. – 6 p.m.