Bullying at work is as common as bullying in school. It’s just the type of bullying that is different. Seldom are there any more fistfights and beat downs. Rather, work place bullying is much more subtle, with more deleterious effects.
I met up with a good friend of mine for lunch the other day and we got to talking about how she always was made fun of by her immediate superior. Theresa is a wonderfully intelligent woman, who has gotten promoted every couple of years for the past six years. Her official title is “Senior Manager”. Despite being in her mid 30s, she could pass for 23 years old because of her smooth face and 5 foot 1 inch small frame.
Her boss, Steve, on the other hand is about 6 feet 2 inches tall and an obnoxious ex-fraternity boy. For some reason, I continue to find that taller people really enjoy looking down on shorter people. They like to make their presence felt and take advantage of shorter people. I’ve met Steve several times before and he’s a nice guy who likes to joke around a lot. I don’t think he means intentional harm to anybody, but if he’s making one of his subordinates feel uncomfortable, that’s unacceptable and must stop.
The problem with Theresa’s situation is that she always defends Steve after complaining to me. She says, “He’s just joking around” and “He’s my boss”. If your boss is making you uncomfortable enough to always bring him up in conversation with me, there’s clearly something wrong! Steve always teases Theresa about things.
Latest example: Theresa and Steve call a meeting with 10 other subordinates to strategize on the latest quarter. Because Theresa is very organized, she printed out an agenda and action item list on one page and passed it out to everybody. Steve ridicules Theresa when she’s handing out the agenda, “Wow Theresa, that’s quite a list. Are you also going to go grocery shopping for us?”.
“Here’s my list”, and Steve pulls out a post-it note with three items. The rest of the subordinates laugh, and Theresa feels undermined as a manager. Theresa responds, “Somebody’s got to be organized!”
In this instance, Theresa needs to come up with a stronger comeback. At least she said something, and didn’t stay silent and then go bawl her eyes out in the restroom.
Better comebacks to Steve’s remarks and little post it note would have been:
“What’s that Steve, your list of ingredients to feed the family for dinner? Guess what? Mac and cheese comes in a box, so you only have one item to shop for.”
“Are you sure you aren’t confusing your meeting agenda list for the things your mistress wants you to get for her anniversary?”
“Hey, with the length of your list, let’s just cancel our meeting and go out to play!”
“Is that your meeting agenda list, or a secret hair loss formula?”
“A short list, just like your short…. memory!“
OK, clearly some of these comebacks are a little too extreme. But, the gist of a good comeback is to essentially throw in something that bothers the other person and make light of the situation.
STEP 1: Prepare A List Of Scenarios and Comebacks For Those Scenarios
Some people are just witty and have an answer for everything. Most people are slow and freeze when they are insulted. Only after several moments, or days will people think about that appropriate comeback and snap their fingers and say, “Shucks, why didn’t I think of that at the time!’
You need to come up with at least three good comebacks for different scenarios. In order to come up with scenarios, you have to think about areas where you are vulnerable. Let’s say you are shorter than average, “Short Comebacks” is one scenario where you need to start developing comebacks. Let’s say you are a little overweight, “Overweight Comebacks” is another scenario. Your comebacks cannot only be zingy, but they should also be self-effacing.
STEP 2: Practice Your Comebacks With Friends
In order to ensure maximum effectiveness in your comebacks, they have to be spoken or written within a matter of seconds. In order to do this, you must develop all your scenarios and comebacks and have your friend rag on you. Have him throw at you every single insult or snide remark as he can think of. With each insult, do your best to insult him back in a nice way or offensive way.
I’m pretty sure very few people go through this type of practice. Believe me when I tell you that if you practice comebacks for 15-30 minutes a week, you will get back. Think about all those silly rap wars (8 Mile and Eminem anyone) or Yo Mama battles. Those guys practice and practice some more until they get it right and win.
STEP 3: Develop Your Confidence
In acting class, we are taught to project our voice and enunciate. We must be believe and speak with confidence. In a workplace bullying scenario, your message is simply, “Don’t fuck with me. Because if you do, know that you will go down.” It’s important you exude a level of confidence which is great enough where the bully moves on to the next victim.
You don’t want your comeback to be more offensive than the insult that was hurtled your way. Ideally, your comeback should be equally as offensive, so that the original person does not retaliate. Unfortunately, comebacks can sometimes be more hurtful at the heat of the moment and that’s when relationships really go sour.
One of the ways to hedge yourself against an extremely malicious retort backfiring is to keep on smiling after you’ve delivered your comeback, laugh, and then bring up a serious work-related agenda and move on. You don’t want to let the comeback linger if it’s one of those, “awkward” moments.
Like schoolyard bullying, if you can have a heart-to-heart conversation with your adversary over coffee or a meal to voice your concerns, this should usually solve the problem. Ask him or her what it is about you that engenders such unrest.
If your superior or colleagues continue to make fun of you or make you feel uncomfortable, you need to go to human resources and make your case known. This way, you will have documentation in case your superior or colleague retaliates. However, be aware that HR’s main purpose is to protect the firm, and not you. Hence, be very careful how much you complain and what you reveal. A simple, “So and so has made me feel uncomfortable at work for the past 6 months, and I need your advice on handle this situation,” will suffice. Don’t whine and complain.
I care a lot about Theresa, and I absolutely HATE it when people get bullied because I’ve experienced bullying myself. I see bullying as a cowardly way of making the bully feel better, especially if he or she is senior and much bigger than the other person. Bullies are losers and should be eradicated from earth. If you can’t eradicate them, know that there are other people in the organization who can help you if you cannot help yourself.
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Updated for 2021 and beyond.