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How To Help Your Loved One Face a Bully

Dear Steve,

My husband is being bullied at work by a manager and feels he has only two choices: put up with the bullying until he retires or report it and go through a long process that will result in emotional exhaustion and potentially worse bullying. We have seen other members report bullying with the appropriate HR channels, only to leave their jobs in debt and depressed. I am an HR manager with a private company but feel powerless to advise my husband. He has limited job opportunities due to his age. I feel as stuck as my husband. What conversations should I be having?

Wanting to Help

Dear Wanting to Help,

It’s only slightly more painful to feel stuck than to watch someone you care about experience the same thing. Some years back, my father was being bullied at work. I was surprised that anyone would bully him. He was a good employee and very likeable. He also was capable of dealing with tough situations, so I figured he’d be able to work things out. But things didn’t go as I’d expected.

His attitude toward work soon changed. Where he once found a sense of community and fulfillment, he now felt isolated and disengaged. And his new demeanor wasn’t limited to the workplace; he started bringing it home with him to share with the family.

The good news is that things finally did resolve. But it took a toll on someone I consider a strong, capable human being, and whom I love. Here are some lessons I learned by watching my father go through this experience.

First, these situations always resolve. Sometimes they work themselves out, and other times they require significant intervention. But they do resolve. There is hope. For those stuck in a seeming “unresolvable” circumstance like this, the question you need to be asking yourself is “How can I participate in resolving this situation?”

When bullied we feel cornered, powerless, trapped—stuck! And when we feel stuck, we tend to react in ways that make the problem worse. This is why people commonly recommend “just live with it.” It’s why we often resort to silence in crucial moments. In the case of my father, he decided to “gut it out.” He would respond to the bully with kindness and respect. Yet every time he showed kindness, the bully further tormented him. And so, the situation worsened.

As you might imagine, this had a debilitating effect on my dad. It was hard for me to watch. He started to lose hope that the situation would change, or that he could do anything to make a difference. In the end, he stopped looking for alternative approaches and, in essence, gave up any semblance of control.

Relief finally came when he realized he still had control over how he responded to the bully. He came to understand that just because his first option for dealing with the bully didn’t work didn’t mean he couldn’t try something else. For him, realizing he still had a choice made all the difference.

I found out some time later that my mom was the driving factor in this process of regaining hope. She would listen as my dad would describe what he was experiencing. She’d empathize, ask questions, and help him evaluate possible solutions (this my dad found most helpful). Having a thinking partner helped him process options more objectively and helped him adjust his approaches when they weren’t working. But the various approaches weren’t as important as realizing that there were alternative approaches available to him.

My mom soon realized that while my dad felt support at home, he didn’t at work. He felt isolated and alone—the perfect conditions for a bully. She also realized that in order for my dad to retain hope and resolve the situation, he would need to build a support network at work.

Perhaps this is how you can help your husband.

Are there co-workers who feel similarly that can help? My team once consulted at a hospital where the nurses came up with a key word they could use when being bullied. When someone said the word, all the nurses around would immediately move to the side of the person being bullied to support them.

Are there other leaders in your husband’s organization that could help? Would filing a complaint with HR, even an anonymous one, be the first step . . . or even the needed corroborating fact? There is strength in numbers, so help your husband explore ways he can band together with his peers.

Think of it like this: (1) the situation can be resolved, (2) there are always options, (3) enlist supporters.

I hope these suggestions help you as you consider how to work with and support your husband through this difficult situation.

Best of luck,

You can learn more insights and skills like this in Crucial Conversations for Mastering Dialogue

8 thoughts on “How To Help Your Loved One Face a Bully”

  1. Jack

    I think this is very common for older workers that are capable but somebody wants to move out. Make the situation miserable until they leave. Responding with kindness is simply seen as weakness by the bully. I think a very tiny fraction of these situations result in workplace violence. Somebody has to pay the cost of the “wrong” that is occurring. Unfortunately, it is usually the one being bullied. We all need to quit expecting life to be fair. It is not. That perspective can help the bullied endure these situations.

  2. Patsy

    Document, document, document! Keep a written record of each instance of bullying–the date/time, description of the situation, what was said, who may have witnessed the incident, etc. Having evidence of recurring issues may empower you to take action and will bolster your case with HR. You regain control!

    1. Steve Willis

      So true! It takes it out of a “me vs them” type of situation and gives some nice facts for people to consider.

  3. Jen

    Bullies need to be stood up to. It is the only thing they understand.

    1. Steve Willis

      And it’s so hard to do when you think you’ll have to do it alone, and face the repercussions on your own.

  4. Jill Wright

    Instead of focusing on what he doesn’t have control over, what happens when he focuses on what he can control? What we focus on grows. You mention “he has only two choices”, what if there were other choices? What might those be?

    “He has limited job opportunities due to his age” focuses on a perceived limitation. What opportunities are out there where his experience and work ethic will be highly valued and abundantly rewarded?

    Given that he can’t change the bully, how can he think, feel and act that is about him and an outcome he most desires and not about the bully? What are things that he does at work that the bully doesn’t impact?

    If he could imagine a scenario where he would be content without the bully changing, what might that look like?

  5. Julinda

    Excellent advice, Steve! I’ve been in situations before where I felt bullied, and I probably will be again. I will try to remember the advice in this article. Thank you!

  6. Margie Kilmain

    Choices? So you either report the bullying to HR or you endure it? What’s wrong with getting in front of the person and calling them out on their behavior to their face? Why not use firm and appropriate language that belittles the abuser’s behavior, by comparing them to a derogatory type animal of some kind. Or ask them if they talk that way to their wife, husband or child. Then add, “I don’t like it, don’t treat me like that way.” Or I’ll report you to the Washington Post.

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