Family & Work

The Agony Aunt: How to deal with a bullying colleague

I have been experiencing problems with a colleague that I feel amount to bullying, but I am not sure how to speak up or take action. I fear it will be dismissed as a bit of conflict when I am certain it is much more than that.

It can be difficult as adults to define bullying behaviour. In life, and in the workplace in particular, we have been brought up to be resilient and to rise above bad behaviour towards us. However, often what gets lost is the no-tolerance to bullying message of our childhoods. We explain the behaviour away to ourselves; using the excuses of pressure or a personality clash.  It is acceptable to talk about helping children and young people, but when it comes to opening up about bullying in the workplace it can be more complicated. Often the behaviours can be so slight and they may deny your perception of conversations or incidents taking place to make you question your own reality, also known as gaslighting. While it is difficult to advise the best course of action without knowing the exact details of your situation, the following pointers may help:

  1. You are not alone.

If you suspect you are the only one being targeted by this person, the feelings of helplessness and shame can be amplified, and you may worry you won’t be believed. First of all, be reassured that often the behaviour isn’t going completely unnoticed by others, and what may be happening privately to you could also be happening or have happened to someone else without your knowledge. Even if you suspect that is not the case, speaking up will give you some peace of mind that someone is at least aware of your concerns, and it should prompt them to examine the other’s behaviour more closely.

  1. Speak up.

Bullying has an extremely distressing impact on emotional health and work performance, so it is important to talk to someone, whether it is someone within the organisation, in your external support network, or a counselling professional. Talking will give you more confidence in your feelings, and help you to process the events and remember with more clarity why you feel you are being targeted. There is a spectrum of bullying behaviour, from simple rudeness to violence and threats. All are part of the same picture so it is important to acknowledge the more mild incidents as well. While you shouldn’t doubt your feelings, try to be honest and identify where you may have overreacted or unknowingly contributed to the behaviour.

  1. Identify the behaviour.

The definition of bullying according to Acas is any behaviour that could be characterised as harassment offensive, intimidating, malicious or insulting behaviour, an abuse or misuse of power through means intended to undermine, humiliate, denigrate or injure the recipient. The behaviour may also be illegal under the Equalities Act 2010 if you are experiencing harassment though any unwanted behaviours regarding protected characteristics – such as age, gender, sex, sexuality, marital status, pregnancy, maternity/paternity, race, religion and faith or disability and additional needs.

If you are preparing to take formal action, it is important to identify every incident and align with these definitions. Document everything and keep a diary of interactions. As you examine what is happening, it may be helpful to try to understand what is causing the behaviour – not to excuse or pass the blame, but to try to determine the best course of action to stop it altogether. Consider whether the individual feels threatened or insecure in their position for any reason.

  1. Protect yourself.

It is important to protect yourself as much as possible while this is ongoing. Try to avoid unnecessary interactions. In the face of their slights against you, stand up for yourself and immediately correct the behaviour.  For some, the next step may be to try to address the problem directly with the perpetrator. If face to face interaction is too likely to escalate, consider an attempt to diffuse the situation via email – it may also help to have their response on written record should future formal action be required. Enlist the help of others who you have confided in in order to approach in a measured and productive way.

If the situation is so toxic that these actions are not a possibility, consider leaving the organisation, if possible. While it may feel like letting them win, self-preservation is most important and there is no point putting yourself through needless distress and trauma. Identify exactly why you are leaving in your written notice, so that the company can be aware and prevent future problems.


At Obelisk, we have zero tolerance of bullying. If consultants are experiencing problems they can come to us and we can help them manage the situation.

Anti-bullying Week 2016 is being held between the 14th and 18th November with the theme ‘power for good’ and is organised by Anti-Bullying Alliance. Follow the events on social media using #antibullyingweek and #powerforgood.