How to Deal with Mean People at Work

Mean people stink. Mean people at work are a nightmare. Having to deal with them five days a week can ruin your job.

Mean people, bullies

I once worked with a woman who was meaner than mean. She (let’s just call her Lizzie) could take you apart piece by piece. For example, if I pointed out something she did wrong, she would find 10 things I did wrong and make sure everyone knew about them. She was a master at making your life miserable. It got to a point where my stomach would be in knots Sunday night just thinking about facing her the next day.  I stuck it out for quite a while because I thought justice would prevail and she would eventually be fired. I finally quit when I realized she wasn’t going anywhere. In hindsight, I wish I had taken charge of the situation.

Being exposed to chronic meanness at work can be very similar to being in an abusive relationship. They can be all about control and power and depending on the severity; the victims can develop serious emotional and physical symptoms. Some symptoms include trouble sleeping, depression, or anxiety.

The good news is that you don’t have to put up with this type of behavior. Here’s what you do:

  1. Don’t strike back and always choose the high road. I would lay awake at night dreaming of the day I would finally show up “Lizzie.”  I now know that was a waste of emotional energy. You’re going to be angry, but you need to let go of that anger and remember that the goal needs to be to get the behavior to change not to punish them.
  2. Determine if what is being done to you is considered “harassment.” People, like my colleague Lizzie, can be very mean and never cross the line. Make sure you understand what harassment is and what it’s not. Click here to find out more.  If you determine it might be harassment, you may want to skip to step number 4.
  3. Confront them. Don’t play into their use of fear to keep you from speaking up.
    • Prep and practice what you are going to say
    • Be specific about the behavior you want to stop
    • Tell them how their behavior is affecting you
    • Restate what you’re asking them to change
    • Keep it very brief and document what was said
  4. Let your boss know right away. More than likely, the boss is afraid of them and that is why they still have a job. So it may be up to you take responsibility for confronting the issue. You need to engage your employer so they know that you are trying to fix the problem. If this is harassment, they need to take action to address it.  If you’re the boss of the abusive employee, you need to fire them. You’re enabling their behavior and your inaction could also expose your company to a lawsuit.
  5. Involve Human Resources.  If you’re lucky enough to have a decent Human Resources department they will help you resolve this. They may even have good policy that can back you up. A good HR department will also help you if it’s your boss who’s the problem.

If you have done all of the above and nothing has changed, unfortunately it’s time to either ask for a transfer or leave. Remember, you may feel trapped, but you always have options.

Did I miss any other strategies? What have you done?

This entry was posted in Dealing with Difficult People, Management, Personal Development and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.
  • Tom Martin

    Step 1 is great advice, and I find when “I’m in the moment” it’s hard not to strike back. It’s great to have an approach to deal with difficult situations. I think step 3 provides a good model for how we can deal with mean people.