“My high-profile boss is bullying me – will I lose my job if I report her?”

Written by The Honest Boss

How to deal with power imbalances and bullying within the workplace, according to the Honest Boss.

“I used to love my job, but for the last year, I’ve been struggling with bullying in the workplace. The worst part is that it’s coming from my boss in the form of constant belittling and demeaning remarks – criticism that seems far harsher than she doles out to anyone else on the team. On top of that, she is really well-respected within the company so I’m not sure anyone would believe me if I were to bring it up. It’s making me miserable. How can I confront what’s happening without putting my role in jeopardy?”

Emily, 35 

The unfortunate truth is that bullying at work is extremely common but, as you’re discovering, not particularly easy to fix. One problem is there’s no legal definition of bullying, unlike sexual harassment or racial discrimination, so it’s an accusation that is difficult to prove.

But that doesn’t mean you have to put up with inappropriate behaviour.

Firstly, your company should have either a bullying policy or a written code of conduct.If you have a decent HR team, use this as context for an opening conversation, highlighting your boss’s demeaning remarks. However, the drawback is that many HR departments are programmed to support the senior manager in a dispute so they’re not always a route to resolution. With luck, though, they will listen to you fairly and check in with you on an ongoing basis.

Next, I recommend keeping a detailed record of every bullying incident. Regard this as your very own book of evidence. You may also need to enlist some allies; one or two colleagues in whom you can confide and, ideally, those who have witnessed the bullying first-hand. Their response will be key to building a case. For example, do they agree that your boss is a bully? And do they think that you are being especially victimised?If the answer to both of these questions is a resounding yes, and they are prepared to go on the record, this will strengthen your case for later action.

And though it may feel like the last thing you want to do, I would suggest you confront your boss head-on. Just like in the school playground, bullies do not like to be challenged by someone who’s prepared to stand up for themselves. Ask for a one-to-one meeting to discuss your performance. 

Take notes and express your issues very simply by saying something like: you seem to be dissatisfied with my work of late, and I am wondering if I have done something to upset you? Give her a chance to respond and then challenge her on the examples you have gathered of her unreasonable treatment. Try to explore if there’s any room for both of you to work together with something of a renewed understanding. If it turns out that she is merely a bad manager rather than a toxic boss, the meeting might be the perfect catalyst for change.

However, if things turn even more sour, it’s important you keep your cool. Finish the discussion by saying you are intending to take advice elsewhere. She doesn’t need to know what you mean by this as you could be referring to her boss, HR or indeed an external advisor such as a bullying charity, a lawyer, citizens advice or ACAS, a service that offers free advice for exactly this type of situation.

Whether you choose to seek legal advice or not, remember that the only behaviour you can really influence is your own. If you can, try to switch off your emotions. You may find that by focusing on yourself rather than her, you are back in control. 

Even if there is no policy, your employer has a legal duty of care to protect you while you’re at work. This includes dealing with bullying issues. If you have to leave your job because of severe bullying that your employer did nothing about, you might be able to make a claim to an employment tribunal for constructive dismissal.

Images: Getty

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