How to beat a bully


You're no punching bag, so don't let anyone treat you like one. Use these bully-busting strategies to reclaim your practice.

It might start with a snicker every time you walk past the reception desk. Or maybe it's that snippy comment you've learned to dread every day: "Something smells," she says, wrinkling her nose as you enter the room. These small offenses may look trivial alone, but they accumulate over time to eat away at your confidence, sap team morale, and turn the job you love into a daily nightmare.

If you've ever been bullied, you know how much it hurts. And you're not alone. Studies conducted in 2005 by researchers at the Uni versity of New Mexico and at Arizona State Uni versity show that 25 percent to 30 percent of U.S. employees are bullied and emotionally abused sometime in their work histories.

It's not always easy to spot a bully. Some silently sabotage from the shadows and feign innocence when cornered, while others call the shots with show-stopping swagger. As a victim, you may be overloaded with tasks or cruelly stripped of gratifying ones. Once-friendly team members may avoid you, fearing the bully's wrath if they align themselves with you.

If this sounds like grade-school drama, you're not too far off. Playground tyrants grow up, but they don't often outgrow their tactic of intimidation. The irony is that beneath the bully's sinister exterior lies deep-seated insecurity, and often times, inadequacy. As Tim Field, author of Bully In Sight: How to Predict, Resist, Challenge, and Combat Workplace Bullying (Success Un limited, 1996), says, "Those who can, do. Those who can't, bully." Let's take a look at five common bully breeds and how to best manage their assaults.

The passive-aggressive sneak

The profile: Angela, the receptionist, appears angelic at first blush. Over time, however, you realize her seraphic sweetness is reserved for veterinarians and clients. Fearful of confrontation, she often uses sly comments or notes to boost her influence and make others look bad. You might hear her tell the doctor, "I can't trust anyone else with the schedule. We always end up overbooked when Ginger sets the appointments."

Coping strategies: This bully's choir-girl image makes her misdeeds difficult to expose. So when you catch her in the act, address the behavior directly. "Call her out on it without using threats," says Debbie Allaben Gair, CVPM, a Firstline Editorial Advisory Board member and a communication consultant with Bridging the Gap in Sparta, Mich. "Be kind, firm, and frank. Look her in the eye and say, 'I heard what you just said to Dr. Smith. That's untrue and I don't appreciate it.'" Since passive-aggressive bullies fear confrontation, calmly acknowledging her behavior will send the message that you're not to be messed with.

Dr. X makes you want to hide

The manipulator

The profile: It's Mary Manipulation's turn to mop. She slyly assures you she'll tackle the task. But when the clock strikes the hour, she's poised at the door, hat in hand, ready to bolt for the parking lot. With a sheepish smirk, she says, "Sorry, I got tied up. You'll help me out, won't you?" Normally this wouldn't be a big deal, but it's the fifth time she's weaseled out of the work this month.

Coping strategies: The manipulator wields her charm with chilling ease. But defeating her is relatively easy: When she pleads for help, simply say, "No, not this time." Don't get emotional or show irritation, Gair says. Even better, lay down the law in advance. If you see a pattern forming, start the next shift by saying, "I won't stay late tonight." Without being nasty, simply define your limits, which don't include bailing her out of trouble day after day.

The attention-starved diva

The profile: In life's daily drama Donna Diva's always center stage. And since you were promoted to practice manager, she has unleashed a full arsenal of backstabbing behavior with two goals: to tarnish your pearly reputation and reclaim the limelight. She spreads rumors about you among the new technicians and calls you out in front of clients.

Coping strategies: First, talk to Donna in private, Gair says. Remind her that the practice needs her allegiance. Even if she's unhappy with the new hierarchy, ask her to neutralize her anger for the good of the practice. Make it a choice: She can choose to support the team or she can choose to leave. If the gossip remains out of control, address the gossiper and the listener, Gair says. Offer progressive discipline if necessary.

The serial bully

The profile: Catty Keith views bullying as a competitive sport, and his goal is to run up the score at others' expense. He needles the weakest or newest team member until she crumples and quits or mounts a defense, which either wins his respect or renders the game tiresome.

Coping strategies: This bully often evades reprimands by appearing irreplaceable because he's "worked at the practice forever" or he's "the most technically skilled technician we've ever had."

When you deal with Keith, consider appreciating his strengths. Say, "You're amazing, Keith! You can restrain even the meanest pets. Will you give me some pointers?"

If he's nitpicking your every move, say, "I'd love to live up to your standards, Keith, but I can't get a thing done with you breathing down my neck." Most serial bullies will admire your gumption and back off. If he won't lay off, speak with your manager. The boss can remind Keith that he was once a new person, too, and that his imposing demeanor is scaring off good employees, Gair says.

Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde

The profile: Radical Ruth's moods shift faster than the weather. You never know which Ruth will clock in: your charming, sunny ally or a vicious, irrational tornado of gloom. Seeing her name next to yours on the schedule is enough to send you diving for an umbrella.

Coping strategies: Because you might be only one privy to this bully's transgression du jour, your cry for help may be met with disbelief. "Ruth? Surely not! She's such a sweetheart."

Here's another twist: Ruth may look up to you and desperately want to be your friend. Fearing rejection, she lashes out even as she tries to get closer to you. The key to managing this bully is not to overreact in tense situations, Gair says. Address her behavior with statements like, "It hurts when you say things like that." Or give her a sense of control by saying, "How do you want me to handle this?" 4

The core coping tactics

If you can't put your finger on which type of bully you're dealing with—or if she's a combination of a few profiles—review this list of all-purpose strategies from Dr. Kramer.

  • Understand the differences between the bullies of your childhood and those in the workplace. For example, schoolyard tyrants typically prey on the weak, but workplace bullies often go after high achievers. Asserting yourself on the playground may have worked, but doing so with a serial bully may backfire and she may retaliate by turning up the heat.

  • Don't isolate yourself. Keep communication lines open and join your co-workers for lunch occasionally, even if you'd prefer to eat alone. Staying connected helps give you a network of support when you need it.

  • Don't offer personal information to a bully. Guard yourself by keeping discussions focused on practice matters.

  • Document your achievements. If the bully questions your performance, you'll have a formal record to back you up.

  • Track the bully's shortcomings. Remember, bullies often project their inadequacies onto others. So while it may seem sneaky, a record of her mistakes may help protect you if the bully tries to shift the blame your way.

  • Use compelling evidence to support your claim. When you report a bully's behavior to your manager, explain what a bully can cost in terms of lost productivity and staff turnover. Assoc iating numbers with your complaint may move it from tattling to a legitimate financial issue.
  • Nurture a culture of fairness. Simply discussing what's fair and what's not makes team members feel better. For example, at a staff meeting you may discuss how fairness creates a friendly at mosphere. It's simple to do: Just decide which actions are most fair and behave accordingly.
  • Create workplace decorum guidelines. The benefits: You'll develop a permanent record of the practice's policies, and the process empowers everyone to share their thoughts.

To keep bullying at bay in the long haul, remember that there are no silly problems, says Dennis Cloud, DVM, a Firstline board member and owner of several practices in the St. Louis area. "Even if the matter seems benign, managers and owners prefer to address sensitive issues before they become intolerable," he says.

Though it's not intentional bullying, also be aware that tight-knit teams can intimidate new employees, Dr. Cloud says. So before the new team member feels isolated or picked on, remind her that it's a great crew to work with once she endures an inevitable testing period.

Finally, before you wage war with a bully, consider this important warning: "If you suspect the bully suffers from a mental health disorder, don't tackle the problem yourself," Dr. Kramer says. "You don't want to put yourself in danger by becoming a junior psychologist, social worker, or punching bag. Instead, refer the problem to a supervisor or a professional who can shed light on the problem without putting you in danger."

This advice is critical if you're experiencing incidents of abuse that may include a physical component. These cases constitute harassment, Dr. Kramer says, so remove yourself from the dangerous situation and seek help immediately.

You deserve a safe workplace where team members encourage each other to learn and grow. You're all there for the same reason: to help pets. So if a bully's throwing his or her weight around, it's time to take your practice back.

Michelle O'Neal is a freelance writer in Shawnee, Kan.Please send questions to

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