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What to Do When You Work for a Bully

If you've got a bad boss, take these smart steps to protect your job and health

By Nancy Collamer

More than 25 years have passed since my one, and thankfully only, experience working for a bully. But I can still remember how the sound of his voice would send my stress levels through the roof. I tolerated his behavior for nearly a year before deciding to resign — and I haven’t worked for another employer since.
So I was surprised by a new study by Australian psychologist Michelle McQuaid, due to be released Tuesday in conjunction with National Bosses Day, showing that only 30 percent of people 50 and older think a bully boss can impact their health; a whopping 73 percent of their younger counterparts think so.
(MORE: Why Your Workplace May Be Bad for Your Health)
Having lived through the experience myself, I agree with the younger generation on this one.
Workplace Bullies and Your Health
A bully’s effect on your emotional and physical health can be so severe that it’s been likened to post-traumatic stress disorder, according to the Workplace Bullying Institute, a group sponsoring Freedom From Workplace Bullies Week this week.
The economic costs of bullying are real. A recent Forbes article by David K. Williams, noted that bullying results in increased absenteeism, poor employee morale and lost productivity, costing American businesses an estimated $360 million a year.
Bullies vs. Bad Bosses
Of course, not all bad bosses are bullies and it’s important to understand the distinction.
According to the Workplace Bullying Institute, bullying is defined as repeated health-harming behaviors that can include verbal abuse, offensive conduct and intentional sabotage. Employees targeted by bully bosses stand a 64 percent chance of losing their jobs, the institute says, because they get fired or the bullying makes them too ill to work. In other words, a bad boss can make your life unpleasant, but a bully can be downright dangerous.
So what do you do if you’re in your 50s or 60s and stuck working for a bully? Firing back at your boss or quitting your job can be treacherous in this economy.
To help answer the question, I turned to three experts: Maud Purcell, a psychotherapist and executive director of the Life Center of Darien, Conn.; Dr. Gary Namie, co-founder of the Workplace Bullying Institute; and McQuaid, who is the author of the new, colorfully named book, 5 Reasons to Tell Your Boss to Go F**k Themselves: How Positive Psychology Can Help You Get What You Want.  Here are their recommendations:
(MORE: 8 Ways Not to Lose the Job You Finally Landed)
3 Tips for Handling Bullies at Work
1. Understand what sets your boss off. McQuaid points out that we all have irrational, fear-based beliefs that can trigger our worst behaviors when given news we don’t expect. The same is true for your boss. Once you understand your bully boss’s trigger points, you might find better ways to work around them. 
For example, if your boss is a numbers person, try to give him or her more data-intensive reports. If the bully tends to be cranky in the morning, try to plan your meetings with him or her later in the day. Little changes like these can (sometimes) make a big difference.
2. Focus on controlling your stress. High stress levels due to the bullying can undermine your performance at work and harm your health. To counteract the mental health effects of bullying, Purcell advises you to get plenty of sleep, exercise and keep as much distance as possible from the bully.
3. If you choose to confront your employer, do it carefully. At some point, you’ll need to decide whether to confront your boss about the bullying behavior. If you do want to have a conversation, Purcell says, be assertive but not aggressive in your approach.
If nothing changes after speaking with your boss, or the situation worsens, you may want to plead your case to upper management.
That step can be risky, though. Yes, it might get your boss to change his or her ways or even get the bully fired. But if the brass sides with your bully, you could be out of a job.
To help protect yourself, Namie recommends that you keep the conversation with the bully’s boss focused on the impact the behavior has on the employer’s bottom line. Most important, Namie says, stay calm. “Emotional pleas almost always backfire,” he says.
No matter what steps you take to deal with the workplace bully, don’t blame yourself for a situation that likely isn’t your fault. As the Workplace Bullying Institute site says, “The fact that bullies feel threatened speaks volumes about them, not about you.”

Photograph of Nancy Collamer
Nancy Collamer, M.S., is a semi-retirement coach, speaker and author of Second-Act Careers: 50+ Ways to Profit From Your Passions During Semi-Retirement. You can now download her free workbook called 25 Ways to Help You Identify Your Ideal Second Act on her website at (and you'll also receive her free bi-monthly newsletter). Read More
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