The office bully – top tips on how to handle tricky colleagues

One of the key factors in being happy at work is the relationship you strike up with your colleagues. A good, supportive team creates a harmonious workplace, one where you and everyone in it thrives. However, put one small thorn among the roses and suddenly, you can find yourself in a very different situation.

An employee who doesn’t toe the line, who goes out of their way to cause problems, soon infects the whole environment and causes division, fear and stress.

The office bully – top tips on how to handle tricky colleaguesBullying in the workplace can come in many forms. Perhaps you have a colleague who always takes credit for your ideas, who puts you down in meetings or blames you for the failure of tasks when it clearly wasn’t your fault. Perhaps you’ve been the subject of malicious rumours or you’ve been excluded from meetings, lunches or after-work drinks. Bullies operate in so many ways, from the seemingly innocuous to full-on fury but it still amounts to the same thing – leaving you feeling wretched, miserable and dreading coming into the office.

So how you should handle a tricky colleague like this? Should you ignore them, hoping they might turn their attentions to some other poor individual before too long? Should you play them at their own game and try to get equal? Or should you report them to your manager? Relationships expert Sarah Abell has been at the receiving end of a bullying boss herself, and has written a book, Authentic – Relationships From the Inside Out, that includes a chapter on how to manage bullying colleagues. Her advice is to try to address it as soon as possible by talking. “I am not going to pretend that having a conversation with your colleague will be easy,” she says, “but if you can do it, you will not only be helping your own situation, you will be helping others who are suffering as a result of their behaviour.”

Bullying colleagues are often feeling vulnerable and inadequate themselves. This doesn’t excuse their behaviour but by standing up to them in a professional manner you show them that you are in control of the situation, that you are not afraid of them and that you want their behaviour to change. Here are Sarah’s tips on how to take control of the situation:

  • First of all, be prepared. Keep a diary of things that they have said or done, gather a group of friends and family around you to bolster you with encouragement and support, and then take a deep breath and get ready to meet, preferably on your own and face-to-face.
  • Second, choose a moment when you are feeling calm and have time to talk properly. Be clear with them about what they have done and why you find their behaviour unacceptable. Give them an opportunity to explain or apologise (but be prepared that this might not happen).
  • Third, explain how you want things to be different and what the consequence will be if things don’t change. (For example, you could say something like: “I would appreciate it if we could work more productively together as colleagues rather than as adversaries. I hope after this conversation things will improve but if you continue to belittle me in meetings, I will have no choice but to refer the matter to our boss and to consider making a formal complaint.”)
  • Fourth, follow through on your consequences. If their behaviour does change for the better, respond positively. But if there isn’t a change, do what you threatened to do and go to your boss. If your boss doesn’t do anything, then file a formal complaint. Remember, bullies are a bit like the wizard in The Wizard of Oz; they dread being exposed or revealed as frauds. They don’t want anyone drawing back the curtain and seeing the insecure little person behind it.

Related Articles

Where do you stand if you think you’re being bullied?

I am being bullied at work – what can I do?

  • Tristanography

    Good advice here, Bullying is surprisingly common, i recently started a formal grievance procedure for bullying and harrasement against my former employers Wdebroe

  • Maggie

    I worked for a company for three years and have just been made redundant.  I worked with a person who never made mistakes, but if you made one she would really have a go.  I became withdrawn, did not know how to handle the situation and my boss would say “I don’t want to get involved, sort it out amongst yourselves”.  I chose to ignore the situation but now I’ve been made redundant I realise the effect this whole situation had on me.  I’m glad I was made redundant but my confidence is now totally shattered.  What’s worse is that I’m 54 years old, I feel I should have been able to handle the situation but I couldn’t.  I have vowed to myself that I will never allow anyone to put me down or make me feel about two inches tall.

    • Peter

      HI Maggie! Good for you to be out of this environment! You probably need some time to get over this experience. When you are ready you should start applying again.  ’Surprisingly’ I had a similar experience and it was so bad that I became seriously ill. I also vowed to myself never to let this happen to me again. In job interviews I am now working along the lines if the prospective new job/ boss is right for me.
      Good luck!

    • CJ

      Good on you, I find your message inspiring, Maggie!

  • Jos

    I totally relate to this article and the above comments, there are four colleagues in my team who give me as little information as possible, off-loading jobs they do not like, whilst sharing whispered conversations and talking in their own language.  The sad part is that Management though aware have turned a blind eye.  It is very strenuous and depressingly frustrating as it stops effective work.

  • Abc


    I consider this advice garbage.

    Talking to idiots does not improve them.

  • Jane

    I took a grievance against management after I was assaulted and bullied unmercifully to the point I was unable to work for months I was so ill because of their tactics. My employer had numerous grievances ongoing from workers in various departments.  The management always closed ranks, they would make working conditions for the aggrieved worker hell, to ‘encourage’ them to drop their grievance, most would not get past stage one ( there are 3 stages to work through) and they would be moved to a different department to work in, most on lower pay, to add insult to injury!

    Although my grievance and the distressing treatment towards me at the hands of the bullies made me ill I felt compelled to take my grievance through to the end, many people who were involved would suddenly leave the company for better jobs or early retirement, union reps would find excuses, or leave the company, so they didn’t have to take on my case.  Because of my emotional and mental state the company I worked for arranged a short spell of counselling under occupational health, I never got to see the occupational health doctor, I saw a nurse. I believe I had a good rapport with the counsellor. During my grievance the counsellor retired from working for occupational health, I have requested a contact address, but this has been refused. I contacted the citizens advice bureau, and the employment  legal team informed me I had the right to take my employer AND my union to a tribunal for negligence but because of time limits I would have to pay for my own solicitor, I could not afford to do this.

    I wrote a letter of complaint to my union and explained I’d contacted the C.A.B after six union reps decided to drop my case. I was then appointed the Manager of the branch to represent me. I have on numerous occasions requested the full investigators report but the head of HR has always refused to provide this document, the union and I have only been provided with a ‘short version’ of this document and that took 11 months to procure.  I believe there has been many discrepencies and a massive cover up, which is what tends to happen in cases like mine within the company I worked for.  I also pointed out that there are information leaflets to help the bullies but not one bit of information to help the person who is being bullied. The bullies are still working in the same management roles and department, although the company  say they have disiplined them and are not at liberty to tell me or my union how they have been disciplined.

    During the two years my grievance took to  reach the final stage I left the company and the job I really enjoyed, I gained alternative employment but this meant I had to take a large drop in pay to be free of the bullies.  I lost all of my friends and colleagues, to this day they are too afraid to be seen speaking to me even though it is now nearly 4 years since I left my ex employer.  There was one friend that witnessed a lot of the bullying and two of the assaults but was and still is too frightened to speak up for me, they promised to be a witness at my grievance hearings but withdrew their promise so that the bullies wouldn’t target them!  They have recently told me that the bullies have now begun to bully them and because of this they have  been signed off work ill.

    Two months ago I received a letter from my union solicitor explaining if I wish to do so I could independently take my ex manager to court for bullying me and that there is a three year time limit to act upon this, but I could not call upon their services!  I wonder why
    they were not at liberty to help me to do this when acting on my behalf during the grievance?

    In my experience  I feel that management tend to look after each other and disregard their responsibilities to  protect workers under their care who are being bullied. they and the bullies are a disgrace to the human race and they will continue to get away with these tactics and the bullying until someone has the compassion and bravery to tell the truth, I wish with all my heart that one day that ‘decent somebody’ will find the courage to step up to the line and race across it, that is all they have to do to make a better future for decent people and co-workers, together they will be stronger than the biggest, richest company and the bullies,  together they would be able to help the bullies to stop making innocent peoples lives a misery. Truth and Courage is the way forward.

    Although I was not awarded compensation by my ex employer I believe in a way I won my grievance, I know, and the bullies know, I told the truth throughout.  I can look at myself in the mirror every day and see a decent, honest person, I can also sleep easy every night because I told the truth, they have to live with the knowledge that they will one day have to answer to someone higher for their misconduct and discrepancies.

  • Bob

    Thanks I recently started a grievance at the company I work at due to bullying and although HR seem to be helpful even though they have a big bullying and harrassment document / policy, I doubt they will do anything for me.

    I doubt they will find anything as the people I mentioned are witnesses – are members of the team and they will just lie and hide the fact. I also mentioned their security cameras which should show some of the info.

    At the moment I feel like my only solution will be to leave. I feel quite isolated now as people who I thought as friends do not seem like that and I feel my only solution will be to leave. Management show they have a tough stance on bullying by reacting quickly but I think it is all a smoke screen as I feel they will investigate and tell me there are no grounds for my grievance or something like that. I was really happy in my job until I got verbally bullied and colleagues started ruining and messing about with my work. Now I feel the best solution would be to leave and put this nasty environment behind me.
    can anyone offer any advice???

    • Bugsbunny

      Bob, move on mate.  I left a well paid part-time job full of bitchiness, best thing I ever did.  I ended up on more money and a lot happier in the end.  :-)

  • Alasdair Murray

    once had a client who was a real bully to his staff. They quite
    literally lived in fear of him. He phoned me one afternoon and said “can

    you make an 8.30 tomorrow”. His office was down in the South West and I
    in London, plus I already had other commitments the next day, I made my
    “How about Monday same time?” he added, to which I replied rather
    cheekily “Hang on. That means I’d have to get up at about 4 in the
    morning!”. “Life’s a bitch isn’t it” he said, to which I then
    replied “Life may well be a bitch, but I don’t get up at 4 in the
    morning for anyone”. Taken aback that someone actually stood up to him,
    he then waffled and backed down. Turned out there
    was no need for me to go down there at all anyway as it was something we
    were able to resolve quite easily over the phone. He may have played
    big ‘I am’ with his staff who seemed totally afraid to face up to him,
    but I was having none of it.

    That said, I probably learned from this previous experience

    That bloke was, an probably still is, a totally scheming, manipulative
    bar steward. The problem is all too often, until you have experienced
    something and had time to reflect, you’re not actually aware you’re
    being bullied.

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  • Laura

    I have worked in a call centre for 7yrs i was well liked i was even a union rep and got on with everybody. I recently left there and got another job close to home and im really having 2nd thoughts about it now. I feel like everything is about what im doing wrong not right and because im classed as newbie in the place i feel like i cant talk to anybody. I dont feel like i get on with the people on my team as im a big girl and they are all into make up etc. I feel like when my calls get listened to i really feel like theey really saying “well shape up or ship out” to go from where i have come from to this i feel so low, iv been in tears today, i have no confidence what so ever i feel like im hitting a wall i have nobody to talk to. I really have had enough, 7yrs ive worked my butt off to get where i was and now im being treated like a child, yes i m only 25 but i have worked hard to get the qualifications i gained.

    • Lizi_89

      Hang in there, stand up and let them know what you’re made of. I was in your shoes and it made me I’ll. Try to remember what your strengths are, you were given the job for a reason. You’ve earned your place there and you have what it takes. I’m sure you’re great at what you do, don’t let them take that from you!

  • Unhappy

    I am going to raise a formal grievance tomorrow. Worked at a company for 11 months. A perso who has worked there for 28 years is basically making my life hell at work. After addressing the matter with my line manager three times, the shouting and humiliating comments have stopped. Instead I am been ignored. Very cleverly, always makes sure to be polite when manager is around. I was making everyone drinks twice a day, going out for sandwiches. I tried various forms of team building. None have worked. One of the reasons I was employed us because I am outgoing and positive. Not any more. I have realised that all this has drained me. I was recently ill with an illness. I am sure it was made more severe by all of this. If I try and join in with general office chat, I am ignored. I have a couple of ally’s and the boss does seem to see what is going in but has chosen to ignore it. I have had enough, feel backed into a corner. Also, this person is very critical of my work. I have only had two days training in the 11 months I have been there. The main person who can assist me with the very complicated system is the person who is making my life so hard. They seem to take every opportunity to shout my every error across the office. Even when it turns out to be wrong I receive no apology.

    • Anon

      i can relate to the above comment , this has happened to me,  this starts in a vicious cycle, They close ranks once they are outed, but are like a pack of wolves picking off the weak, I once came back to my desk with somebody shouting my name across the office blaming me for a error (with their back to me) and the person facing me whispered to her “shut up”..for which i wasnt involved in at all. i would advise to leave as the impact on your life can be dramatic.. people can become fed of the moaning of your job, in todays climate. and once you have started the negative spiral ..its hard to go back up.

  • Eb

    Sometimes I don’t think people intentionally mean to bully it can be institutionalized and to some extent the culture. I’ve worked in a few different places and have always managed to fit in and get by, in most instances respected for my contributions… all except my most current job.
    I took on a new role just over 2 years ago for a small IT firm specializing in niche software and the attitude from day #1 was ‘learn it yourself’. This was coming from the people around me who were all 10-20 years in the company and took no effort to inform, guide, or assist in my own learning and development. In fact, my suspicion was this was perhaps deliberate as it helped them stand out in comparison to myself, someone educated with 15 years IT experience struggling to get a grip of the systems and processes.
    After a few months of becoming increasingly stressed and lower and lower in confidence, I found myself at the hands of someone in the team who started to take exception to me and making my life more difficult taking specific opportunities to put the knife in on me often in front of others (but not the boss).
    After a long think about it I decided that no job was worth my health, stress, or to end up fighting a battle I could never win against the institutional guys who made it their way or no way. I went into work and announced to my boss that I was in the wrong job, that it was causing me huge amounts of stress, and that I wasn’t prepared to put up with it anymore. I was fully prepared psychologically for the fact this was a make or break day, but there would only be a winning outcome. I either kept my job and it worked, or I left the job and thanked myself for being big enough to admit this and leave it behind.
    After a day or two of discussions, said bully noticed this all going on and when everyone had gone home came to ask me if everything was ok. I asked him if he had time to sit in one of the meeting rooms alone with me for a ‘one to one’ where I spelled out the situation in full and informed him of my intended actions.
    All I can say is everything changed for the better from that day, knowing that I was equally prepared to make the situation public and become a loose cannon because of the problems they caused me it’s been a complete reversal of the situation. I know it could have gone either way, but as I said – make it a win/win situation and approach it with the ‘I really really don’t care what the outcome will be, as it’s better than what’s going on right now’. Remain professional about it (after all you still need a reference right). I’m still intent on changing my job this year as I feel it still doesn’t get the best out of me, but the difference is I’ll do it on my terms, not theirs.

    • Michael T

      That is the secret dont beat yourself up over it. I lost a job six years ago because of a bully director it happened once too often so I told him to stuff it and walked.
      His face was a treat to watch.
      No it didn’t get me my job back and I have not worked much in the last 6 years.
      However I have self respect for myself and that’s what counts. This is the only life you have don’t spend it as a doormat,It stresses you out even more.
      I have lost jobs since because I will not take bullying full stop.
      When people are nice to me I am nice to them.

  • Jacqui

    None of the above comments work, because in the end you are the one losing out on a job, and with todays climate and us all wanting to keep on paying the bills and a roof over your head, it is difficult to move on especially when you are 54 years old like myself and the other person above, in one of the comments.  I think it should be the Management who should take the time to look at what is told to them about bullying.  But often Managers are not experience at people management only their job, which is once in a position of where we all are now, or they came in as someones friend.  I have yet to find a Manager who can manage people in a fair way to weed out the bullies.  The bullies make themselves so indispenceable, that the manager would rather if you go than them. Also the Managers fear them.


    • jane kaczmarek

      i totaly agree with this statment above i wish i could just say something clever or constructive then leave, but as things stand i need the job so i put up with the stress and my self esteme just gets lower and lower i have been with the company 8years the bullying is verble and only started about 2yr ago when new managment came to our department i have tryed to tell my supervisor but she just says she,ll talk to them but nothing ever happens, so i dont k now were to go next,
      sometimes i sound like i am just moaning but its a big problem to me

  • Dannyboi18

     seriously, this is depressing reading. why do you pander to these people. so what if its your boss or some other muppet that works there, dont take no shit of anyone! just because they think there billy big time who cares. stop letting them mug u off and stand upto them. tell them there a total cunt if you have to. Bring them down to size and let them know you wont be spoken to or treated like that, Have some pride and a bit of back bone. Dont be a typical office drone and say nothin. if they dont like it, let them know where they can stick there job.

  • whistlermom

    The previous posts all ring true!  It’s a wonder any work gets done, as office life seems to bring out the worst in some people and they can truly be cruel.  I think there are 2 options:  leave the job, with dignity.  Or, make your free time so enjoyable and positive that you shrink the amount of mind space you are willing to give the bully.  A positive campaign “I’m backing ME” can work.  Look for CBT books.  Practice the positive relentlessly.  Like yourself. Dedicate time to boosting your CV eg a short course, reading a few articles on CV presentation and tunnel your way out.  Good luck everybody!  Life is a bitch.  Get off your knees – fewer people will kick you.

  • RachisCool

    I have had my fair share of bullies in the work place and basically if your working for a company which is relatively small and full of idiots the best thing is to leave as you can’t and won’t win. In a bigger work place or corporation will have steps for such controlling low life’s and complaint procedures. Never put up with it. Shout the loudest. He who dares wins.

  • Anon

    I have been intimidated at work by a colleague that I have worked with for over 13 years. He called my work sloppy in front of the other members of staff and had no intention of reconiliation or offering an apology. Been off work now for six months with stress.

  • Frances

    Bullying is common, some of us have been bullied and if we aree honest have bullied others too. Just didn’t seem like bullying back at the time. Reasons for bullying can include feeling overwhelmed, being bullied by others so hitting back at easier targets, health issues, so distressed that you lash out. Think if you leave a job to get away from bullying you can just come up against it in another job. Can understand why running away would appeal, its not always the answer. Don’t want to sound evangelical, but try pray for the bully, but within reason. If its involved stalking, assault or left you in real fear, then get legal. Thank you.

  • Frances

    Bullying is common, some of us have been bullied and if we are honest have bullied others too. Just didn’t seem like bullying back at the time. Reasons for bullying can include feeling overwhelmed, being bullied by others so hitting back at easier targets, health issues, so distressed that you lash out. Think if you leave a job to get away from bullying you can just come up against it in another job. Can understand why running away would appeal, its not always the answer. Don’t want to sound evangelical, but try pray for the bully, but within reason. If its involved stalking, assault or left you in real fear, then get legal. Thank you.

  • Frances

    May help to pray for bullies, if we are all very honest, some of us have been bullied and have bullied others too. Being overwhelmed, abused oneself, unable to know which way is up due to victimisation doesn’t justify bullying others, but somehow you hit back and often at the wrong people. However, not especially saintly personally. Pray by all means for abusers; however get legal if they stalk, attack or make deliberate trouble. Tempting as it is to turn the other cheek, know when its beyond moral and veered into criminal abuse. Don’t take it if it justifies a visit to the police station. Keep notes, being bullied can reduce your credibility in a complaint as you may have lost faith in yourself and others hone in on this and without notes you can look like you’re exagerating or making it up. A bully may enjoy the apparent powerlessness of your situation even more that the satifaction of having a go at you.

  • louise

    Hello, I am looking for a new job after being harrassed at work. I have been bullied in a previous job which ruined my career and still affects me today.

     I can highly recommend the book: ‘Bully in Sight’ by Tim Field. It is thourough, easy to read and I wished Ihad had it 10 yrs ago. http://www.Work-stress network,    are very good websites and the ‘Dignity at Work Act’ is useful to read with good links. C.P.S website also gives advice regarding what to expect if you go down the formal grievance route.
    All in all, management close ranks, you’re dependent on your union rep being very knowledgable in what they do and even the law doesn’t seem sufficient to bring the bullies to account. However I have found that the advice and strategies in the information I have read has made me less fearful of being bullied again as I feel more confident at standing up for myself whatever the outcome. I was too ill to do this when I was bullied 10yrs ago and I still regret this. The important thing is to look after your health and know when to walk away. It’s not a sign of weakness.

     I hope this helps anyone out there. I wish you all success in finding a new and happy career. Thinking of you.


  • Loosing my marbles!

    I have worked now for 2 and a half years for my company until my fellow colleague bullied her way into our office. for the last year she has made our lives a living hell. i’m currently on betablockers, my supervisor has an ulcer and our immediate manager refuses to work with her. I’ve raised yet another grievance which has been sent to HR who are still reviewing. ‘Im close to a nervous breakdown and nearly walked out today but I’ve 3 kids to feed and can’t afford to. Everyone knows what she is like but no one will stand up and be counted. Senior management go on about her personal problems but this was only raised due to the fact they drink in the same establishment!! I’m undergoing referral to the Breast clinic and feel that I only have the energy for 1 fight! I have a good relationship with other staff members but this one person seems intent on driving me out of my job or my mind with her incompetence and behavior! Any advice would be appreciated.

  • Anonymous

    very good advise about bullies which make our lives hell

  • Quentin

    Can I pour ICE COLD WATER over all the advice the experts give. I’ve had several cases of working with line managers who cross the line; I’ve been called everything, threatened and often there has been clear evidence of several managers clumping together so you’re boxed in. Fact is, in a medium to large company there are often more than one bully, secondly; they bond like magnets so you can’t find a way through. I’ve worked at a senior level in the commerical world and bullies are quite smart, in addition to clumping together with other bullies (power cultures) when the event happens there are normally two of them and one of you – by the time you try and get a witness in the event has happened and the moment lost. I’ve also worked in the recruitment industry and ‘candidates’ who’ve left a job with a tribunal or union or ACAS history are very often devalued the minute they tell the story, new prospective employers sometimes brand them as trouble makers. I most certainly avoid the truth for leaving one job (severe bullying and terrible abuse) as I’ve been told to do so by recruitment consultants for the reasons stated.

    Whilst I’d support the advice given, especially conforting the situation early and documenting events – sometimes the leopard won’t change his spots – so just start looking for another job and move on. I strongly DISAGREE with trying to talk to peers and gaining your own power culture on the offendee – committee management rarely works and it could land you in deeper water. It’s your problem, don’t confide in anyone just deal with it yourself.

    Unions are dinosaurs and we all know what happened to them, take free impartial and good advice from ACAS by phone.

    If you’re getting abuse and or threatened – use your smartphone to record events, there are some great apps for all phones and your phone can be on the desk facing the demon. Under section 20 of the data protection act, it’s NOT against the law to do so. There is one app that will record phone calls too if the problem comes to you that way, you back the data up to your PC and the app does it all for you. I speak from actual use, I recorded a meeting section where I came under severe verbal abuse and recorded several phone calls of the same. I burnt the data to a CD, took a portable CD player to a requested meeting, said nothing and pressed play. I promise you the room was so silent and 2 minutes was enough, the offendees face said it all. I made a one minute statement that I wasn’t putting up with this any longer and left the room, simmering. I knew I had to leave that company, but I could have driven a bus through any tribunal or court case – I just chose not to be branded, possibly as not all employers brand you a potential trouble maker. The man is still there and still bullying others all though I’ve long gone.

    So, yes tough it out with Ogers who cause you pain but as Einstein said – every action has a reaction so think it through first.

    Kind wishes to all,

  • valdertk

    All this comments are important and ring true.Bully always get away with their behaviour. Colleagues never help cos they will loose their job. basically victims are alone to fight, and find themself in no win situation. Acas seems to discourage those who want to go to court. HR want to protect the company or use your case to promote themselve or as an opportunity to have a promotion. government do not do anything to protect the employee. basically never give up go to court, talk to people family, friends, unknown, check on the net. do not let them get away with it. teach them a lesson. they can not win. Be determine to be heard. big company think because they are big no one would listen to you. believe me there is always some one ready to listen. Be prepare to fight in the court of law. It is your only chance to get back at them. make a log of everything, record them if you can, use your smart phone to copy the cctv as the company even if they check the cctv will not let you know or can still blame you or tag you as trouble maker, when discuss with colleagues record it you never know that might help one day at least to convince the lawyer or union that you are not mad. When you can copy every evidence you can put your hand on, if you can not find time to use your smart phone to do the job.use the camera feature, the voice recorder…I can relate to all of you. these people are vicious and malicious nothing can stop them, they do not care to kill you mentally and physically

  • Alone

    I’ve been working for a company since 2006. The first few years there were pleasant and everyone was really lovely however in 2009 a new member of staff arrived and initially our little episodes were perceived as minor misunderstandings. As time progressed she started becoming more forceful and including and encouraging other members of staff to bully me. I haveon several occasions written letters to my boss explaining the situation. He has tried to help us all work together by carrying out group training etc but no disciplinary action was ever taken. Matters have been steadily going out of control and recently a text message was accidentally sent to me by one of the staff. In it she was belittling me to another member of the team. I showed it to the boss and nothing was done about it. A week later I find a bit of paper from one staff to another talking about me. I cannot handle this anymore. I dread going in to work and have now told me boss that the situation is not going to change because he is doing nothing about it. I’m going to quit in order to keep my sanity. Any advise?