Bullies, Mean Girls, and Remaining Professional When Things Get Personal — Careers Done Write

In the 2004 cult classic film Mean Girls, Cady, the teenage protagonist, gets to experience public school and gets a quick primer on the cruel, tacit laws of popularity that divide her fellow students into tightly knit cliques. The guileless Cady falls into a clique known as the Plastics, the snobbiest, nastiest girls in school, and not to be messed with. The Plastics are nothing but a band of bullies who, in true movie fashion, get their comeuppance at the end of the film. 

Bullies from high school often grow up to become bullies in the workplace (as well as outside of work), resulting in many of us finding ourselves in situations that are unfortunately similar to our dark days of adolescence. The worst part – these bullies are much stronger and vindictive. Workplace bullying takes many forms; it includes behavior that intimidates, offends, degrades, or humiliates an employee, possibly in front of coworkers and clients. 

Workplace bullying can be defined as the repeated less favorable treatment of a person by another or others in the workplace, which may be considered unreasonable and inappropriate workplace practice. While this is not necessarily illegal and may not even be against corporate policies, the damage that such actions cause to the targeted employee and workplace morale is significant.

Workplace bullying can manifest in the following ways: 

  • Intimidating or undermining employees by demeaning their work standards, not giving them credit, setting them up for failure, and constantly reminding them of old mistakes.

  • Threatening employees’ personal self-esteem and work status.

  • Isolating employees from opportunities, information, and interaction with others.

  • Giving impossible deadlines, creating undue pressure and stress, and overworking employees.

  • Giving constant and unfair criticism.

  • Blaming without factual justification.

Like sexual harassment, bullying is uninvited, undeserved, and unwarranted. Unlike harassment, however, bullying, although it can be soul-crushing, is not illegal. 

Common myths about bullying—that it’s simply “holding people to high standards” or having a “competitive personality” — suggest that bullying does not harm and may even spur performance. However, this is objectively false. Another assumption is that bullies are often star performers and that high performance justifies their bad behavior. However, star performers are likelier to be targets than bullies. Bullies are usually mediocre performers who may appear to be stars, but in fact, they often take credit for the work of others.

The best way to deal with workplace bullies, just like schoolyard bullies, is to call them out. If someone screams at you, say in a low voice, “You are obviously in a very emotional place right now. Come back and talk to me when you can control yourself.” When your office’s Regina George makes jokes at your expense, look at her and ask, “What do you mean by that?” Document your interactions with the bully and the bullying behavior. 

If your company has no policy on bullying or the current policy needs updating, don’t be afraid to bring this up to your manager or human resources department. If there is a policy, follow the proper protocols to report the bullying and feel safe knowing you have the written text to back up your claim!

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