Dear David, I work with a group of people who bully other co-workers. They spread false rumors, try to sabotage others’ jobs and call our ethics tip line to get others in trouble. What would be your advice in dealing with the wackos?
— Pushed Around in Pennsylvania
That sounds like one part “The Office,” one part “Lord of the Flies.”
This would be annoying in a middle school—but in an adult workplace, it’s incredibly embarrassing and totally unacceptable. One question: Where’s your boss in all this? It’s not just you and your co-workers’ responsibility to maintain standards of behavior at the workplace, but your employer’s, too.
Whenever you have a problem at work, often it’s a good idea to talk to others you work with to see if they share your concerns. Together, you gain some protection as well as partners to help you problem solve and organize others. However, you do have to be careful in this environment.
It’s usually not a very good idea to confront someone at work—whether it’s your boss or a co-worker bully—by yourself. It’s called “strength in numbers.” The first question I’d ask: Is there anyone else at your workplace who’s not a part of this group of “wackos,” so you can get some backup if it comes down to it? If so, I would probably start there.
Because you know there’s a risk of false rumors and sabotage, you may want to minimize your appeal as a target by only engaging with the bullies as necessary to do your job. Think about getting a locking file cabinet and a password on your computer if you don’t already have one. And, although it’s one of the easiest things to do, it’s also one of the most easily overlooked: Cover yourself! Document, document, document. It’s smart to keep good records of what’s going on, including times, dates and the names of anyone who was involved or witnessed. You could start a workplace journal, or you could email notes to yourself or another trusted co-worker. Just don’t leave your journal out at work, and use your personal email account, not a work email.
Protecting yourself, keeping a record and figuring out who your trusted allies are is the key here. That’s a good start on the path to organizing and getting your boss to take some meaningful action.