Here's What To Do If Someone Yells At You At Work

Photo: 20th Century Fox Television/Kobal/REX/Shutterstock.
Apologies have abounded from several male cast members of Arrested Development after The New York Times published a "notably raw" interview with actors from the show ahead of the show's fifth season. When Jeffrey Tambor is asked about a time he "lashed out" at costar Jessica Walter, every man in the room immediately jumps to his defense, as if a bat signal had been lit.
"We've all done [it]," Jason Bateman says, although Walter challenges his claim.
"Oh! You've never yelled at me," she replies, adding that "in almost 60 years of working, I've never had anybody yell at me like that on a set."
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In a rush to protect Tambor (who was dismissed from the award-winning show Transparent after being accused of sexual harassment), Bateman chalks up the other actor's behavior to the "amorphous process" of working in the entertainment industry. "It is a breeding ground for atypical behavior and certain people have certain processes," he says, denying that he intends to "belittle or excuse" Tambor's behavior — but doing just that. (Bateman has since apologized for his comments.)
Alia Shawkat was the only person to say that verbally abusing people, even in untraditional work settings, is unequivocally not okay. Her point is an important point to remember. In recent months, women across the country have come forward about the kinds of abuse they suffer at work, from being sexually harassed or assaulted to verbally abused. Yelling isn't necessarily against the law or cross a physical boundary — but it can still be highly demeaning, and you don't have to tolerate it.
Ahead, we ask a group of experts how to handle a loudmouthed bully on the job.
What should you do if someone yells at you at work?
Everyone has a different comfort level, so honestly, the answer won't be the same for every person. It shouldn't be on you to take control of the situation (since you're not the person out of control), but there are things you can do.
"If you are comfortable doing this, direct confrontation can be the most immediate way to stop the behavior," says Tracie Sponenberg, senior vice president of human resources at The Granite Group. "Talk to the person calmly, explain how the yelling made you feel, and wait for the response. Don't engage and yell back and stoop to their level."
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If you're too shaken (or angry yourself) to have a discussion at the moment, consider extricating yourself from the situation and informing the other person that you'll continue the conversation another time — when they're willing to speak with you in a more respectful, appropriate way. In that break, it's absolutely fine to speak with a supervisor or HR about your colleague's inappropriate behavior, and how to handle the situation independently or with their guidance.
If you didn't address the problem at the time but it still bothers you later, is it okay to bring it up?
Yes! As Walter showed, many people react with a "show must go on" mentality at the time but that doesn't mean they're unaffected. "Confrontation is really, really hard for most of us," says Sponenberg. "If this is weighing on you, it is important to address it. Ask to speak with the person, calmly remind them of the situation (they may not recall it, especially if this is a normal occurrence), ​and just talk about it."
Organizations typically have some sort of codes of conduct or respectful workplace policies, says Valerie P. Keels, the head of D.C. office services at Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance. She recommends that the person who has been yelled at refer to their organization's policy (maybe asking HR for a copy) to identify which provisions have not been upheld by the yeller. Again, asking a supervisor or HR to help mediate is totally permissible, says Keels. Plus, you might even be helping to corroborate a pattern of bad behavior with HR that needs to finally be addressed.
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"I always recommend that if someone is offended by a coworker (or, even supervisor), that they advise them that behavior is unacceptable, and if needed, refer to the organization’s policy so that the offender understands both their responsibility in maintaining civility, and why they should refrain from that behavior again," she says. "Understanding the sensitive nature of speaking directly to an offensive supervisor, the employee should report the behavior to HR if they feel uncomfortable addressing it directly."
What if the yeller is your boss or in a superior role?
Telling a peer they're out of line is awkward enough. Speaking up to a boss? It almost seems easier to stay quiet and take it. But this issue is "more about 'relationship' than reporting arrangements," says Keels.
If your supervisor is approachable and respectful under normal circumstances, "but going through a negative behavioral change for some reason or another," she says it's totally fine to broach the yelling issue directly. The key is to keep it professional, and not making it personal. It might seem cold to bring up company policies and standards regarding behavior, but getting too personal ("You hurt my feelings and I thought you were better than that.") could open up a new can of worms.
If you have a supervisor who is a noted bully, things are much harder. Most experts suggest going to your supervisor's supervisor, but "bullies don't like being called out for bad behavior," says Mark Marsen, the director of human resources at Allies for Health + Wellbeing. Worse, if a company's HR department is protecting the bully at the office, a different set of actions might be necessary.
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"If the superior's superior is not intervening, it's time to move on. I say that knowing so many people don't have the circumstances or luxury of doing that quickly, but efforts need to be made."
If you believe that your workplace is a hostile environment to one specific group — women, people of color, or LGBTQ employees — consider reporting the company to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.
What if you're a bystander — is it okay to intervene?
The tricky thing about conflict is you don't know how either party — the aggressor or the recipient — will feel about it becoming public. Some people might become angry out of embarrassment or because of privacy, while others may need time on their own to decide what to do.
And if you've witnessed bad behavior, you can be impacted too, not only feeling uncomfortable or concerned for the person on the receiving end, but also guilty if you don't do anything. Some companies have policies requiring employees to report instances of abuse, but that policy is usually regarding sexual harassment, says Vanessa Hill. Most experts agree it's best not to escalate the situation without talking to the person most impacted (the person who was yelled at).
"You can offer to help, but don't assume that inserting oneself into the situation is going to be welcome by either party," says Marsen. "Safety supersedes any manners, so if it's looking like there is going to be harm, and you would not put yourself in harm's way, direct them to separate."
If you have a relationship with the yeller, you could talk to them immediately after the encounter to voice your concerns, Keels adds. She says it can also be a good idea — not to mention considerate — to confirm with the person who was yelled at that the treatment they received was wrong and against company policy. Most importantly, show your support: "Let them know [you] would be willing to corroborate their story if they plan to escalate the issue with HR."
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