Advice From A Nice Girl: How Do I Deal With The Office Bully?

Welcome to Refinery29’s new career column Advice From A Nice Girl. Each month, readers will be asking Fran Hauser, bonafide boss and author of the book The Myth Of The Nice Girl, their hardest career quandaries, from managing your overly emotional boss to overcoming your biggest work fear. But this advice column comes with a twist — the reader has to take Fran’s advice and report back.
This month's question comes from a 24-year-old media planner in New York City who is dealing with a colleague who's a real bully.
Question: I have a female peer who is making my job very difficult. Whether we are one-on-one or in a group meeting, no matter what I say she often antagonises me, interrupts me, or is completely dismissive. I get very anxious when I know I have to go into a meeting with her. And when she acts in this manner, I usually freeze. What would you suggest I do?
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Fran's Advice: The unfortunate truth is that there are a lot of toxic relationships and bullies at work. When I find myself in similar situations, what’s worked best is to first talk to the person about it. It takes a lot of guts, but it’s often worth it. The underlying issue may be a misunderstanding or a misplaced grudge that can quickly dissipate from a genuine conversation. Not only do you stand a good chance of getting this person to improve her behaviour, but you’re taking a step toward creating a kinder and healthier work environment
Calmly confront this woman and see if there is an opportunity to clear the air. Say, “You seem frustrated, can we talk about what’s going on? I’ve noticed in some meetings lately that you’ve been making some dismissive comments toward me. It seems like something is bothering you, and I want to understand what’s going on.” When I mustered up the strength to say this to a similar colleague, she opened up. Turns out, I had said something six months prior that really bothered this woman, and she was holding on to it. I apologised, explained it was never my intention to offend her, and we cleared the air.
Sometimes calling it out works — and sometimes it doesn’t. If this conversation does not have the happy ending you desire, you need to create emotional boundaries and learn to recognise that someone else’s bad behaviour has nothing to do with you. You can do this by acknowledging that you are powerless to change someone else’s behaviour. Then, look for allies at work who will support you and remind you that this behaviour has nothing to do with you. Do not engage in drama, and don’t get swept up in someone else’s bad behaviour. When it happens again, remind yourself that she is the one with the problem, not you. It’s a simple but powerful way of separating yourself from the other person’s toxicity.
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Lastly, understand when you need to escalate the problem and alert your manager. Are you still able to do your best work? Is it just you that she’s treating like this? Quietly ask around. If your work is suffering and other people are experiencing this behaviour as well and it’s disrupting team performance, you have an obligation to tell your boss. Start by saying, “This is going to be a difficult conversation” or “This is something I’ve been really struggling with.” Then, explain what’s happening. Be sure to focus on the facts and how this person’s behaviour is affecting your work rather than how it makes you feel. There may be other opportunities at the company where this person may thrive, or perhaps there is coaching she can go through. Hopefully, your company will take care of the problem and you can finally move on.
The Follow-up: Okay, so it was really hard but I confronted her. I used the language you suggested: “You seem frustrated, can we talk about what’s going on? I’ve noticed in some meetings lately that you’ve been making some dismissive comments toward me. It seems like something is bothering you, and I want to understand what’s going on.”
She told me that I was being really sensitive and that I needed to grow a thicker skin. While this was super disappointing, it actually made me feel better to get it off of my chest. I also built up the courage to discuss this with one of my mentors, and he told me that I am not the first person to complain about this woman. It's helpful to know that its not just me. I'm going to see if I can create the emotional boundaries you talked about and still be productive. If not, I think I'm going to have to discuss this with my manager. I feel so much better because I am actually doing something about it and not just holding it in and I have a plan now! Thank you!
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In April, Fran offered advice to a 29-year-old product manager who was struggling to ask for a raise after she had been sexually harassed at work. She followed up with Fran to let her know how the negotiating turned out:
Hi Fran: I just wanted to give you an update on my salary negotiation. I took your advice on the backup plan [of other things I could ask for if I didn't get a raise]! I've been really interested in growing my network and recently joined an amazing women's mentorship program. I went to my manager and was able to get my company to pay the tuition for this professional development opportunity. Additionally, my CEO and I set a timeframe to discuss my next contract negotiation. I know that when I walk in to those discussions, I will be much better prepared because I plan on coming in not only with data but also having practiced what I am going to say.
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