New research published in the journal Development and Learning in Organisations finds that 70 percent of female executives feel as though they’ve been bullied by other women in their workplaces and that these bullying incidents have stunted their professional growth.
The study by London-based consultant Cecilia Harvey, founder and chair of global showcase platform Tech Women Today, labels the bullying “Queen Bee Syndrome,” calling it the “biggest hindrance to women advancing in the workplace.” Queen Bee Syndrome is when women treat their other female colleagues in a demoralizing manner by undermining their credibility or status, or by manipulating others into thinking less of them.
“Queen Bee mischief manifests in ways that can have lasting negative effects on individual careers and entire organizations,” Harvey writes.
So how you do overcome bullying in the workplace so it doesn’t affect your career progression? We reached out to 10 human resources and business professionals to share some of their insight.
1. Defend yourself
“Bullying is a very common situation in the most competitive jobs; however, we shouldn’t naturalize it — mobbing, or workplace harassment, can have consequences such as depression, avoidant or violent behaviors, the burnout syndrome or, in extreme cases, suicide, and it can also bring legal problems for the company,” says Eric J. Anderson, co-founder & organizational development manager at CalculatorBuddy.com. “From the human resources office, we provide training on what to do against mobbing and we stand in solidarity with the victims. Defend yourself with height as soon as possible. When they say something hurtful, some ‘innocent’ mockery or they humiliate you, you can respond with the seriousness that that was out of place or that you did not give them the confidence to tell you that. Communicate your situation. Always talk to Human Resources or to a superior. Also, you can talk openly with the aggressor so that she can see reason and realizes that what she does makes you feel in a certain way and that you do not want her to do it anymore. If she does not understand it, other steps will have to be taken.”
2. Find a new job
“I help employees take back the dignity and respect they deserve by educating them and validating their experiences — I’ve helped hundreds of abused employees understand their bullying situations, discover their self-worth, and learn how to move on from their toxic work cultures,” says Deb Falzoi, a workplace bullying expert at Dignity Together. “My best piece of advice to stop the bullying is to find another job and then report the bullying when you leave. When most higher-ups and Human Resource ignore the problem, reporting the bullying often leads to retaliation. Anxiety, depression, PTSD, and suicidal thoughts only get worse. It’s most often not just a problem with the bully — it’s a problem with the whole work culture that tolerates bullying. Finding another job takes you out of the toxic work culture, and taking back your power by reporting the problem helps speed up the healing process once you’ve left.”
3. Practice team building
“An increasingly popular way to reduce bullying in the workplace is to do company team building activities together, says Alex R., General Manager (former HR manager) of Team Building Hero. “For these events, a group of your employees do an activity like a scavenger hunt, escape room or bowling together, often with food and drinks. The goal of the team building activity is to help build strong relationships between employees (and therefore decrease negative interactions like bullying), by improving communication and opportunities to learn about each other. One tip to get started: you don’t have to do an expensive activity to get the benefits of team building, instead, you can start at the office! Use icebreakers at meetings to give everyone a chance to share, and encourage participation at the office in book swaps, cupcake competitions and similar.”
4. Conduct bystander training
“The best think on stopping bullying is to conduct bystander training as an organization,” says Kristen Knepper, an attorney, diversity & inclusion specialist, adjunct law professor and the Founder of Kristen Knepper Consulting. Here’s why: “One of the reasons (and this is one — there are many) that we see these ‘girl-on-girl’ crime statistics is that there appears to be so few positions in leadership for women, and so few opportunities for advancement. If you see one women and 15 men in a conference room, you assume on some level that you have to fight other women for the one coveted spot. (D&I research from Harvard has shown the importance of images time and time again.) Hence, women bullying women. But bullying is bigger than women.
“When an individual is bullied or feels attacked in any manner, the amygdala, the brain’s fight, flight, or freeze center, is triggered. When this happens, the prefrontal cortex, the logical thinking part of the brain, shuts down, preparing the body to save itself. So asking someone who is feeling attacked to respond to a bully is not physically possible in the moment. Depending on the severity of the reaction, the individual may not ‘come back online’ for minutes, hours, days or even years.
“Victim blaming is real. As humans, we don’t want to believe that our Universe is random. We feel unsafe. Therefore, we look for reasons that the ‘bad thing’ happened. This typically translates into questions such as ‘Were you too nice?’ or ‘Did you provoke the person?’ When every individual at an organization understanding that it is up to them to intervene when witnessing bad behavior, and they have a ‘ready word’ and tactics for intervention, we begin to break the outdated and impossible notion that it is up to the victim to respond.
“While we conduct a full bystander training, the best tip is to arm yourself with one word for when you witness bad behavior. It doesn’t matter the word, as the point is to interrupt the behavior in the moment. Examples include ‘yikes! woah! ouch! no!’ or ‘stop!’ After the initial stop, conversation and additional questions should follow. Typical questions for a person initiating bullying include ‘Do you understand how that sounded?’ ‘What was your intention?’ ‘What does that mean?’ For the individual on the receiving end, remove them from the situation by asking for help with something. Once they are ‘safe,’ ask, ‘Was that OK with you?’ Don’t make assumptions based on what you consider unacceptable. Ask first.”
5. Talk privately
“Invite your bullying colleague into a conference room where you can speak in private,” says Leigh Steere, co-founder of Managing People Better, LLC. “Use ‘I’ and ‘we’ statements to frame your concerns. For example: ‘We are on the same team. However, in the last few weeks, you’ve been making some comments along the lines of _______________. When you say these things, I feel as if the focus has shifted away from the team’s goals. There’s really no place on a well-functioning team for competitiveness or divisiveness, so we need to sort this out. I would like to brainstorm what’s behind these comments, so that we can get back to 100 percent focus on the team’s goals.’
“In some cases, a conversation like will yield results. In other cases, the bullying behavior will continue and needs to be brought to the attention of a manager or HR. It helps for employers to have a published list of bullying behaviors as part of their employee handbook. If employees sign an agreement at the outset of employment that says, ‘I have read and I understand the company’s policies on bullying,’ then a manager can pull the bully aside, remind them of the handbook, and let them know that further instances of bullying will result in termination of employment.”
6. Report incidents
“In life and in the workplace, women seem to be our own worst enemies and we struggle to support each other as women, versus being competitive (with the exception being the recent #metoo movement),” says Christy Hopkins, CEO of 4 Point Consulting, an HR and recruiting consulting firm. “Women should combat female on female bullying in the workplace by treating it the same way they would if the colleague was a male- record the incident and report it to their HR department or higher-ups. However, in a more community sense or what is more realistic versus reporting, is for women to confront the bullying in a constructive way- ask the offender to go for a walk or have coffee, and remove them from the usual environment (the office) where this occurs, and then ask the offender about their behavior. If you need to, write down the specific issues and what you want to say, and even read it to the person. You will feel empowered to confront the behavior and it’s possible the person does not know how much their behavior is impacting you.”
7. Support each other
“Given how hard women have often had to work to get to key roles in organizations and being bullied by men, I can see how it is easy to fall into bullying roles themselves — often those who are bullied end up turning into bullies,” says Stan Kimer, president of Total Engagement Consulting by Kimer. “First, male leaders need to be role models and mentors for women and model collegial behavior themselves. Second, women need to form strong networks of support so they can build each other up and also honestly address this bullying among women. And third, HR leaders need to stand up and stake a strong stand against all bullying — men on men, men on women, women on women, and women on men. The message has to get out that a harassing and bullying environment is never acceptable and perpetrators need to be punished. Overall, a strong culture of team work truly needs to be built in any organization.”
8. Acknowledge the bully’s intentions
“To stop bullying you often need to confront it,” says workplace analyst, Laura Handrick of FitSmallBusiness.com. “However, it’s important to know why the person is bullying, first. If a person is bullying because she feels insecure, it’s often best to acknowledge what she’s trying to say/do. A good approach is to say something like: ‘I hear you’ or ‘we get it.’ The person who is bullying may not even realize she’s being repetitive or getting louder. She may need to be heard and acknowledged. A statement such as: ‘We all want what you want, so let’s figure out how to do this together,’ can often cut through to the core of why the person is behaving like a bully. She feels like she’s alone, and no one is listening.
“Sometimes, it’s a personality thing. The person is assertive, even aggressive, and rubs people the wrong way. It often helps to ask for one-on-one time with a person like this. Take her to lunch and get to know her. Once you’ve built a relationship, you can start to share how her behavior is upsetting others without her being aware of it. The person may not realize it — especially if she’s not a sympathetic, empathetic person. In other words, she may not mean to come across as a bully.
“Perhaps it’s just she’s trying to get work done and lacks the social finesse expected by her female peers. Sometimes, women act like bullies when they’re in a bad mood. Humor often helps. ‘Did someone get up on the wrong side of the bed today?’ or: ‘Who am I working with today, Ms. Helpful or Ms. Crankypants?’ No one should have to put up with another’s bad attitude. If you can’t call the person out on their behavior directly, try humor. When they say something meanspirited, pretend you’ve been wounded by an arrow, and ask: ‘there’s no poison on the tip of that, is there?’ Keep it light to help the bully realize she’s out of line. In other words, don’t accept the bullying, instead, make a joke of it.
“Other times, you simply need to call out the rude behavior, by saying: ‘that was rude’ or ‘that was inappropriate’. Of course, if bullying turns to discrimination or a hostile environment, notify your HR rep or management team. Keep track of examples or hurtful words and behaviors. Don’t assume your co-workers or management are aware of the bully’s bad behavior. If it’s impacting your ability to work, or crosses the line into discriminatory behavior, it’s time to make HR aware of the issue.”
9. Talk it out
“If you don’t get along with your boss or co-worker, it’s best to go straight to the source and try to work it out,” says Sarah Sheehan, former HR executive and now co-founder of Bravely. “Ask the person to meet and initiate an honest conversation where you share your feelings – not accusations – and present things in a more constructive and positive way. You could say, ‘I don’t think you intentionally do this, but I feel frustrated whenever I bring up an idea because you immediately say it won’t work.’ It’s important to consider the other person’s perspective and interests so that everyone leaves the conversation feeling good about the resolution and where you landed.
“Also, for women to feel comfortable speaking up about issues in the workplace like this, companies need to focus on cultivating a culture that supports open and honest conversations. When companies show their employees that they’re creating space for these conversations, they’re taking an important step towards not just empowering women, but supporting their growth trajectory.
“Studies show that 70 percent of people are avoiding a difficult conversation at work, especially around topics like performance, compensation, and growth. At Bravely, we call this the ‘conversation gap’ – and we believe that it has a direct impact on employee happiness and overall workplace health. That’s why our platform connects employees with professional coaches for confidential conversations about whatever they’re facing, encouraging people to speak proactively and productively about their issues.”
10. Hold your power
“Bullying is essentially a game — there are two people playing a tug of war (with one pulling significantly harder than the other), and retaliation is sustenance for a bully,” says Nate Masterson, the HR manager for Maple Holistics. “This is especially true when it comes to women bullying women. It’s all about a power play. Keep a documentation of dates, times and scenario’s when you were bullied so that if you need to present your case to a supervisor you can. Other than that, the best way to deal with a female bully is to keep doing your job and doing it well. Nothing deflates a bully more than when they have no effect on their victim.”
AnnaMarie Houlis is a multimedia journalist and an adventure aficionado with a keen cultural curiosity and an affinity for solo travel. She’s an editor by day and a travel blogger at HerReport.org by night.
A version of this post previously appeared on Fairygodboss, the largest career community that helps women get the inside scoop on pay, corporate culture, benefits, and work flexibility. Founded in 2015, Fairygodboss offers company ratings, job listings, discussion boards, and career advice.