How to deal with an adult bully

With more than 70 per cent of women saying they have felt bullied by a "Queen Bee" in the workplace, Dr Laura Kirby offers advice on what to do when you find yourself the victim.

If you've found yourself the target of a female office bully, it turns out you're not alone. New research shows that more than two-thirds of women have reported being bullied by a female colleague who has actively blocked their career aspirations and professional ambitions.

Described as "Queen Bee Syndrome", this behaviour occurs when women "use their social intelligence to manipulate or damage colleague's reputations", says the report published in the Journal of Development and Learning Organisations. As such, it can be teh "biggest hindrance to women advancing in the workplace.

It's something Michelle can relate to. It took her years to find the job of her dreams but when she encountered a female bully in the workplace, her professional aspirations (and confidence) came crashing down.

Michelle’s story

“After spending more than a decade working in traditional print media, I decided to upskill and move into a digital environment. If only I’d known how hard this was going to be. I was being passed up for roles left, right and centre. Most of the time these positions went to candidates over 10 years younger than me – some I had once mentored. My confidence took a big hit and it was getting harder each day to find the motivation to continue working in my field.

When I finally found a digital role this year (albeit one that paid significantly less but offered the training I needed), I jumped at the opportunity. I couldn’t have been more excited to get back into the swing of things and show everyone what I was capable of. On my first day, I was greeted by a young woman in her early twenties. She was super friendly and eager to help me out. At first.

It soon became clear her eagerness is born out of a desire to have her own voice heard, to have it known that she is an expert, and I most certainly am not. I'm now anxious any time I need to ask for help. Would this particular question illicit yet another eye roll? Would she tell me to just ‘Google it’, or would she loudly proclaim yet again that I was really out of my depth? I'm always apologising for asking perfectly valid questions, constantly feeling the need to thank this woman for helping me and smiling politely when she makes it known I'm the least capable person she’s ever met.

The more time that passes, the more I feel my self-worth slowly being chipped away. Conversations taking place literally opposite me are now done with backs turned – the team have taken her lead. Whether talking about work or general life experiences, nothing I have to offer is seen as valuable. Ignoring her hasn't worked and the more I stay away the more I'm kept away.

I can’t even begin to describe what this does to your confidence when you’ve been knocked back so many times, only to have your one opportunity ruined by someone actively pointing out you’re not good at the thing you were worried about not being good at. And now I don’t know whether to quit my job, confront this person or continue and just ignore it all.”

It’s OK to be upset – bullying is a traumatic experience

“We hear reports all the time that bullying is creating huge harm in schools and social media interactions, and as adults, we’re not immune to its effects in these contexts either," says Dr Laura Kirby, principal psychologist and chief executive of CommuniCorp – an Australian organisation specialising in developing positive workplace mental health, wellbeing and resilience capabilities.

"Bullying behaviour is designed to harm others, hence the hurtful impact it can have on anyone who is subject to bullying at work. It can also feel harder to speak out about these experiences in a workplace context, so the bullying might not get addressed as quickly as it might in other situations.”

There’s a difference between bullying and simply not liking your co-worker

It's unlikely we'll get along with everyone we work with, but bullying involves very specific behaviour, says Laura. "Not always getting along with everyone is completely normal – particularly at work as we’re not always going to choose who we work with and colleagues are not necessarily going to be our best friend. But when it comes to bullying, no one should have to tolerate that behaviour. If someone lacks the self-confidence to personally address the behaviour with the other person, then seeking help and advice from one of your workplace resources is an important step to take.”

Adult bullying comes down to a low-level behavioural problem

“One of the major predictors of adult bullying, particularly in the workplace, is where something called “incivility” is accepted and allowed to succeed," Laura explains. "By definition, incivility is 'low level socially deviant behaviour' which sounds criminal, but it’s not quite that bad. Essentially, incivility is where people just lack day-to-day niceties with one another and may be rude to each other, but this may fester if it’s not addressed and escalate to more serious behaviour such as bullying. Of course, outside of the workplace, adult bullying seems to be much more prevalent in this current age of social media and keyboard warriors where adults are able to engage in inappropriate behaviours, such as bullying, without much rebuke for this behaviour.”

Keep an eye out for particular personality traits

Bullies are likely to be low in sympathy and lack warmth and consideration with others, says Laura. "They’re also likely to demonstrate low conscientiousness, meaning they are less likely to be concerned with doing tasks well and taking obligations to others seriously," she adds. 

"There is some evidence to suggest that bullies have high self-esteem but are actually anxious about their shortcomings being exposed, so they avoid situations in which they may be shamed. This leads to bullies being more likely to shame others in order to avoid highlighting their own limitations and to maintain their own high self-esteem.”

Remember, you can get help

There are strategies to help you deal with adult bullies at work, promises Laura. “Where possible, it’s always best to address the situation directly to hopefully stop the bullying behaviour and therefore stop the harm that it’s having on you."

Consider getting some advice or sharing concerns with a trusted colleague before doing so, Laura advises. "Whenever we’re experiencing a highly stressful situation one of the most important coping strategies is to speak to someone about how we are feeling and the impact it’s having, rather than bottling it up. Workplaces are also becoming much better-equipped and dealing with bullying and have clear guidance in place in order to address the situation. If you’re unable to address the situation yourself, it’s always advisable to speak to your manager/supervisor or any other relevant contact in your workplace.”

When they go low, you go high

It may be hard, but don’t bother taking the low road, says Laura. "It’s never a good idea to resort to a bully’s behaviour and retaliate with bullying behaviour of your own.”

Face the issue and get back to happy

Addressing the issue sooner rather than later is important, says Laura. "It takes courage but where we can address our concern with the other person early on really helps to reduce the risk that the behaviour will escalate into more serious behaviour. If addressing the concern with the person is unsuccessful, or you don’t feel comfortable or safe to address it with the person directly it’s really important to seek help from a trusted resource in your workplace. Remember – you don’t have to tolerate this kind of behaviour.”

If you see something, say something

Just like we tell our kids, it's important to be an "upstander" rather than a "bystander.

"If you notice someone else being bullied in the office. In the workplace, this should involve seeking advice and help from your resources such as your manager, HR, or a Workplace Contact Officer," says Laura. "Where possible it can also be useful to directly address your concern about what you have witnessed with the bully through direct and assertive but calm communication. Most importantly, reach out to the individual you have witnessed being bullied and let them know you are there to support them.”

Last but not least, embrace your own support network

“Don’t feel like you have to go it alone – seeking help and advice can be a really positive step," says Laura. "Try to do so as early as possible before the behaviour escalates or worsens. Also, remember to look after yourself – these situations can be mentally and emotionally draining so self-care and maintaining your wellbeing is really important.”

If you believe that you’ve been bullied at work you can apply to the Fair Work Commission for an order to stop the bullying. Information on this option can be found at If you’ve been bullied online, make sure you read the Australian Human Rights Commission’s online fact sheet on cyberbullying, which can be found here.

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