How to support a colleague who is a target of academic bullying
According to the American Psychological Association, “Bullying is a form of aggressive behavior in which someone intentionally and repeatedly causes another person injury or discomfort1.” Ideally, a community as innovative and knowledgeable as the academic world would be a bully-free zone. Unfortunately, the reality is far from the ideal. Bullying and harassment are surprisingly prevalent in academia. The results of the CACTUS Mental Health Survey indicated that 37% of more than 13,000 worldwide respondents reported experiencing harassment or bullying in their academic workplace2.
Although academic bullying sometimes takes the form of verbal or physical abuse, many of the harmful behaviors are more covert and difficult to see, such as denying access to information, sabotaging another’s work, and taking undeserved credit. This invisibility also makes it difficult for people to talk about bullying and results in many targets of bullying feeling forced to remain quiet.
The hidden nature of bullying behavior makes it difficult for colleagues and management to understand the situation, which often results in misinterpretations by colleagues and mismanagement by the institution3. Some colleagues, or bystanders, who are aware of the bullying may be pressured into or willingly take the side of the bully, leading to “mobbing” behavior. Other bystanders may distance themselves from the situation for fear of becoming targets themselves. Most people who work alongside the target remain unaware of the bullying. However, those who are aware and are unwilling to tolerate the negative behavior can be very important in alleviating the problem.
If a colleague confides in you that they are a target of bullying, you are in a unique position to support that colleague, hold the bully accountable, and help improve the workplace environment.
How you can support a colleague who is experiencing bullying
Assuming you didn’t actually observe any overt bullying behavior directed against your colleague, becoming directly involved in the situation might cause you and the target even more difficulties. For instance, it could lead to an escalation in the bullying behavior or it could result in you becoming a target. If you feel safe doing so, you may consider speaking to someone you trust in management or personnel. However, if you don’t feel comfortable becoming directly involved, there are many other ways in which you can support your colleague.
- Simply be supportive. Your colleague may be stressed, afraid, and possibly traumatized. The best support you can offer is to be a good listener. A non-judgmental and sympathetic ear can do wonders. It can be difficult to just listen, but merely being heard can help a person feel validated, gain perspective, and give them clarity. However, also be sensitive to your colleague’s need to not focus on the issue and give them space if they request it. Do not pressure them to take any specific action or share details that they aren’t comfortable disclosing.
- Make sure your colleague knows that the situation is not their fault. Ensure that they know that you take the situation seriously and that they are in no way at fault. Unfortunately, many targets of bullying believe that they’ve done something to provoke the bully’s negative behavior and thus feel guilty.
- Spend more work time with your colleague. Bullies often work to isolate the target. Let the bully know that their target is not alone. For example, include your colleague in your work, if possible, or just check in with them more often. Your colleague needs to be surrounded by those who care about them – friends, family, and other colleagues.
- Encourage your colleague to record all instances of bullying. Advise them to carefully note the time, place, situation, what was said, and how they responded. For example, ask them to retain any emails, texts, voice messages, and feedback/review comments they receive. This will be important if there is an official complaint made or if an investigation ensues. Encourage them to document everything.
- Be a witness for them and other colleagues. Remain vigilant for instances of bullying behavior and make note of what you observe, noting time, place, and situation. Advocate for practicing kindness in the workplace.
- Encourage your colleague to keep all job appraisals or other documents related to job performance. Again, this will be important if any official action occurs.
- Find other witnesses if you feel comfortable doing so. Are there any other people in your workplace who are being bullied but are reluctant to come forward? This may be a collective issue instead of an individual one.
- Check all workplace policies related to bullying to find options for addressing the situation. The more knowledge you have on how to address the issue, the better. Then, you can advise your colleague on possible actions they can take to alleviate the situation. The relevant policies can generally be found in your institution’s policy manual or on the website.
- Encourage your colleague to get professional help to help manage their mental health. Bullying can be traumatizing to the target. Many people who experience workplace bullying have difficulty managing the resulting stress and negative emotions. There is no shame in asking for help.
- Be a resource. Bring to their attention any resources that might help them feel less alone or more able to deal with situation, such as THINK Academia (https://cactusglobal.com/think-academia). Other helpful resources can be found through The Parity Movement (https://paritymovement.org/about/) and Dragonfly Mental Health (https://dragonflymentalhealth.org).
Bullying in academia is a prevalent but hidden problem that is now beginning to receive a greater amount of attention. The more it is publicized and brought out into the open, the easier it will be for researchers and educators to report instances of negative behavior and the greater the pressure on institutions to work to alleviate the issue through accountability, education, and better policies. By supporting a colleague who is being bullied, you can help them as well as improve your workplace for everyone.
- American Psychological Association. Bullying. https://www.apa.org/topics/bullying [Accessed September 13, 2022]
- Burbridge, D. Bullying in academia: Why it matters, and what you can do. Editage Insights. https://www.editage.com/insights/bullying-in-academia-why-it-matters-and-what-you-can-do
- Pieber, S., van Rijsingen, E., Gürer, D., and Beniest, A. Mind your head: An introduction to workplace bullying in academia. EGU Blogs. https://blogs.egu.eu/divisions/ts/2021/03/24/mind-your-head-an-introduction-to-workplace-bullying-in-academia/
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