Female Bullies at Work

Performance Management: Female Bullies at Work

You thought that you were done with cliques when you finished high school, did you? Welcome to the world of female bullies at work.

There are many theories about why people bully others; a need for power, insecurity, anger issues, etc. For a manager, why people bully is less important than how they do it. Once you know what to look for and learn to describe the behaviors, you have a powerful tool to help the bullies change the way they treat others, or to remove them from your workplace altogether.

While it’s easy to spot typical male bullying behaviors because they tend to be overt and physical, female bullying behaviors are more covert. They are aimed at undermining the victim’s image and destroying the victim’s relationships with others. In today’s team driven workplace, this can spell trouble for both the victim and the organization.

Watch For Bullying Behaviors.

Ostracizing the victim:
Two women discuss lunch plans in front of the desk of a third. They leave without speaking to her or inviting her. When they return, they walk past her desk without making eye contact. The message is “you’re not worth my attention.”

When the victim speaks at meetings, they look at each other and raise their eyebrows, maybe they roll their eyes, but they never directly address her suggestions or comments. The message for the victim and unwary observers is “Outsider…clueless.”

Gossiping about the victim:

Behind her back, they’ll make statements to destroy her credibility with others.

“Just be careful, she’s very sensitive.”

“I’m not saying that she’s hysterical or anything, but she doesn’t seem to want helpful feedback.”

“Some people say she’s difficult, but you just have to know how to handle her.”

“She’s on your team? I’m sure she’ll do much better on this project.”

“She probably got her promotion the old fashioned way…on her back.”

“Well, when I did that job, I always (fill in the blank), but I guess that’s just my work ethic.”

The message for non-victims is “Don’t get involved with her.”

Passive observer approval:

The bully is not the only actor in this sad drama. Other people who observe the behavior and either reinforce it or fail to address it are just as responsible. By saying nothing, they send the message to the bully that the treatment of the victim is just fine with them.

Address Bullying Behavior.

Most of the time the victim tries to ignore it. Perhaps she feels that complaining about it is trivial and that she should be “professional” and rise above it. Unfortunately, most bullies won’t stop until the victim leaves, or until her performance starts to decline and management finally starts to ask questions.

Inexperienced or timid managers attribute these bullying behaviors to “cattiness” or “personality conflicts.” They ignore the drain on workplace morale, increased turnover, potential legal problems and absenteeism that can be caused by bullies. As unpleasant and uncomfortable as it is to face, there is a way to address the problem behavior and establish expectations for professional relations in your workplace. You do it the same way you address any other performance issue.


Document several examples of the behavior and discuss the situation with HR to start the wheels in motion.

When you document the examples, it’s effective to use the STAR format. (Situation or Task, Actions, Results).

Describe the exact situation or task that gave rise to the behavior: “Yesterday, when Joanna was delivering her presentation…”

Describe the actions of the bully: “You and Sandra were raising your eyebrows and rolling your eyes about her project, but neither of you asked any questions or offered any suggestions.”

Describe the impact of the behavior…why it’s important: “This behavior undermines the credibility of a valued member of our department and it is not appropriate among colleagues. It needs to stop.”

Confront the Behavior.

Consider whether to meet privately with the individuals or to involve HR. Give a copy of the documented behavioral examples to the bully. Tell the bully that the behavior must stop and that you are placing the examples into her file. Explain your company’s discipline process.

Monitor the Results.

Some bullies change because they realize that their behavior can cost them their job, but many simply switch tactics. Keep an eye on the situation and keep HR in the loop about progress, because they will have to be involved if disciplinary actions have to be taken.

Review the job descriptions and performance expectations with your entire staff. Make sure that jobs don’t overlap, providing fertile ground for conflict and sabotage. Where “hand offs” of information or materials occur, establish clear criteria for timeliness and quality so that the bullies are accountable. Make sure that you have a method in place to monitor performance against these criteria.

When you observe positive teamwork, make sure that you reinforce it. Individuals who may have unwittingly reinforced the negative behavior need to know that you are aware of the change in their behavior. An “attaboy” from the boss can be very powerful.

Expect the Best But Prepare for the Worst.

Cross train everyone. You should be doing this anyway, but in this situation it lets the bullies know that they are not indispensable. If you have to cut a bully loose, you won’t have a gap in knowledge and skills while you recruit for a new team player.

Dealing with inappropriate behavior is never comfortable, and many managers avoid it until the situation is so toxic that the work isn’t getting done. Develop your skills at identifying and describing these behaviors so that you can eliminate the waste of time, resources and talent that they devour.