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Advice on dealing with a workplace bully

Fostering a more inclusive and respectful environment will make it easier to contain a toxic colleague.

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Reader: I have a specialized job where I work in the field with various teams. We are all experienced and knowledgeable. One team member is rude to all of us, but particularly aims her nastiness at the oldest person in our group. The target of her nastiness is a hard worker and excellent at her job.

We’ve all been putting up with the rudeness for a long time, realizing that the comments stem from insecurity or jealousy. But I am over it. What is the best tactic for the rest of us to take when this person says something out of line? We’d like to be unified in our responses and to call her out when she is being mean. Any thoughts?

Karla: I’m all for uniting to promote inclusiveness and respect. Ironically, however, a coordinated group reaction targeting one person’s bad behavior could have the opposite effect. If Ms. Nastypants is already prone to insecurity, she’s guaranteed to take it personally and decide that she’s the one being excluded and disrespected.

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What you want is a consistent response that creates community and discourages disruption. To encourage the good, you all should make a point of publicly boosting one another and giving credit when due — including to Ms. Nastypants. An environment where everyone’s contributions are recognized and applauded and everyone under stress is extended a bit of grace is one of the best antidotes to the toxic competitiveness driving most insecure, jealous behaviors.

When combating unwanted behavior, individual responses should vary depending on each person’s strengths. Some people are good at gentle confrontation (“Hey, we’re all on the same team here”) or defusing with humor. Others are better at supporting the victim behind the scenes (“You okay? I heard how she spoke to you. Do you want to vent or report it?”) And while no one wants to be seen as siding with a bully, someone who is good at drawing out difficult people might be able to privately persuade Ms. Nastypants that constantly sniping at her colleague is not a good look, and maybe even get at some of the causes — not to be confused with excuses — for her nastiness.

If all else fails, someone may have to ask management to intervene. Personality clashes are one thing, but when there’s an ongoing pattern of targeted bullying — possibly crossing the line into illegal age discrimination — leadership needs to know about it.

Reader 2: I recently changed careers to a health-related field providing one-on-one support to vulnerable clients. I am older than most of my co-workers and have an advanced degree and years of experience. However, I do not flaunt my degree or my experience. I try to keep a low profile.

One of my supervisors, who is much younger, talks to me in a condescending manner. She micromanages me and provides unsolicited "help" in the form of harsh, loud, rapid-fire questions that imply I am doing everything wrong. She seems to regard me as incompetent. I have not seen her treat others in this manner, but I am not sure she treats them much better. Our workplace is small, there is no Human Resources department, and our boss does not tolerate being questioned.

I have thought of quitting, but it was not easy for me to get this position. I want to succeed. But I do not know what to do.

Karla: The movie “There Will Be Blood” has a line that I think of in situations like this: “I’d like it better if you didn’t think I was stupid.” It’s delivered in a dry, mild tone, but lays open the bones of the matter: I see you disrespecting me. Please speak to me as an equal.

Now I don’t suggest you use this exact line on your supervisor. But that kind of clear-eyed, nonreactive attitude may help you weather her bluster. And it is bluster. People who fire off questions without hearing the answers are not really asking anything. They’re telling you, and everyone in earshot, that they have something to prove.

This isn’t about your competence; it’s about her insecurity. And silently enduring her condescension isn’t helping you as a trainee, her as a leader, or the clients who deserve knowledgeable care and advocacy.

What you can do is steer her scattershot lecture toward a clarity-seeking discussion: “Well, I was doing it this way because [your reasons, based on understanding of the current situation or client]. But you’re saying I should be doing [her way] instead, is that right?” Deferring to her seniority even as you’re gently challenging her lets her save face while hearing you out.

Smart people recognize intelligence and competence in others. If your supervisor never has that epiphany about you … well, it’s hard to have a meeting of the minds when only one side shows up. But clients and other onlookers will be paying attention and will know the difference.

Reader query: How have you dealt with someone being condescending to you? Did you shut them down, did they trip on themselves, or did they eventually wise up and treat you with respect? Tell me at work.advice.wapo@gmail.com.

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