How to Deal With Demoralizing Bullying—at Work

Cheryl Lock

You know that woman at your office, the one who makes your life difficult by leaving you out of important meetings or undercutting you in front of your boss?

If you have no idea what we’re talking about, let us bring you up to speed: She’s a mean girl.

“A mean girl at work is a woman who practices some form of covert competition or indirect aggression toward another woman,” says Katherine Crowley, psychotherapist and co-author of “Mean Girls at Work: How to Stay Professional When Things Get Personal.”

We spoke with Crowley and co-author Kathi Elster, a management consultant and executive coach, to get the lowdown on what really motivates these mean girls—and, more importantly, how you should handle them.

LearnVest: Why did you become interested in this topic?

Kathi: A client asked us to give a lecture to women in technology about “women haters.” We were like, “What is that?” She meant women who aren’t very nice to other women. When we started talking to clients about this concept, we realized that a lot of women had been through this. We gave that lecture to a packed room, and we could just see from their faces that we had hit a nerve.

Katherine: When you look at the statistics—women comprise 50% of the workforce, and get 70% of advanced degrees—it became obvious that today’s professional woman is likely to manage, report to or at least work with other women. So this is the time to offer concrete solutions to the dynamics that might arise from this situation.

What motivates a mean girl?

Katherine: It comes from internal conflict—wanting everyone to be your friend versus needing to compete with other women at work. I may really like someone, but I can be extremely jealous if she gets promoted, and then be tempted to put her down when she tries to tell me what to do.

RELATED: How Gossiping Could Make You Better At Your Job

How is a mean woman at work different from a mean man?

Kathi: Men, by nature, are more comfortable with competition, so they compete overtly. Then, at the end of the day, they go out for a beer. Women hold resentments, and carry the pain inflicted by a mean girl—maybe even for the rest of their careers. It’s the wiring of our brains, so we need to [learn to] depersonalize it, and think of our coworkers as “friendly,” but not “friends.”

Have either of you ever had to deal with a mean girl at work?

Kathi: While writing this book, I found myself often saying, “I’ve done that,” or “That’s been done to me.” The biggest breakthrough was when I took our “no gossip challenge” for a month. I started by telling everyone around me that this is what I was going to do—and I quickly learned which people tried to draw me back in, and the people who respected it. By the end of the 30 days, gossip felt disgusting to me.

Katherine: I recognized that there are types of women who bring out my own mean girl. When women are rude to me, I’ll be mean right back. Or if someone asks me unending questions, I’ll snap at them. I learned that, while I consider myself to be a fairly nice person, there are women who bring out the darker side of my behavior—and my challenge is to take the high road.

  • taralynnb

    You really need to touch on the seriousness of when the “mean girl” boss becomes a vicious workplace bully, and then goes so far as to spur Mobbing (bullying by group) then sabotage your entire career.

    It may start out as you describe, and to start looking for another job is good advice.

    But if this is a serial-bully (corporate psychopath) who becomes obsessed with destroying you, it can destroy not only your job, but your career, your social and professional network, your marriage, family and even your life.

    Mine was a trusted/respected supervisor and my friend. She began to exhibit the behavior you described. I thought it was the stress and pressure of a big project we had at the time.

    We talked about it, while on a vacation together, when for the first time, she lashed out and I inquired why. We talked for hours. I made the huge mistake of letting my “friend” know Imcared about her more than the job…

    I decided I would try not to “shine” at work as much (as she made it clear that I was being seen as having superior skills and “controlling” the ideas she actually spoke in meetings; she actually told me I was controlling the ideas in her head! How dumb was I not seeing that as crazy?)

    Still, fact remained that I had a skillset that was rather coveted by this supervisor and I did not want or care to steal any “spotlight” from her. I also cared to “make the supervisor look good” as a priority for me, not only because that is the right thing to do, as her subordinate, but because I cared about her well-being, and it was extremely important to her to be seen as skilled and capable a professional.

    Little did I know, this would be the beginning of the end for me.

    Like a lightswitch flipped, I became the scapegoat for all ills in the dept, was left out of meetings, was gossiped about relentlessly, was falsely accused of being a “threat of violence” despite I never even raised my voice to ANYONE in the workplace.

    But the accusation was one that would allow circumventing of a progressive discipline process, that would require FACTS to be revealed, and investigation to ensue, thus she had to go for one that was an ethics code violation which would result in immediate dismissal.

    She told her boss and HR (after I reported her abusive… about 6 mos after) that I was planning a lawsuit and was going to file for “toxic work environment”.

    This was a toxic work environment, and she and her boss knew it, but I never said I was planning to sue anyone, nor would I have chosen that particular charge if I did (because what it is requires an umbrella charge for a broad array of illegal actions in order to cover this mess I have endured… )

    It was Retaliation with Ongoing Harassment but still I have not filed a lawsuit. And now I am 2 years out of work and shunned by my former professional and social connections, suffering PTSD and Stress-related health issues.

    I am essentially unemployable now because when I finally had been traumatized and bullied/mobbed and set up for termination by this person who by this time had support from pretty much the entire organization.

    I was stripped of all my functions and moved to another team with a like-minded bully boss that hated me, and was put in a position that was designed to be undoable and use NONE of my skills (despite HR calling my position a critical one to the agency and even obtaining a hiring freeze waiver to fill it; i was placed in a redundant position with a bullpen of ten contractors who already had that work covered) so I “escaped” to FMLA unpaid sick leave.

    It was at this time my former supervisor (“mean girl” workplace bully) turned to cyberbullying, stalking and online impersonation, to terrorize me and destroy my reputation further.

    Now I am terrified because I am being impersonated even on porn sites, she has an email address and over 30 impersonated profiles as me; she is using info from my personnel file, and medical info from my “critical health issue” forms, divulging online real data and private medical issues etc coupled with digs and complete lies to both terrorize me, defame me plus let me know that she is in control of pretty much my fate and my online (and offline) identity.

    My husband was a colleague and supporter of me during all this harassment and retaliation etc (bullying and mobbing) and he was driven out of the workplace quickly.

    Our bureau director (her boss’ boss) who firmly supported me and also told others and me that she was “the problem”

    The supportive bureau director, who believed and was trying to help me, was blindsided and fired.

    And while i do not know the full reason he was fired or what “officially” was said to him, it occurred very shortly after he refused to fabricate some bogus infraction HR was pressuring him to do, via a letter to me, while I was on FMLA (I had sent an email to a professional connection).

    In the email, I stated very professionally that the job change was unfair; that what was going on at the job was unfair; the HR dept and director decided if I could type an email — one of my six essential functions — i was violating FMLA.

    This was despite that I was out for PTSD — later the HR dept really scraping for ANYTHING i could possibly be doing wrong, said my email was “abuse of work resources” because it was an opinion not work-related.

    Of course it was work related, since it was a professional connection and i was explaining my new job functions; the HR dept just wanted me to shut up about the unfair treatment, so in an unprecedented move they closed off my access to my accounts and kept searching for reasons to terminate me while on FMLA.

    In the end the HR dept set up my “return to work” after the extended leave period, in the HR instructions letter, to leave a hole of a few hours they could mark as “AWOL”. I asked can I return “today” (before the hole in approved unpaid leave) and they said no, that I had to follow the letter, which returned me AFTER i would have an infraction (my first EVER infraction) in my record; they even confirmed it would be “actionable for discipline”.

    So I was forcibly resigned.

    There is way more to that story. For example, I put in for an ADA accommodation for 2 more weeks unpaid leave so i could attend a medical followup for a CT scan that actually resulted in me being required to undergo cancer diagnostic surgery.

    This was not even addressed; via phone, when I inquired, it was blown off as not even up for consideration, and I was illegally held to a “fixed end date”.

    I have not gone through with the surgery, now almost a year later.

    Why? Because I do not want to know, and if I have cancer I will reject treatment anyway.

    During the time since August 2012 once my extended unpaid leave ended and when I had to resign, the former workplace supervisor “mean girl” (who turned bully then cyberpath) has steadily escalated her online cyberharassment, impersonation and smear campaign against me.

    She remains obsessed with destroying me AND my husband, despiite I have not seen her in over 2 years and my life is thoroughly and completely destroyed, I am too physically ill and mentally injured to work.

    I am isolated and cannot function. I can’t seem to get help because the workplace, friends, professional connections and probably also the authorities believe SHE is the victim and that I am “a threat”… a threat of violence to her and I guess to the workplace.

    I don’t even leave my home anymore and am not a threat to anyone; except for the threat of telling THE TRUTH.

    That is what is most feared by this serial-bully (corporate psychopath) that was once my friend and trusted supervisor, who became a “mean girl” and all the rest of the story that followed.

    In fact, the “threat” of me communicating THE TRUTH and being believed is about the only thing she fears. Being exposed for what is under the “mask of sanity” that fooled me for years, and continues to fool everyone else, is what helps make her extremely dangerous to me.

    The other thing that makes her dangerous is her complete lack of remorse and zero conscience, and the enjoyment she gleans from torturing me. She probably would like to see me dead, but she will probably not directly show up at my door.

    Instead, she will continue to do what she has been doing for years and escalate it, impersonating me online and putting me at significant risk of being harmed by defaming me so I cannot get help, and soliciting sex as me, and optimizing search results so it is clear exactly where to find me; she may set up my husband to be hurt as she has written the same theme into the backstory impersonating and smearing him too; she has even directly hunted down people from our past such as his ex, and now is positioning herself to reach my classmates way back to highschool, impersonating me on social networks and identity mgmt sites, to essentially “erase me” from the world by alienating me and disconnecting me from my past, present and future.

    She will ensure I have no future, either by continuing to put me (and my husband) in direct danger via online (ruining us in every way possible) or that I end up so terrorized and in pain physically and emotionally and eventually so isolated/alienated by everyone, that I take my own life.

    Please realize that the “mean girl” may be either just that, and nothing too severe, or conversely, may be a malevolent workplace bully, or even a corporate-psychopath who may go to the extremes I have just described.

    It has been years, and the damage is done, yet it is still happening to me (with the internet now her battleground, I cannot escape this torture).

    Please alert people to the fact that the abusive manager exists on a continuum of extremes and point people to further resources such as those of worplacebullying institute, and perhaps mention the cyberharassment component. The cyberharassment by a supervisor /boss is still rarely heard of in conjunction with workplace bullying but I guarantee it is an emerging topic, just as school bullying/cyberbullying now go hand-in-hand in the media.

  • Eve

    This article is seriously anti feminist and doesn’t nearly begin to address how damaging workplace bullying can be regardless of gender.