You’re in a tough situation. Concerned about the way a difficult colleague has been behaving, you asked your manager to intervene. This was a difficult conversation, the response you received was less-than-satisfactory. Maybe you were told to stop taking things personally. Or perhaps you were told ‘There’s nothing we can do about it.’ What should you do now?

This is a question which often comes up in my workshops on dealing with different types of difficult people. Unfortunately, there is no magic formula for fixing the situation. Instead, it’s time to sit down and logically assess the options available to you. You need to be assertive and calm as you think through what to do next.

Here are the main courses of action you need to think through. While not all of them will seem attractive to you, they are all options you need to consider when dealing with bullies at work. You’ll probably find it useful to write down the pros and cons of each option. Doing this will help you make a logical decision, even if your situations is causing lots of emotional upheaval.

Option 1: escalate your complaint

This option involves taking your difficult situation to the next level of management or to your HR team. It may also involve formalising your complaint of workplace bullying. It’s usually wise to inform your direct manager of your intention to escalate the issue BEFORE you do so. This gives them the opportunity to sort the situation out at a local level before more senior staff become involved. Remember that effective conflict resolution involves sorting things out at the lowest level of escalation.

Reasons to choose this option

  • You have already tried to resolve the issue at the local level, without success
  • You have concrete evidence supporting your claim
  • The situation is serious enough to warrant formal intervention
  • You’re prepared to go through a formal investigation, which may take a lot of time and effort to complete

Reasons to discard this option

  • You are unwilling to have the matter investigated by a neutral third party or to engage in mediation
  • You are not ready to put time and effort into supporting your claim
  • There is a strong chance that your complaint will not be taken seriously
  • The political fallout associated with making a claim (locally and in your broader professional circles) will seriously damage your career

Option 2: repeat your complaint to your direct line manager

Some managers are not fully aware of their responsibilities for maintaining workplace health and safety and sorting out workplace bullying claims. If you believe this is the case in your workplace, it may be worth approaching your manager a second time and explaining that you feel the bullying behaviour is creating an unsafe working environment. Be ready to talk through the impact your colleague’s difficult behaviour is having. Then ask your manager to assist in resolving the situation collaboratively.

Reasons to choose this option

  • You prefer to have the problem resolved at the local level
  • It’s possible that your original request was not made clearly enough – so you want to give your manager another chance to understand the situation and help you in the process
  • You trust that your manager has the skills required to sort the situation effectively and to mediate workplace conflicts

Reasons to discard this option

  • Your line manager is refusing to discuss the situation
  • Your first complaint was well documented and clearly explained. It was clear to your manager at a complaint was being made
  • There is a close relationship between your manager and the person you are making the complaint about. You believe this relationship is getting in the way of a fair resolution of the situation and that the bullying will continue

Option 3: escalate the complaint to an external body or take legal action

Taking this course of action means you are fully committed to formalising your complaint. Before escalating your complaint, you need to be sure you have a strong case. You should also be ready to commit time, energy and resources to pursuing your complaint.

Reasons to choose this option

  • All avenues for resolving the situation internally have been exhausted
  • You have consulted relevant professionals and been advised that you have a strong case
  • You’re willing to put time and energy into your documenting your case relating to workplace bullying
  • You have thought through the consequences of your complaint not being substantiated and are willing to live with these
  • The financial implications of taking action are clear and you can afford to pursue the matter

Reasons to discard this option

  • A qualified professional has advised you not to
  • You will have difficulty substantiating your claim
  • It is too early to take this course of action, because you have not yet pursued options for internal resolution
  • You’re not able or willing to commit time and energy to participating in an investigation
  • You do not have the financial resources to pursue legal action

Option 4: leave your current employer

Sadly, this is sometimes the only option which is likely to reap results. This can be particularly true when you’re living with toxic team dynamics. If you’re seriously considering quitting your job, make sure you take a considered approach. Carefully research your employment options. Don’t rush into any old job, simply to escape your current situation and the bullies at work. Instead, aim to leave in your own terms and move onto bigger better things.

Reasons to choose this option

  • After careful consideration, you believe your current situation cannot be resolved satisfactorily
  • You have already found a suitable new job, or will be able to find one within a reasonable timeframe
  • Moving on will not damage your career
  • Your current situation is so damaging to your physical or psychological health that you are putting yourself at risk by staying
  • The stress of staying and dealing with bullies will outweigh any positive aspects of your current job (e.g. short travel time to work, longevity of service)

Reasons to discard this option

  • You have not yet found a new job and you cannot afford to be out of work
  • You’re unwilling to look for new positions
  • After careful consideration, the negative impact of your colleague’s challenging behaviour are not serious enough to warrant leaving your job. You’re willing to live with your situation

Option 5: transfer internally

This option is similar to option four, but it involves transferring to another work unit within your current business. It can be a helpful approach to surviving workplace bullying.

Reasons to choose this option

  • There are compelling reasons to stay with your current employer
  • The bullying is an isolated occurrence and is not a feature of the company’s overall culture
  • It will be easy to find a suitable position internally

Reasons to discard this option

  • There is no potential for you to move within the business
  • You are concerned that your application for a transfer will be blocked by your manager
  • Moving to another work unit will not separate you from the colleague whose aggressive or passive-aggressive behaviour concerns you
  • The culture of your current workplace is toxic and bullying is likely to occur in other work units

Weighing up these five options for dealing with bullying at work will help you make the best possible decision about what to do next. Remember, too, that help is available if you need it. Many people find coaching or counselling useful when dealing with workplace bullying.