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My coworker humiliates me

text by Franke James, MFA.; rhino photo ©istockphoto.com/ HenriFaure

Dear Office-Politics,

I am hoping for some advice. I am a high school librarian. I left my previous position for a position that offered $20,000 more a year. The extra income is a big deal for me.

I am a single parent and I have struggled to provide for my child. I was at my previous job for 6 years. I left with a good reputation, an excellent work record, and an offer to come back. I love my work!! I love turning kids on to books!! This new position was fine in the beginning.

I found out from my co-worker that the reason the former librarian left was because she was “difficult to get along with.” Everyday, for the past several months, I heard about how awful this former coworker was, sometimes several times per day. My coworker knows where her former coworker is employed and is now starting a hideous gossip chain about her to her new employer. What does this have to do with me? In meetings, my coworker, humiliates me in front of everyone, she says demeaning comments to my face. She has sabotaged me with other teachers by telling them that I do not know what I am doing. She tells everyone I am a “dingbat.”

I have a masters degree and have raised myself since the age of 15. I just bought a new car out of necessity and she tells everyone I am on “debtors’ row.” I became sick last night because I was scheduled to go to a meeting with her today. I didn’t go. How can she humiliate me if I am not there?

If I get a phone call or make a phone call she asks me who I the person was, why did they call, and almost always comments that it should have been her handling it. My supervisor sent me a book to review and she commented that it should have been addressed to her. When I write emails, she hangs over my shoulder wanting to know all the details. She has point blank asked me about my salary.

She is constantly calling me “poor Petrova” as if I am some pathetic loser. She asked me about my living situation. After Katrina, I lost my house. To save money and avoid the trailer situation, I took a small apartment. She totally misconstrued my situation. And she brings up my living situation in front of people I don’t know. She asked me if I was ever on welfare (never, I have always worked).

I am now thinking that SHE was the problem, not the former librarian. She has done and said other things as well, but I think you get the gist of the situation. I have never had to deal with this before. EVER. I respect others and I hope to get respect in return. Please advise. Please. Thank you so very much.

Thank you,

Masters in Survival

franke james

Dear Masters in Survival,

I bet by the time you finished writing that letter you knew what you had to do. But just in case you have any doubts let me tell you the message I’m getting loud and clear.

Your coworker (let’s call her Teri) is a bully. You’re a smart lady and you’ve faced some very tough situations — and not wallowed in self-pity. So don’t do it now.

You’ve recognized the bully for what she is. You know what her tricks are. Perhaps now that you know who and what you’re dealing with, she will have less impact on your emotional health.

But let’s clarify what your choices are. The way I see it you’ve got three:

  1. Ignore her and rise above her taunts. (You’ll need a skin like rhino. But if you’ve got determination and grit that she is not going to force you out of this job, you will be able to do it.)
  2. Document her abuse in a daily journal and file a report with your supervisors.
  3. Find another job (possibly go back to your last job even though it paid less).

It is very hard (some would say impossible) to change an abusive colleague like Teri. Why are you putting up with her nonsense? Because you’re earning more money. Now, twenty thousand dollars is a lot of money, but it’s not worth the grief you’re experiencing in my opinion.

Teri is making your life miserable. Your mental health and happiness is too important to let this continue. You need to take control. I have faced bullies and in my case (everyone’s situation is different) the best thing I did was to resign myself to the fact that I could not change the people I was dealing with. So I moved. It was the best and most positive action I could take. It was a gigantic improvement. It was like a huge weight was lifted off my shoulders and I was free. It opened up new doors for me that have helped me to this day. But the experience taught me an important lesson: Do not work with people who are abusive.

Although you are dealing with an adult coworker, this situation is also like the torment that kids face in school playgrounds. Let me tell you briefly about my son (at that time in grade 3) who was being bullied. It was ruining his self-esteem and making him miserable. He didn’t want to go to school anymore. We met with his teacher several times. Finally she told us (confidentially) that if we could afford to move him we should. We had suspected that it would come to this, but hearing it from the teacher was our signal to take action. We switched him to another school — even though it required moving him at Christmas break. He is now grown and happily employed. He has told me many times that the best thing we did was get him out of that destructive environment.

My view is that you are in a destructive environment and you need to rescue yourself. Review those 3 choices I’ve laid out for you. The good news is that you love being a librarian. The economy is obviously in dire straights right now, so I strongly urge you to be careful if you do switch jobs. Secure any new job in writing (and if possible have a lawyer review the contract. Ask in advance for an estimate of the lawyer’s fees. You’ll be buying a service and you need to know the price tag).

You can also find a good stress reliever like an after-hours hobby. Write. Paint. Cook. Knit. Garden. Hike! Any of those activities may help you feel better — and you never know. Perhaps you’ll write a “fiction” book about this bully, and in that way earn additional revenue.

You may decide that it is too financially risky to find a new job. If so, then you’ll have to proceed to do battle. There are many books on bullying you can read. I suggest you read some and then plan very carefully how you are going to disarm this bully.

Best of luck and please let me know how things work out.

Thanks for writing to Office-Politics.


Franke James, MFA
Editor & Founder, Office-Politics.com
Inventor, The Office-Politics® Game


Franke James, MFA is the Editor & Founder of Office-Politics.com. She is also the Inventor of The Office-Politics® Game a dilemma-based social game that teaches you how to play, and laugh, at office politics. It’s used by HR departments, and corporate trainers worldwide. The Office-Politics Dilemmas have been inspired by the hundreds of letters submitted to Office-Politics.com.

  1. 16 Answers to “My coworker humiliates me”


    Dear Franke,

    Thank you so much for the advice. I plan on keeping a journal, everyday, of what goes on in this library.

    I am under contract until August 2009, but I will start to look for another position. I cannot see myself doing this for another year. Before I go, I will sit down with my supervisor, my journal, and tell him why I need to leave. They can do whatever they wish with the info.

    I would never have called it “bullying” but you hit the nail on the head. It feels a little weird to admit that someone is bullying me, but saying it gives it some sort of shape that I can deal with–not just an abstract feeling. Gosh, this is so new to me.

    Thanks for your input and helping me put it all in perspective. I believe you have given me advice from an objective point of view. I just read a few other articles that will help me disarm her when she asks me about emails and phone calls AND keep peace within the environment. I feel much better about dealing with her come Monday. And thank you for providing this much needed service.

    Many Thanks and God Bless,


    By Feedback from Letter writer on Jan 13, 2009

  3. Dear Masters in Survival,

    Thanks for the feedback. I’m glad my advice helped in some way. It sounds like you are on the right track and have a smart strategy.

    Although this experience is painful now, there may be a way that you will benefit years down the road. It may be in greater compassion for others. It may be by stepping in and helping someone else who is being bullied. It may be that you move to another job and are thankful, daily, that you are among kind people who are focused on helping others enjoy literature and learning. Or it may be by writing a self-help book when you’ve digested the many out there and see what’s missing. Look at this as a way to learn more about yourself and others.

    Let me know how things go and how you help ‘heal’ yourself.

    Franke James, Editor and Founder

    By Franke James on Jan 13, 2009


    Excellent advice, Franke.

    #1 is tough; I’ve had to resort to both #2 and #3 in the past.

    Dave Riddell


    By Dave Riddell on Jan 13, 2009

  5. Hi Franke,
    I have seen these type of situations. But i feel we should start learning to defend them instead of running away and deal like the one you quoted “having skin like rhino”. bcoz any office u go you will be finding the similar situations may be with a different amplitude. Coping up with such situation is a must to grow higher. In a way I agree with your decision, bcoz when we are in a pleasant environment keeps a person mind at rest and skills are can used to the fullest and this also boosts ones self esteem.

    By Ravi on Jan 14, 2009

  6. Ravi,

    Thnx for your comment. You make a good point. However I believe each situation is different and it’s up to the individual whether they should stay and ‘fight’ or move to a better place.

    Please read my advice to a young editor who felt she was being picked on by a senior coworker. “There are four skills you need to hone to survive…”

    Hell working for Narcissistic Editor

    By Franke James on Jan 14, 2009

  7. Sometimes people need a good ass-kicking. My family has used this tactic quite successfully in the past.
    Having people fear you is the best defense.
    take martial arts classes and show trophies and pictures of yourself pinning and hammering someone. the bully may decide to become your friend or decide to try and tangle. If they decide to tangle, get them to tangle away from the office.
    This is the unfortunate law of the jungle. Willingness to inflict and take pain is the key.
    Bullies are really pansies. They are not made of tough stuff. Underneath they are frightened little children. Expose them for the toddlers they are.

    Take care

    By Rob on Jan 30, 2009

  8. Rob – while I agree with the direction you’re going I don’t think it has to be physical in nature (if thats really what you mean).

    Bullies are VERY insecure people. Standing up to them and letting them know that you are clearly aware of what their shortcomings are will often result in them backing away quickly. The last thing they want is to have those insecurities exposed.

    Have you considered a combination of what Franke recommends? First I would start keeping a journal. Be sure to include entries for the detailed comments she makes about her former co-worker. Then start the wheels in motion of being prepared to leave by putting out the feelers with your employer as well as others schools. Finally, I would either A) wait for her next incident and stand up to her verbally and tell you will not accept such treatment, it is highly unprofessional and she needs to stay out of your private matters and leave you to do your job. Or B) go to management without confronting her with your journal of evidence.

    Option A will possibly result in HER going to management but you have a plan if she does this. You have a journal you can show them of her behavior including evidence of why the former employee probably left thus exposing a pattern of abuse. You should also tell them at this time that you didn’t want to involve management just yet because in the interests of professionalism you felt that you should try to resolve it one on one. Let them know that you had planned to bring it to their attention if that didn’t work. Option B is similar except that you didn’t bring it to her attention first which may work against you in the long run but it avoids the confrontation.

    Good luck and remember karma works in funny ways.

    By desertdweller on Feb 4, 2009

  9. Dear Masters

    I really feel for you. But a bully will not go away if you stick your head in the sand. I strongly urge you to take some Assertiveness Training either online or classroom. This will give you the confidence to confront the bully.

    You have a right to be treated in a decent manner at work and this right is not being honoured so build up your confidence by getting some training and then face your tormentor.

    By Ranjit on Feb 15, 2009

  10. Dear Master of Survival,

    I think that given your personal circumstances, your best option would be to stand up to this woman. You will never know if this bully can be tamed unless you take a stand and make her aware of her actions. People like this woman often aren’t even aware that they are acting the way they are, and if they are aware of it, they keep doing it because it gives them a false sense of superiority and satisfaction.

    You took this job because it would improve your quality of life, that of which you’ve suffered enough (losing your home to katrina). It’s not easy to stand up to someone but I think that if you start taking steps towards confronting this person, you could solve the situation. Like mentioned earlier, you might want to start by making observations and documenting her actions so you can really get a grasp of the magnitude of her ways. I think that after a few days of observation you should confront her about her actions in a collective but assertive way. If you maker her completely aware of the way she’s been affecting you, and that you won’t stand for it, she could back away.

    Just remain calm and confident, you’re certainly being the bigger and more responsible person for doing this.

    By Steve on Mar 31, 2009

  11. This is a power struggle. Deep dosn, your co-worker is afraid of you.
    If you choose to stay in your workplace it is absolutely necessary to reinstate a more healthy ‘chain of command’. Which means you will have to battle the bully. Verbally that is.

    It is very important not to go down to his/her level. You have to be smarter, more mature, better and more powerful than the bully.

    In the example of Masters in Survival, she should response to Teri whenever she makes comments in public. Something like ‘Are you saying those things just to harass me, or to cover your own insecurity?’ or something like ‘I appreciate your comments, but it is not very constructive criticism, why don’t we sit down with the supervisor some time to see how we can solve this disagreement.’

    Be open about your troubles, but in a way so that it seems that shows you are in control of the situation, and that even in hardship, you still are able to live, to work and do it well.

    Especially when in public, you must retaliate. It is easy to be demeaning in an intelligent manner. If you can respond to the bullies’ comment in a well-spoken, mature way, you will win.

    Bring down the office politics, go have lunch with the powers that be, try to start a new project, keep your desk clear, …. Prove them you are better than your colleague, without having to trash him/her. Respond with sarcastic humour. When the bully makes a demeaning comment, respond with. Phew you’re tense, did you forget to take your pills? Show the bully you don’t care and that you can handle him/her. In company, just use humour without the sarcasm, like ‘My god, I swear I just saw my evil stepmother in you…’ or smile like you mean it and say ‘Damn you’re funny!’ turn to your coworkers and say something like ‘He’s /she’s totally cracking me up.’

    My father always told me ‘ca passe sur la carapace de mon indifférence et çà disparait dans le trou de mon oubli’ which is French for It slips over my shield of indifference and disappears in the well of oblivion. Just don’t care about her comments.

    I was bullied for years in High School (I was a nerd). it all stopped when for every comment the bullies made, I just responded with: ‘Yeah, I know, you’re right, sorry I exist. Here, my parents’ phone number, go tell them. they are responsible. Bye’. When they realised there was nothing more to win, it just stopped.

    By Oliver on Apr 29, 2009

  12. You cannot run. You must find ways of reducing the effect she has on you AND a hardcore offensive strategy: hit her back and do not stop until it becomes mandated. At that point you can open up a can of worms and reveal everything.

    Go for it.

    By Steve on Jun 11, 2009

  13. I have to say upon reading the various comments to this situation, it’s interesting that most male writers think she should keep her well-paying job and fight back. I agree completely!

    Leaving for another job is the female choice, and a typical textbook choice as well. The problem is that in doing so, the bully wins, and remains free to harrass the next new employee. In other words, problem not solved because everyone is making huge changes and sacrifices while the bully makes none. This is not social justice, and it is precisely these avoidance techniques that allow bullies in school to flourish.

    What would happen if you used her tactics? What if every chance you got, you were on her face in a way that no one else could see?

    You would drive her nuts. She may battle back but ultimately, she will back down. This is the only language they understand. I have seen this work.

    By Cassandra B. on Oct 6, 2009

  14. Lots of good advice here. I have a bully boss – who likes to hire her bully relatives – so I am looking for another job. Personally I would like to just be laid off so I can collect unemployment. I think they like to keep me around to do the work (I am a hard worker) and to have someone to vent on. I have tried to get HR to help – and they are afraid of the bully boss too.

    By Tanya on Oct 11, 2009

  15. Amazing advice here, I have myself been in a similar situation to wear away at your sense of fair and what defines progressive agenda and morale in the work-place today. If I may so boldly state my opinion why not look at it with a sense of humor. When you think about it – as an observer I would react to your co-workers behavior as unsettling and childish! Believe me – she in fact is the one who comes across as unpleasant (when does she manage to focus on her own work when she is so focused on others’?) When this co-worker does something to instigate her control mechanics- laugh it off! It is amusing and a waste of your time to give it a second thought! Seriously why let it get you down. Never let her see you sweat – I would be professional and do my job – stick to your tasks at hand and love what you do because “no matter where you go there you are”. .. a bump in the road (another confrontational work-college) – “ the grass is not always that much sweeter” (…maybe someday it will be!). I know this is corny but “find your happy place” – tune her out – and don’t “throw the baby out with the bathwater” – perseverance is a crucial an important part of the journey to find yourself closer to your goals, a stronger personality, self-assurance and dreams. When you retire from the day feeling stronger and satisfied nothing can stop you.

    By Isis Carson on Nov 7, 2009

  16. …if you want to play dirty – always outsmart her – have a witty joke to tell others – use highly developed language – that will outsmart your opponent – but above all – never be anyone but yourself – people will see that and do not think for a second that they do not notice. As soon as you become anything like this co-worker – she has won. Be strong – and be helpful – have something extra – like a can of static cling for an emergency. Subtly bring in something you like to eat like mints and casually have them available at your desk. Do not flaunt but do not feel intimidated. Come up with new ideas for the library. Be on top of things even if it means staying late for a few nights a week – just until you are comfortable. Get to know others – get to know the staff make a real effort – she can not be the only one there.
    Have some simple fun. Start a fundraiser for a kids charity at work – 5$ donations to play bingo with prizes and everyone brings a food or warm clothing item. Be nice to her – always say hi and ask her how her say is – say – hmmmm – your hair would look better up with those pants today. Shine – life is full of vampires – are you going to tell me you are waiting around for the next attack -?? Live…and put two sided tape on her chair…a little practical joke goes a long way – trust me…think of a good one and make sure you do not get caught.


    By Isis Carson on Nov 7, 2009

  17. Masters in Survival, I have the SAME situation. I’ve confronted the person one-on-one professionally. That stopped the treatment for awhile. Then, it started up again b/c that’s this person’s personality. I’m viewed as the weak link by this person. I’ve tried numerous tactics, but my favorite was open confrontation to the point of tears. That was fun, but not professional or kind. My bully is VERY insecure. I give no just cause to be mean–and make sure that others see it. That way they see that this person is the problem and is incredibly insecure, immature and UNPROFESSIONAL. Now, I get the occasional snide comment or rude behavior. Remember: some people are idiots.

    Since your contract is already up, I hope you’ve been renewed and are documenting your bully enough to the point where she can lose her job and drown in this horrid economy. Then, you can go home and laugh about it.

    By OKOKOK on Dec 3, 2010

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