ask the readers: when a coworker is being picked on

Here’s another question I’m throwing out to the readers to help answer. A reader writes:

My office seems to be a huge fan of the snark. They are constantly ribbing each other, making jokes, having debates about whatever topic is in the news etc. I’ve kind of been ostracised by the main part of the office group, something I’ve come to realise is a good thing, as hearing the rubbish they go on about is draining and mean.

While I don’t mind a little bit of snark, it seems like lately it has all been directed at one team member. He’s the newest member to our team, though he’s worked in our department for over two years. He’s friendly with everyone and has been for years, and a nice guy. He’s significantly older than most of us (nearly 20 years older than me), and kind of has a tendency to say odd things that aren’t offensive, just a bit strange.

My team has jumped on this, and constantly pick on him for stuff he’s said. If he happens to make a comment about a band he’s never heard of, they’ll go on for ten minutes about how old he is. There is a running joke that he creeps around looking through people’s windows…it may have been funny the first time, but now it’s brought up everytime he says something silly. Often it starts off as friendly ribbing, but the length of time it goes on for can be ridiculous, and it’s not nice to listen to over the cubicle walls.

This is coming from a team with members that are disgusted by fat people, think depressed people should “get over it” and can’t understand how anyone could come to our country not speaking English. They are not perfect.

After a particularly nasty attack yesterday, I spoke up and said, “Wow, Bob, did you kick someone’s cat or something? Everyone is picking on you!” Everyone sort of piped down after that, but I’m sure they were muttering about me (given my own unpopular status in the team). I later emailed Bob to say I wouldn’t put up with it, and to check whether he thought it was funny, or if he was being offended. He’s such a nice guy, he wouldn’t ever say anything, but I wanted to make sure he wasn’t suffering in silence. He said it did get to him sometimes, but that was just a part of working, and at least he got to go home at 5.30 everyday. He also said that it was partly his fault for saying stupid things.

My question: How can I help? It’s not nice to listen to someone be the brunt of snarky attacks (especially when they think they are “hilarious”), but I don’t want to make a fuss, as I’m unpopular enough, I’ve complained to management about this lot before, and was essentially told to get a thicker skin. I know if it was me, I’d be grateful someone else didn’t find the joke funny. My team leader is recently promoted and generally quiet, and my supervisor seems oblivious.

This is sort of the counter to last month’s question about snark, I guess.

You can read an update to this post here.

{ 195 comments… read them below }

  1. Anonymous*

    Wow – how awful. I think speaking up like you did is all you can do in this situation if management won’t address it and the target doesn’t complain. Are they meeting performance goals if they have this much time to gossip? And as we hear here so often – how does it affect your work? Can you bring it to your leadership framed in the context of affected productivity?

    The stuff that’s racist and directed at people’s physical appearance is a must to address for an employer, though. That’s certainly grounds for termination, even if they are unwilling to discipline for crappy behavior in general.

    1. Anonymous*

      Oh, one more thing – what you’ve done for Bob is wonderful. At least he knows now that someone else doesn’t think he deserves this treatment and doesn’t have to feel alone. What a shame that he only looks forward to going home. Best of luck to both of you getting out of there or getting this resolved.

    2. fposte*

      Though spelling suggests this isn’t in the U.S., so us USAns probably should keep in mind that laws and policies we’re used to may not apply.

      1. LCL*

        “This is coming from a team with members that are disgusted by fat people, think depressed people should “get over it” and can’t understand how anyone could come to our country not speaking English”

        I’d bet my house this is in the US, I have heard the exact same phrasing here many times. We don’t all think like this, but the people that do are vocal.

        1. A Bug!*

          It’s possible it takes place in the States but I would be surprised to hear it, and even more surprised to hear that the writer is American-born-and-raised, for exactly the reason fposte said. Believe it or not, there are racist, mean, intolerant poo-heads in Britain and elsewhere just as there are in the States!

          (Standouts – “ostracised” and “5.30”)

        2. JessB*

          Interestingly, I started reading this and heard it in an Aussie accent. I’m Australian, and there is a lot of talk here about people seeking refugee status, so the idea of someone coming to our country not being able to speak English is not a new one, and is not embraced by everyone.

          Anyway, I got an Aussie vibe.

          1. Laura L*

            Good point. We Americans need to remember that we don’t corner the market on anti-immigrant sentiment.

            (I also thought it was the US because there’s a lot of that, you chose to come here, you need to learn English, stuff going around.)

  2. Janet*

    Since it’s just your co-workers and they have no hierarchy over you, I would jump in the next time they say it and say “Would you all just please leave Bob alone.” If you want to lighten it up you can and say something like “I know I have the cheap seats for the “picking on bob” show but it stopped being funny about 2 months ago – can you guys move on?” – there is a distinct chance that they’ll move to target you though – not that it’s a reason to not say something but it’s something you should be aware could happen.

    Another option is to go to HR. I am a believer you should always talk directly to the people bothering you before you get HR involved.

    1. Ivy*

      When it comes to being targeted though… I don’t know how much OP should worry about it. I find people are targeted when the bullies (because ya that’s what they are) know they can get away with it. As OP has yet to be targeted, and seems to be willing to confront them, I don’t see them targeting her. Although it’s still possible in which case OP, you need to really put your foot down from the get-go. Some people get bullied and others never do, and what separates them is that foot. Don’t let people get away with treating you any way they want to.

      OP is there a ring leader here? In these groups there usually is… I would talk to that person and lay it down: a) your bullying this person b)it makes you look unprofessional c) your creating a hostile environment d) I will be going to HR if this doesn’t show improvement to show them how serious you see this (and follow through with it)… If there is no ring leader, then talk to each person individually… Also, I say keep defending the guy because it’s the right thing to do and they might just get the idea and stop.

      1. some1*

        “c) your creating a hostile environment”

        Actually, they are not in the legal sense of the term. Unless Bob is being attacked for his gender, race, religion or in some places his sexual orientation. You can be as jerky as you want to someone your co-worker for being socially inept, and yeah, it’s mean, but it’s not a hostile work environment.

            1. snuck*

              Depending where you are in the world – ‘over 40’ doesn’t actually apply. You could apply age discrimination in the reverse in many places also – if older people pick on younger staff because of their age.

              And the jokes about staring in windows could be described as harrassment – they are implying he has sexual perversions.

          1. some1*

            I don’t think he is being attacked solely for his age, though, it sounds like it’s for the things he says to people.

            1. Ivy*

              Anon: He’s 20 years older than everyone else… he must be at least 40…

              some1: he isn’t being attacked solely for his age but it comes up often enough for OP to mention it… if they were saying “oh you don’t know this band because your black and black people have terrible taste in music” it might feel a little different.

              But really, your nitpicking a small part of my suggestion. As I’ve said, I wasn’t really referring to a hostile environment in the legal sense.

        1. Ivy*

          Though I wasn’t really referring to the legal term, so if you want to say “your creating a bad environment”, I think you can still get the message across.

        2. Lyz*

          @some1 Why are you assuming he is ‘socially inept’ as you put it? In my opinion we all know the legal can and can’t do’s when it comes to hostile work environ complaints. It’s these co-workers who are ‘socially inept.They are obviously morons who have nothing between their ears or for that matter nothing better to do. Why should they rule the roost in this business environment? And set the disrespectful tone in a workplace. Where’s the jelly spined supervisor? and what is he/she doing? Just cos he’s older don’t make him socially awkward??? he’s not in the clique no THEIR clique. No we can’t stop cliques but the spineless mgr should speak up and set an example of respectful and MATURE behaviour/code of conduct that PROFESSIONAL and civil people are supposed to follow.

          1. Ask a Manager* Post author

            Actually, for what it’s worth, most people don’t know the legalities of hostile workplace complaints; many people think it simply means being hostile and don’t realize that the conduct needs to be tied to a protected class.

            And I assume some1 characterized Bob as socially inept because the OP wrote that “has a tendency to say odd things that aren’t offensive, just a bit strange.”

            1. Lyz*

              That is THEIR opinion. Their view that he says things a bit strange. Harassment is supposed to be as ‘perceived’ by the person being harassed. Same as what offends one person may not offend another. Don’t make it right behaviour. They think he is strange cause he is not ‘like them’ so they insult/take mick. This is bullying. No you can’t stop all of it, but you can improve it. It needs a firm approach from a mgr with a backbone and if the co don’t do this, get out. What about victimisation

                1. Lyz*

                  doesn’t matter if he is socially inept , awkward, whatever, he deserves respect and they need to get on with their work and grow up a bit

            2. some1*

              “And I assume some1 characterized Bob as socially inept because the OP wrote that “has a tendency to say odd things that aren’t offensive, just a bit strange.””

              Exactly this. I don’t mean bullying your co-worker is social ineptness, I meant Bob’s weird remarks.

              1. Lyz*

                bob isn’t socially inept. thats your perception He is simply ‘not like’ or ‘different’ to them. which makes him what’s called an ‘easy target’! by cowards.!! personally i would stand by Bob if it got more unpleasant and tell mgmt. Noone should be made to feel bad purposefully. Not in the workplace, who are these people???? Ambassadors? for the company no

                1. some1*

                  *I* don’t think Bob is socially inept; I don’t even know these people. But he admits to making comments that weird his co-workers out, which is a sign of being socially inept.

                  Does that it ok to be mean to him? Of course not. My whole point is that bullying a co-worker because they are say weird things (or because they have B.O., or are overweight, or they wear ugly clothes, or like a football team you hate) is not a “hostile work environment” the way it would be if Bob was being targeted for his race or religion.

              2. Ask a Manager* Post author

                Lyz, I’m not sure how you’d be able to know better than the OP. Regardless, it doesn’t matter if Bob is socially inept or not; he still shouldn’t be being treated this way. But please tone it down here.

              3. Bobby Digital*

                some1 October 11, 2012 at 12:38 pm:
                “*I* don’t think Bob is socially inept; I don’t even know these people.”

                I like this comment so much.

          2. Lyz*

            and nobody should be expected to put up with disrespectful ongoing (disguised as jokey behaviour) because as I say, lets see it done to them and see how they put up with this. they all signed the same work contract and all deserve healthy treatment. Stamp it out, the mgr can talk to these people firmly and in the process they may learn how to behave appropriately and more importantly CIVILY to their coworkers. Familiarity breeds CONTEMPT. How very true. Lily livered so-called professional(?) mangers contribute to a disrespectful working environ. They are paid to manage. The fish always stinks from the top.

            1. Mishsmom*

              indeed the fish does always stink from the top… Lyz, i have to ask – are you originally American? this is so not an American expression (or is it?) and i use it a lot – it’s great to see someone else knows it too! :)

              Bob is lucky to have an advocate. how sad that he feels he somehow earned or deserves it… OP, good for you – even if you can’t make it change – you stood up for him. that rocks!

        3. Peaches*

          The fat thing. It’s illegal to discriminate based on weight in Michigan and some cities and counties throughout the US. Quite frankly, I think this should be adopted everywhere because I’ve known many overweight people who were great workers and no less skilled or dedicated than their slimmer counterparts. Very few jobs actually require one to be in excellent shape, simply able to stand or walk for long period. If some of the bullying involves weight jokes and this isn’t taking place in a common wealth nation (as it likely is) then you could look into that.

      2. mh_76*

        willing to confront them [bullies]

        OP should be careful, though, because some confronted bullies go whining to management alleging rudeness towards them rather than the other way ’round – they lie and say that [OP] was rude to them even though that’s not the truth. Oh, wait, that’s how previous one of my jobs ended…I confronted the bullies…well, I was going to quit in a couple of months anyway because I hated hated hated the job but needed the money for a couple more months. On the + side, I got unemployment and “won” when the company challenged.

        Anyway, back to OP… be careful, especially because you’d be confronting the bullies on behalf of someone else. It’s probably best that you advise your colleague to (1) start job-hunting and prepare to leave (2) confront the bullies himself then go to HR / management or arrange to do all three concurrently (3) don’t be surprised if he’s let go, which is a possibility if the bullies have pulled the wool over management’s eyes and somehow become the pet employees (ugh).

    2. Anonymous*

      Depending on the team’s behaviour it might be a bad idea for OP to stick up for him that much. If they’re as snarky as described I can just image the “leave Britney alone!” jokes now.

      The only thing I can think for OP to do would be to try being equally snarky, but on Bob’s side.

      A-hole co-worker: “Oh guys, look at Bob’s sweater!”
      OP: “Uh, I don’t think you should be schooling Bob on fashion when you’re wearing *those* shoes, Susan.”

      Sorry I couldn’t come up with a better example, but hopefully you get what I mean.

      1. Another Emily*

        I don’t think this is a good idea. By engaging in this snark war the OP would look as unprofessional as these jerks. Also, the OP would now be a part of this war and therefore a target.

        I think this saying applies: Never get in to an argument with an idiot. First he’ll drag you down to his level, then he’ll beat you with experience.

  3. Andrew*

    I think you’ve done everything you can (and more), and would agree with your determination that further action is only going to make everyone’s lives more difficult. At this point, there are really only two things you can do:

    – Get a nice pair of sound-blocking headphones
    – In your exit interview, tell your manager that your toxic office culture is a major reason for your decision to leave

    1. COT*

      No–you can’t just avoid the problem and block out the noise when someone else is being bullied.

      “All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.” -Edmund Burke

      1. Jamie*

        It is nice that she’s said what she’s said and is looking for other ways to help…but she doesn’t have an obligation to fight every comment on Bob’s behalf – especially if he isn’t doing it himself.

        After she’s done what she could then refusing to participate is a valid option.

        Bob isn’t a child or an adult with cognitive disabilities where there would be a moral (imo) obligation to protect him. I assume he has access to his managers and HR – and the OP may very well hit a wall if she complains and they ask Bob and his reply is along the lines of it gets to me sometimes, but it’s part of working. From what he’s expressed verbally to her this is bother her more than it is him.

        Now, that may not be true – he may be putting on a brave face, but if that is what he would say to management and HR she could be banging her head against the wall.

        That isn’t to say it shouldn’t stop – it should stop because it sounds like a horrible work environment – but she isn’t obligated to remain vigilant and make sure he has a defender in the office.

        For all you know he may not appreciate it.

        1. Kellyk*

          This is a good point. Refusing to participate, asking them to knock it off when she hears it, that’s about all she can do. And her standing up for Bob every single time might actually draw more attention and make him feel more uncomfortable.

          1. fposte*

            I also think it’s unfair to set up a situation where the OP is required to make a lifetime commitment to fixing this. She’s not standing by and doing nothing (and surely the Burke quote applies to Bob as well as the OP), but she doesn’t have to make social engineering the cornerstone of her work life, either.

            1. Jamie*

              I’m really surprised, with a couple of exceptions, that more comments aren’t directed at Bob.

              As I noted in another post he’s neither a child nor cognitively disabled so why aren’t his actions (or lack of) being taken into account?

              I’m missing something.

              1. Mishsmom*

                some people think they deserve to be treated badly. it’s sad but happens a lot. maybe Bob thinks this is just how life is and doesn’t know it doesn’t have to be…

        2. CRP*

          I think that the OP is defending Bob also based upon HER values; it’s not just about Bob. It’s about how you want to be treated in the workplace, and pointing out if you see an injustice directed at others because ultimately, a toxic office environment affects everyone.

          I understand and appreciate your perspective, but I hope we don’t lose this sight of this issue as well. I applaud this individual for considering how she can contribute to fostering a more positive work environment.

          1. Girasol*


            Creating a bad (if not legally hostile) work environment hurts everyone. Anybody who’s been through middle school knows how the game is played. Even the folks laughing along with the bullies know that if the victim leaves, they could be the next target.

    2. Amy*

      I think Andrew is right. It sounds like the reader has done everything she can do but the people who have the power to make changes aren’t willing to take action. My heart breaks for the older coworker shlogging along til 5:30 every day.

      The only other thing I might wonder is if any of the snarkers is more friendly and approachable than the others? Perhaps one of them would understand that targeting a member of their own team isn’t good for the general morale of the office and could use their sway with the group for good.

      I had a manager once who wasn’t very much liked. The guy wasn’t perfect but honestly nothing about him was that bad…I think at some point he’d just got on the wrong charismatic employee’s bad side and it eventually became cool to crap on him. It was a high-churn service industry job but I was one of those few who sticks around, so after a few months I was one of the most senior employees on staff. One day I suddenly became aware that I was griping about this guy to new staff members who didn’t yet dislike him, and realized I was teaching them that part of our culture is disliking this one manager, the same way I had learned from the other employees when I came on board that it was appropriate to kick up a bitch session over the slightest perceived wrong committed by this manager. Luckily, because I was such a senior employee and generally well-liked by everyone, once I realized what I was participating int, I started resisting when people started a session about him. I’d offer up something positive about the manager, or just interrupting the conversation to say, “So who did something awesome this weekend? I never directly challenged the complaints people made about the manager, since they were often true (just petty), but I tried to counterbalance them with positive observations and steer the conversation away from dwelling on his mistakes.

      This actually worked! I’d say it only took about a month before it stopped being cool to bitch about that manager and he was about as well-liked as all the others. The situation was a lot different than the OP’s, since I was a ranking and well-liked employee. But at the heart of it is that I was able to shut down the negativity not by saying, “Hey guys, I don’t think it’s cool to bitch about Bob all the time,” but just by forcefully injecting more positivity into the environment. Other people who used to be quieter during the bitch sessions (even if they did nominally participate) started speaking up more to share more positive things. I like to think that I led the way in creating a safe space for people to be happy and not feel like they’d be “uncool” if they enjoyed coming to work, smiled, and shared positive things.

      1. Michelle*

        “One day I suddenly became aware that I was griping about this guy to new staff members who didn’t yet dislike him, and realized I was teaching them that part of our culture is disliking this one manager…..”

        I have to say that this is really mature on your part. I’ve been the one to complain about “that one manager” before and I didn’t fully realize I was doing it…..the whole office did it, it was just part of our culture. I agree that the OP should try to steer the conversation in another direction when possible. You can control your response to the snark and set an example, even if HR and Management aren’t willing to put a stop to it.

      2. Joey*

        What a great example of the power that a respected employee has on the team? This is a great strategy managers should use to implement any kind of difficult change. Get buy in from the best team member(s) and the rest will follow.

      3. Elizabeth West*

        Fantastic. When I get a new job, I’m going to remember this, particularly if someone comes up to me and tells me “Bob’s annoying,” or whatever. Good job being a grown-up! :)

    3. Ivy*

      I disagree with you Andrew, but my disagreement is coming from a personal angle I suppose…

      I couldn’t live with myself if I let this go on… I always think in terms of “in 20 years what will I regret”. And I would REALLY regret not doing anything… does OP have to do something? No. She’s not obligated to do anything. But at the same time, these people are making this guys work life miserable. Even if he said it just bothers him sometimes, there’s no doubt in me that it bothers him a lot, and every time.

      1. Jamie*

        “Even if he said it just bothers him sometimes, there’s no doubt in me that it bothers him a lot, and every time.”

        I’m not sure this is fair. It could be true, but there is no way to know that. People tend to assume that what bothers them will also bother other people, and that’s just not always the case.

        There are absolutely things that would hurt me personally which wouldn’t even phase my husband – especially when it comes to the put downs and joking around which I never think is funny.

        It’s nice to stick up for other people, but it’s not nice to assume we know better than they do what bothers them and how often.

        It is possible that Bob is suffering terribly from self-esteem issues and desperately needs someone to protect him because he’s incapable of doing it himself. It’s also possible he doesn’t really give a crap and just lives to go home at the end of the day – like a lot of people. The truth is somewhere in the middle, I would expect.

        1. Ivy*

          “He said it did get to him sometimes, but that was just a part of working, and at least he got to go home at 5.30 everyday. He also said that it was partly his fault for saying stupid things.”

          Given OP’s impression of Bob (which we need to put more weight on since we don’t know him), and that he’s not about to pour out his soul to her, his comments above are pretty strong. “At least he got to go home at 5:30”: he dreads coming in to work, not because of the job, but because of the way he’s treated. “He also said that it was partly his fault for saying stupid things”: if that’s not low self esteem, I don’t know what is’. It’s self blame, akin to saying: “I got beaten up, but really its my fault for walking alone”.

          Obviously it’s tolerable or he wouldn’t still be there, but it doesn’t make it any less wrong. Even if he doesn’t care at all as you’ve said, I don’t think it matters. The way OP’s coworkers are acting is inappropriate and wrong. That’s it. She’s not obligated to do anything, but ethically, she should.

          In response to: “People tend to assume that what bothers them will also bother other people, and that’s just not always the case.” I have never been bullied, and I have tougher skin than most, probably bordering on sociopath. ATM I can’t think of anything someone has said that made me feel hurt. So, I’m not projecting my feelings on Bob. I’m just putting as much seriousness into this as it deserves. Bullying is a terrible part of humanity, and it happens because we let it.

          1. COT*

            Just because Bob hasn’t left doesn’t mean the job is tolerable. Maybe he does handle it just fine and leaves it all behind when he walks out the office door each day. But maybe he feels trapped or needs the income.

            We have no idea what his breaking point is and how he will react if he reaches that point. Isn’t it better to be safe than sorry?

          2. fposte*

            It’s not special that way, though; pretty much every bad human behavior happens because nobody managed to stop it–and even more they happen because the person involved wants to do it. That’s who’s really responsible here, and I’m uncomfortable with what looks like shifting of responsibility to the OP, who’s been neither complicit nor silent.

        2. some1*

          JMO, but I got the impression that this really does bother Bob a great deal from his response to the LW. Otherwise he would have said that it was no big deal.

    4. Lyz*

      that’s a cop out. i wouldn’t stand by i’d speak to mgmt sharpish. ive seen this done before and why should they insult people that are their coworkers land not friends. these people are usually gutless and wouldnt carry on like this in public only in their groups

    5. Hari*

      +1, I think she has done all she can (report to managers, confront the gossipers, give Bob support, etc.). OP cannot be an advocate for Bob if Bob isn’t even taking up for himself. It makes it look like Bob is OK with it and OP is just too highly strung to everyone. What OP can do is if she hears it over cubicles, she can tell them to quiet down so she can focus on work but other than that she is at a moot point.

  4. Anon*

    Wait a minute, does this reader work in the Pawnee, Indiana Parks and Recreation Department?

    In all seriousness, if the team leader and supervisor aren’t willing to step in, this sounds like a permanently toxic environment. I might go to them specifically if the manager s/he originally talked to was a different person. But if they’re not willing to do anything, I’d probably start looking for another job and continue to stand up for Bob in the meantime.

    1. Jamie*

      Yes – I initially got a Karl Pilkington vibe off this, but you’re right…he’s Jerry.

      This makes me sad.

        1. moss*

          Totally agree, I think it’s horrible and does not make me laugh and I also thought of Jerry (whose character’s real name is GARY poor guy).

          1. some1*

            Honestly, while the Jerry-bullying is mean, I absolutely love the way his character remains positive despite everything. And while I admit they are few and far between, each character has acknowledged that Jerry is important. Also, the fact that he’s the sad sack that everyone loves to make fun of have made certain plotlines that much more hilarious, like having a drop-dead gorgeous daughter & his, um, diagnosis from that doctor. Also, I read yesterday that Christie Brinkley is going to play his wife.

            1. class factotum*

              Good point. And the truth is that Jerry really isn’t a loser at all. Remember that gorgeous painting he did? Maybe that’s the point – that he is actually a really neat, talented person and the people around him are clueless.

              1. Laura L*

                I do think that’s part of the point of his character. He’s talented and no one appreciates him. But he also isn’t a striver. He doesn’t try to sell his paintings, he vacations in Muncie, he likes having dinner with his family, he likes simple pleasures. I don’t know. It’s interesting.

                I also heard an interview with some of the cast and the actor who plays Jerry is about 10 years younger than the character (maybe more).

            2. Andrea*

              Ha—I saw that too! Funny. The crap directed at Jerry used to bother me, too, until I kept watching and realized that 1) he’s in on the joke and/or not really bothered by that stuff, and 2) Jerry really does screw a lot of things up. Love that show!

              1. moss*

                To me it seems like he is very bothered by it but perhaps I am projecting.

                I thought of the “diagnosis” too, LOL! I guess everyone has some hidden “talent” perhaps! Although I would NOT want to know THAT about any of my coworkers!!!

                1. some1*

                  I don’t think the episode said any of his co-workers knew. IIRC the doctor revealed it to the camera.

                2. moss*

                  I agree, I don’t think anyone knows but the implication is they would treat him differently if they did know.

  5. Alison Ann*

    If it were me I wouldn’t just ignore it, but I’m not afraid of confrontation and that kind of thing bothers me deeply.

    I wouldn’t, however, frame it as a stop-picking-on-Bob effort, because that doesn’t do anything to take the heat off of him and he might be embarrassed/annoyed that you’re fighting his battles for him.

    I would say something about the lack of professionalism in the office and how difficult it is to get work done with all of the yapping and that if they’re going to gossip and be nasty can’t they please do it after work or outside and above all just keep it out of the office. I would do it with a bit of crazy in my eyes as well, to let them know I’m tired of their shit and I’m almost done being civil.

    1. Elizabeth West*

      That’s kinda what I was thinking. It seems to bother the OP not just because she feels bad for Bob, but because all the constant sniping is ANNOYING. Just shut up and get to work already!

  6. Heather*

    I feel like this might be a time to go to HR. Not to have HR be the teacher (was it ClueWagon who said that?) but because this is affecting your work environment.

  7. Nodumbunny*

    The co-workers are bullying this poor guy. I wouldn’t be able to sit by and let it go on, and I think the LW’s instincts are right that she needs to do something, but what?

    When you say you’ve mentioned it to management, is that the same people as the new team lead and the supervisor you mention? Are they in the same room, overhearing this? What if you tried a two-prong argument of “It is very hard to get any work done in our shared work space because of all the chatter and joking. Also, a lot of the joking is being done at Bob’s expense and in my opinion, it is crossing the line into bullying.”

  8. COT*

    You’re right to offer Bob your support. It sounds like he’s pretty down on himself and that the mean comments have affected his self-confidence at work (or he was already lacking this, which made him an easy target). Continue to let him know that he has an ally.

    This means letting him know privately that you think the comments are mean and untrue. Find opportunities to compliment him or build him up. Even a quick “thank you” when he’s been of help to you can be an encouragement. Show interest in and appreciation for who he his. Ask him about his family, hobbies, vacation, etc. if that’s stuff that your office chats about. Maybe offer to grab lunch off-site together on occasion to help him escape a really bad day.

    Continue to stand up for Bob, too. It might not make you more popular, but when you look back at this time, you’ll be glad you stood up to the bullies. You can stand up by walking away when the conversation turns mean, or by saying something like, “Hey guys, that’s not funny” or “I can’t be part of this conversation.” I like some of the other commenters’ suggestions, too.

    And document what is said, who says it, and how management responds. This is especially true if they insult someone’s race, religion, gender, or other protected class. That’s creating a hostile work environment and could come to a lawsuit someday.

  9. businesslady*

    honestly, if this is so widespread & management seems to think it’s completely acceptable, I’d start “jokingly” snarking on the people who are picking on Bob–& if anyone calls you on it, you’re completely justified in saying “wow, really? that’s rich coming from you. but I agree; maybe we should all try to be more civil in the office.” if that rapprochement never happens, well, at least you’ve had the chance to blow off some steam.

    this may not be the most professional way of handling it, but it’s not really a “professional” problem considering how your coworkers & boss are acting.

    1. Elizabeth*

      I don’t think I agree – fighting fire with fire often just makes a bigger conflagration. You also run the risk of people being fine with your snarking and making the argument that therefore everyone else should be fine, too.

  10. Lisa*

    I think it is just as hurtful being left out too. If there are cliques that form, that are not including others, the left-out person may feel alone.

    1. Jamie*

      I think those are two separate issues. A person should have a reasonable expectation to be able to come to work and not be bullied or personally attacked…but you can’t micromanage people’s relationships so that everyone likes each other equally.

      As long everyone is behaving civilly and professionally, that’s what matters. There will always be groups of people who gravitate toward each other due to similar interests, personalities, whathaveyou.

      It’s only when it affects the work does it become a management problem, imo.

    2. BCW*

      I’m not trying to attack you, but I will say I really do hate when people bring up being left out or excluded. I think you can’t force people to want to include everyone in everything, and if you do it doesn’t end well. Adults, and kids too in my opinion, can make their choices on who they want to hang out with. Now if they are being excluded on project meetings and stuff, thats one thing, but socially? Nope.

      For example in my office, I’m the only guy who isn’t married with kids, so sometimes the guys will have get togethers that I’m not invited to. I don’t get mad about it, I just suck it up and deal with my own friends.

  11. LL*

    Hmm, I wonder if there are one or two ring leaders in this group of snarky co-workers. I had a similar experience once – toxic work environment, total rumor mill, everyone snarking and complaining constantly. I was miserable. Yet when two employees left the group, suddenly everything brightened. I realized that much of the toxicity was instigated by these two ringleaders and then most of the other employees just piled on to it. I’m hoping that the OP’s situation is similar, as it seems easier to deal with one or two negative co-workers than to try to change an enmeshed workplace culture.

    1. Yup*

      I had the same experience. A few unpleasant coworkers targeted a few people in the office for snide comments, and others followed them out of fear of being mocked themselves. The problems didn’t end til the instigators resigned.

      As an outsider myself, I made sure to look shocked when they made these comments in front of me, responded with neutral observations like “Yikes” or “Wow, tough crowd,” and made a very public effort to be collegial and friendly with those who were picked on. I got hassled for it, but I also made an effort to be more friendly with the followers (not the instigators). I think my small efforts helped other people be more open about calling the bad behavior for what it was.

  12. Hello Vino*

    Wow, this sounds terrible. Ugh, office bullying. It’s very unfortunate that management isn’t doing anything about it. I’m glad that you chose to speak up, but sometimes that’s all you can really do. Even if you’re able to mention that this behavior is affecting the office environment negatively, there’s no guarantee that management will take things seriously and address the matter.

    I’ve been in a similar situation where I was the one to speak up for a coworker who was constantly picked on. Sure enough, the group then started making comments about me as well. In addition to all the snarky jokes, this same group slacked off a lot and had no respect for the office environment. Other coworkers constantly had to finish or takeover their projects because they were only getting the bare minimum done. Long lunches, frequent breaks to watch YouTube videos, running up and down the hallways giggling. It was absurd. Almost all of their jokes didn’t just cross the line. They went way beyond the line and then some. I’m pretty sure they’ve offended everyone else in the office at one point of another.

    When I brought this up with my manager, he laughed. It didn’t help that the main target of the jokes was an admin that my manager clearly didn’t like. My manager basically said that certain members of that group were old enough and should know better. He also seemed to think that it was okay for the younger coworkers to behave like this because they were “young, playful and flirtatious.” Are you kidding me? I was among the youngest at the company and could not believe what I was hearing. Oh, and HR basically told me I should grow some thicker skin and have a better sense of humor.

    1. Elizabeth West*

      This is what makes me so mad about all this. It’s so hypocritical for employers to expect professionalism, and say “We look for this in our employees,” or put it in a job posting, but then the entire workplace is like a huge junior high school cafeteria. And then the same managers who are so insistent on it do nothing about the crap.

      I’m not a grump or a stiff; I’m fine with a little light-hearted horsing around, and I’ve worked with blue-collar guys who act like kids sometimes. But the constant sniping is just so babyish. “Grow up, people!” I want to shout!

      1. Hello Vino*

        Some joking around is acceptable. It’s office bonding, keeps everyone in good spirits and encourages a sense of belonging within the team. But it constantly amazes how some people have no idea what is and isn’t appropriate in the office. It’s just painful when the managers are the ones behaving like kids too.

  13. Malissa*

    You know that look that teachers and parents have? You need it. One look that says I’m not amused and cut the crap goes a long way. I sit in an office where two people are constantly finding things “wrong” with two other people. The two complainers have learned that talking in my presence is not going to win them any favors. So they don’t do it any more. This is where you should aim.
    If you want to take this back to management you need to frame the problem up in a way that makes them want to take action. Phrases such as, “I’m afraid of the productivity loss when they sit and gossip” or “The environment that they are creating is hurting others moral and productivity.” Make the conversation about working hours or money lost.

      1. Bobby Digital*

        Yeah, I second all of this: the Look and the suggestion to find a way to frame it as bad for business (because it must be).

    1. some1*

      In a workplace environment, I actually feel that a poker face is a better bet. Appointing yourself as your co-worker(s)’s kindergarten teacher or mommy rarely helps anyone.

      1. Ivy*

        I find “the look” usually only applies when someone is directing something at you. It shuts people down pretty quickly and gives them the “not to be messed with” feeling. It’s harder to convey the “not to mess with Bob because that’s also messing with OP and OP is not to be messed with” feeling ;P

        1. Malissa*

          I find it useful anytime that I’m hearing stuff I’d rather not hear. whether it is about me, bob, the president or elmo.

    2. Natalie*

      I didn’t get glasses until my 20s, and the absolute best part of glasses (other than being able to see) is giving withering looks over the top of the frame.

      1. Jamie*

        Yes! If anyone needs a tutorial on how to do this scathingly watch Julia Sugarbaker. I miss the big glasses from the 80’s – they really helped drive the withering glance home.

        1. Colette*

          I love “wow”. I’d probably go with that if I were part of the conversation, whereas I’d use “did I really hear you say that?” if I overheard a conversation happening that I wasn’t a part of.

          I don’t think it has to be done every time – it’s not the OP’s full time job to police these people – but it’s good to call them on it on occasion so that it’s clear that not everyone approves of what they are doing.

  14. Protected Class*

    Are you in the US? Is Bob over 40? Could you perhaps insinuate to someone with a brain that perhaps they would be opening themselves up to an expensive lawsuit if Bob were to suddenly start feeling like he is being discriminated against due to his age?

    It’s kind of slimy, but what they are doing is even worse.

  15. Kat*

    Is there a way to quietly record one of their 10-minute long attacks & show the boss? Or would YOU be scolded for recording your coworkers while the coworkers’ behavior is ignored?

    1. Chrissi*

      That’s probably not a good idea. In many US states (I don’t know about internationally), recording someone without their knowledge is against the law (felony, I think). I know in mine it is. Not to mention, even if it did open management’s eyes, it also makes you look kind of sneaky.

          1. some1*

            I guess I am going by my stint as a convenience store cashier in high school. Admittedly, we’re talking about the late 90’s here. But I was 17 when I started working there and they had cameras on the cashiers all the time. Obviously I don’t have a perfect memory about it, but I don’t remember giving consent/being informed that I would have cameras on me, they were just there when I showed up.

            1. Elizabeth*

              “they were just there when I showed up”

              That sounds like they were visible, though, so even if you didn’t know ahead of time that you would be recorded, you could be aware of it at the time. It’s legally different to have a hidden camera.

              (Not sure where nanny cams fall, legally – does it make a difference if it’s in your own home?)

            2. Elizabeth*

              A little more research reveals that in the US the laws are sometimes vague, but it’s generally legal to record video of your employees without their consent, as long as it’s not in places they’d expect privacy (like bathrooms). Recording audio without consent is prohibited in a bunch of states, though, and since the bullying is verbal a soundless video wouldn’t help.


              I agree that the OP seems not to be from the US, also, so these laws may be different where he/she lives. Additionally, even if it’s *legal* to record your co-workers, your employer might not like it (and could fire you for it if they felt like it).

            3. LJL*

              It also depends upon the state. I know that in Maryland you need consent before you can record, but in other states you don’t.

  16. EngineerGirl*

    Based on some of the things said, there are age based comments. If Bob is over 50 in the US there could be age harassment taking place. You have an obligation to go to management about it. However, I wouldn’t do it without first preparing a fact based journal of the incidents that goes for several weeks. I would suggest Bob does the same thing. Thins documents the pervasiveness of the problem.

    Continue to call things out as you have. You will most likely become the target instead of Bob. (journal). If there is a ring leader I would talk to her privately Now to see what’s going on. Let her know that her unprofessional actions are keeping her from many good things.
    Most important, continue to be an excellent employee so that is a choice has to be made, management will choose you not the bully(s).

  17. Zee*

    I feel so sorry for Bob because he has obviously taken the blame/guilt to heart when he wrote back to the OP saying, “[I]t was partly [my] fault for saying stupid things.” He sounds like me where if my mind thinks too fast at times and I are nervous around people – I would be around people who I knew would get ready to attack anything I said – I can bumble your words. It’s not his fault. He shouldn’t have to worry about people making fun of him, especially in such an open environment as an office space like that. He is not the one with the problem; it’s the coworkers, sans the OP. They are most definitely insecure with their own lives that they feel they need to make themselves look superior by putting someone else down.

    Bob needs to put them down. It’s one thing in the beginning if he just laughed it off, but if they are being relentless and use the same lines over and over, he needs to put them in their place. Otherwise, he’ll continue to be fodder for their immaturity.

    In the meantime, it is demoralizing for others, like the OP, who know the difference between right and wrong and no one is taking the task in disciplining the snarkers. It’s a toxic work environment, and I’d be looking elsewhere to work.

    1. Ivy*

      I know Zee. The “[I]t was partly [my] fault for saying stupid things” broke my heart. I don’t understand how people can demoralize someone so much. Humanity can really suck some times. :'(

  18. Mary*

    I am all about protocol.
    Check your hand book for that.
    I take it Bob is only a class favorite for them…make sure it bothers him if you involve him in your venture.
    Otherwise document each snarky outbreak and your steps taken in my opinion would be:
    1st – speak up to your coworkers
    2nd – go to quiet team leader see if he/she “can” step in.
    3rd – go to oblivious manager make them aware
    4th – go to HR

    whether you make it aware that you are documenting everything to them is a touchy matter..I would need to ask the gallery for that answer.

  19. Just a Reader*

    Honestly? I think you need a new job, since you’ve already addressed this and been blown off. The culture sounds like a terrible fit for you.

    I would hate it too but it sounds like something you can’t change.

    At the end of the day, while it’s nice that you’re concerned, Bob isn’t your problem. The culture is.

  20. fposte*

    Ugh. I think your actions so far have been absolutely brilliant–you’ve disrupted the flow without being confrontational, and you’ve given support to Bob in private.

    The challenge here, I think, is trying to reduce their behavior without deepening the schism and just putting you more clearly on one side of it; as I suspect you realize, because of the way you responded, big moral condemnations are going to get people entrenched rather than moved, and fighting fire with fire just leaves the place scorched.

    You might also try the Miss Manners response of taking the joke seriously (“Kay, if somebody’s looking into your house windows that’s a bad thing, even if you’re trying to cover it up with humor”) or innocently asking for clarification–this can also work to move the subject sideways (“Who was in Oasis again? And didn’t they all marry somebody or something?”; “So that makes Bob a Libra, right? What sign is everybody else?”). You’re still greeting people with friendliness and politeness all through this, hopefully, so that it’s not combative.

    The thing is, it would take a lot of effort for you to be the bully dissolver all on your own. It’s going to be a lot easier to deal with this if you have competent and interested management, which sounds pretty dubious from your statement; I’m not clear, though, if the “oblivious” supervisor and “quiet” team leader were people you brought the issue to or not. If not, do so–there’s no reason to enable their hands off approach.

    1. Jamie*

      “Who was in Oasis again? ”

      Resolving conflict by using the Gallagher brothers…talk about the perfect marriage of brilliance and irony.

      This is really excellent advice – and of all the proposed solutions I think this gives the clearest outline of how to truly resolve it, as opposed to running it underground or breeding resentment.

      1. fposte*

        It’s kind of what Amy was saying above–it’s changing the atmosphere, which takes the carnival feel out of the Bob game. If it’d ruin a board game (“Why was I in a beauty contest? How come the hotels are orange, and who’s staying in them, anyway? Ha, you’re going to jail. Oh, you’re not? I thought you went to jail if you landed on the railroad”) it’ll take a lot of fun out of this, too.

    2. Ivy*

      I don’t think you have to confront them with “big moral condemnations.” You confront them with practicality. Namely, how it makes them look (namely unprofessional) and what its doing to productivity and the environment. I don’t see anyone entrenching themselves if you approach them individually.

      But, I think you are giving a less direct and blatant approach which may work better depending on how OP likes to handle things…. Personally I’m the door-kicking-down, guns-blazing type, and would see no need for friendliness in this situation. (Although never let something impact your attitude in the future. Once it’s handled, move on and forget).

  21. Leah*

    I seem to remember the general consensus with the last post was that the OP can’t just decide that their manager is wrong and go their own way. If everyone in the office behaves like this and the manager says this OP needs to drop it, then…she either drops it or finds somewhere else to work.

    OP, you don’t sound like you’re fitting in at this office. You may be right not to join in on the snarking, but you sound like you’re off in your corner being aloof all the time and that’s not going to do you any favors. You don’t have to join in, but if you’re always playing the kid who pipes up and tattles on behalf of other kids, no one is going to want to work with you and it’ll affect the overall work that gets done. Even if you personally do all your work, people won’t want to approach you when they need to or work with you on team efforts and that’s a problem.

    No one would blame you for wanting to move on, but you don’t get to unilaterally decide that absolutely everyone in your office, including your manager, is wrong and need to be schooled on the way you want things to be.

  22. Nichole*

    I agree that the OP has done what needs to be done here. Bob has decided that, at least for the time being, this is tolerable, and the OP has already tried to help with the general issue of workplace nastiness and been shot down. The most important thing the OP can do is exactly what she did: be an ally. She made it clear to Bob that someone besides him thinks that this is Not Cool, and the “kicked someone’s cat” comment was masterful. Now Bob knows that if he needs a break, the OP’s desk is a safe space. Now back off, resist the urge to be snarky yourself, and take opportunities to challenge nastiness in an appropriate way (“Eh, I don’t think you can hold it against anyone over 12 if they don’t know who One Direction is” or “Yeah, laugh now, but we would have been lost without Bob’s spreadsheet on that account.”)

  23. Elle*

    Go to the ringleader and point out that you think it’s gone a bit too far. Don’t accuse or embarrass them. Just say, you guys are great but can you lay off Bob a bit? He’s having a bit of a rough time. My guess is that they will lay off. They may go back to ignoring him, but I’m guessing the jokes will stop.

    And I don’t mean to defend them but… I’ve been in almost a similar situation. I once sat in an alcove with two other women in their mid-20s. They hired another guy to be in our team and he started sitting with us. He was a really lovely older guy who in retrospect clearly had Aspergers Syndrome. He was incredibly nice but exhausting. Watched us all the time. Asked EVERY SINGLE TIME you got up, where you were going. Every time. Listened to your phone conversations and then would try to discuss them. I don’t mean 20 minute private conversations. I mean, you’d get a 2 minute phone call from your landlord and he’d listen and then ask you about your finances making it clear that he could hear what your landlord also said. Said very strange things. Stood too close and leaned in. Snuck up behind you. Couldn’t read when you were stressed or busy or in a rush. We were always nice and polite to him and tried to be very explicit about saying “please don’t do X”, “please don’t do y”… but we spent 11 months sneaking out to lunch together… we just couldn’t face inviting him. What I mean is that the “creepy looking in people’s windows” is a very specific kind of insult. They may be immaturely expressing issues that they have – but in a horrible immature nasty way. It may be worth stepping back a bit from your own dislike of them and their terrible behavior to see if there are other issues at play.

    1. Just a Reader*

      I don’t think it’s a good idea to speak for Bob and tell the colleagues he’s having a rough time. It doesn’t sound true, and it doesn’t sound like Bob would appreciate it.

      1. Elizabeth*

        I agree – make it an I-statement. “I feel uncomfortable with these jokes. They seem mean-spirited, and not everyone will speak up when they don’t like being the target of a joke. I feel like these comments detract from the professional atmosphere of the office.”

  24. Minous*

    I once worked in a government office where one of the staff referred to Aboriginal women as “squaws”. This person didn’t look at me and say I was a “squaw” but would say something to the effect of “Did you see that coin? There is a “squaw” on it.” I am Aboriginal and this was in 2005. The first time he did this. I used the educational approach and explained to him that the word “squaw” was a vulgar word and should never be utilized, especially when he went out to present workshops in Aboriginal communities. The second time he did this I raised my voice and told him this was inappropriate. He laughed.

    In this same office I also heard Person X say to two other people in a Director’s office that the country should have taken the approach of other countries and killed all the Aboriginal people off. I hollered out “I can hear you”. It was followed by dead silence.

    My Director kept saying that people were just joking, the implication being that I didn’t have a sense of humour. I certainly would have appreciated having a colleague who would have supported me. I’m not saying fight my battles but let people know that they too felt that this behaviour was not professional.

    I am happy to say that I now work in a very professional environment and the people here have never referred to my cultural background, nor my age (57), in a disrespectful manner. In this working environment I know that if someone used such language or made slide insinuations, my present Director would have them in his office in a heartbeat. Professional managers and directors are treasures and in return I have loyalty and support them.

    1. fposte*

      That’s really horrible. There’s just no excuse for that. I’m impressed that you were able to keep your cool and find your way to a much better job.

    2. CRP*

      This also happened to me. I worked for a large company and was openly gay. One of my department colleagues kept referring to me as a “fag” just as freely as you would call a cat… well a cat. I had to literally pull her aside and tell her that this was not an acceptable word. It was really embarrassing.

    3. Zee*

      You have the patience of a saint. I’m sorry this happened to you. I’m glad you have since removed yourself from that toxic place. Best wishes.

    4. Minous*

      Thank-you :-) It was pretty rough going into work in what I felt was a culture of intimidation and just plain ignorance. Sometimes I seriously thought I wouldn’t survive it without cracking up.

      What is particularily interesting is how short-sighted abusive people are. At that point in time there were four of these really hard-core abusive, desk hitting, mean-spirited people in an office of approximately 70 people. I assume they were having the time of their lives being in a permanent “until death do you part”, well-paid job, where they felt there was no need and no expectation for them to behave as professionals and not mentally or emotionally torture their subordinates…. And then came the cut-backs and lay-offs…. two of these people actually contacted me to see if I would assist them in obtaining employment, I politely spoke to them, but I always figure that the best predictor of future behaviour is past behaviour and I only recommend people that are professionals. Last I heard they are still without work. Now if I was a bigger person I would be able to say that I didn’t get any silent personal joy out of this… but I did and still do my mental happy dance when I think of it. :-)

  25. twentymilehike*

    Ohdearlord this makes me so freakin’ angry! Not just because this poor guy is bearing the brunt of the snark, but because I’m not interested in listening to it, period. It’s place of business and that’s what you go there to do–snark on your own time!

    Also, I am thinking of this from a small company stand point–a lot of people mention going to HR, but what if you don’t have an HR department? At my company, there’s the owners and then theres the rest of us, and no pyramid/chain-of-command and we are basically unsupervised.

    And I have been in the position where my boss–the owner of the company–was the snarky bully. Sometimes there is no reasoning with that person, and even if I had an HR person to get involved, I know it wouldn’t change his behavior. He’s the guy with one foot over the line all the time and he’ll push and push until you put your foot down. Most people don’t stand up to him so he continues to take advantage until they just walk out. You know what worked? I screamed at him and told him he was the biggest f*cking a**hole, along with a whole other string of STFU that he needed to hear to his face. Yes he’s still an a**hole, and yes, yelling at your boss until you’re blue in the face probably should not be “advice,” but for some odd reason, he still tells me that I’m awesome at my job and he couldn’t do it without me. WTH? Maybe it’s just me, but when people act immature teenagers, I can’t help but treat them like it.

    I’m so hot tempered that I’d look these bullies right in the eye and tell them what POS’s they are and could they please STFU so I can get some work done. And then I’d probably have a really interesting letter to write AAM …

    1. Elizabeth West*

      I wouldn’t recommend this approach to everyone, but in your boss’s case, it sounds like that is the only thing he really gets. Kind of like a playground bully you can’t reason with, but who will stop punching you if you bust out his front teeth. Unfortunately, these people rarely change when they grow up or get older, so you have to shut them down. Also, I’m sure it felt FANTASTIC. ;)

      1. twentymilehike*

        Also, I’m sure it felt FANTASTIC. ;)

        OH GOD YES. But it would feel far more fantastic if I got a new job …

        And that’s just how he is … we’ve all been here SO LONG that it’s pretty standard practice to get in a yelling match with him periodically. If the rest of us didn’t feel like family it’d be a nightmare! But we still do nice things for him … like include him when we barbeque lunch, or pick him up from jail.

        Yes, I said jail.

  26. BCW*

    Before I get yelled at, let me just say I’m not defending any of this. But I’m curious whether the OP is male or female. Reason being that guys will bust each others balls as a form of bonding, whereas women may see it as abuse or bullying. I always give the example that if I’m not giving someone crap, I probably don’t like them. If you heard the stuff me and my buddies say to each other, you would probably think we hate each other. So it is possible that they just took this ribbing too far without realizing it. And I fully agree that there is a limit, but sometimes its hard know where the line is, as it varies from guy to guy.

    My guess is the group of guys think they are just having fun with this other guy, and not being malicious, whereas in reality it bothers him. And the OP jumping in to defend this guy, especially if they don’t see it as a problem, isn’t going to help the situation. I’d say the OPs best bet would be to talk to the victim and tell him to have a conversation with the ringleader. Just something like, “I don’t mind when you mess with me for a bit, but when it goes on and on it gets pretty annoying, so just lay off now and then”. Something like that doesn’t sound like whining.

    Again, this is just a guess on what MIGHT be happening. I’m not defending any of it, but just maybe presenting another side.

    1. BCW*

      Also, let me clarify that I understand my friends and co-workers are different and need to be more professional. However I think the way guys tend to interact is going to be somewhat the same, just toned down. Even in my office, the guys give each other crap all the time, but at the end of the day we like each other.

    2. Ivy*

      I can definitely see that. Boys will be boys :P.

      I still think OP should talk to them individually simply because I doubt Bob ever would. And if it is as you described, they might not take it seriously coming from Bob. Having an outsider say, “hey this is inappropriate for the office” is better at making people realize that hey, this is inappropriate of the office.

      If its a case of boisterous joking gone awry, then there’s no need to make a big deal out of it. It should still be brought to the perpetrators attention though, and I can see it being resolved quiet quickly and without much need for formal hoohaa.

      1. Ivy*

        Oh and I’d also comment that I think the fact that its in an office environment and not just between buddies changes it a lot. Horse play just doesn’t belong in an office… OP should approach it more as if they were throwing footballs around the office. Buddies throw footballs to each other too, but that doesn’t make it OK in an office…

    3. some1*

      Guys just ribbing each other (which women do with their friends, too, btw) would not explain the insensitive remarks about people with depression and immigrants, though. Some people are just jerks.

      1. BCW*

        I understand women do it too, but there are definite differences between the way guys and women do that type of thing. But thats a different subject.

        As for the insensitive remarks, you are right, it doesn’t explain that. And yeah, they are jerks for those comments. My point is that they may not be intentionally trying to hurt this guy.

        1. Elizabeth West*

          Considering what the OP has described, I think you’re being way too generous here. I’m female and have worked in offices that were both mostly men and mostly women. I vastly prefer the mostly men ones, because although they can be quite crude and act like kids sometimes, it’s rarely as mean as the women are. You can tell. And this doesn’t sound like good-natured “hey buddy” ball-busting. The fact that it stopped when the OP said the remark about Bob kicking someone’s cat tells me they KNEW they were out of line.

          1. mh_76*

            +1 to the whole comment, esp. “I vastly prefer the mostly men ones, because although they can be quite crude and act like kids sometimes, it’s rarely as mean as the women are.”

            There are a lot of women with/for whom I would love to work but I’m convinced that every bad occurrence in my professional life happened at the hands of women (individuals…not as a whole). There’s more to say but I’ll pause here…

            1. Elizabeth West*

              No, you can’t pause here because now I’m dying of curiosity!

              In one mostly women office where I worked, the sniping and bitching was so bad I considered quitting. The coworker who trained me moved up to sales and hated it, and then began to bait me, hoping she’d get me fired so she could have her old job back (they hired someone else in her place). Lucky my boss stood up for me and Coworker quit soon after. But it still was such a gossip mill, it was unbelievable.

              1. Anonymous*

                I cringe when I read any “Oh I’m a woman but I hate other women in this context” posts. They show just how much misogyny we’ve internalized. “Working with guys is so much fun but girls gossip and talk about makeup and I hate it tee hee!” It’s awful.

                FWIW, I’ve worked in situations with mostly-male and mostly-female groups and have had bad experiences with both. Do you know why? Because _people_ can be hard to work with, not just men or women, but _people_.

                Can we please please please stop perpetuating the whole “OMG working with women is so terrible!” myth?

    4. A Bug!*

      I’ve worked in an office where I had a relationship such as you describe, with a couple of my coworkers. But I know that context and relationships have a huge bearing on what is and is not appropriate to say to another person, so I wouldn’t have even thought of saying the same mean things to the rest of my coworkers, even though I liked them and we worked well together.

      Reading the letter, I strongly doubt that this is what’s happening there. Friendly ribbing doesn’t target one person above the rest, particularly not the one person who has a weaker relationship with the rest of the coworkers, particularly not the one person who doesn’t tease back, and it doesn’t go on for extended periods when the target isn’t participating.

      1. A Bug!*

        Neither is it relevant. As I mentioned in my comment above, I had such a relationship with two of my coworkers in the past and (get your clutching pearls ready!) we’re all women.

        1. fposte*

          Yup, it can happen with any group. There certainly are workplaces where there’s good natured teasing, but it’s pretty clear that’s not what this is now even if it started that way.

    5. Esra*

      People say that a lot, about guys being less sensitive etc, and I just haven’t found it to be true at all. So far in my career I’ve worked mainly on male-dominated web teams, and it really just comes down to the individual. Guys get just as hurt by being left out, or getting picked on, etc. They gossip too.

      1. Elizabeth West*

        Yes, they do, but it’s not like when women do it. Women can be so backhanded it’s unbelievable. I find as a rule that men are more likely to ignore you, for example, if they don’t like you, whereas women will be nice to your face and vicious behind your back.

        1. Esra*

          Again, maybe it’s because I’m in a male-dominated field, but that hasn’t been my experience at all. I’m not saying men and women aren’t different, especially when it comes to the way we’re socialized, but it really does come down to the person.

          I think people tend to think of women as catty and men as not, more because of their sex and societal stereotypes rather than their behaviour.

          1. Laura L*

            “I think people tend to think of women as catty and men as not, more because of their sex and societal stereotypes rather than their behaviour.”

            Yes! It’s a combination of stereotypes and confirmation bias. Those stereotypes exist and people tend to remember behavior that confirms their existing beliefs/biases, but not behavior that contradicts it.

  27. Tiff*

    Well, if you continue to go to bat for him specifically you risk the bullies adding an even worse label to him: defenseless. As in, he is unable to defend himself and needs a champion to fly in and rescue him. But really, stuff like this makes my teeth itch and I would say something too.

    Sometimes the measured, polite ways that we use when communicating in the office have no impact whatsoever. In those situations my internal filter disappears and something along the lines of, “Do you really think that sh@$% is cute? Because it’s not.” would make its way out of my mouth.

    1. twentymilehike*

      Sometimes the measured, polite ways that we use when communicating in the office have no impact whatsoever. In those situations my internal filter disappears and something along the lines of, “Do you really think that sh@$% is cute? Because it’s not.” would make its way out of my mouth.

      Beautifully illustrated. You’re my hero. I posted like four paragraphs and still couldn’t quite get it out nearly as eloquently. Just like with kids, sometimes “tattling” only make the bullying situation worse. The bully doesn’t learn anything, they just get mad. Once upon a time, my hubby was a bully and he says what shut him down was people who stood up for themselves. They may see things like “going to HR” as “defenseless,” also.

      1. Tiff*

        Haha – yes, sometimes polite just doesn’t get the point across. I have a mean side-eye/pursed lip combo that goes a long way as well.

    1. Hari*

      *raises hand* Me here. That situation was different because the OP in that scenario wasn’t bullying anyone, the snark was focused on situations rather than people (name calling in the form of nicknames but it was obviously mutual). It was more a question on whether it was unprofessional or not in the work environment, as the OP was identified as the ringleader and told to knock it off by management. Also the OP in that case thought the manager was being particular hard on them when everyone else was involved as well.

      The OP in this case however is bringing us a clear case of bullying and picking on a particular employee, not someone just being sick of general sarcasm. Also I think its clear that the perpetrators in this case know what they are doing is picking on another employee who is different.

  28. Katrina Prock*

    I usually say very simply, ”Hey, man, that’s not cool. No one appreciates that.” I don’t mind taking the heat for being a party pooper. Or the old stand-by, ”Don’t you have more productive things to invest your time in than being a jerk to Bob?” Boils my blood when insecure brats belittle good natured people.

  29. Hari*

    Reminds me of my first internship which happened to be in film publicity. Most of the publicists were late-20 somethings who constantly had their bitch faces on (wannabe failed actresses). They would talk openly about other interns or publicists that weren’t currently in the office when celebrity gossip wasn’t the topic (makes me wonder what they said about me when I wasn’t around). The head publicist for that office was late-thirties but desperate to feel youthful so I would sometimes see her wrangled into gossiping as well. My favorite publicist, the one I did most of my work with, was also the newest and all the other publicists felt they had to “initiate” her. They gave her crap assignments, were extra critical about everything she did and second guessed her when she said she completed something faster or better than they had expected (there was plenty more ridicule if she didn’t). After 6 months she finally left, and that’s when the claws REALLY came out. These girls would not let it go, they brought her name up daily after she left, called her “ungrateful” for all the work they put in “mentoring” her and proceeded to have almost daily “checks” on her where they would scroll through her facebook and make-fun of her pictures, posts, etc. I was SO glad my internship was up 2 weeks after that (also glad I had yet to accept any of their facebook requests). I didn’t even want to use any of them as a reference (used the girl who left who was happy to give it). They tried to offer me her position part-time because I was still in school but like HELL I was going to take it. I didn’t walk, I RAN from there at the the end of my internship.

    1. JessB*

      You poor thing, that sounds awful!

      I often think that it’s interesting that the people who engage in this behaviour don’t wonder what their cronies say about them when they aren’t around. If people are willing to bad-mouth others to you, they’re usually willing to bad–mouth you to others, as well.

  30. Yuu*

    It sounds like you value a harmonious work environment. I can totally relate – I tend to be a bit of an emotional barometer of an area, so if there’s conflict about, even if its totally unrelated to me, it still affects my mood and work and I have to work harder to properly focus or distance myself from it.

    I think you aren’t obligated to help Bob, but if you want to improve your work environment trying to promote peaceful language will help you and your coworkers in the long run.

    A lot of people are advocating sticking up for Bob, but I think being abrasive and trying to humiliate the bullies will only cause more conflict for you. Perhaps its better to try to aim at creating better understanding and communication with the more vocal employees, one on one. That also seems to be more of your style, as I sense from your post.

    Try to see who first pipes up with these comments. The next time you are talking one on one with that person, slip in something like, “I feel bad for Bob. I know we are just joking around, but it feels like he really takes those comments to heart, and he’s really not that bad of a guy. I guess it has just gotten to a point where it kind of feels like bullying, and it is making me really uncomfortable. What do you think about the situation?”

    Groups can get in frenzies, but most people are kind at heart. They don’t want to think of themselves as bullies. By saying non-confrontational things, accepting part of the blame, and stating the issue as a problem you can solve together, you can start from a place of common ground, and hopefully people will be more apt to meet you there.

    1. Elizabeth West*

      Many bullies are sociopathic and do not care if you feel bad. They are enjoying what they do. Maybe the followers might feel that way, but they won’t change if there is the slightest chance they’ll become a target.

  31. The OP*

    Hi guys,
    As many people correctly identified, I’m not American, I’m Australian. Only just got on the train to work, hence my delayed response.
    A lot of people have said to talk to the ringleader, who is a girl 2 months younger than me, and a guy who recently got moved into a different team but still drops by on work related things.
    Problem is, I have a very strained relationship with the girl. She did the high school bully thing to me when I started two years ago, silent treatment etc. really petty stuff, right down to hiding in the kitchen so the team wouldn’t sit with me at lunch. Anyone I’ve made friends with over the years has drifted to her circle of nastiness, because its more fun than hanging out with just me. I used to go home in tears, and was told by management that I was their best worker and while they didn’t want to lose me, I needed to grow a thicker skin. Here, have some anti-bullying pamphlets! :(
    Bob is almost 40 and I just turned 23…I have such a hostile relationship with the ringleader girl that I’d be hesitant to bring it up, and ringleader guy isn’t even there half the time. His style of matey ribbing has rubbed off on the team.
    And someone mentioned football throwing? They do that too. I had to ask my team leader to intervene, as the other team leader brought in twice a day ‘team bonding’ ball throwing. They now go outside and fly paper airplanes instead.
    I like the idea of just calling them out on the nasty comments, just a simple ‘that wasn’t nice!’ Or ‘come on guys, just just mean.’ I feel bad for Bob, because he’s such a nice guy, just a bit strange. He doesn’t have any behavioral problems that I know of.
    My team leader sits next to me, and I’m sure that he feels the same, but the second ball throwing team leader can be particularly nasty. I once had an argument with her at a social function for being upset that another employee described me as ‘plump’ in the Christmas party photos.
    Charming lot, right?
    I’ll continue to stick up for Bob where I can, and try to focus on priority number 1 – get a new job.

    1. UK HR Bod*

      My international HR isn’t great, but I get a feeling that Australian law can be a little closer to the UK on some of these things. Several posters have said that this sort of behaviour isn’t illegal in the US – it can be in the UK, especially if covered by any protected characterisics (possibly age for Bob?). Even if not covered in that sense, this sort of behaviour wouldn’t go down well with an employment tribunal. Risky, as it would probably be constructive unfair dismissal, which requires quitting, but given that part of the definition of bullying on the UK government site includes:
      constantly picked on
      humiliated in front of colleagues
      regularly unfairly treated
      physically or verbally abused
      I’d say Bob had a fair case. Obviously, if Australian employment law isn’t near UK, this post is a bit irrelevant!

      1. UK HR Bod*

        PS – as others have said, good on you for calling them out. And lots of luck with finding a new job.

    2. franky*

      Bullying is covered under Work Health and Safety legislation which states that both the employer and employees have a responsibility to ensure a workplace is free from risks to health and safety. (I’m paraphrasing, obviously)
      I recommend contacting your state’s workplace health and safety authority for free, confidential advice. Their website will also have information on the legalities as well as ‘information for employers’ which you could present to management.

    3. snuck*


      I just refreshed and found this comment which I’d somehow missed. I’m from Oz too – and my comment below stands.

      If you are in a large corporate then you could talk to HR, but it sounds like you are very bottom of the rung if you are and it will probably be difficult to manage through. There’s whistleblower lines in most of the big corporate companies too and you might be able to look in the internal webpages to find their number, but this path is frowned upon if you haven’t tried to raise it with management. If you are in a large corporate you might also have an Employee Assistance Program that provides confidential counselling services – either for you or Bob to vent at – I’ve used them in the past in similar situations and they were an external company providing the service and private.

      Each state has a government office for workplace – google workplace relations or similar for your region.

      It is possible you are a bit more ‘sensitive’ or ‘less social’ or whatever term you want to put on it than your peers. This is perfectly ok – you are you! But… don’t think that this job you have is the only one you should have – I’d start job hunting – unemployment in Australia isn’t that bad but slowly getting worse and you want to beat the next bunch of school leavers/Christmas shutdowns etc into the workforce – so hunt now. You might find that you are able to find something else either in the organisation or elsewhere that’s more to your liking. I did this at about your age getting out of a call centre environment into a state wide risk management role in a major corp – it is possible (and then went on within the year to be the national manager) – and I wasn’t massively over skilled or wonderfully loved – it was just selling my skills at the right time in the right way. Maybe it’s time for you to seek the steps into the career that you want?

      Finally – the law in Australia is pretty clear – there’s no ‘age limit’ for age discrimination if I remember correctly like there is in the US – it’s not about “discriminating because someone is old” here, and our definition of bullying and harrassment is different to theirs – more liberal – so feel free to talk to a union rep or govt workplace relations or EEO office. And Bob should too if he wants to.

      Bob deserves a normal worklife, and so do you. But I’d concentrate on sorting yours out first/too!

      1. snuck*

        (Please don’t take the ‘bottom of the rung’ comment personally! It’s me trying to recognise how powerless you feel!)

        It sounds so miserable a place to work – I’d find something that is moving on in a professional way to a better career or even just a job you’ll love enough to go to without wishing you were somewhere else :)

    4. JessB*

      Aha, I knew you were an Aussie!

      Whew, I have dealt with a similar issue and ended up leaving when they all turned on me. I would agree with those commentors who have suggested speaking up, but realistically, it’s not going to change the culture of the entire workplace (which sounds to me like it’s very head-in-the-sand).

      I would suggest that your stratagy is entirely sound – stick up for Bob when and where you can, and look for another job. If you wanted to, in your exit interview, you could definitely mention the culture as one of the main reasons you wanted to leave.

      By the way, if you don’t mind a little bit of uncertainty, I went from the bullying workplace to temp work with a company called Dixon Appointments, who are great. If you live in a capital city in Australia, contact them with your resume and see if they can offer you work.

      Good luck with everything! I’d love to hear that you’re out of this hellhole.

  32. Patty*

    I’d say that the first step is covering your basis with management — informally, then perhaps formally, go to your boss and say that the general climate is aggressive and seems like bully behavior. Keep track of when it happens and perhaps send an e-mail after a couple of weeks with the dates and times it goes on.

    In some ways it doesn’t matter if Bob is uncomfortable, you ARE… even if it’s only on his behalf. It also sounds as if it’s impacting your productivity.

  33. snuck*

    There’s lots of emotional baggage obviously tied to this – given all the comments about what Bob must be feeling, and how everyone could/should/would do X but very few comments about actually talking to management and resolving this. The ubiquitous “HR” gets thrown in – but unless you are in a large company HR is usually fairly pointless/non existent.

    I’d be saying to the OP…

    You can try standing up for Bob, but Bob may not appreciate that – talk to him first out of ear shot of everyone else (not email, actually chat) and see how he’s doing, what he thinks – ask him leading questions and listen rather than telling him your views.

    If Bob says he has a bit of a problem, or a lot of a problem, then you can suggest he talk to a suitable team leader or manager, or ask how you can help. It’s not really your job to speak for Bob at this point.

    If Bob says to leave it alone and he’s not that worried, then leave it alone, but make a note of it, and any further bullying, and offer to be an ear for Bob if he needs it in the future. And then drop it with him unless things get obviously vicious.

    If Bob says he wants you to directly help then ask him how – and listen – don’t offer solutions – but listen and paraphrase back to him and ensure you are both on the same page. If Bob wants you to just listen when he vents – great, if Bob wants you to stand up for him occasionally then the Miss Manners suggestion above would be great (and you can probably do this occasionally regardless), and if Bob wants you to go with him to management to complain then you can go as a support person. If however Bob wants you to lodge a formal complaint etc then that won’t work – it’s got to be Bob that does it, you can support him though.

    And if Bob wants a reference for a new job he’s applying for you can give him a peer reference.

    If you don’t like the behaviours of the coworkers you can document and then complain yourself, under your name incidents that bother you, but you can’t really talk on behalf of someone else’s feelings or needs.

    If the company is too small to have a “HR”, if there’s only two levels of management and neither care etc then Bob (or you, for yourself) could consider talking to a local union or workers rights body about what avenues and resources are out there in your local area – without formally starting proceedings of any kind you can seek this information and work out where you stand.

    Good luck

  34. Jasmine*

    What I have found effective in the past, (if your seating arrangements permit) is when something likes this reaches a bit of a peak, raise your voice (without looking up from what you are doing), and say VERY CLEARLY, but without shouting.

    “Guys?” (pause)

    That’s it. Do not say anything else, and do not look up. You have just clearly communicated the following.

    “I am busy.”
    “You are being disruptive.”

    The best part is that it can be done as you’re passing through, looking at whatever you’re holding, with the same detached level of firmness, and it can be repeated fairly regularly without losing its effectiveness.

    You’re not getting angry (externally), you’re not getting into the moral or legal implications of how what they are doing is wrong (which is is), and you are not engaging in a discussion with them about or around this issue (which is fairly pointless).

    You are simply and clearly communicating that this is what you require in this professional environment at this moment.

    Is is effective all out of proportion to what actually happens, as long as you don’t sucked into a discussion about what, exactly they must stop or why. (They know what, and they know why.) If possible, pick up the phone after waiting for the beat of silence directly afterwards. If someone asks “Stop what?” , in the same tone of voice, say “Talking”.

    Practice at home if you’re uncomfortable saying the single word without an explanation. Do not, ever, explain.

    Almost nobody knows what to do when faced with this word in isolation except to…well…..stop.

  35. Not So NewReader*

    OP, I see your concern about getting the same type of treatment as Bob, just because you stood up for him.

    Yeah. You can kind of expect this. Especially, if Bob has no intention of standing up for himself. Several folks here offered solid advice on how to protect yourself. Simple things – such as each time you hear Bob getting a razzing you redirect the conversation to the immediate work in front of you/them. This reminds them to be professional and focus on getting the job done. The use of “mom voice” or facial expression can go along way. too.
    It takes a while for this stuff to work and to change the dynamic. But it does work. This sends a message, that their behavior is not acceptable in the work place.

    I have great luck journaling at home. It helped me to unload/dump my brain out on paper. I had a written daily record of the goings-on at work. I would pick out one or two of the worst examples I saw each day, I would write out those examples with
    date and time and location. I noticed that the examples became fewer and fewer. Coincidence? Maybe. Perhaps I changed somehow. Maybe I carried myself differently because I felt I had my documentation in order and I was all set to move forward with my complaints.
    My setting was a bit different from yours- mine was more of a general nastiness. Going to work was a lot like drowning- the nastiness almost took away oxygen. I think what you are going through is worse. The followers are going after Bob, because they are so relieved its not them being antagonized. My setting was equal opportunity nastiness for all. It wasn’t personal, it was a way of life. Your setting is scarier.

    One last note, do not confront the head bully. Do not. Focus on wearing down the people around her. You will gain more ground that way, and use a less energy. Ms. Bully will drain you of all your energy. You have no one backing you up. Don’t put yourself in a spot where you must flee your job. Go with the more subtle route that others have described above here.

  36. iceyone*

    Sigh! People shouldn’t have to put up with this, however as I know from past experiences, it happens!

    From my experience the only thing that may work is noting the instances down, talking to management about it and if need be extricate yourself/bob from this situation (change jobs!)

    I am part of a minority (gay!) and while it shouldn’t matter, for some people it does (I used to be very sensitive/have been targeted more than once!) however I am now older and wiser (anyone who tries it now better watch out!)

    If management is anything like I’ve experienced, they won’t give 2 hoots/do anything until the threat of legal action comes up!

    I feel sorry for the op/bob – stay strong and know that your doing the right thing (which is often not easy!)

    If these bullies are anything like I’ve experienced they won’t change/when called out will feign innocence (it was only a joke, your being too sensitive”!)

    This is pure b.s – if someone is uncomfortable with someone’s words/actions they shouldn’t have to put up with it!

  37. Lana*

    To me the situation seems like creating a hostile work environment and bullying. The manager should step in, identify the ringleader and have a meeting with each team member individually. If I were the manager there, I would even give everyone a warning to stop the behavior or be reprimanded.
    I think the OP could step in and complain if it bothers her/him and distracts her/him from work, or makes her/his work time uncomfortable. I don’t think this is the kind of behavior that should be justified or not taken seriously.

  38. sara*

    Man these anecdotes are awful :( I had a few awful coworkers as well (though I think they could say the same about me :(). When I complained to my manager about them, she basically said “thats just how she is” i.e., get over it. Well cut to now, and I found out she resigned as well. I don’t know the details obviously but she told me to be careful with those same coworkers. I hate how it’s the terrible ones that drive out the good ones.

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