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Workplace Bullying: How to Set Boundaries to Regain Power

When someone is under the ‘spell’ of a workplace bully or very difficult person, the tendency for the target is to self-reflect and analyze the thoughts “What could I do better?” or “How can I adapt or change?” in order to minimize the effects of this awful situation.  Normally, with a respectful person, this is the way to proceed.  Unfortunately, this approach does not work with a workplace bully.

Q:  What happens?

A:  We over-extend our boundaries and we reach out to the bully in hopes of a revelation from the bully to resolve the situation in a win-win way.  As you may be only too aware, this only re-positions you in the bully’s court, thereby leaving behind your own foundation or solid footing.

Q:  What can a target do?

A:  The first step is to recognize that the bully has strong boundaries.  Also realize that you have the right to have your own boundaries.

Q:  What is a boundary?

A:  A boundary is anything that helps to separate or distance you from another.

Q:  Why is this not natural for some people i.e. to set a boundary?

A:  Our most basic need as human beings is for relationship – setting a boundary means setting yourself apart from another, which can feel like the opposite.

Q:  What are types of boundaries I could set with a workplace bully?

1.  Physical/body boundaries

The Challenge:  Many people who have been abused physically may have a challenge in setting a healthy “no” boundary.  They may find themselves in situations where they are too close to another, wishing they could distance themselves.

What Can You Do?

Make agreements with yourself based on what you do not want, and stating what you will do instead.

  • “I will not sit next to Joe.”
  • “I will not ride the elevator with Joe.”
  • “I will not take my break at the same time as Joe.”
  • “I will not allow myself to be alone in a room with Joe.”

2.  Emotional Boundaries

The Challenge:  In a target’s heart, they want reconciliation and relationship.  When the bully does not reach out with empathy and understanding toward a target, the target sometimes “over-reaches” to the bully by sharing information and insights with the bully in order to connect, only to find this open boundary to be met with a non-compassionate and non-considerate edge.  The other challenge a target faces is not setting a clear emotional distance boundary in order to “re-group” their self worth and composure.  Instead the target might keep hanging around or being overly available, “hoping for the best.”

What Can You Do?

Make agreements with yourself based on how you feel around the bully and deciding to protect yourself emotionally through time-outs and time-limited interaction.

  • “I will not share openly and try to rebuild rapport/joke around with Jamie.”
  • “I will stick to business only and then leave.”
  • “I will not make eye contact looking for approval from Jamie.”
  • “I will take/set up an extended break away from Jamie by (date) in order to gain back my strength.”

3.  Words/Vocabulary As A Boundary

The Challenge:  Disagreeing with another often brings fears of rejection and hurt.  Some people are not in touch with their “No”.  The word “No” feels like a confrontational word that would automatically distance one from another.  What is the alternative then?  To give to another with reluctance or obligation?  A lifetime of “giving in” like this will only build unhealthy resentments and perhaps future entitlements.  Bottom line – if you cannot say No to external control, or you feel your own internal pressures of “I should”, then you have lost your sense of self control.  If you do not use direct words to communicate where you stand, your boundary is left open; others are either left guessing or pushing you beyond where you are comfortable.

  • “I will be aware of how I feel when Alex demands that I do something; I will pause, gather my thoughts and respond with what I feel I can do.  I will not over-extend myself to comply to demands.”
  • “I will list my resentments I currently have with Alex and I will re-negotiate by trying to do what is best for the company and for myself.”
  • “I will speak up sooner and honestly say what I feel is best.”


  1. What boundaries have you experimented with that you’ve had success with?
  2. What boundaries do you wish you could have more strength with?


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5 responses to “Workplace Bullying: How to Set Boundaries to Regain Power”

  1. Dee says:

    Bullying and threats of violence are crimes. Never forget that those that inflected intentional emotional distress incidents against you must answer to God one day for their actions. I am a firm believer in; “what goes around comes around”. Those who played a part in the actions against you took part in actions which are illegal. I am saddened to hear your story and pray you can share your story and help others one day. Have you ever considered volunteering to help other women who are in need?

  2. Melissa says:

    Those boundaries work when in a situation other than a workplace or another place or situation that I do not need to rely on for anything I need for basic survival. ie We have to depend on workplaces for our livelihood and bullies are persistent and shameless so we are essentially trapped and over time have less and less power to maintain our boundaries.

  3. Susan klinnert says:

    I am being bullied at work they have the whole company saying I am a trouble maker well it’s not true they use me by things I say they tell me lies I feel sorry say something or it can be someone else saying it but I get blamed for it can u have any idea what it’s like to work with a boss and 40people plus management hateing u this is been going on for years management will not say hi or talk to me it’s a long story hard to write it all down its like any one can say or hurt me in any way and they will not get in trouble

  4. Bully Free at Work: Valerie Cade says:

    Wow, thank you for sharing your story. No one should ever have to endure anything like this. You are right, this happens and sometimes there is nothing one can do to stop it. However, there is always something we can do to protect ourselves – at any stage. The good thing is you are no longer involved (you left as hard as that was and as unfair as that is). This is the grand acceptance – that we will not be able to change everything or everyone. We can change our circumstances, our path, our outlook, our new future attitude even though awful things have happened. In this case, you did set a boundary – you left and this is great. Once again, thank you for sharing a story that shows that even though you tried to get others to see your point of view, it did not work (even though you tried) yet you did move on – the key lesson here. Wishing you all the best in your search for Ph D work and beyond.

  5. Ana Maria Dima says:

    In reality, if the bully is a boss or a team, the target is just a subject in a psychological experiment. When I was harassed by my German professor I was a 27 years old sociologist, PhD student in higher education from Romania to the Netherlands, a mother of a 2 year old daughter with a loving husband (married for about 7 years). In the first month after my employment it was already sexual harassment from a German professor:direct sexual remarks and unwanted violation of my very personal space. Because there was a table behind me and I could not escape his sudden invasion, he came on one occasion with his body over my entire body. I told him to stop this behavior at a work party but he said that this is his personal history. I have complained to my Dutch supervisor about the harassing behavior of the professor and I have asked not to be left alone in the same room with him. The supervisor was a coward and did nothing, thinking that the German is also his superior and a German is always superior to a Romanian. I have complained to the director of the Institute and some measures were taken: the German professor was replaced with a Dutch woman professor and they had declared that the problem was solved, the harasser even got a big promotion, from a simple professor he became the director of the Centre. Now he has made an entire management team of harassers. I was always alone, nobody wanted to work with me.The PhD meetings were now taking place in the personal house of the German professor and I was obliged by my Dutch new professor to say “I am sorry” (for what?) if I want to be admitted to participate. I have documented for the University a big file with facts for about two years of continuous harassment with hostile puts-down every time without scientific arguments. For example one of my PhD female Dutch colleagues told me that “from Central and Eastern Europe are coming in the Netherlands only hookers” (although she was married and she was the mistress of my supervisor)”. The same female colleague told me that “foreign people coming to the Netherlands represent the Dutch people”. The commission that studied and deliberated on my file has arranged a hearing and after the hearing I have received a letter with a decision that considered that the management team has repeatedly acted inappropriately in my case and they asked them to improve my working conditions. As a result I was completely isolated from my PhD work team in another part of the building and I was menaced that if I don’t resign, an accident may occur to my husband and a kidnap may happen to my child. My Dutch female professor was caressing me on my back, apparently in compassion, but she has told me after 3 years of PhD work that I have to rewrite all the 7 chapters of my PhD thesis, although we had at least 30 supervision meetings saying that evaluations of my work are positive and everything was perfect so far. She also told me that there are some prostitution networks in the Dutch universities under study. My husband had an accident while coming to take me in the evening from my workplace and I had realized that this is an academic mafia which does serious threats. I had decided to resign because the behavior of my husband became violent. He was not working, taking care of our daughter and I think that the director gave him some money to cause me to resign. I say that because my husband’s sister bought an apartment although she was a medicine student with no money. I came back in Romania, I had divorced my husband and I had discovered that my daughter was harassed in kindergarten, then in school: in 3 years we changed 3 schools and 4 teachers. Despite all these difficulties I have enrolled in a Sociology PhD programme of 3 years with a scholarship and I have obtained my PhD title in 2011. Today I am a unemployed person with a PhD and a lot of traumas. Wherever I go in Romania they ask me at the job interview “why are you looking for a job in Romania when you worked in the Netherlands for 3 years?” and the employers think that they don’t want a “trouble maker” and instead they say they cannot meet my salary expectations even if all I want is to work. In conclusion, based on my personal experience, I think that boundaries setting is a useless game. My harasser told me: “this is my personal history”. And he was made a successful director, the Dutch female student became a director and their targets like me are just a ritual phase in their rude initiation game of power.

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Valerie Cade, CSP is a Workplace Bullying Expert, Speaker and Author of "Bully Free at Work: What You Can Do To Stop Workplace Bullying Now!" which has been distributed in over 100 countries worldwide. For presentations and consulting on workplace bullying prevention and respectful workplace implementation, go to

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