#225: Toxic Work Environment? How to Handle Bullying in English

Dec 8, 2021 | Business Professional English

Have you experienced offensive, rude, bullying behavior when communicating in English? 

How exactly can and should you respond appropriately, without fear of consequences, particularly when your boss is the bully?

A few weeks ago, I received this request from a student:

“Sometimes my boss explains something to me, then throws a word at me and asks me “Do you know what this word means?” 

She does this in front of other coworkers.  

I usually respond and say yes, then she says, what is it?   

I find it embarrassing and rude because she knows I’m not a native speaker. 

How can I handle this situation without getting myself fired?”


Clearly, the boss is ‘throwing my student under the bus.’

To throw someone under the bus is an idiomatic expression that means to cause someone else to suffer in order to save oneself or gain personal advantage.

If you’ve experienced…

  • Bullying;
  • Unequal or unfair treatment;
  • Damaging rumors and gossip;
  • Low morale; 
  • Or discrimination 

At work, these are red flags – warning signs – that your work environment may be toxic.

When a workplace becomes toxic, it has the quality of being very harmful or unpleasant.

Whether it’s your boss, a coworker, a client, or someone else you know, how do you handle these distressing situations without fear of getting fired?

In this lesson today, you’ll get strategies to help you respond appropriately and essential English phrases to address toxicity in the workplace with anyone.

Along the way, you’ll also learn useful English idioms, collocations, and more on this topic so you can talk about it with confidence.

Toxic, Bullying Behavior at Work? Here’s How to Respond in English.

With these 5 strategies you can use to overcome the toxicity of a negative work environment, I’ll share specific real-life scenarios and the language you can use to respond so you can express yourself with confidence, whether you respond immediately (in the moment) or take some time to think and prepare your ideas for a later discussion. 


Strategy #1: Take the high road

While it’s easy to become completely engulfed (surrounded or covered) in the toxic culture at work, remember that you control the outcome. 

Strive to always take the high road whenever a negative action or comment is directed towards you. 

To take the high road is an idiom that means to choose the most noble, ethical, or diplomatic course or method, especially after or in the face of negativity or ill-treatment.

Not an easy choice, to be sure.

The best way to avoid mirroring or indulging in negative behavior is by setting firm boundaries. 

  • Scenario 1:  If a coworker decides to share gossip about another employee, use assertive language to say, I understand your interest but I’m not comfortable with talking about their personal life.”
  • Scenario 2: On the other hand, if you feel that a group of coworkers is isolating you, doing the same (isolating them) would further promote the negative behavior. Instead, choose to take a kinder approach and continue to be inclusive. Show that you value their opinion, invite them to participate in discussions, and model positive behaviors.


Strategy #2: Dig A Little Deeper

Sometimes, toxicity at work isn’t always a result of years of negative communication and culture. When a behavior is deemed acceptable, people tend to use it as a means of venting stress or frustration. 

To vent stress or frustration means to give free expression to that particular emotion.

So, the next time you encounter toxicity, ask yourself the following questions:

    • What triggered the negative action or response? 
    • Am I seeing a toxic pattern?
    • What factors are contributing to the toxicity? 
    • Is there a way to stop the toxicity?
  • What actions will help you, and the others, arrive at a positive outcome? 

Asking the above questions is important for gaining a bigger picture and determining an appropriate action for the situation. 


  • Scenario #3: For example, if a coworker pinpoints an error in your report and proceeds to imply a lack of knowledge, ask yourself: Do I see the same pattern in this person’s interactions with other coworkers or is it only with me? How can I confront this issue and gain a positive outcome?
  • When you confront your coworker’s behavior, express your concerns by saying: When you comment on an error, implying lack of competence, I find your response to be hurtful and inappropriate. It would help me grow as a team member if you could give me some constructive feedback so that I can learn from the error instead.” 

Asking questions before you react and assertively communicating your needs are crucial steps in neutralizing a negative situation.

For more tips on assertive communication at work, check out my lesson on Soft vs. Assertive Language.


Strategy #3: Adopt A Zero-Tolerance Attitude

As you peruse through (or carefully examine) your company’s policies and guidelines, you’ll likely find several pages of ethical and moral standards that all employees are expected to adhere to. 

Bullying and derogatory comments are definitely a no-go in any work environment. Should you encounter or witness a situation, it’s important to implement a zero-tolerance attitude.

A zero-tolerance attitude or policy means that the most severe punishment possible is given to every person who commits a crime or breaks a rule.

  • Scenario #4: Unfortunately, there may be times when you feel bullied by your boss or supervisor. The person may single you out and be verbally abusive. When you feel cornered, it’s important to speak up for yourself. 

The next time your boss asks whether your mind can comprehend something, calmly say: 

I understand everything. However, I don’t appreciate being stereotyped or being spoken to in an inconsiderate manner.” 

By doing so, not only do you set a firm boundary, but you also clarify that a particular behavior is inappropriate. If you notice an ongoing pattern, it may be time to schedule a one-on-one meeting with your boss and express your concerns.  

  • Scenario #5: Sometimes a toxic environment doesn’t always mean that you’re the one on the receiving end.

    When you witness a coworker getting bullied or verbally humiliated by another coworker, you may choose to verbalize that its unacceptable by saying:

Your behavior is not tolerated and you need to stop. You may speak to me once you’re able to do so respectfully.”

At this point, the bully may verbalize a few choice words  — words that are intended to say exactly what the speaker means but in an angry, maybe even inappropriate way — but ultimately you’ve confronted them for their toxic behavior. 

Alternatively, if you believe a mediator is required, or if you’ve exhausted all other options, reporting the incident to your HR department is an equally effective action. The solution allows you to effectively maintain a calm environment as you communicate concerns about your boss or coworker.

Strategy #4: Prioritize Mental Health

To avoid overwhelm, burnout, low morale, or even anxiety, leave work at work. 

If possible, take a few personal days when necessary, and always remember to create a strong boundary between your work life and your private life. 

Sometimes, a sense of foreboding or the sense that something bad will happen may arise as you get close to burnout or an anxiety attack. During these times, restrict yourself to working only during work hours. Reserve your evenings and weekends for yourself, family, and friends.

During your free time, destress by indulging in your favorite activities, practicing mindfulness, or spending time with family and friends. Relaxation is an effective moderator for negative thoughts.

Additionally, introduce more positivity to your life by choosing to listen to uplifting music, reading literature that inspires positive thinking, surrounding yourself with positive quotes, or even by choosing to watch mood-boosting movies. You’ll find your mind shifting to focus on the positives instead of the negatives.

Strategy #5: Realign With Core

If you’ve done all you can and you find the toxicity seeping into other parts of your life, it’s time to reevaluate and realign with your goals, priorities, and values. 

You’ll more than likely discover that the work environment is no longer tolerable. At this point, allow yourself to accept the need to plan your exit strategy. 

Remember that there ARE greener pastures; you deserve to work in a positive and supportive environment. 

There is a LOT to consider in this lesson. Knowing these strategies and the English questions/comments you can use to respond without fear of repercussions doesn’t mean they are easy to use in the moment.

Frustration, panic, fear, discouragement can make it challenging to remember how to best respond.

When necessary, you can use what you learned here to discuss what’s happening with someone you trust and create a plan for how to best respond.

The more you talk about and use the language you’ve learned in the lesson, the easier it will be to respond.

To help, I have a few questions for you.

In your opinion, what would be the most appropriate strategy to apply to the following scenarios and how would you respond:

  1. A few coworkers often badmouth a new employee. They ridicule the way she looks and seem envious of her progress. 
  2. A male coworker makes sexist comments during meetings and it often makes you feel uncomfortable. Moreover, you especially notice this behavior when he’s around other male coworkers.
  3. Ever since you moved to a virtual work environment, your manager seems to expect that you should work outside of regular hours to complete your tasks (especially, since you’re working from home). You feel overwhelmed and are on the brink of burnout. 

I look forward to hearing your responses. The best place to share is in the comment section below.

~ Annemarie


P.S. Are you looking for a community to provide support, help you stay motivated, and guarantee that you grow? Check out our Confident Women Community.

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