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How to Deal with a ‘Mean Girl’ at Work

Business woman covering her eyes with her hands. See no evil conIf you are of a certain age, you will likely remember the 1989 movie Heathers. The big hair and shoulder pads mark it as part of that decade. The ensemble cast of Winona Ryder, Christian Slater and Shannon Doherty portrayed the angst and animosity inherent in high school bullying and the revenge that was exacted when Ryder’s character was pushed beyond her limits of endurance.  

The Evolution of Intimidation

It begins early and with ferocity. Children learn this dynamic via peers, parents and other adults, as well as the media. Put downs, criticism and attempts at thought control plant the seeds for weeds that choke healthy development and thwart emotional intelligence.

The iconic poem speaks to this phenomenon.

Children Learn What They Live
by Dorothy Law Nolte, PhD.

If children live with criticism, they learn to condemn.
If children live with hostility, they learn to fight.
If children live with fear, they learn to be apprehensive.
If children live with pity, they learn to feel sorry for themselves.
If children live with ridicule, they learn to feel shy.
If children live with jealousy, they learn to feel envy.
If children live with shame, they learn to feel guilty.
If children live with encouragement, they learn confidence.
If children live with tolerance, they learn patience.
If children live with praise, they learn appreciation.
If children live with acceptance, they learn to love.
If children live with approval, they learn to like themselves.
If children live with recognition, they learn it is good to have a goal.
If children live with sharing, they learn generosity.
If children live with honesty, they learn truthfulness.
If children live with fairness, they learn justice.
If children live with kindness and consideration, they learn respect.
If children live with security, they learn to have faith in themselves and in those about them.
If children live with friendliness, they learn the world is a nice place in which to live.

In adolescent circles, this maltreatment takes the form of gossip and innuendo, ostracizing and shunning, and in recent years, cyber-bullying. By the time youth have reached their teen years, the behavior may be entrenched and require education to change attitude and actions.

The American Society for the Positive Care of Children, explains, “About 28 percent of students ages 12–18 reported being bullied at school, during the school year, according to the Indicators of School Crime and Safety: 2013 report, by the Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) and National Center for Education Statistics Institute of Education Sciences (IES).  The majority of bullying still takes place at school; 1 in 3 U.S. students say they have been bullied at school, according to the DHHS.”

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This could lead to devastating consequences, including suicide. The National Crime Victimization Survey says, “it is estimated that about 2.2 million students experienced cyberbullying in 2011. Of the 9% of students that reported being cyber-bullied in the National Crime Victimization Survey compared to 6.2% in 2009 (National Center for Education Statistics [NCES], 2013)

  • 71.9% reported being cyberbullied once or twice in the school year
  • 19.6% reported once or twice a month
  • 5.3% reported once or twice a week

The Characteristics of Bullies

  • They have been or are currently being bullied themselves
  • They may not have learned how to bond with others
  • They may have witnessed the adults in their lives using force, intimidation or coercion to get their way
  • They may be lacking in compassion or empathy for others
  • They may have poor impulse control and ability to delay gratification
  • They may have feelings of inadequacy, so bullying behavior gives them a false sense of power, rather than genuine empowerment
  • They may align with others who use these tactics to feel like they belong
  • They may feel as if they have no control over their own lives, so they attempt to exercise dominance over others
  • They are more likely to pick on others they perceive as weaker or more vulnerable than they

What Happens When a Bully Grows Up?
Some who become accustomed to this role, don’t grow out of it when they cross the line into adulthood. Workplace bullying is becoming more common. It is defined by The Workplace Bullying Institute as “repeated, health-harming mistreatment of one or more persons (the targets) by one or more perpetrators. It is abusive conduct that is threatening, humiliating, or intimidating, work interference — sabotage — which prevents work from getting done, or verbal abuse.”

A bully need not be in a position of authority, but may be a peer who bonds together with others, in the same way high school cliques form. The target may be a new employee or simply one who doesn’t fit the image that the prevailing group believes is appropriate.

One example is an employee in a setting in which she is older than most of the other, primarily female employees. She has worked there for several years in this family owned (not her family) and operated company and feels a professional and social connection with the owner and his family.  She has the ear of this person who sees her as an asset to the firm and values her input and ideas. Her work is impeccable and she has received glowing reviews. The younger co-workers feel the boss favors her, so they have banded together to ostracize her. They criticize her appearance and her attitude, which she views of positive and affirming in attempt to make the workplace hospitable for all. Instead, their undermining of her work and position, creates a hostile work environment. Although she finds the tasks involved in her work and the clientele she serves rewarding, she is aware that it is taking a toll on her physical and emotional well-being. Signs of depression; including low energy, fatigue, headaches and a desire to stay home some days, are evident.

These are part and parcel of the experience of one who is at effect of adult mean girl treatment. It is referred to as ‘relational aggression,’ in attempt to raise one’s social status by deflating someone else’s. It may present as whispering behind the target’s back, silence when she walks into the room, spreading gossip and rumor, direct verbal criticism or snide remarks undermining work, claiming responsibility for the colleagues’ achievements and sabotaging success.

She sought the services of a professional coach who explored the dynamics with her. She has no investment in being friends with these women outside the office, but knew she spent more time with them than with her family, so she needed to find a way to work with them and not against them. This woman also acknowledged that when she was on the job, she was productivity oriented and many of them did not share her work ethic. She planned to speak with her employer about her dilemma. While she didn’t want to feel as if she was a chronic complainer, nor a ‘snitch,’ she did want to feel more at ease when she walked through the office door each day. They scripted a conversation she plans to have with him that would focus on the benefits to the company as well as her own peace of mind.


Children Learn What They Live, Copyright© 1972 by Dorothy Law Nolte, PhD

How to Deal with a ‘Mean Girl’ at Work

Edie Weinstein, MSW, LSW

Edie Weinstein, MSW, LSW is a journalist and interviewer, licensed social worker, interfaith minister, radio host and best-selling author.

APA Reference
Weinstein, E. (2018). How to Deal with a ‘Mean Girl’ at Work. Psych Central. Retrieved on August 8, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 Oct 2018 (Originally: 17 Nov 2016)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Oct 2018
Published on Psych All rights reserved.