Workplace Bullies, Comebacks & Fighting Back

Tough PuppyBullying at work is as common as bullying in school. It’s just the type of bullying that is different. Seldom are there any more fistfights and beat downs. Rather, work place bullying is much more subtle, with more deleterious effects.

I met up with a good friend of mine for lunch the other day and we got to talking about how she always was made fun of by her immediate superior. Theresa is a wonderfully intelligent woman, who has gotten promoted every couple of years for the past six years.  Her official title is “Senior Manager”. Despite being in her mid 30s, she could pass for 23 years old because of her smooth face and 5 foot 1 inch small frame.

Her boss, Steve, on the other hand is about 6 feet 2 inches tall and an obnoxious ex-fraternity boy. For some reason, I continue to find that taller people really enjoy looking down on shorter people. They like to make their presence felt and take advantage of shorter people. I’ve met Steve several times before and he’s a nice guy who likes to joke around a lot. I don’t think he means intentional harm to anybody, but if he’s making one of his subordinates feel uncomfortable, that’s unacceptable and must stop.


The problem with Theresa’s situation is that she always defends Steve after complaining to me. She says, “He’s just joking around” and “He’s my boss”. If your boss is making you uncomfortable enough to always bring him up in conversation with me, there’s clearly something wrong! Steve always teases Theresa about things.

Latest example: Theresa and Steve call a meeting with 10 other subordinates to strategize on the latest quarter. Because Theresa is very organized, she printed out an agenda and action item list on one page and passed it out to everybody.  Steve ridicules Theresa when she’s handing out the agenda, “Wow Theresa, that’s quite a list.  Are you also going to go grocery shopping for us?”.  

“Here’s my list”, and Steve pulls out a post-it note with three items. The rest of the subordinates laugh, and Theresa feels undermined as a manager. Theresa responds, “Somebod’s got to be organized!

In this instance, Theresa needs to come up with a stronger comeback. At least she said something, and didn’t stay silent and then go ball her eyes out in the restroom.

Better comebacks to Steve’s remarks and little post it note would have been:

“What’s that Steve, your list of ingredients to feed the family for dinner?  Guess what?  Mac and cheese comes in a box, so you only have one item to shop for.”

“Are you sure you aren’t confusing your meeting agenda list for the things your mistress wants you to get for her anniversary?”

“Hey, with the length of your list, let’s just cancel our meeting and go out to play!”

“Is that your meeting agenda list, or a secret hair loss formula?”

A short list, just like your short…. memory!

OK, clearly some of these comebacks are a little too extreme.  But, the gist of a good comeback is to essentially throw in something that bothers the other person and make light of the situation.

STEP 1: Prepare A List Of Scenarios and Comebacks For Those Scenarios

Some people are just witty and have an answer for everything. Most people are slow and freeze when they are insulted.  Only after several moments, or days will people think about that appropriate comeback and snap their fingers and say, “Shucks, why didn’t I think of that at the time!

You need to come up with at least three good comebacks for different scenarios. In order to come up with scenarios, you have to think about areas where you are vulnerable. Let’s say you are shorter than average, “Short Comebacks” is one scenario where you need to start developing comebacks. Let’s say you are a little overweight, “Overweight Comebacks” is another scenario.  Your comebacks cannot only be zingy, but they should also be self-effacing.

STEP 2: Practice Your Comebacks With Friends

In order to ensure maximum effectiveness in your comebacks, they have to be spoken or written within a matter of seconds.  In order to do this, you must develop all your scenarios and comebacks and have your friend rag on you.  Have him throw at you every single insult or snide remark as he can think of.  With each insult, do your best to insult him back in a nice way or offensive way.

I’m pretty sure very few people go through this type of practice. Believe me when I tell you that if you practice comebacks for 15-30 minutes a week, you will get back. Think about all those silly rap wars (8 Mile and Eminem anyone) or Yo Mama battles.  Those guys practice and practice some more until they get it right and win.

STEP 3: Develop Your Confidence

In acting class, we are taught to project our voice and enunciate. We must be believe and speak with confidence.  In a workplace bullying scenario, your message is simply, “Don’t fuck with me. Because if you do, know that you will go down.” It’s important you exude a level of confidence which is great enough where the bully moves on to the next victim.


You don’t want your comeback to be more offensive than the insult that was hurtled your way. Ideally, your comeback should be equally as offensive, so that the original person does not retaliate. Unfortunately, comebacks can sometimes be more hurtful at the heat of the moment and that’s when relationships really go sour.

One of the ways to hedge yourself against an extremely malicious retort backfiring is to keep on smiling after you’ve delivered your comeback, laugh, and then bring up a serious work-related agenda and move on. You don’t want to let the comeback linger if it’s one of those, “awkward” moments.

Like schoolyard bullying, if you can have a heart-to-heart conversation with your adversary over coffee or a meal to voice your concerns, this should usually solve the problem. Ask him or her what it is about you that engenders such unrest.

If your superior or colleagues continue to make fun of you or make you feel uncomfortable, you need to go to human resources and make your case known. This way, you will have documentation in case your superior or colleague retaliates. However, be aware that HR’s main purpose is to protect the firm, and not you. Hence, be very careful how much you complain and what you reveal.  A simple, “So and so has made me feel uncomfortable at work for the past 6 months, and I need your advice on handle this situation,” will suffice.  Don’t whine and complain.


I care a lot about Theresa, and I absolutely HATE it when people get bullied because I’ve experienced bullying myself.  I see bullying as a cowardly way of making the bully feel better, especially if he or she is senior and much bigger than the other person.  Bullies are losers and should be eradicated from earth.  If you can’t eradicate them, know that there are other people in the organization who can help you if you cannot help yourself.

Readers, have you ever experienced bullying in the work place?  What happened and what are the things you would do to make it stop?

For a more in-depth look at bullies, please visit and read my post on Understanding Unhappiness And Those Who Attack.

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  1. says

    My son was telling me about some of the dumb things that go on at school sometimes and I told him that things don’t magically change when kids become adults- many adults are just bigger kids.

    Theresa has a lot of history to undo because Steve obviously feels the upper hand. She is probably intimidated around him and freezes even more than normal when around him. My first thought was I would say “Yeah, I figured I would get more out of shopping than attending your meeting”. However, I am a smartas* and would probably have been fired by Steve ages ago.

    I can’t stop thinking of the Seinfeld episode where George got burned and didn’t come up with a comeback in time. He then created one and became solely focused on creating a scenario where he could use his quip. Of course, the guy ended up having an even better comeback! (Jerk store!)

    I bet Steve is totally clueless about how he treats Theresa. She needs to give it right back if she is ever going to get any respect from the boss.

    • says

      HAhaha, I gotta go watch this Seinfeld episode on Youtube! I can totally see that happening!

      I have told her to practice her comebacks (Short stature comebacks, female comebacks, etc), and have a talk with him if things get too much. It’s bullshit if he continues to bully.

  2. says

    I can’t remember ever having been bullied at work, so I’m not sure I can totally relate, but it seems to me that sinking to Steve’s level and hurling insults may not be the best resolution to the problem. You’ve mentioned that Steve seems unaware that he is insulting and thus bullying Theresa so I feel it might be productive for Theresa to simply have an honest conversation with Steve regarding his insults and behaviors. Of course if that is unsuccessful at changing Steve’s behavior then yes a trip to HR is certainly in order.

  3. Rachel says

    I distinctly remember a situation of workplace bullying. I was in a meeting with my team. I wasn’t a manager or anything just a regular old employee. My team lead’s boss joined the meeting with a special goal she was pushing for the day. I was the only person not meeting the new special goal, even though I was exceeding all the regular goals in place. She made a “weakest link” comment that cracked up my team and also caused a lot of glances back and forth. I remember responding that the rest of my numbers were on track and the meeting moving on. Responding in kind was not an option. She was the kind of person that would write you up for insubordination in a heart beat. I was seriously angry as this wasn’t the first comment of this kind she had made toward me. I took about 30 minutes or so to calm down then had a lovely meeting with her boss. I had (thankfully) been able to develop a relationship with him that allowed me to go to him directly with this problem. Our HR dept was fairly useless. After that meeting, I never had to deal with her cracks at me again. One of my best friends worked on that team with me. She still tells that story.

      • Rachel says

        Sam I was seriously pissed, but confronting her was not a good idea. That’s why I went over her head and let her boss handle it. Some of my friends who were there that day still tease me about that, but they were the same ones who encouraged me to stand up for myself when she made it. She was the kind of woman who didn’t respect her subordinates. I could have talked to her until I was blue in the face, but nothing would have changed. I wasn’t one of her favorites. I actually think she was trying to be funny, but I wasn’t about to put up with that.

  4. says

    I worked for an owner who was a control freak. He would interupt and take over meetings. I went to him privately and explained how it was destructive and it undermioned my authority. I was willing to leave over it and said so. Although he undermined me publically, I give him the courtesy of talking to him in private. It stopped after that. I used the situation to take a strong stand because without it, I was useless!

  5. Matt @ RamblingFever Money says

    I always think of great comebacks…. about 2 hours after the fact. When in doubt, there is always the George Kostanza comeback. “I just got back from the JERKSTORE, and they’re sold out of you!” It never occurred to me to actually practice comebacks. Might have to give that a try.

    • says

      Practicing comebacks is a NO BRAINER Matt! Once you start practicing them for situations you might be vulnerable in, they just come. Like anything, practice makes things better. They will come to you quickly.

  6. says

    Sometimes good comebacks don’t come to your mind right away. :) But just being confident helps. I would not be affected by grocery shopping remark BUT I would joke back. Crying over it in the bathroom? Hell no! I don’t have time for this.

  7. Janna says

    Anyone who has never been in a workplace with bullying should thank their lucky stars!! I was only subject to bullying once (my first real job), but it made my life a living hell. My boss was generally perceived as being crazy though, and right before I was to be fired, a knight in shining armor came along and took me into his department, thereby saving my neck.

    My work experiences since then have been generally positive, although I have seen bullying done to other people. I think I project an attitude that I will not tolerate being treated disrespectfully, and I truly believe this has helped me.

    My best advice if you are confident in yourself and your value to the company is to make it known very clearly (to the person doing the bullying) that you will not accept that kind of treatment. If you are NOT confident in yourself, that will not work, nor would it probably work at a smaller company where your boss is the owner!!

    One thing I would say is that if you cannot escape the bullying, get out. Your mental health is worth lot more than that.

  8. says

    Years ago, when I worked for a software company as an application engineer, I was bullied by a local dealer’s tech lead as he saw me as a threat. I am workaholic by nature. And, after I joined, my sales manager started bringing lots of business directly to our company. This posed direct threat to dealer’s tech lead’s job viability. He made my life miserable but taunting me in public. Fortunately, I got a much better offer elsewhere with more than 40% raise so I left the company. But, I still remember those days when I felt immense stress dealing with this person who was a ruthless bully.

  9. says

    I didn’t remember that Seinfeld episode at first but I think I did see it a long time ago. George is hilarious. The older I get the more and more I love Seinfeld and find myself cracking up hysterically watching the reruns. Anyway, that sucks for Theresa. I’ve worked with a lot of guys who say wisecracks all day long. You really have to hit them back to get them to lay off and shut up. There are people out there who love to try to embarass or harass others in order to make themselves look better. And you’re right that formulating a list of comebacks for people like that in particular can be really empowering. I am always amazed at the things they come up with in those rap battles like in 8 mile but you’re right I’m sure they think of a lot of that stuff ahead of time!

  10. BE @ BusyExecutiveMoneyBlog says

    Very interesting topic. I’ve never been bullied at work, but I’ve seen it. It’s amazing that it’s just like school. If you don’t stand up for yourself the first time it happens, it will continue. I’m not a fan of making public scenes, but I always advise people to confront a bully one-on-one about their behavior and make it very clear that it will not be tolerated again. 9 out of 10 times…that does it!

  11. says

    I have not been bullied at work, but I have seen similar situations to the examples you list above, the bad part is I never realized they were a form of bullying. I have made comments like that to friends at work, but I always made sure that everyone was in on the joke, and no one’s feelings were hurt. Joking around and making fun of one another is ok as long as the person being made fun of can take it and know that it is a joke (as long as it is just a joke)

  12. Mike Hunt says

    Sam, I am 6’2″ and I don’t look down at short people. How tall are you, by the way? Just curious to get your perspective.


  13. Mike Hunt says

    A quick comeback Theresa could have said after that comment:

    “Well Steve, I was going to buy you an organizer. Do you want me to pick up some more post-its as well?” followed by a little laugh to show no malicious intent.

    That comes across jokingly but also gets the point across- that she did her homework and Steve didn’t.

    If that doesn’t work next time he asks her to get him a coffee she can secretly urinate a little in it before giving it to him. For men it’s easier, just dunk your junk (make sure the coffee is not scalding). Of course this is really a last resort measure and for heaven’s sake don’t get caught doing this!


  14. says

    I am always amazed at the “boss-from-hell” stories and simply do not understand why firms tolerate such behaviour. Perhaps I’ve been lucky, but I have only ever seen one example of work place bullying (and the individual involved was told to find work elsewhere). I’d go further and say that all of the places I have worked have gone out of their way to make sure that managers/supervisors get honest feedback from their colleagues. My current firm requires staff to anonymously give feedback on their supervisors/managers. The best ones get an award and any that are subject to meaningful criticism get a meeting with a representative of senior management to discuss the issues.

    In practice, its usually the clueless/lazy/dishonest/aggressive colleagues who cause most of the issues and very often try to blame anyone but themslves for their own failings.

  15. Robert @ The College Investor says

    Man that can be tough. It make me wonder if the boss Steve even knows he’s making her feel uncomfortable. He may not realize what he views as joking and sarcasm can be hurtful,and nobody has probably ever told him that before. She should tell him or have a peer she trusts tell him. If he truly isn’t a jerk, he’ll stop. But, if he is a bully, it won’t stop and at least you’ll truly know what you’re dealing with.

  16. says

    I never even thought about working on comebacks. I have to say I used to be much wittier in situations like these when I was in the workforce, but now not so much. Often I think of something much too long after the initial incident, but then again I don’t often get teased anymore.

  17. says

    The radio personality part of me says she should go for the jugular and make him cry so bad he asks for his mommy! The mediator/conflict coach part of me says even a simple comeback will escalate the conflict and make things worse.

    If her boss throws out an insult (X), then most people would agree she should do the same (X). But some game theorists suggest you try being nice (Y) after the first and second insults. If he doesn’t get the hint, then she should throw out the (X).

    Might also be a good idea to read up (or refresh knowledge) on the company’s dispute resolution system. Some companies (the good ones) have effective systems in place- such as an Ombudsman’s office, Peer Mediation or other process to handle workplace conflicts. Sam is absolutely correct- the HR department is there to protect the company’s interests…not those of the employees. If no current dispute resolution system exists for that company (an unfortunately common occurrence), she could also find a reputable neutral conflict coach to help her consider all the options, opportunities and likely outcomes of decisions.

    Unresolved workplace conflict doesn’t just go away. It just grows and grows until one day it explodes.

  18. says

    You have to be careful with comebacks if you have any thoughts that it may have to be taken further. If you get too involved in office banter then people higher up the chain or even legally will say it was two way. It is serious and a massive problem, especially for women in management roles.

    I just wish people could grow up. Personally I would always try to step in if I saw someone else being bullied when I worked for companies. When I started working at 16 I was teased a lot. Oddly me not giving a crap and not really getting upset meant they all got bored!

  19. Mike Hunt says

    Dave, the biggest problem IMHO is that Theresa is a bit unhappy about the bullying but she isn’t upset enough to do something about it. There are ways to handle people like Steve without a negative escalation… at least I think it can be done.


  20. Anna @ Good Cents Savings says

    You are a great friend to be taking her issue to heart and coming up with ideas help diffuse the situation. I think responding to the teasing with humor is a great approach! He might respond back with more jokes and teasing, but at least then they are in on the joke together, and there’s a back and forth kind of banter she might find fun, and make her feel more part of the team.

  21. Jeff Crews says

    I am all about standing up for yourself in the workplace. However, something about practicing comebacks just doesn’t seem to witty to me. Haha

  22. Darwin's Money says

    I was surprised to see this, but there’s “mom bullying” as well now that we’re parents. There’s a particular mom in our kids’s school who is overtly rude and bullying toward a few other moms, including my wife. It’s tormented her because she feels it’s beneath her to verbalize it and address it with the woman in the event it impacts our child’s friendships and relationships. At the same time, this woman is so overtly rude, it’s been tough for her to ignore it. For now, she just avoids social situations where she knows she’ll be there. But it’s really odd and apparently other moms feel the same way. So much for parents being adults…

  23. says

    Good tip John. Will figure out responses that I wish was asked instead.

    I don’t really take shit from anybody, and will dish it out like the best of them. As a result, people are very reluctant to call me out. It’s fun though. This one guy called me something, and I just call him Biff Tanner Dipshit every time I see him now, b/c he looks like Bif from Back to The Future. Fun!

  24. says

    In a large company without a defined “No A$$hole” policy, there *will* be a few jerks who exhibit bad behavior towards others, whether in person or by email. I’ve found that the best way to confront them is by either making light of the situation with a practiced sharper wit (as you correctly say), or confront them personally. Close. Face to face. This also takes a little practice, as most people are uncomfortable with confrontation. But confrontations can also be kept light and with a smile. A smile disarms and confuses.
    Case in point: during a powerpoint presentation on a project status meeting, a project manager had as an action item “Stay on top of X”, “X” being our department. As the department leader, I took a little objection to this. It implied we weren’t doing our job, and needed his helping hand to set us right. As the person droned on down the list, and finally came to that this bullet point, I piped up with a smile and a laugh, and said “Stay on top of X? You’ve got to get up earlier in the morning, bud. We sent you an email at 5:30 this morning (which I had, luckily).” Big laugh in the room, tension eased, strained little smile from the project manager, and the meeting went. Afterwards, I stayed behind as the conference room emptied, to have a little tete-a-tete with said person. He was advised not to say/write things like that in public, because I’m a sensitive person and it hurts my feelings. Or something along those lines. But said with a smile.

    • Mike Hunt says

      101 Centavos, you have the comeback down pat.

      A good comeback is a bit snarky, has a bit of truth in it, and can be a bit self deprecating. And if you say it sounding kind of innocent with a smile then it’s really hard to take offense.

      To practice saying things naively just copy Sasha Cohen in Borat, an insult made with a straight or clueless face will not be taken as such because the intended victim of the joke will be confused. Happens all the time especially since I am in a country where English is spoken fairly poorly and there are people from nationalities from around the world.


  25. says

    I’ve been very lucky to not experience this in the workplace, but have experienced this in school settings. I like the idea of appropriate comebacks, but one also has to avoid becoming the bigger fool.

  26. says

    I know someone who is new to the job that he’s in. He’s more “educated” than any of the other people that work in his department,yet they are always dropping horrible comments. He is not the type of person to be talk back or be rude, but I know that it pisses him off. The anger inside of me just wants to call them up and let them have it. But because I can’t do that, I told him that he has to speak up or they will continue treating him that way. Bullies like people that they think are weak, and they will always be a target. You don’t have to be rude, but you have to stand up for yourself.

  27. Anna says

    I’m really sorry, but the whole “use your words” thing very rarely, if ever, actually works. From experience I can tell you: the person usually either laughs in your face and then it gets worse, or they won’t even talk to you, and then it gets worse.

    Either way, it only gets worse. Once someone realizes they can push your buttons, they WILL do so until they make you cry. They WILL make you terrified to be in the situation when you have to be around them. And no amount of “talking it out” will help this.

  28. JayCeezy says

    Sorry to bump this late, but here is my “Blink” on the situation with Theresa and Steve. Theresa passed out the agenda at the meeting, and it was the first time everyone was seeing it. Steve asserted his primacy, made a ‘joke’ that the subordinates have to laugh at, and undermined Theresa.

    Rather than be in the position to need a “comeback”, one possibility is to establish a meeting agenda and e-mail it to everyone in advance so they will know the subject(s) discussed. She can also ask Steve at the top of the meeting if he has anything he wanted to mention, or do it privately. But what Steve did was point out that he was the Top Dog in the room; he is, even if he is rude or unconstructive.

    In addition, I always hate going in to meetings blind; it is a control thing for the person calling the meeting, to keep the agenda talking points to themselves. Theresa should also consider this when her subordinates laugh; they may have enjoyed Steve taking the pi$$, as she sprung her bullet points on everyone. Just my two cents. Again, I learned this strategy of “don’t give them a reason to criticize” from Charles J. Givens “Super-Self.”

  29. Ka'el says

    I’m late to this party, I’ve been bullied once in my current job, moved into a different dept and I fear it’s starting up again but with a different manager. I am not a victim, not weak, not rubbish, not a wimp, not a baby, not emotionally weak, I’ve been targeted, just my definition of my career path and her idea of where she wants me to remain on the same grade for the next x years without promotion or development are completely divergent. So, I’m leaving! You might say the bully’s won, but no, she hasn’t because I’m off to do the thing she’s tried to stop me from doing – completing my Masters!

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