Am I being bullied by my co-worker?

I am dealing with a situation at work which is making me feel increasingly uncomfortable and need some advice and insight from other women that might have experienced something similar, or that could help me figure out how to handle this situation.

I work as software engineer in a small company, and have been there for several years. The person in question is the lead of another squad, and used to be my lead for a brief point in time at the start of my contract. I have always perceived him as intimidating and he has not been a supportive lead, having made me cry several times when I went to ask for his help with blockers. I did not know how to approach this situation at the time, as this was my first tech job. I was not feeling confident of my knowledge so I felt he was in the right for making me feel ashamed for not knowing or understanding things. I know how awful that sounds..

After some structural changes we luckily ended up in different teams. For a good few years we did not have much interaction, and I have seen the same behaviour he had with me, repeated with another junior colleague. The junior was made redundant a few months ago, and since then I started noticing more and more behaviours which I'm not sure what to think of.

Whenever he is reviewing my PRs he leaves around 10 pieces of feedback, majority of them being nitpicks like renaming variables, replacing switch statements with if/else statements, removing comments I leave for complex logic, rewording comments etc (and this only happens on my PRs, no comments on any other PRs of any of my colleagues). Other leads have occasionally in the past nitpicked at my code, and I completely understand and agree that at times these things are necessary to ensure quality code. However, while none of my other reviewers leave stuff, he went from a couple of occasional nitpick comments last year, to having 10 nitpicking comments on every PR of mine he is checking.. it just feels weird.

Earlier this week he left me a feedback about removing a comment which I felt was needed in the code. So I replied respectfully that I found that comment useful when refactoring that section, and would like to keep it in. He immediately went to our main engineering channel and posted about it adding a link to the pr and asking everyone to chip in and let majority decide on what to do. Once again, I get how two people disagreeing about something can be resolved by opening up the conversation to other people. However, this was not a conversation, and it went from the PR reply straight to main channel, at no point had he messaged me to try and discuss this or ask if I am happy for this to be opened up. I ended up doing his way just to get it over and done with as I was fed up with the whole thing and wanted to just move on. I have however messaged him and said in a nice and respectful manner that while I get his reasoning for opening up the decision to the group, he should message me in private to discuss this before hand, and we should both agree to open this up. I also said to him that this behaviour made me feel publicly shamed and like having my arm twisted into doing his way. He apologised and said he'd come message me about things in the future.

Two days later, he leaves another 7 nitpicking feedback bits to my new PR. I disagree with a couple of them, he takes half a day to reply and basically is again trying to push back on the phrasing of a comment, that I should use "else do x" instead of "if y do x". This is a comment, I just find it so ridiculous..

So at this point I'm just bewildered. I open up about it to a colleague I'm close to and she says "he does seem to bulldoze his opinion every time".

Anyway, long story short, I don't know where to go from here. It could all be very accidental, and none of the things are in themselves terrible, but at the same time when adding it all up it just rubs me off the wrong way and I can't put my finger on it.

Is this bullying? Am I just overly sensitive? And what on earth can I do about this? I like my job and would not like to leave it because of this, but at the same time this is making me so upset and paranoid that I find myself angry and ruminating for hours after work.

Worth mentioning that we do not have HR as it's a small company, and both my direct lead, and the head of are very non confrontational.

Thank you for taking the time to read, and for any replies.

When he asked for everyone in the engineering channel to vote, did people vote siding with him or with you? Could you have the engineering channel vote on his code when you think something he has done is not the best practice?I think part of the challenge here is that it's not clear how your non-confrontational coworkers actually feel because they might also just be telling you what you want to hear (also due to them being non-confrontational). If the company had to choose between keeping you as an employee or keeping him, who would they choose?
Not everyone replied to his thread, people tend to lay low most times in situations like this. The ones who replied sided with him.I could indeed have the engineering channel vote on his code, but I tend to only feedback if I think there might be code issues and try to provide arguments to explain my reasoning. I try not to pick on things like names unless it's a clear issue, because I feel it's not that important as long as it is descriptive enough / not confusing. No one else ever posted to ask for input on code reviews. The usual thing in similar situations is both sides explain their arguments on the pr or in a private chat, and for nitpicks usually the other people suggest but not demand it done.I don't know who they would choose, but keeping in mind seniority level I'm inclined to think would be him.
Have you tried changing to another team or finding others who can advocate for your situation in your company?I do not think there is a standard to qualify as being bullied. Maybe another person with a different kind of personality in your shoes feels differently than you do. But don't you think that the moment you wonder whether you were bullied, it already means that you were? Otherwise, you wouldn't feel this kind of unease.I had an experience with a female supervisor in my last job that feels similar to your text. In my case, she would intentionally give "nitpicking feedback," such as pointless comments that did not change the result of a task, personal preferences for working, or insisting on specific ways of working as if that was the only way she knew. It sounds puzzling to us under her management, but those are very effective strategies for maintaining authority as a team manager and showing contributions to senior management.
Thank you Gabriele. I am sorry you've had to go through this in your previous role. What you said re your supervisor enforcing her personal preference as it was the only way she knew, struck a cord with me. What made you change companies? Also is there anything your previous team did to address that? How did everyone cope with it? To answer your questions, reviewers are chosen by an algorithm from across teams so no matter what team I'd be in, he still would still fall as reviewer at some points. I don't feel very confident in finding advocates. I tried to breach the topic with my lead but the response was along the lines of - I get it, nitpick reviews are not fun. She has in the past told me that she has been bullied in her old job, and because of that she prefers to keep herself to herself and not get involved in office politics, so I don't think she would advocate for me. The rest of the team are all men, and none of the people I am close to are in positions of power.
Can you articulate the positives that you like about this job?
Positives - It's fully remote, and the programme is fairly flexible (i usually do regular hours but it's useful to be able to schedule doctor appointments and the sort). I can work from anywhere, so it means I can do some travelling without having to take holidays. I like the work per se, and that I'm usually left alone to do my day to day things. Further, I get on well with my immediate colleagues, and made a good close friendship with one of them.
Well, the good thing is that it sounds like the stuff you like about your job could be true at many, many other employers. You didn't mention anything about your employer's "mission" or the type of work you are doing apart from the fact that you enjoy autonomy. Why not apply to other remote jobs and see if you get interviews anywhere?Basically, it's interesting that the main thing you like about this job is the people and the flexibility, but now you are suddenly encountering a "person" at work who is making your job less pleasant and less flexible. You have to decide if it's worth it to stay even if nothing changes with this problematic coworker.
That's a really good point! Didn't think about it this way, but it makes a lot of sense. Thank you! ❤
No worries. And another thought is that you could make a personal game out of being really obsequious and always following this dude's comments to a T and thanking him for his input. If you seem really grateful for his feedback I feel like he ironically might end up giving less of it. Sort of a "kill him with kindness" approach.The only time I was in a situation like yours (where someone hierarchically above me was giving unreasonably nitpicking feedback), it turned out it was from his own anxiety because the guy knew he wasn't doing well at his new responsibilities in his job, and so he fell back on what he was most comfortable with ("adding value" by being overly detail oriented). He ended up getting laid off right around the time when he was becoming most intolerable to work with.
That's funny re "kill him with kindness" 😁 Good way to flip the situation in my head too 😅Interesting what you said re insecurity, it's hard to know if that's the case, but it certainly could explain some things if it were. Your comments made me see that it's really me who has the power, and that I can find ways to deal with this - even if that is simply to laugh it off, or walk away. Thank you ❤
Hi, I tried to mitigate the issue by booking a 1:1 meeting with my supervisor. Due to remote working, and being a woman in the industry I work in, I wanted to give the benefit of the doubt to the supervisor and hoped to improve the situation through communication. However, that meeting backfired, and I believe she told the head of the department that I challenged her management, resulting in her stress and causing delays in project deadlines. I left that company after my annual review meeting. Even though finding a new job in this economy is challenging, I don't want to work at a place where I am not respected and valued.I shared my experience with the head of HR at my departure meeting with her, and I regret that I did not reach out to her earlier before my 1:1 meeting with that supervisor. I did have people to advocate for me, but under the guise of equality, the team was managed in a very hierarchical style, so advocacy for co-workers and mid-managers did not work. To me, it was a toxic culture I did not want to accept. Still, I believe you can try strategies such as a 1:1 meeting to at least share your feelings. It may just be because of the other side do not feel the same as you on the receiving side.
Gosh, that's not great, I'm sorry. I think you did the right thing to move on though. In that kind of situation, it feels there's very little left to do if you were not consulted by the higher ups on your perspective. It takes courage to leave, so well done for taking that step!I have thought about what you and Filomena said and I think I'll wait to see how things go over the next few weeks, and if this continues as is, I'll start looking for another place in the new year. After writing down the positives, it struck me that there are very few specifics that I could not find in a new job. Maybe it's just time I make some changes.
It sounds like that you already have a plan. It is not a difficult decision to make once you know what you have and what you want.
Thank you so much, this feels very encouraging! I'll sit down and reassess everything during the holidays. This conversation has given me a lot to think about.
Not having worked as an engineer in a company long-term ( I am building my product, self taught ), I had an experience with a team lead in a volunteer project we both did where he wanted things done in a certain way as far as the code was concerned and he was nice, so I assumed these things happen. This person ended up pair-programming with me which was intimidating but very helpful ). In your case, since he is the lead, it might be for the sake of your piece of mind, just better to let him dictate how the code should operate bcs everyone has a 'way' of preference and it's not worth your time, to waste your time over his nitpicky ways. Bcs I don't have a CS degree I always feel like I am behind. But if you DO have a CS degree you can fight back intellectually if you disagree but again is it worth the energy. Maybe he has a point re: switch statement and else if performance-wise, I wouldn't take it personally. My experience as a self taught person I am constantly realizing I know so little. I also agree re: renaming variables because it makes a mess at the end. I found this out through my own errors I wish there had been someone to correct me I learnt the hard way. Things that seem small are giant. Now I know!!! I have cried about bugs and I experience them constantly ( is that what you mean by 'blockers' ). If I had a more senior person to review my code and guide me it would have been easier. Maybe your situation is a blessing in disguise. It sounds like the job has a lot of positives so it's not worth leaving it quite yet ... this type of personality wants to be known as the 'expert' due to insecurities so let him. As long as he is not your direct manager. I can relate to both ... as a neurospicy person we can be very 'set in our ways' and want things done a certain way... at the same time this is condescending how he treats you. So my advice to you, is pick your battles. There is no perfect work place unless you work alone, but then I work alone for now and there are a lot problems I would be able to solve faster if I had been working with someone else. But then the someone else could be an a-hole...
Hi there! It’s completely normal to get frustrated when dealing with difficult work environments. I suggest doing a calming meditation to help you regain your composure (, but if you feel like this is happening daily or frequently, talk with others (peer/mentor/coach/etc) to consider finding a more supportive team/workplace environment. Additionally, I'm linking a quick video with some more guidance –, I’m Rachel. If you want to discuss further, check my profile to book a call to dive deeper into your goals/challenges.
He sounds like a difficult co-worker, and I would bear in mind that sometimes people project their own emotions and difficulties to others. He may find YOU intimidating so he feels he needs to be more aggressive with his feedback to you compared to others. Regardless, I understand the concern and feeling like a target in this scenario, but unless he's actively unprofessional and rude towards your work I wouldn't sweat it.Like some of the other comments in the thread, I think it's worthwhile to focus on what you have control over - your emotions to his feedback, refraining from reeling at the accumulation of his behavior and outlying emotions from the past when he was your lead. While his behavior is not justified you may find a lot peace in not fixating on his behavior. Remind yourself that he is no longer your lead, and frankly, has no impact on your promotion or performance. He's just another guy with an opinion (or several lol). Get your manager involved if it gets worst.
I just want to validate that I think this _is_ bullying behavior. I'm not sure what the solution is, and I see lots of the comments focusing on what you can change or do differently, which I guess is practical advice but not very kind. Targeting one person with unhelpful (removing comments doesn't help you level up - it's a gross power move to make the code less friendly and accessible to others and show off how he doesn't need help or think others should), subjective preferences disguised as "feedback" is bullying. Putting you on blast in public is bullying. I'm sorry you're dealing with this, and I understand how this kind of stuff eats away at you.
Thank you so much Hortense. What you said gave me so much validation and I think I really needed that. This kind of situation does eat at me, but after reading the responses here, I feel I have a lot more power than I thought I did. I have raised a few issues with adding better documentation to our codebase, and this has been picked up by management, praised and turned into a project of its own that we will all be involved in. I am hoping this will tip the power balance a bit.In the meanwhile, please know that I am so grateful for what you said. I needed to hear that and it instantly made me feel so much better. Thank you ❤
Have you tried talking to him about this directly? It's by no means an easy conversation to have, and admittedly there are complex power dynamics to navigate, but it could be an opportunity to stand up for yourself, get curious, and hear more about what's going through his head. You might start by asking why he thinks he needs to give the kind of feedback that he does, like, "Hey, I noticed you deleted comments that I thought would be necessary for explaining complex logic. What's going on there?" Ask question after question and in the beginning, refrain from inserting your view point. Make him do the work of justifying his actions. I don't know what's going through his brain, or whether it's ill-intentioned or innocent, but at least with this process, we can find out.I want to affirm that you are not being too sensitive and especially because your male peers aren't treated this way, your anger and frustration is valid. I'd hate to see you continue ruminating on this, and I'm a coach so if you'd like more help, please reach out.
Thank you Raina. I have spoken to him about the episode where he outed the debate on the public channel, but I feel I need to thread lightly. I don't want to stir the pot too much and push him to be even more difficult than he is. I am going to try and pick my battles, and give him some leeway so he feels like he can get some wins, but when it really matters I can step up and push back as needed. I feel it's the only approach I can have - keep him at distance.
Yes this is a very normal kind ofbullying, but the way you are reacting isn’t very strategic. Consider that you need to start building support from other juniors inbuilding a business case for him toimprove his mentoring and code reviewing skills or be moved away from code reviewing responsibilities.Build examples of time wasting and nitpicking PRs in a list. Explain how demoralizing and bad for team morale and unbalanced the comments are. Keep a percentage chart of how much positive to negative, how specific or non-specific, and handpick the least actionable comments. If he EVER says words like “bad” or “confusing” without specifying why, to whom, or what would be better, this is something to make sure you record.Then go discuss this with him. Give him feedback and specifically let him know you want to spend your time & energy where it matters for customers, not bickering about comments that impact no end user. Explain what comments help with examples of his and what harm. Sincerely try to make him better. If you can, good. After this discussion, start list 2. List 2 either improves or you start a case for going above him with solving this problem.Mentoring others correctly is a key responsibility of all senior developers. Those who do harm should not do code review until retrained enough that they improve.
This is gold advice, thank you Claretha! I'll start documenting, even if that's just for the sake of knowing where I stand.
This sort of thing happened to me a lot earlier in my career. I had one senior engineer who would just comment on my code "no" as feedback, which left me with no idea what was wrong or how to change it. I had success in that scenario by starting a team conversation around code review standards. This helped us to define as a team what we were going to address in code reviews and get everyone on the same page. There are lots of examples online you could look at if your team doesn't have a standard as a starting point. We also started a practice of saying `NIT` before a comment was a nitpick to recognize that it was minor and the person who wrote the code could drop it. This worked because as part of the code review standards we recognized that the person who wrote the code gets the final say, as long as it's not opening up a glaring issue.One of the big things I liked from this process, that I have carried through to other teams, is to link to documentation about why something should be changed. If someone told me to change something without telling me why, I would push back and ask for their reasoning. If you think you can get some of the other engineers on your side to start this conversation and establish standards I think it's worth a shot. But if you're feeling alone and the other engineer is getting away with his nitpicking and mean comments, it could be time to look somewhere else. I wouldn't recommend staying in an environment like that. I know for me it slowed me down because I got anxious about pushing code and having to deal with yet another onslaught of useless comments. I've worked so much better and faster in environments where my coworkers have given me thoughtful feedback and allowed me ownership over my code; you deserve that too.
Wow that's great advice, thank you! What you said re linking documentation for requested changes makes so much sense! I'll try and see if I can suggest that at work, if would be a great way to address and debate some of the feedback!
Good luck! One other thought I had that's related to documentation is reframing the question around the code itself. Something like "why are if/else statements better than a switch? Do they have better performance?" helps to refocus on the conversation on the code and make it less personal. It's still a lot of work on your part to handle all those comments, and also I've had some success with that approach as well. If there is a good explanation it helps you learn (albeit from a difficult teacher); and if there isn't it makes the person spell it out and hopefully realize they're making a mountain out of a molehill.