Professional Development

Bullies in the Workplace

This isn’t a great blog post for me to write today, but Sammy Teusch’s tragic experience is one that I and I’m sure many of you can relate to. You see, as a child I too was bullied relentlessly from kindergarten to middle school. In fact, it only ended because my mother transferred me to another school. Although I loved learning and had a great relationship with my teachers, I hated going to school. I didn’t talk about it much, but a group of kids made my life miserable every single day.

But I’m not writing this to discuss my childhood. Today, I want to talk about the bullies that grow up and permeate our workplaces.

Despite most organizations having documented anti-bullying polices, according to Harvard Business Review, 30% of American workers experience workplace bullying. Something that I have experienced myself. It’s a pernicious problem, because either leaders do not want or know how to address the problem.

Side note: I wonder how many people leaders angered by those administrators that ignored Sammy’s parents’ cries for help have themselves contributed to “career suicides” or even worse.

Some childhood bullies mature and leave their awful ways behind, but let’s discuss the other group.

The playbook remains the same, and if you’ve experienced bullying at any time in your life, you recognize it well. My childhood bullies knew when to bully and when to “play the part” around authority figures. When alone, they treat you horribly, but in a group, the bullying takes a different form. Oh, they’re always professional, but have a way of trying to “knock you down” – not physically as before, but psychologically. This manifests as being overly critical, refusal to recognize contributions, sabotaging your efforts, or freezing you out. HBR has a handy dandy chart (see image below) that breaks this down much better than I can.

As a child, I didn’t possess the tools that I have acquired over the years. Today, I’ve learned how to not only cope, but to overcome these bullies. First, I recognize that it’s not about me at all. As the saying goes, “hurt people, hurt people”. I’m no longer afraid of bullies. I pity them and hope they experience the healing they clearly need. You see, I now understand that it’s coming from a place of either deep insecurity or they lack emotional maturity to cope with their life and they’re acting out on others they feel are weaker or “easy targets” to soothe their own emotional wounds.

Also, I am not a perfect person, but I try to live by “the golden rule”, which helps me place myself into the other person’s shoes and make an effort to give to them what I’ve always wanted in return – kindness, respect, and understanding. I choose to look beyond the awful behavior and not react to it.

This is not to say that you should ignore the problem. There are times when you need to notify others, especially when the problem becomes overwhelming and/or is having a negative impact on your wellbeing.

In addition, if you manage others and notice bullying behavior, please do not ignore it. If you value retention and want to be a supportive leader, this is something that needs more attention than mere acknowledgement. I can recall times when I’ve failed at this as a leader, so again, no one’s perfect but we can all do better… right?

So, in conclusion, I write this for those of us who know that terrible pain of being “picked on” for being a little bit different, and it hurts my heart that Sammy is one of many kids out there who will never experience the full and long life they deserve due to the actions of others.

To those being bullied, you are not alone, nor are you “crazy” if you’re the only one feeling the pressure of a stealth bully. Lean on your support system, and if you’re a peer of someone being victimized, speak up and offer support. A kind word at the right moment means more than you realize to a person hurting.

I highly recommend this HBR article which provides a great overview of how to recognize AND address workplace bullying.

Hopefully, this is an encouragement to others.