A couple of weeks back I witnessed an exchange that has stuck with me. A loudmouth blob of a man who looked to be one Whopper away from a fatal coronary called an equally fit man he obviously knew over to him to come closer under the guise that he had something to show him. When the second man approached the first man attempted to slap him. When the first man saw the reaction he whined “that guy bullied me on the last job!!! He called me names on the radio!!! He bullied me!
He looked at me for support. I looked at him and said “yes and you attempted to physically assault him. Bullying won’t get you put in jail, but assault will.”
I encountered the man several other times and he was always bellyaching about some perceived injustice he had suffered; always in that same whiny tone that made me want to choke him out. I know I shouldn’t admit to that but it’s simple biology his distress calls of a wounded animal triggered my predator instincts. I had the sense to avoid him.
The whole experience got me wondering about the overreaction to workplace bullying. I am a product of playground politics and it served me well. I’ve been a brawler as long as I can remember, a farm kid with little adult supervision living by the “snitches end up in ditches” code. Whether with words, fists, or teeth I learned to fight back. Make yourself a target live as a target.
But fighting, teasing, or name-calling isn’t bullying. Those of you were bullied know the difference. Bullying isn’t a single incident, it’s a pattern of behavior. So if someone asks you if they cut men’s hair (if you’re a man) at the place you got your haircut you’re expected to come back with a pithy response that shuts the person up; it shows you’re one of the gang. This isn’t bullying; it’s camaraderie.
I suppose to some extent bullying is in the eye of the beholder…or is it? I believe that for something to constitute bullying the same acid test—at least in part—that we use to determine whether or not inappropriate workplace behavior crosses the threshold and becomes sexual harassment. For behavior to be legally considered sexual harassment there are several tests. Quid Pro Quo harassment, where someone promises something in return for sexual favors is always harassment and to apply that to bullying is, in my mind, a stretch. But the other tests remain:
- Has the victim made it clear that the behavior is unwanted and unwelcome?
- Does the behavior continue after it has been made clear that it is unwanted and unwelcome?
- Is it a pattern of behavior?
- Has the bullied person done anything to invite the bullying (retaliation, obnoxious behavior directed at the alleged bully,etc.)?
- Does the person have a physical advantage or financial power over you that makes it impossible to fight back?
I’m not endorsing inappropriate workplace behavior, but PU-LEEZ can we just get over ourselves? If someone comes up to you and says something insulting you should just tell them that you don’t appreciate being spoken to in that way, and you want the other person to address you respectfully or not at all…and then let it go. But that’s typically not what happens. When someone acts like a jerk to us, we tend to have a natural tendency to strike back and probably escalate the dysfunction. If two people are engaged in “tit-for-tat” dysfunction neither of the parties can cry “bullying” when by all reasonable measure both parties involved invited the behavior to some extent.
As a child, I was taught to fight back. My parents would not condone bullying but they equally unsympathetic to a crybaby who didn’t fight back. I was a little guy with a big mouth (not much has changed) and fights weren’t just likely, they were inevitable. The playground is about pecking order, and if you allowed someone to pick on you, you were going to spend your life on the run. Or you could stand and fight back and even if you got your ass handed to you, you were generally left alone after that because the onlookers knew that while they may be able to take you, you were certainly going to get your licks in.
As I grew up I fought less and less physically and words became my weapons. I learned how to get to the core of what really bothered a bully and would use that to make them feel bad enough so that they would leave me alone. Of course, there was always once or twice where the humiliated bully would charge at me, but by then I already had the upper hand and won the fight easily. It’s hard to win a fight when you are in a heightened emotional state.
But workplace bullying isn’t the playground, and too many people don’t know how to deal with aggressive behavior in an assertive way. Running to HR because a coworker calls you a name (excluding racial, ethnic, gender, or sexual orientation remarks), but you should be assertive and let them know that you don’t like the way they are speaking to you. If they persist, ask them point-blank what is it in their fragile self-image that makes you a threat to them? I’m not saying that you should provoke them, rather, I am suggesting that perhaps moving beyond the hurt feelings of the seven-year-old child inside, you grow up and act like a professional.
It has come to my attention that some of you have not yet purchased a copy of my second book, Lone Gunman: Rewriting the Handbook On Workplace Violence Prevention. What in the living hell are you waiting for? This book is all new material that cannot be found anywhere else. In light of all the talk and panic around gun violence, and the shamefully bad advice some “experts” are giving I hope some of you will read it and pass it along to your executives and HR leads (go ahead, expense it, they will be glad you did.)
Buy it. If not for you, then for someone you love.
I should warn you, this isn’t a book that is pro- or anti-gun ownership rights. The book has extensive sections on spotting an unstable employee (some people’s lives will take a dark and desperate turn long after you have hired them but there are always signs), the types of work environments that tend to trigger these events, and I recently returned from Dublin, Ireland where I spoke on how companies can leverage technology to protect workers from workplace violence. But all the books, and magazines, and speeches in the world won’t change a damned thing if you keep thinking that it can’t (or probably won’t) happen to you or someone you love. You can bet your life that we will see more similar shootings in the weeks or months as people who are currently at the brink of sanity see the news reports and think, “now’s the time”. WAKE UP, PEOPLE!!!! This book is pepper with the sarcasm, self-deprecating humor of the first book, but it also makes use of my extensive knowledge of violence prevention in the workforce (that I gained as head of training and OD for a global manufacturer.)
Of course, my first book is still for sale, and you might rightly ask yourself, why on God’s green Earth would I read a book that contains previously released material? Simple, like the rainforest and the polar bears my work is disappearing from the web very quickly. All but a handful of my works for Facility Management Magazine is gone, and you can basically only go back 2 years on my blog (8 year’s worth of my work that ranges in quality from magnificent to mindless dreck.) And besides, about a third of the book is new material that cannot be found anywhere else. So buy it. It will teach you, entertain you, and make you want to read more it can be ordered here I Know My Shoes Are Untied. Mind Your Own Business or on Barnes & Noble.com.