It Gets Better, The Bullying Will Stop…Or Will It?

It’s hard to miss the fact that we have a bullying problem in our schools. It angers me to hear of another child who commits suicide because s/he was being stalked, bullied, beat up, and belittled by peers. I hate to think of tragic events that hit so close to home in my life that might have been prevented if we’d stopped the bullying in middle and high schools across the country. And I’m pained by the thought that if those kids had just held on for a few more years, had made it through the tough teenage period, they’d realize that it gets easier, that people stop being so mean. And they might have decided to live instead of die.

Because it gets easier, right? We become adults and start treating each other with dignity and respect?

Or do we have a bullying problem in our organizations too? Because a few weeks ago I was talking to a woman I know who I believe is being bullied at work and no one is doing anything about it. Here’s the situation:

The organization went through a huge restructure a few years ago and in the process Mindy was moved into a management position. She’d never managed anyone in her life and told them at the time that she really didn't know what she was supposed to do as a manager. She has never been comfortable with the transition. Her employees need training but corporate keeps denying Mindy’s request for a training budget. She tries to set up weekly meetings but her employees never show up and she senses that they ar

e whispering about her as she walks past them in the halls. The employees obviously don’t respect her and she’s intimidated by them so she just tries to lay low and make it through. She has asked for help from her manager several times but he isn't helpful.

During the last round of performance reviews Mindy received terrible management scores. She wasn't surprised. What she was surprised by were the comments employees made about the way she dressed, the way she wore her hair, and the way she looked. Her already low confidence plummeted. And when her manager was reading the comments to her and saw how upset she was getting he simply said, “I agree with everything they said”.

Ouch!

Now it’s obvious to Mindy that she is in the wrong role and she is trying to remedy that but I do not understand how HR and her manager thought it was okay to let employees stoop so low in a performance review as to comment on her appearance as a supporting bullet to why she is a bad manager. Her looks are not getting in the way of her doing her job and she is not breaking any dress codes. If her manager has problems with her appearance for a job related reason then it’s one thing for him to pull her aside to have a conversation about it but it is a completely different thing to let her employees get away with talking about her like that.

Am I wrong? Is bullying happening more then we think at work or is this an isolated incident? Hit me in the comments…

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FOT Background Check

Marisa Keegan
Marisa is a Culture Coach for small and quickly growing organizations trying to establish the infrastructure required to create a company full of passionate, motivated, and engaged employees. She has held culture and engagement roles for two nationally recognized great places to work, founded the research and networking group Culture Fanatics, and is an industry recognized blogger. She lives in Richmond, Virginia with her husband and twin boys and is looking forward to the day she can bike across the country to raise money for MS research. @marisakeegan.

9 Comments

  1. Kelly O says:

    I think there is a general tendency to more rude behavior in some organizations, but I think we sometimes lose the line between someone being a jerk and actual bullying behavior.

    I feel for someone like Mindy. I’ve never been in her shoes before, so I can’t say that I understand how she might feel. I wonder about how healthy this organization is as a whole, if an employee can simply not show up for a meeting with their supervisor with no consequence, or if the only consequence is that the supervisor/manager gets called on the carpet.

    While I understand that appearances are personal, they can matter in the context of how you’re perceived as a manager, whether you want to be a manager or not. Not liking a hairstyle? Okay, that’s a bit silly. But if a manager is constantly showing up in a sloppy ponytail, or wrinkled clothes (even if those clothes are within the confines of a dress code) it can send the wrong signals to employees. I know it “shouldn’t” matter, but it does. The way you present yourself to others is important, and I would think it’s even more important when you’re a manager. (Even if you don’t want to be one.)

    I guess I see both sides of this coin. Yes, the way Mindy is being treated is not “right” and it’s not “fair.” But she also bears a bit of responsibility for not standing up for herself – either as a manager, or in getting herself out of the managerial role, or not taking it when it was offered. I would also add that I think these employees need a good reminder of what is and is not appropriate workplace behavior – even if you don’t like your boss’ clothes or hairstyle, that person is still your boss.

  2. Joel Kimball says:

    Interesting thoughts and thanks!

    I reject most of the “ZOMG WE HAVE A BULLYING EPIDEMIC!” stuff because the world has not changed fundamentally in the last 50 years – media and awareness has. So do I think there’s MORE bullying? No – I think there’s a lot LESS (at least in the US) b/c there’s more awareness and less tolerance for such behavior in the workplace.

    With that said, the behaviors you describe are beyond unacceptable, and wouldn’t be tolerated at my shop. Period.

    OTOH – I have to agree with Kelly O’s comments about Mindy standing up for herself. “I’ve tried XYZ and nobody’s listening” sounds a lot like “I’m a victim.” I put up with a subordinate ignoring me for about 5 seconds, and I’ll fix that myslf with no help, thanks – if she can’t do the same – well, I’m not sorry for her. Bad boss who’s non-supportive? Yeah, that’s a shame – but been there done that – made ME a better manager.

    So – tough call, interesting (appalling) scenario, no one, “right” answer – typical FOT! Brilliant – thanks!

  3. ToddR says:

    I disagree with your first sentence. There’s no bullying problem in our schools. There are kids who mistreat other kids in our schools. There are also lots of kids who properly treat other kids. The latter doesn’t make for a very sexy headline in the papers. The kids who mistreat other kids are exhibiting learned behavior. Those kids will grow up and some of them will be a**holes at work. Most will not. 60 Minutes, The Today Show and all the other “pushers” have done a fabulous job at selling a cause-and-effect story where one simply does not exist. It’s a tragedy that people of any age commit suicide. School-aged or grown-up, this world will never be cured of people who mistreat others.

    • Chris Anfeldt says:

      Tell me about your personal experience getting bullied while in school. The people who say there is no bullying problem in schools in my experience were usually the ones doing the bullying.

      Mindy needs to stand up for herself and put her direct reports in check. People only walk over you when you allow it. She is already in a bad situation so there is no reason to lay down and take it. The worse that happens is she gets paid unemployment while looking for a less suck-tastic company to work for.

  4. Kathy Cox says:

    I agree with the others – the situation Mindy is in is bad. I question that it’s bullying – to me its more of a bad workplace culture. Obviously, if HR (did they actually see the review before it was given??) “allowed” the information on her appearance as part of the justification for her bad management practices then such statements are probably normal in the workplace and Mindy should have been aware of it. It’s probable that the lack of support for her efforts were part of the reason that she didn’t feel like she would be a good manager in the organization.

    One part of the problem with the behavior is our own reaction to it, and unfortuantely I’ve been in the same boat more than once in my career. In my personal experience, my lack of self-esteem was one reason that my co-workers were able to get the desired reaction out of me – at that time. And while it might be seen as an easy answer, talking myself out of seeing myself as the victim (with the help of good friends) is what ultimately let me control the situation instead of being controlled by it. Other people aren’t responsible for my reactions, and therefore the only one who can change my situation is me. I agree Mindy’s situation isn’t healthy, and the job market currently sucks. As a good friend to others in similar situations, I’ve always been the sounding board/encourager/outlet for them to be able to survive until they can change their circumstance – either by facilitating the change in the culture where they are or finding a new place where they can be successful.

  5. Pamela says:

    I think it is happening more than we realize. I recently had to deal with a situation when several employees reported that they overheard another employee commenting on an overweight co-worker’s weight issues. When I confronted the employee who made the remarks, he said he was just joking and the overweight co-worker would have said something if it bothered him. When I spoke with the “bullied” employee, he said he just wanted the comments to stop. As long as people don’t realize that their “jokes” are actually bullying, it will continue unless the people around them call them on it and make them face up to their actions. In the case of Mindy, her manager should have spoken to the employees involved instead of joining them.

  6. Graeme Creed says:

    This is worse than bullying this is incompetent management (and HR) to promote an employee to a position they do not have the skill sets to handle. I have seen this many times and it is not pleasant.
    If you are to promote an employee ensure they have the skill sets and the personal character to handle the tasks.

  7. I have management experience, and management does come naturally to me–managing projects, people,whatever. I am always the one others ask to take the lead in most situations anyway, and so I was hired into middle management without experience or training. Mindy is making a mistake allowing those in lower positions to cause her problems. All she needs to do is determine which of her underlings is the *spokes person* for the group, and tell that person something in confidence. That person will spread it to the rest of her employees. What she tells them will be specific to the situation in the office, but should be something they do not want. Such as, if the people here have time to complain about my clothing, then they don’t enough work to do and I will be increasing workloads. Or, if they are coming in late and leaving early I will dock their pay etc. To let them know who has the power. Mindy is too meek and mild and needs to roar a little. She has the authority to do so in her management position.

    I also wrote and published an article about students who create art and show it online as a way of having a voice–here is the article title and link:
    Anti-Bullying Art Exhibition OnlineAnti-Bullying Art Exhibition Online on Technorati.

  8. Lori says:

    Impolite and rude is how I would describe Mindy’s manager’s style. … That is not the way to promote anyone’s development regardless of how “true” the allegations from her manager, coworkers, team, subordinates or even the fashion police may actually be, there are better ways to handle this situation. … Education and training is the only way to eliminate this type of staff and management ignorance.

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