As I sat there listening to the boss, a man in his 50s with a body-builder physique, berating and screaming at a female colleague—I froze. I didn’t know how to react. A room full of adults didn’t know how to react. My mind kept replaying the same question: “What’s happening? What’s happening?” It felt like we were all strapped to a runaway train with no hope of getting off.
This brought me back to a time long ago when I worked as line worker in a meat-packaging factory near South Boston. It was mostly immigrant kids and women working at the conveyor belt while a couple of older men were moving the pallets. This true “daily grind” was where I witnessed the abuses doled out by the (mainly males) line leaders: shouting, insulting, berating, humiliating, psychological games, micro aggressions and worse, sexual harassment.
While we were exiting the factory one afternoon, I overheard an older woman, mumbling to herself: “Living like this, I’d rather die.” She continued walking but I just stood there. Frozen. Powerless.
Yet, in the nicest office, with the nicest furniture smell and with the biggest and brightest windows overlooking one of the most vibrant cities in the world, I saw a man screaming at a woman very much the same way. And for a brief moment, I traveled 20 years back in time and was in that same freezing cold factory, smelling the same wet, damp and musty air. Still frozen. Still powerless.
Workplace Bullying is pattern of mistreatment of an individual or group perpetrated by individual, group or organization. This mistreatment comes in forms of verbal, non-verbal, psychological and some time physical abuse resulting in both physical and emotional harm to the victims.
Unlike schoolyard bullies, workplace bullies often operate within the confine of established rules and policies of their organization or society. When children are bullies, adults can step in and resolve the situation. When adults, mostly bosses, are bullies in the workplace, the situation is much more difficult to resolve. Unfortunately, the effects for adult victims do not stop at the workplace but often permeate into their home life as well.
Out of 1000 survey respondents across America:
- 27% have current or past direct experiences with abusive conduct at work
- 72% are aware of workplace bullying
- 56% of bullies are bosses, 33% are coworkers and 11% are subordinates
- 72% of employers deny, discount, encourage, rationalize, or defend it
- 93% of respondents support legislation for a healthy and safe work environment
69% of workplace bullies are males while 31% are females. What surprised me were the targets of female bullies: other females at 68%. What does not surprise me is the fact that females are the main targets of bullies from both genders at 60%.
|Male Perpetrators||Female Perpetrators|
82% of targets ended up losing their jobs (by quitting, termination or mutual departure) as opposed to only 18% of perpetrators. Here’s the kicker: 30% of female perpetrators with male targets lose their job as opposed to 17% male perpetrators with female targets.
|Gender Pairs||Target Loses Job||Perpetrator Loses Job|
|Male Perpetrator: Male Target||80%||20%|
|Male Perpetrator: Female Target||83%||17%|
|Female Perpetrator: Male Target||70%||30%|
|Female Perpetrator: Female Target||89%||11%|
72% of American employer reactions are either condoning or explicitly enabling workplace-bullying culture. Only less than 20% take actions to stop it. Here’s the breakdown of all reactions:
- 25% Denying
- 16% Discount
- 15% Rationalize
- 12% Eliminate
- 11% Defend
- 10% Acknowledge
- 6% Condemn
- 5% Encourage
NOTE: these statistics are extracted from the WBI’s 2014 U.S. Workplace Bullying Survey. I highly recommend going through the report yourself, which contains both methods as well as full findings. I would also encourage you to support their initiative: The Healthy Workplace Campaign.
For my client, it was because they were not able to achieve the desired business objectives and morale was at an all-time low. Staying true to the expression “the beatings will continue until morale improves”, they hired a couple of business consultants.
One of the business consultants was then empowered to “ride” the organization to achieve quick wins at any cost. This means required weekend meetings, 24/7 or on-call email engagements, constant phone calls with stern or audibly angry voice messages needing immediate answers and replies. “Turning up the heat” and “keeping everyone on their toes” were the general mantras.
As the “death march on eggshells” continued toward our deliverable date, folks were either being terminated or singled out to be “nailed” into place. There can be “no nail that sticks out!” It didn’t matter whether or not your team had already achieved objectives, the “boss” wants you on that weekend phone calls—even if it means just listening to him berating the poor product manager who dared asking him for more clarifications.
Was it for power? Quick wins? I’m sure people bully at work for various reasons. But frankly, no reason can justify harming another person—be it physically or emotionally.
When I learned that one of our principal engineers, another male, was sending nasty emails and being generally belligerent to the same female product manager, I knew the culture had spread beyond repair. It was no longer an individual but a group of bullies. There is nowhere to turn, not your colleagues, not your superiors and the only way to stop it from happening to you is leaving it all behind.
Like a “frog in cold water”, I realized the multiplier effect of bullying when it had already took hold of my surrounding. While bullies prey on those who are afraid of confrontation, they are afraid to confront other bullies themselves. Somehow, people with bully tendencies often ended up encouraging and enabling each other. It solidifies the divisions between two distinct classes: “abusers” and the “abused”. Needless to say, as long as you’re not in the abused camp, your life is good.
If you think I may be using the term “abuse” lightly or that perhaps it sounds a bit overly dramatic, consider the outcome of a study done in 2015, “Workplace Bullying and Suicidal Ideation: A 3-Wave Longitudinal Norwegian Study”:
Workplace bullying may be a precursor to suicidal ideation, whereas suicidal ideation seems to have no impact on subsequent risk of being bullied. Regulations against bullying should be integrated into work-related legislation and public health policies.
When you put that in context with the rising rate of workplace suicides as noted in a report by the U.S Bureau of Labor Statistics, it’s quite concerning.
Sadly, my realization came a bit late. In my focus on the technology and reluctance to speak up for my colleagues, I took part in enabling an abusive culture. With any abusive relationship, there can only be the abuser or the abused; silence is complicit and sooner or later, silence will smoothly pave the way toward one of these binary ends.
Silence is a privilege afforded to us, the “tech builders”, through our much desired and marketable skills. I don’t remember when it went from “we have pizza and soda” to “we have ping pong tables, micro brew, bourbon tasting, nap pods, food delivered twice a week etc.” and the list of perks does go on and on. Those perks at tech companies often-time aren’t really advertised for the benefits of the new sales or product people. No, it’s mainly to woo the top-notch tech guys.
For a lot of us, who were always viewed as outcasts, “nerds, geeks” are now replaced by new and flattering labels: “ninjas, rock stars, gurus, masters” or even “mentors and leaders”. We went from unwashed hair and strong B.O to hipsters with tight jeans, nicely trimmed mustaches, drinking nice whiskey and developing whole lot of taste. Some would look at us and say that we have glamorous and sexy lives.
Sure, we produce value and we get paid handsomely for it. We are the “builders of the future” after all. We now have power or at least we do, if we choose to exercise it. I say that because for many of us, we were also the victims of bullying growing up. I did. Pretty badly too. In those moments when we were catching the thundering hate hurling toward us, oh how we wished there were heroes, just like the ones we read about in our comic books.
We grew up, attained power, and yet, it never occurred to us that: right now, we ARE the heroes we wished for long ago. But our privileges can some time blur our visions. Speaking up for that “girl” or that “dude” in product or marketing means we risk loosing our privileges. Some day, I still feel like a lion with a heart of mice.
In 2014, I had a chance to drive by the outskirts of Donetsk, Ukraine, right before the civil war when the airport hasn’t been decimated yet. As we went by many “Red Villages”, I saw factories after factories lying waste and being reclaimed by nature. “Just a sign of times” my companions would lament. As our workforce is bracing for the new waves of technological takeovers, factories across the U.S are also slowly being emptied and manual labor jobs are being shipped to cheaper labor forces in other countries.
That meat-packaging factory I used to work at? I think it’s slowly being shipped to China as well. In fact, our government is relaxing some rules to make sure our food could also be produced cheaply in other countries. No more factories, no more line leaders, why do we still need the bullies from those factories?
Every school district in the U.S is currently pushing for STEM education. “Everyone should learn to code!” Even President Obama is learning how to code! Somehow, it’s always surprising to people when I insist that coding is as much a creative process as it is scientific or technical. It was such a joy for me to read this in a recent news article with the title “The Surprising Thing Google Learned About Tts Employees — and What It Means for Today’s Students”:
Project Aristotle shows that the best teams at Google exhibit a range of soft skills: equality, generosity, curiosity toward the ideas of your teammates, empathy, and emotional intelligence. And topping the list: emotional safety. No bullying. To succeed, each and every team member must feel confident speaking up and making mistakes. They must know they are being heard.
Bullies, like the factories lying waste and being reclaimed by nature across America and the world at large, is an outdated human concept. We don’t need bullies where we’re heading!
I’m not really good at confrontation. In fact, I think most people dislike confrontations. It goes against the known natural human concept of civility. But if we’re ever going to be uncivil at work, perhaps it is best that we do so in defense of our colleagues.
If workplace represents a microcosm of the real world, then “when there are no more game animals in the forest, the hunters will shoot their dogs for game.” The workplace bullies, once they figured out that swinging a club gets them some quick wins, after all the heads have been “cracked”, an idle club will simply feel unnatural to them. Guess whose heads are next? Yep, us tech people!
Therefore, it is imperative that we find the courage to speak up and nip any type of workplace bullying in the bud before it permeates and bakes into the culture of our organizations. A straightforward: “we don’t do that here!” would save us all a lot of trouble, time and money in the long run.
When I join an organization, I have a responsibility to those around me. After all, if we are heading toward the same goals, it is best that we travel together. There is strength in number and each number should and must be vital to the rest of the team.
When it is apparent to me that there’s so much bullying happening at my client’s place, I took it up with the person I report to (not the bully). I gave it a couple of months because I knew changes wouldn’t happen over night. But after many 1-on-1 sessions where I presented my feedback and still not seeing any meaningful progress, I decided to terminate my work contract with said client. I certainly lost some good money by terminating the contract—but it was the right thing to do.
Before leaving, I had a long conversation with the company’s CEO where I emphatically reject the workplace bullying and explained that while it does not get to me (yet!), I am extremely unhappy to witness it happening daily to my colleagues. A couple days after that, I received an email from a (now former) colleague telling me: “…positive changes are already happening. But only time will tell!”
“But only time will tell!”— Remember those statistics? 82% of targets or victims lose their jobs through quitting, termination or mutual departure. It seems hopeless doesn’t it? Most of the time, bullies go unpunished. Then why should we do anything about it? Because it’s the right thing and the kind thing to do.
I won’t speak for all of my tech friends, but for me, I’ll trade all the foosball tables and micro brews for a kinder workplace; one with people who care about each other. The only way I can reason running fast, working long hours away from my family and kids is that I am contributing to a more positive world.
When I go home at night, after all the bedtime stories are read and the lights are finally off, there’s just me with my children. And before they drift off into their dreamlands of unicorns and fairy tales, I hope the last thing they see in me is a kind person.
So tech friends, let’s do this. Let’s chip away the bullying culture in the workplace. Let’s use the power and privileges we have to help our colleagues and ourselves. Everyone deserves a safe, healthy and kind workplace where people can be more productive and thrive.
Let’s start speaking up.