Are We Past Bullying? Remarkably Not

Two years ago, local Canadian celebrities came together to fight against homosexual bullying in a viral video called It Gets Better Canada. While there is never a time quite as cruel as high school, and it does in fact get better, some mature young professionals will be shocked to learn that bullying, in its adult form, is prevalent in the workforce and in some young professional social circles. Although this isn’t necessarily the overt type of bullying as experienced on the playground, it can hurt just as deeply. 

Adult Bullying Defined
Although not as physically aggressive compared to childhood bullying, adult bullying can include emotional abuse that can leave lasting scars.  Intimidation, fear tactics, humiliation and cruel, senseless treatment are all forms of adult bullying. According to The Canada Safety Council, adult bullying is a “grab for control by an insecure, inadequate person, an exercise of power through the humiliation of the target.”

Bullying Among Friends
This is sad, but true. Whether rooted in jealousy or the need for a scapegoat, adult bullying still exists among friends. This goes beyond the minor arguments and disagreements that friends may get into from time to time. This could involve insulting, ridiculing or making little jabs at a particular individual in front of a group. This may be done for the “bully” to garnish some cheap laughs at your expense or because he or she actually wants to make you look foolish.

One YP reported a “friend” who would constantly post pictures of her on Facebook that were not just unflattering, they could compromise her job and her relationship. Even though she wasn’t doing anything “wrong” per se, the pictures and accompanying captions suggested otherwise; and her “friend” knew it. Although not necessarily bullying, the bully in certain social circles may “accidentally forget” to include certain friends in events or organize fun group activities during a time he or she knows you won’t be able to make it, like the night before you write the CFA.

Bullying in the Workplace
When we recently chatted with a group of Toronto young professionals, in careers ranging from marketing to IT and finance, they told us that “bullying” still exists in an adult form in the workplace. Bullying can involve coworkers, clients and bosses. This ranges from territorial behavior among co-workers to abuse of power by senior employees. “People are so quick to throw others under the bus in order to advance their own careers,” said a Toronto marketing professional, 29. This may mean not taking accountability for actions and placing the blame for mistakes on others. Another YP notices a very distinct pattern of Mean Girls-esque exclusivity that may be reminiscent of the junior high or high school cafeteria days, when all the “cool kids” sat together at tables that were claimed as their territory for the year.

Bullying bosses who tend to abuse their power are nothing new. A Toronto event planner once had a boss who would scream, shout and belittle his staff. It prompted her to quit her job, but she recently discovered the root of his bullying: he had been battling a drug issue and was constantly battling withdrawal symptoms. This is just one example of what we’ve been taught since grade school: the bully is the one with the problem, not you.

Why it’s The Bully’s Issue
If you are being “bullied,” you can at least sit back and know it is not your fault and that it is a reflection of insecurity or other complex on the part of the bully. These people may seek others to use as a scapegoat, abuse their power to feel more important and put others down to look and feel better about themselves. Your bullying friend is likely jealous or knows you are an easy target to boost his or her own self-esteem. According to the Canada Safety Council, adult bullies in the workforce tend to choose targets that are capable and dedicated employees, or who are intelligent, fashionable or attractive people with non-confrontational interpersonal styles.

It is one thing to lack the ability to control emotions (still not ideal) but another altogether to target, berate, and make someone feel subpar. Bullying may be a learned behaviour. As children, YP bullies may not have been taught how to communicate their needs, wants and goals in a productive fashion. They may have observed their parents unhealthy interactions with others and each other and accepted such behavior as common practice. That’s their issue, not yours.

How to Put a Bully in their Place
First and foremost, remember that initial incidences of bullying are not your fault, but if you let it continue you are guilty of perpetuating it. Not to quote Dr. Phil (well, we are), but he has a point when he says you teach people how to treat you. It cannot be ignored. You may try a “kill with kindness approach” in response to their behaviour or you may choose not to react with anything other than a raised eyebrow or stone cold stare. If the bully is not getting a reaction, pretty soon he or she is going to move on to another target. If this doesn’t work, make notes on any behaviour on their part that you feel was unjust and, if the raised eyebrows and zero reaction aren’t helping, calmly and diplomatically approach him or her and say something like “I can’t help but feel like there is some tension between us. Is it something I have done and what can we do to fix it?” If the bully denies such tension or misdoings, you are armed with your (now mental) list of examples to support your claim.

Of course, if the bully is your boss, this is little more difficult. If all else fails, Anonymousemployee.com is a Canadian Internet service that allows employees to address workplace grievances and speak to supervisors without the message being attributed to them. For extreme cases, it also outlines your legal options when dealing with a workplace bully.

Whatever the case (and much like your last relationship), remember that it is them, not you.