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Banter in the Workplace… Or is it Bullying?

Bullying at workplace

16 years ago, I landed the job of my dreams.

Only that dream was quickly shattered by one of my superiors. At first, they seemed a little intimidating to everybody. A bit of banter was like walking on egg shells. But things noticeably changed within very little time. Rather than pick on random members of our team with jibes and bad jokes and mild put downs, all of this energy was steered towards me.

“They do this every year,” I was told by a long-standing member of the company. “They always pick on somebody new. Don’t take it personally.”

Don’t take it personally?

For a start, why were they picking on anybody? But then, hold on. Why me? How on earth was that not personal? The teasing began with mocking my Liverpool accent. I was thrown back-handed compliments about having an ample breast size. Then, the insults moved towards my ability to do my job. Weirdly, this was harder than the personal attacks on my appearance and who I was. I’d somehow built a resilience to that sort of nastiness. We do, don’t we? As children, we get laughed at and pushed around by other kids, and as horrid as it is, we live and we learn. I’d grown up with idiots making fun of how I spoke. I’d endured high school with both boys and girls sniggering at my chest. My skin was thick. But my competence being questioned? Oh, that hurt. It ached. Deep. I’d truly believed that my hard work and graft had landed me this job. I’d celebrated with my whole family. I’d been told by everybody I knew that I deserved this. It was the start of great things. And one person pulled that rug from beneath my feet. I’d started this job believing I could. Suddenly, I was heading into work feeling like I couldn’t. Like I just wasn’t worthy of being there at all.

As with anything that gets us down, I learnt how to get up and hold my head high. The experience of that particular job was not all bad. I made lifelong friends. Travelled. Grew. Nothing can take what I achieved off my CV. Truly, I collected many fond memories. And afterwards, I succeeded in a similar field. So, as for being singled out by a certain individual, I guess I got over it…

…Or did I?

Over the years, within my peer groups, I’ve heard this person’s name mentioned time and time again. I haven’t seen them for 16 years, but their presence has lingered. I’ve retreated in conversation, or had to relive an uneasy anecdote. There’s always this tiny voice in the back of my head, wondering if I was picked on for a reason; perhaps I deserved it? Maybe I wasn’t good enough? Friends remember what happened and say things like, “Yeah, that must have been tough…”

Then, last week, I read an article in a national industry publication about that same company. A new employee had come forward with an official complaint on bullying. No names were mentioned, but it was obvious who the bully was. The description of how this person had been made to feel was identical to mine, although they had been attacked on a very personal level, too. Reading it through, I felt triggered. I was angry that somebody could stay in a position for longer than 16 years and treat people this way. How were they getting away with it?

It’s played on my mind. This didn’t happen to me recently. It was something that had happened when I was in my 20s. I mean, I'd presumed I’d moved on. Yet, it so easily came back to haunt me. It doesn’t matter what I’ve achieved career-wise. Or that I’ve lived on the other side of the world. Had children. Set up my own business. The way we’re treated leaves an imprint upon us, and while we’d love that imprint to be kindly on our hearts, unfortunately it can be a scar. It never disappears.

So, now I wonder. Was this treatment a catalyst for how I evolved? Did it make an impact on the career path I went on to choose? How much influence did this bully have over me? I was young. New to the professional world. I like to think this experience made me strong, full of ambition and out to prove a point; Look world, I am - and I always was - worth it. If I look at the hurdles I’ve overcome in more than one oversubscribed industry, then sure, maybe it was a blessing in disguise. Being bullied did me good. Perhaps.

But, if I’m honest, that’s a bucket load of toxic positivity. Look on the bright side! Everything happens for a reason! In hindsight, that’s the best thing that ever happened! Because when we endure hurtful experiences like this, imposter syndrome is likely to kick in. At times when we should be proud of ourselves, it shadows over us like a heavy cloud blocking our beautiful rays. And no matter how much I dress up the wonderful opportunity I’d had with that company, I cannot forget how that one person made me feel.

In case you’re wondering, yes, I did speak out. I stood up for myself and expressed my concern. My frustration. My lack of understanding. I got the sense that this was how this person rolls; you either love it or hate it. There was a bit of eye-rolling. A shrug. A tut. The old, everybody-knows-what-they’re-like. And due to that, no action was taken. After a particularly embarrassing episode, where the bullying was much more obvious than micro-aggression, a company meeting was called to “discuss”. The bully was not invited. The overall feeling was that they should be stopped. I was hugged and made to feel supported. But again, no action was taken.

So how many more people are in my shoes? How many of us have been put down time and time again by somebody in a position of authority? And how often have we tried to speak out and failed to be heard? Times are changing, so we’re told. You only have to scroll through Instagram and glance at LinkedIn to see more humanity present in the workforce. But my concern - like with much we’re fed on social media - is that it’s all talk and (still) no action. It’s a well-known saying that hurt people hurt others. True as that may be, again, it’s a kind attempt at trying to explain the reason behind why somebody makes another person’s life a living hell. Micro-aggression is not a bit of a laugh. Ridiculing your colleague’s character or making fun of their work is not banter. And making anybody feel less worthy than others is simply not okay.


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