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Bullying (Part 7): Bullying Differences – The Problem

  • Posted on November 8, 2010 at 7:13 PM

One of the things that spurred my series on bullying—before the news decided that bullying was a hot issue and before I realized October was Bullying Awareness month—was a post written by Clay.

The post is about some of the challenges that autistic adults face in the working world, specifically some of the challenges Clay has faced as a working adult on the spectrum.  Among those challenges is workplace bullying and harassment.  In the comments, he said:

It does take a lot of inner strength to persevere against those who would ‘take you down’, just for the hell of it.

My response was:

For some, I’m sure it’s accurate to say they would “take you down, just for the hell of it.” For many, it is a coping mechanism. People they don’t understand seem elevated—the mystery itself is intolerable—so, they do what they can to depreciate that person, because they think that makes the person understandable. I’m not saying it’s logical or it makes sense, but that’s the way sociologists and psychologists describe the behavior. Of course, as someone who was picked on throughout childhood, I never found their feelings of inferiority very consoling, even in retrospect. But what I do take from that is that it is important to share knowledge to change behavior—if people who are different could still be different, but also be more understandable, that would presumably help those people to cope with that difference without resorting to physical or emotional violence.

Clay said:

I thought it was just for the hell of it, but now I think I want to know more about that coping mechanism thing. Sometimes, I had thought that some people were jealous, but couldn’t understand why. Please, make this a topic for your blog.

I went the long way around to get back to this, but I haven’t forgotten.

Common victims of bullying in the adult world are those who are different, particularly those who are different in a way that seems to make them less successful by social standards.  This measurement of success may be based on career goals, financial means, appearance, or just about any other standard.  Often the disadvantage of being bullied is even greater than the disadvantage(s) that hamper success; meaning that the bullying hampers success even more than the difference.

As is true for children, adults bully for two basic reasons:  1) because they enjoy it, and/or 2) as a coping mechanism.  In regards to bullying as a coping mechanism, some do it because they are being bullied (this is often true of bullying that pervades hierarchical organizations), but they may be coping with something else—such as prejudice, fear and misunderstanding. 

As I suggested to Clay, bullies within an organization or system who are bullying someone at the same level as them because of perceived differences may do so just “for the hell of it,” because they enjoy hurting others or enjoy the feeling of having power over others.  This enjoyment is both a human failing and a culturally reinforced trait.

However, that is not the only reason adults bully.  They also do so in order to cope with the sudden emergence of a foreign element in their environment.  Whether the difference is racial, gender, neurological, intellectual or ability, the bullies perceive the different individual as a threat (at least, on an instinctual level), and they respond with physical, emotional or verbal violence.  I’ve read theories (though I don’t know how strong the evidence that supports these theories are) that if these bullies were somehow de-sensitized to the differences, then they would not respond to those differences by bullying.

In short, opening up an organization to diversity creates an environment ripe for bullying; but by training individuals on diversity, equipping them to cope with and get past their discomfort with differences, and integrating diversity into the organizational system, the organization creates an environment ripe for mutual success.  Responsible businesses are pursuing this approach, often after failed attempts to open their organizations up to diversity without an effective means of transition.

Diversity training is often derided, but it is most often derided by people who falsely believe they work in a homogenous environment and are entitled to continue to work in their homogenous environment.  The foreign elements are supposed to conform to the environment or leave.

And that’s a problem, because diversity is far more real than the myth of homogeneity.  But homogeneity is reinforced by bullying.  The greater demand for fair workplaces without the proper training to make fair workplaces possible, the more bullying we’re likely to see.

I do recommend you read Clay’s post.  I also recommend you read this example of workplace bullying.  The bullying is very real.  It’s not something you just grow out of.