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Sep 9, 2014

I just didn’t want to go anymore. She made it nearly unbearable.

It didn’t start off that way, though. When we first started working together as colleagues in the same department, our relationship was amicable and tolerant. We because fast friends and got to know each other very well, including our spouses, lives and everything in between.

The first time it happened, it made me flinch inside a little, but not enough to rethink our relationship. The tenth time it happened, I felt sick every time we ran into each other in the office.

From warm banter to an incessant critique

She became obsessed with my life and me. Not in a sexual way, although there might’ve been some covert element at play there. What started off as warm, daily banter each day at work because an incessant review and critique of everything I did – my job, my staff, my wife, and my life – in front of anyone who was in the office at the time.

When I finally called her out on it one day, she said she just cared about what happened to me and wanted me to succeed and be happy. I told her what she said made me feel very uncomfortable.

She seemed mortified, but the very next day the behavior continued. Non-stop. For months.

Our offices were only separated by one wall and one door, so there was really nowhere for me to go. Finally I discussed it with our mutual manager, who in turn had a sit-down with both of us. For one week, I received a reprieve.

Yes, it finally made me quit

But it still didn’t stop. Then I convinced our manager to get human resources involved. There were more meetings and an actual agreement drafted for her stating when to engage with me about work and when to leave me alone.

But it still didn’t stop. Not until I finally quit.

I had told her more than once, in person and in writing, of how uncomfortable she constantly made me feel. She always said she was sorry and willing to change her behavior, but it never happened.

But was it workplace bullying? Harassment? HR called it harassment. Either way it was painful, the complicated nuance of her constant invasive behavior.

If what she did and said to me repeatedly over time affected my ability to be productive and engaged in my job, and it was personally debilitating, meaning I took it home and struggled with it, then it’s truly unacceptable.

But was she a bully and she should have been labeled as such? She claimed to only care about my well-being, to being supportive of me, not critical and demeaning.

Getting tougher on bullying

Nearly 20 years later, we’ve reconnected online. It’s water under the bridge, shall we say. She told me how she worked really hard to change her behavior, which she actually did after some serious life changes, and was very apologetic about the past.

I know how she feels; I’ve been on both sides of the complicated nuance.

Now we want to get tougher on bullying. According to the Healthy Workplace Bill, a law that has been introduced in over 28 legislatures (26 U.S. states and two territories) that would affect the practices of state and local government agencies, not private employers, “harassment, intimidation or bullying” is any act that “substantially interferes with a person’s work performance or creates an intimidating, hostile or offensive work environment.”

However, it’s not a law anywhere in the U.S. at this point. And most organizations would argue that they already have company policies in place that prohibit bullying and harassment and deal with them accordingly.

And even though the employment world is already heavily regulated, one major gap remains: workplace bullying. No state prohibits bullying as noted above, unless it relates to a protected group (such as race, sex or disability).

If everything is bullying, nothing is

But no one can agree on what constitutes bullying either. One of our guests on the TalentCulture #TChat Show, Jonathan Segal, an employment lawyer and partner with the international law firm Duane Morris LLP, made it clear that:

If we make everything bullying, then nothing is.

Having children, I realize and have already seen how teasing is a gateway drug to bullying and beyond. Many people say they experience some form of it, though.

According to one recent study, 96 percent of American employees experience bullying in the workplace, and the nature of that bullying is changing thanks to social media and online interactions (think cyberbullying and the dissed-engaged).

Most of us agree that workplace bullying has harmful, reverberating effects, not only on the victims, but also on the witnesses. The good news is that we don’t need to wait for a law to be enacted to prevent and respond to bullying.

Making workplace cultures bully-free

Progressive employers who want to successfully ensure their cultures are bully free should:

  • Beware of labels — Dr. Susan Swearer is Professor of School Psychology at University of Nebraska — Lincoln and Co-Director of the Bullying Research Network agrees that labeling and change (or lack thereof) are closely linked with children. She thinks that

“It’s really important to think of bullying as a verb and not a noun, so bullying is a behavior that can be changed, not a character trait within a particular child. When we treat them as ‘a bully,’ then we send the message to that child that ‘You can’t change’ or ‘I don’t think you can change.’ And so we really want to communicate to these kids, ‘You know you can change and I can believe that you can change.’”

Unfortunately we can carry those labels around like scarlet letters throughout adulthood.

  • Change the behavior — Yes, we know we can change, at least most of us, and so we should believe that mantra if we really want a positive, team-building, engaging, business-outcome behavior. Like Mark Fernandes, Chief Leadership Officer Chief Leadership Officer of Luck Companies, has stated: culture is the shadow of leadership, so positive values should be established by leadership and emphatically in place and embraced by the organization in order to reduce the frequency of bullying and harassment. Toxic environments breed nothing but more toxicity, and that’s allowed to permeate from the top down. So only the top down can make and drive change, igniting a bully free culture from the inside out.

It’s time for us to unravel the bullying nuance and make it uncomplicated altogether.

This was originally published on Kevin Grossman’s Reach West blog.