Saturday, April 20, 2013

Concern for bullying - the latest 'outrage' to pretend we care about children?

This next article, about bullying, is courtesy of Peter Kearney.  My thanks to Peter for submitting this piece.

'I have been bullied several times in my life and on occasion I have been the bully.  This may be common.

'The Amanda Todd case has embarrassed us all into showing concern.  And the truth is we should be embarrassed.

'We all have seen the early stages of bullying and we chose to do absolutely nothing about it. we design and live in a society that encourages bullying and fails to react until it is too late.  Why do we wait for a tragic event before acting?

'In debates like these we typically hear terms like 'cyber' bullying brandied about.  It's almost like an aha moment for some.  "Aha cyber bullying...that's it..ok, let's ban facebook and YouTube for all under 16 and that'll solve it...but that didn't solve it...ok, let's hold a referendum to declare kids are the most important asset in our society and it will at least look like we are doing something...".  The words 'deck chairs' and 'titanic' come to mind.

'In some ways it's the same as the term 'road' rage.  Rage is rage is rage - it makes no difference if you are driving a car, drunk outside the chipper or ****** off with a work colleague or loved one.  Similarly, bullying is bullying is bullying.  Some would rather blame social media than face the possibility that the current model society is messed up!

'Throughout this article I will use the word bullying although I cannot say it is the same definition others hold.  It's my definition, open to interpretation, disagreement and feedback.

My school experience

'While the bullying I experienced at primary school would not make newspaper headlines it was bullying nonetheless.  It took the form of name calling.  Kids in my primary school had a special name for me and my family.  It was more a name they used to poke fun at us and in particular our father.  It also took the form of touching, pushing and shoving.  I was filled with dread when I saw the bully approach.

'It involved being shouted at, beaten and humiliated by one teacher at the grand old age of 5.  The beatings I received from her came from the side of a ruler on an outstretched hand, a red stoned Claddagh ring buried into the top of my head as punishment for scoring 3 out of ten in our weekly spelling tests, cigarette smoke blown into my face, degrading comments such as " granny was a cowboy..." in response to my having the audacity to attempt to answer a question I did not get right, being relegated to first class, when I was in second class, for not being able to answer another question.

'The truth was, I knew the answer.  I just froze.  I was afraid of similar humiliation being foist upon me should I be incorrect.  I was afraid of the laughing sneers of my classmates, which really said "...thank God that's not me being laughed at...".  I was afraid of the thoughts of that Claddagh ring being buried into my head again whilst smelling cheap and nasty perfume.

'I was never sure what exactly led to my headaches.  Was it the impact of her pointed ring, the rancid smell of the stale smoke on her clothes of the cheap perfume emanating from her every pore?

'Shame.  The Cloddagh ring is such a beautiful ring with such a beautiful story and meaning yet its meaning for me is abuse, hate and violence.

'I was a quiet child at school.  Not brilliant academically but not awful either.  In any case it doesn't matter because regardless of your performance nothing deserved the treatment I received.  Maybe it was my quiet nature that invited the bullying.  The idea that the bully could see that this guy wasn't going to retaliate or he came from such a nice and pleasant family that they would never cause a fuss.  Don't worry - I am not blaming myself for any of this - I was 5 after all - I am just trying to get to the bottom of it.

'The other form of bullying I experienced was from a girl in my 6th class.  Repeatedly she would cover over to my desk, situated beside the book case, and as she would pick up a book she would mockingly rub her hand up and down my thigh saying "Oh Peter you're so...". I can't even remember what the last words were.  I think I blocked them out.  We were both 10 years old at the time.  What on earth was going on in her home?  What on earth was going on in mind that I couldn't stand up for myself?

'Once primary school finished so too did most of the bullying.  There was, however, one final incident of bullying in secondary school from a kid a year younger than me.  At 13 years of age that one year is so important.  Occasionally he would deliberately run into me and hit me in the chest provided there was an audience.  Again I can only wonder what was going on in his household.  It didn't last long.  All of a sudden it stopped.  Not sure why.  I never reacted to him and that was somewhat motivated by my own fear of a physical confrontation and somewhat tactical as in 'if you ignore them they go away' and go away he did.  Or maybe it was my older brother who had a word with him.  A word from my older brother was more than enough to frighten anybody in our school.

'Some years later I saw the bully and what had become of his life.  I wondered what he did now to get his pleasures.  It seemed he was still searching.

'There was also the time in College - this time aged eighteen, where I allowed myself to be bullied by my housemates.  Ending in my being picked up my 7 or 8 of them and dropped into a bath full of hot water and kitchen spices.  Yes it does sound weird and somewhat perverted.  I mean why didn't they just give me a good kicking.  A bath full of hot water and kitchen spices seemed a bit kinky.  Again I will ask - what on earth was going on in their home lives?

'Later I learned that all of these bullies, students and teachers alike, were very insecure people.  But why did they have to take their insecurities out on me?  Of course I have learned now to stand up for myself but when you are 5 or 10 you don't have such thoughts.  I even went through a period of standing up for myself too much and taking things too far and ultimately becoming a bully myself.  Did I know I was a bully at the time?  Not at all.

Me as a bully

'I didn't believe I was a bully when in secondary school - me and some friends chased after a classmate to call him hurtful names and sling hurtful insults at him about his family.  We went out of our way to do it and to the point where it was clearly not a joke.  He was clearly upset by what we had said.  Which made it all the funnier for us bullies.

'In later years when I became a manager I was incredibly insecure.  I had no confidence in my abilities so I silenced any form of opposition.  It made for a very uncomfortable work atmosphere and I apologise to those who worked with me.  I was performing a role I felt others expected of me.  I felt it would give me great standing in the company and the HR community in Dublin I wanted to be part of - even though I hated it and didn't understand it.

'More than that I cannot say.  I was not on the receiving end of it so I don't fully know its impact.  I often reflect upon it and wonder what it was like for those guys.  Of course until I hear from them I will never fully know or understand it.  I would love to hear from them.

'These acts, however, do not go unpunished.  What goes around comes around.  It is for this reason I feel I got my comeuppance.  I got my comeuppance at one workplace in particular.  I deserved it and ultimately it served me. well.

My work experience - bullied again

'In July 2007 I landed my dream job - Training Officer in the HR office at a well respected charity organisation.  A charity organisation that claimed to live by '7 primary values'.  I believe today there are 8.  No 1 on this list of values in 'Respect'.

'Now that I look back, the warning signs were there from the start.  One month into the job I realised I was the fourth person to hold that job in that same year.  Of the three previous job holders, the longest to hold that position had left in January 2007.  She had held the position for about 3-4 years.  She was allegedly bullied out of it by the HR manager.  The same HR manager I had the pleasure of serving under.  It came as a total shock to me.  Bullying in a charity?  And one so respected and full of respect?  Surely not?

'The job started well, I got on with people and started doing my work.  Yet for some reason I seemed to get on the wrong side of a key person in the organisation.  And then I got on the wrong side of another key person and eventually this got back to my HR manager.  From here it began.  Now, not for one minute am I claiming I am a model employee.  Not for one minute am I claiming my performance was exemplary.  There were faults in my performance, that is for sure.  My performance is not the point - the behaviour of my manager and one other key employee in the HR office is.  We'll call her 'the bulldog'.

'Once I got on the wrong side of these key personnel I got called more frequently to what they call 'supervision'.  Supervision is a farcical attempt by the organisations in the voluntary sector to manage performance and give and receive feedback from employees.  It's some kind of three pronged triangular approach.  You know the kind of thing HR folk and clueless managers love?  I know this because I have been that HR and clueless manager.

'The reality, at least the reality I saw, was they, like many other work organisations, admired and rewarded compliance.  So it is exactly this they expect in supervision.

'How did I manage to get on the wrong side of so many?  Well maybe that's where the answer lies.  As far as I know it started out as a result of an e-mail I sent out requesting people attend fire safety training.  I was having trouble getting people to sign up for training and this training was n absolute must for a particular group of employees.  So I sent out an e-mail stating if they did not sign up for training a date would be assigned to them.  Apparently the word was that this was a heavily worded e-mail.  I couldn't see how it was.  In the private sector it would have been totally acceptable.

'But who knows how the bullying really began.  Maybe they were reacting to something they saw in me that they did not like about themselves.  Who knows?

'So you could say I got what I deserved.  In retaliation for this e-mail they decided to make my life misery by checking everything that I did, feeding me incomplete information, criticising me for incomplete tasks, belittling me at meeting in front of colleagues, interviewing candidates for HR positions in the office without my knowledge, having other members of staff check on my performance in their absence.

'At one of these famous supervision meetings, held in a room next to the director's office where there was no sound proofing, I was eventually handed our probation policy (3 and a half months into the job) informing me I could be fired if my performance did not improve.  I had never seen any such policy before and I worked in the policy writing office that is HR.  Although in fairness to them they did write many inaccurate and inconsistent policies so it is entirely possible that it did exist but was called something completely different!

'The feedback I received on my performance was shoddy and never once gave me any direction for assistance.  I was told I needed to '...improve my performance...'.  When I asked for clarification on this I was told  ' have to do better...' - this went on and I received no further clarification.

'Every single aspect of my performance came under the spotlight from that point on.  The most basic of tasks become a nightmare for me as I knew it was all being scrutinised - quite possibly to the detriment of their own work - so I inevitably messed up and I can only imagine their work did not get done - but that wouldn't be unusual.  I will never forget the time I forgot to book sandwiches for a training'd swear I had embezzled funds.

'Of course, none of this was helped by the fact that I, as Training Officer, had the audacity to question what we spent on training.  You would imagine a charity organisation would try to make as many savings as it could?  Right?  Wrong.  When I noticed we were paying way above the odds for a beginners IT course I shopped around.  I rang one of my old workplaces, who ran IT courses, and they offered the same course for 1/3 the price.  When I informed my HR manager of this great saving she replied, "What's your cut"!

'We stayed with the over-priced provider.

'I mistakenly learned that next time I should just act and not bother to consult.  So when I discovered we were also paying above the odds for an interview skills training course I shopped around the booked  a much cheaper and equally as good provider.  This did not go down well at all and the pressure upon me increased.

'And so it went.  And it got worse.  Relations soured and I was effectively on a clock to my dismissal.  Eventually I gave them my verbal notice to leave which they followed up with a letter along the lines of  "...well we were just about to fire you anyway...".  My last week consisted of making preparations for a handover - which I cooperated with completely.  However, this was not enough for the bull dog second in command in HR.  She insisted upon hounding me on the second last day, even after we had just been out for a goodbye dinner, to ensure the handover was complete.  My final day was greeted with a sense of great relief on my side and also great fear.

'I had no job lined up, had just committed to buying a new car and my then wife had just started a new low paid job with no security.

'Oh, did I mention this was a charity working with very vulnerable people - the homeless!  I often joked, in which there was a grain of truth, I could be soon using their services.

'However, every cloud has a silver lining.  It was a blessing in disguise and the start of a great wake up call for me.  It was a wake up call saying the office 9-5 routing procedures bound nonsense was not for me.  And it wasn't.  Although it would take redundancy and 6 months on the dole before that penny would finally drop.  It was also a wake up call to learning the true meaning of 'respect'.  I would like to think that this organisation has begun a similar journey to understanding the true meaning of their No 1 value.

'And just like the secondary school bully, I saw that workplace bully, one year ago, in her home town.  I was working for the local newspaper and doing my real dream job.  I saw her looking the worse for wear, presumably after a few pints, arguing with, who I assume from the gist of the argument, was her partner.  Initially it felt good to see her looking so miserable and having such a rotten time.  Yet afterwards I felt for her.  It was only a five second snapshot yet it gave me the impression that it happened quite a lot in her life.  It made sense why she was so miserable in work, just as I had been.  Was this the reason she took it out on me and allegedly on others?

'So what do we do about bullying in society?  Having experienced it I can safely say that I don't know - I haven't a clue!  Maybe there is nothing we can do.  Maybe the best we can do is to encourage our society to become reflective.  To consider our actions each day.  Ask ourselves were our actions helpful, respectful and loving?  If we begin like this then maybe we can pass it on to our children and we can create something beautiful.  A society where, at the very least, kids won't take their lives or parents won't have to involve Gardai or threaten the school with legal action before they do something about bullies at school.  One thing I learned from working in HR is even when the 'guilty' party is proven to be 'guilty' and is punished accordingly rarely do they or the victim feel real justice has been done.  So you can be assured that a vengeful response is on its way and further retaliation.

'Mediation is along the right lines.  Mediation can mean everybody wins.  Why?  Because everybody's concerns are addressed and hopefully resolved.  Everybody has their say, gets to tell their story and have their concerns aired.  Even the 'bully'.  Because even the 'bully' has his reasons.  We may not like it but unless we are prepared to listen and engage with people who behave like this we will have many more cases of 'cyber bullying' and God knows what the next term will be.

'Bullying is not the problem.  Encouraging kids to live aggressively just might be.  Unless we listen and engage at an early age we will continue to have an aggressive society and unless we listen and engage at an early stage we will have many more teen suicides.'

My thanks to Peter Kearney, radio presenter/producer, for this.

Twitter:  peterspolitics
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