Statistically, 1 in four of you have probably experienced bullying at some point in your life, so you know what it feels like and want to stop it from happening in your workplace. My motivation is the same, and my experiences of bullying and harassment, both personally and in union casework, informed my journey toward becoming the bully-proofing coach.
How did it all start? I was late learning to read, I wasn’t interested, as in my head I’d decided that my generation would not need to learn to read, as EVERYTHING would be on TV! My teacher at the time intimidated me: it’s not just children that bully in schools. From the moment her report was opened at home and news of my DDDCCC grades leaked out, my brother would sing out those grades whenever he could. 4 years later, he even managed to convince me that I would never be allowed to sit O levels in the comprehensive I’d subsequently happily settled into, achieving top grades. Friends, in the same streams, as I’d been in, got good O levels results.
I ended up in a mixed boarding school, at which I felt unsafe from day one. This place had a seriously bad vibe: bad things happen here. I didn’t learn much; for example, the most vicious bully enjoyed making the maths teacher cry every lesson. I’d never seen a teacher cry before. If you have a personality problem, are low on empathy; if your family are poor, you could end up in care; if your family are rich, you’re sent away to a public boarding school.
One thing I did manage to establish at that school, was that I would NEVER be sexually harassed. One adult-less Saturday afternoon, I was called into the common room. Did I want to play a game? Pleased to be so warmly invited, I went in; they covered me in a blanket and told me to imagine I was in a hot country, “What would you take off first.” The way out is to say the blanket, but being 12 and terrified, you don’t think of that, so, playing for time, I said my shoes. “What next?” I then said the most important word in anti-harassment; I said “NO!” grabbed my shoes, and fled.
Until I persuaded my parents to take me out (I didn’t tell them why), I was convinced that the bullies would do something worse; they never did. It wasn’t until I’d constructed the bully-proofing webinars and workshops that I deliver, some 47 years later, that I realized why that was. Having stood up to them on mass, they didn’t risk trying to bully me again; had I told an adult what was going on, the bullies knew they could be suspended or expelled. So, I had established, probably the most important boundary of all, that of access to my body, such that it was rare that anyone even tried to sexually harass me.
By the time O-level exams came around, my education was a mess, added to which; in my mind, there was only one thing worse than failing, and that was trying and then failing, as that would mean I really was thick! I managed to scrape 5 O levels with minimal effort, but my A levels exams were a car crash, by which time I was seriously depressed. It took Greenham Common Womens’ Peace Camp to put me back on track, reclaiming not just the night but the copyright to my own life, to be lived by my rules.
Via ‘Connections,’ a community video company in Hammersmith, I ended up at the BBC – working for BBC Drama. At some point in the first few days, in my first production office, the production manager said to me, “You don’t have any theatre experience, you’ll be useless, you’ll probably just falling asleep on the dining bus.” Not knowing how to assert myself at work, I said nothing. If I’d said, “This is my first job, so I expect I’ll make mistakes; however, none of them will be due to a lack of enthusiasm or commitment.” I know that the production manager would have been more cautious, but without boundaries, they proceeded to shout at me all day, every day. I kept my mouth shut and survived that first block. With different production teams, containing no more bullies, I happily completed 2 years on the same series. That ‘banter’ in the office was to assess whether I would make a good scapegoat should their production schedule prove unachievable.
I’ve sat with a cross-section of production team members discussing the productions; we thought about crashing our hire cars to escape, we all had one. Mine was one where the director refused to talk to me AT ALL. The production team followed suit as if I were too beneath their contempt to exist! Life in the unit hotel was so miserable for me that, for the first and only time, in 18 years working for BBC Drama, I moved out of the unit hotel and found digs in a local village with other crew members. Being a tribal species, ostracising someone is probably one of the worst forms of bullying there is. I should have challenged the behaviours while still in the production office. When people treat you like that, it never ends well. I should have asked to be moved to another production before filming started.
So, I know what bullying feels like; I’m not asking anyone to go on a journey that I’ve not been on myself. I just want people to get there 20 years faster than I did and evolving behaviours at work in the process.
In 2006, when I started working for my union, inside the BBC, I represented Bectu members in their cases: grievances, capability procedures, disciplinaries, restructures, redundancies and appeals. However, it was the cases of bullying I found both the most rewarding and the most frustrating. Phone conversations with bullied members often went the same way. The member, often in bits, would talk about what they had experienced for precisely 1 hour, and then they would say, “I don’t have any evidence, so I know that you can’t do anything but thank you for listening.” While not underestimating the importance of listening, I wanted to do something to stop my member from ever being bullied again.
The lightbulb moment came in 2017 when I had 2 member’s cases in the same week, where the bully had pressurized the target to apologise for something that was not their fault. Once they had apologised, the bullying began. Effectively the perpetrator had groomed them to see if they were bullyable. I went back through 18 years’ worth of cases, and there was grooming. I read everything I could find; most of it is useless; the books tell the reader about all the horrible things that can happen to them at work, and then suggests they talk to HR or lodge a grievance. By that stage, it’s too late; the damage has already been done.
As an alternative, I created Bully-proofing webinars and workshops that teach participants to identify multiple forms of grooming and respond appropriately, effectively, stopping any bullying at the source. It’s wonderful when participants say, “Oh, I get it, I feel so stupid,” to which my response is, “It took me 40 years to get it. So how stupid am I?”
In short, please come to the 1-hour launch event, at which I’ll tell you more about what I teach and why it works: 12-noon on Wednesday 15th September – booking link: https://tinyurl.com/vut85z6m Or if you aren’t available on that day, I have been holding individual launches, just message me some dates and times which would be convenient for you – all I need is 1 hour.