About Bullies

Carolyn Leighton

February 07, 2018

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When Andrew McCabe stepped down from the FBI, news programs flashed photos of McCabe whose face reflected the raw emotion of a man who had been bullied, insulted, and vilified by the President of the United States and members of congress over the last year for doing his job. This is a man who has served his entire career with the FBI. To add insult to injury, the press reported that Trump asked McCabe how his wife felt about "being a loser" when she ran for a political seat and lost.

As the impact of bullying played out on screen all day, I thought about how many times over my lifetime I had seen similar faces—faces of victims of bullies and the torture they endured.

The first time I witnessed bullying, I was just a child—perhaps around seven or eight years old. There was a girl named Sandra in our neighborhood who did not look like the rest of us—she was unusually large and unattractive. The first time I happened to be around when a mean girl started bullying Sandra, I felt a strong surge of outrage go through my entire body, and I stood between Sandra and the bully until she backed down and went away. I learned that Sandra had to deal with bullying just about every day of her life—just because she looked different—and I learned that bullies often back down when someone stands up to them.

The second, most memorable bullying event I remember occurred at age 25 when I was working for one of the top law firms in Beverly Hills while my ex-husband, Steve, was going through law school.

I had become friends with a woman named Eileen, who was in her 60s, and a widow of an ACLU attorney. Eileen was sweet, gentle, and always feared for her job because of her age.

My desk was down the hall from Eileen's, and every day a young attorney named Jeffrey would inevitably go to Eileen's desk, throw a tantrum about some deadline missed or word not included in a document. The second I heard Jeffrey screaming at Eileen, that surge inside me took over. I ran down the hall as fast as I could, stood between Jeffrey and Eileen, and told Jeffrey to stop bullying Eileen. How dare he? He had no right! This became an almost daily ritual until one day, the senior partner of the law firm, whose office was right outside the bullying scene, came out of his office and told me he was so proud of me for standing up to Jeffrey's bullying behavior. It felt so great to have my feelings affirmed and to feel supported—something I had rarely experienced during my young lifetime.

Throughout my career, I have both witnessed and been the victim of bullying. When I started WITI, a group of women in technology who had formed a group—women who sent mean girl emails around to each other—about me and the fact that I had no right to start WITI. I was so devastated when one of WITI's earliest members sent me copies of those emails. I would get into bed and pull the covers over my head. I kept wondering how the very women I wanted to help could attack me for starting WITI. I had such pure intentions of saving the world, and I was so naive for not realizing until years later that they were furious they had not started WITI. They believed the space for women in technology belonged to them.

When I worked with Hewlett Packard Labs, I saw women engineers bullying the secretaries because they believed they were smarter and better than the assistants because they were engineers. I immediately gave every secretary at Hewlett Packard a free membership to WITI.

That surge—the outrage when someone is bullied or treated unfairly—has dominated my life. It is that surge that drove me to start WITI and continues today whenever I witness a person or a group discriminated against or treated with disrespect just because they are different.

We wrote the WITI Code of Ethics to ensure that long after I am gone, no one will be treated with disrespect when they participate in a WITI event.

Here are some takeaway messages:

Bullies come in all genders, sizes, and colors—people who act out their unresolved childhood issues every day in the workplace.
When bullies are in a position of power, we know the destruction they can cause to individuals, departments, and companies.

The majority of victims of bullying either take it or leave, rarely standing up to the bully. Each of us makes a personal choice when that situation occurs:

  • Stand up to the person bullying us

  • Take a stand for the person being bullied

  • Report every incident to an executive at the company and to human resources

  • Record each incident in a personal file: including the time, date, and people who are present

There is nothing more empowering than making a personal decision that we will no longer allow any human being to treat us with disrespect.

Carolyn Leighton
WITI (Women in Technology International)

Opinions expressed by the author are not necessarily those of WITI.

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