How to Deal with Workplace Bullying

“I wish every day could be Halloween. We could all wear masks all the time. Then we could walk around and get to know each other before we got to see what we looked like under the masks.”
― R. J. Palacio, Wonder

“Chef, do you have a moment?” Mr. Jones (not his real name) entered my Culinary Arts classroom. The assistant principal who was my immediate supervisor was carrying some papers that he laid in front of me.

“These are hard copy print outs of your six classes. Did you realize that three-fourth of your students are failing?”

I nodded.

“What do you intend to do about it?”

I shrugged. “What can I do about it?” It was the 2020-2021 school year, and we were in the midst of a global pandemic. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, 93% of all households had children who would spend at least part of the year in virtual learning.

My district had used Federal Covid relief funds to purchase Chromebooks for every student. Since some children didn’t have access to the internet, district IT people had identified black out areas which were “plugged” using school buses as mobile platforms for portable WIFI emitters.

Although some students liked distance education, most of them did not. Students who had previously come to school to socialize with their friends were completely indifferent to virtual learning. Since all athletic programs had been cancelled, some student athletes no longer felt it was necessary to maintain passing grade point averages.

Throughout my district and across this nation, truancy rates soared. Students stopped working on assignments. A lot of them began ditching our virtual classes. Attendance rates plummeted. Failing rates soared.

“It’s not my fault if students don’t do their assignments.”

The AP jabbed a finger at my chest. “It IS your fault. It’s YOUR FAULT because it’s YOUR RESPONSIBILITY! A seventy-five percent failure rate is COMPLETELY UNACCEPTABLE. Fortunately for you, I have a solution.”

I raised an eyebrow.

The AP placed a form in front of me. “If you implement a 10 point across-the-board curve to raise all grades, this will solve your problem quite nicely. You will also have to sign this document stating that you made a ‘mistake’ when you submitted your last quarter grades, and that you have now rectified this mistake.”

I slid the paper away from me. “I am not signing a form stating that I made a mistake. I did not make a mistake. The grades are completely accurate. I am also not raising all grades by ten points. Since we’re not allowed to give grades below 50%, implementing your suggestion would have given all students a minimum grade point average of 60%. This would have included all the students who have ditched my classes, have never completed a single assignment, and have never taken a single quiz or test.”

I shook my head. “I can’t pass students who haven’t done any work. It’s dishonest, and it’s unprofessional.”

“What’s unprofessional is FAILING three-quarters of your class!”

I folded my arms across my chest and leaned back in my chair. “This is not my problem. If you want to be upset with someone, be upset with the students who are ditching class. Be upset with the parents who are allowing their children be completely irresponsible.”

“IT IS YOUR PROBLEM BECAUSE I’M YOUR ADMINISTRATOR, AND I’M TELLING YOU THAT IT’S YOUR PROBLEM. I ALSO DON’T CARE FOR YOUR ATTITUDE.”

I met my supervisor’s glare with a frown of my own. “Ditto.”

“SHUT YOUR MOUTH!” The AP shouted. “YOU ARE BEING ARGUMENTATIVE AND INSUBORDINATE! I THOUGHT YOU WERE A TEAM PLAYER! I THOUGHT YOU WERE MORE DEDICATED THAN THIS!” The administrator was so upset that he was nearly quivering with rage. I would not have been surprised if rabid foam had started to gush from his mouth.

Having been physically and emotionally abused as a child by both of my parents, I was not impressed with my AP’s efforts to intimidate me. My parents were much more intimidating than he was. The fact that the administrator was legally constrained from beating me was a disadvantage that my parents had sadistically enjoyed. I am now 61 years old, and I sometimes still have screaming nightmares about the beatings I received from my mother.

Mr. Jones snatched up his paperwork and stormed out of my classroom. The hostile emails began later that day.

“Jessica Smith (not her real name) is a special education student. HOW DARE YOU VIOLATE HER IEP (individual education plan) by REQUIRING HER TO WRITE a 100 word essay! You should have modified her assignment by only asking her to write 50 words!”

If the assistant principal had bothered to ask, I would have told him that I had talked to Jessica’s special education teacher to confirm that she was in fact capable of writing a 100 word essay. I did this before I gave out the assignment.

In another email the AP wrote, “Did you know that your program is up for a five year review by the Nevada Department of Education? I despair for the future of Culinary Arts at our school given your poor attitude, your complete lack of dedication, and your overall lack of professionalism.”

In a third email, Mr. Jones launched a personal attack. “Based upon your attendance rates, I would surmise that your students must really dislike you. If they liked you, your attendance rates would be better. You would also have just as many students enrolled in Culinary II and III as you have in Culinary I. It’s clear to me that you’re in desperate need of a complete personality makeover because you’re just not very likable.”

Since the AP was on a tear and there didn’t appear to be any end to his litany of complaints, I decided that enough was enough. I followed professional protocol by copying every email the AP had sent to the principal. I included a summary of what had happened after Mr. Jones had asked me to falsify my grades.

When a week passed without any reply, I contacted the union to file a grievance. During this time I had received another four hateful emails from Mr. Jones.

“Did you say that you want to file a complaint about Mr. Jones?” asked the union official. “You’re the 10th person on your campus who has complained about him. The union rep asked me to file a formal written complaint with the union as well as with the superintendent’s office. As an added measure, I also filed a complaint with the district’s office for accommodations and compliance. Under district policy 5137 as well as Nevada Revised Statute 388.122, I alleged that the AP had created a hostile work environment. Since most of this harassment was done via email, I further alleged that under NRS 388.123 that the AP had engaged in cyber-bullying. As with my complaint to the principal, the union, and the superintendent’s office, I attached copies of all of the assistant principal’s emails.

The principal belatedly contacted me to let me know that she was aware of the problem. “Please don’t resign,” she asked. “We have now worked together for several years. I ask you to trust me to address your concerns.”

A few weeks later, the school year ended and our summer vacation began. The next two months were tortuous as I waited for a resolution to my concerns. I had thought long and hard about a favorable outcome to my issues with the AP and had decided that I no longer wanted Mr. Jones to be my immediate supervisor.

I did not enjoy feeling as though I had to walk on egg shells around this man. On days that he was in a good mood, he was everyone’s best friend. On days that he was in a bad mood, everyone who saw him coming tried to find somewhere else to be.

Since I teach Culinary Arts, I always made sure that he had a sample of whatever it was that my students had made that day. In happier pre-Covid times, he received orange chicken with steamed white rice, Poulet à la Provençal, a Brazilian Feijoada, freshly baked croissants, and glazed berry tarts, to name just a few of the products that we have created.

chicken gumbo with rice pilaf prepared by my Culinary II students in 2019

It wasn’t until the day before the start of the 2021-2022 school year that the principal announced via email the resignation of the assistant principal.

I wish I could say that my issues with this administrator are the only problems that I’ve ever had. Sadly over the course of a 32-year-long teaching career, I’ve worked with administrators who were far worse.

When I was a first year teacher in 1982, I had an angry principal hurl a stapler at my head. When I ducked, the stapler smashed a hole into the dry wall behind. The administrator was upset because I had stopped one of my fifth grade students from knifing a classmate with a switchblade. In trying to get this kid to stop, we were wrestling for control of the knife when the student tripped, fell, and hit the back of his head on a chalkboard edger. Although there was blood everywhere, the school nurse later said that the cut was only superficial. The principal wrote me up for excessive use of force.

At another school, the principal disliked me so much that when she purchased laptops for the faculty, she didn’t give me one because she claimed that I “only” taught Culinary Arts. The wood shop teacher got a laptop. The art and music teachers got laptops. All of the PE teachers got laptops. I was the only teacher who didn’t get one. The principal later down checked me on my annual performance evaluation for not using computer technology to instruct any of my classes, even though she hadn’t provided me with any of the tools that the other teachers had received.

I wound up leaving this district. After I resigned, I found myself unemployed for six months because the principal was sabotaging my job references. Even though all of my evaluations had been outstanding, she lied and told anyone who called that I was lazy, incompetent, argumentative, and insubordinate. I wound up having to retain an attorney. I sued the principal and the school district for defamation. Instead of going to court, the school district chose to reach a settlement with me.

They did this because my attorney hired a private investigator who pretended to be an HR director. When he called for a reference check he was able to record the entire sordid conversation. The conversation ended when my former boss asked him not to tell me why I wouldn’t be getting the job. She laughed and said that she wanted me to “suffer.”

hostile work environment

I despise bullies. My parents used to beat the heck out of me and to call me names. My father has told me that he wishes that I had never been born. While I was growing up, my mother frequently told me that I was stupid and ugly and that I would be lucky to find a job as a trash collector or a custodian.

At school, I was bullied relentlessly. I’ve had my head shoved into toilets. I’ve had my lunch stolen or stomped into the ground. When I was a sophomore in high school, a group of students mobbed me, and I was punched and kicked and left unconscious and bleeding at the bottom of a stairwell.

“Boys will be boys,” explained the principal when he called my father. “It’s no big deal. He’ll get over it.”

(sigh)

There are times when I marvel over the fact that I am relatively sane, and that I’m also a decent and caring human being. Life could very easily have steered me in another direction.

STOP WORKPLACE BULLYING

I’ve been a teacher for 32 years, and have spent 11 other years working in the food service and hospitality industry. It wasn’t until I was in my 40’s that I began speaking up for myself.

This is what I have learned from my experience.

  1. Bullies like having power over you. Don’t give them this power. Don’t let them see that you’re rattled. Even if you’re quaking on the inside, remain calm.
  2. If you are being yelled at, ridiculed, or cursed; do not respond in kind. Doing so will only inflame the bully and make that person even more angry. Instead of responding in kind, be aware of your surroundings. Look for eyewitnesses. Do you know who they are? Would you be able to find them again if you had to? You should also look for a CCTV camera. If you can find a security camera, move towards the area of camera coverage so that whatever happens will be documented on the surveillance footage.
  3. At the first possible chance, DOCUMENT what happened. Write down what happened, when this happened, and where this happened. Identify who was there. List any eye witnesses. Try to avoid any emotional overtones. As the character Joe Friday used to say in the old police series, Dragnet, “Just the facts, ma’am.”
  4. Follow your workplace’s protocol for reporting bullying. If you’re in the private sector, these types of complaints are often referred to the human resource department.
  5. In order to allege that a hostile work environment has been created, the bullying has to have been pervasive, occurring over several days or weeks. This is one reason why it’s important to document what happened.
  6. Some employers are better than others in dealing with allegations of bullying. If your employer refuses to act, or worse yet, retaliates against you for having tried to complain, look up the EEOC (Equal Employment Opportunity Commission). The EEOC has a Federal mandate to safeguard the rights of employees and to protect people from bullying or other acts of discrimination. Complaints may be filed on-line. If the EEOC finds your complaints to be credible, they will speak with your employer. If the employer is willing to work with them to address the problem so that it doesn’t happen again, well and good. If the employer chooses to not cooperate, the EEOC could sue them. Please note that you have 150 days from the date of the incident to file a complaint. States that have anti-discrimination laws have 300 days to file a complaint.

In recent years, some high profile bullies have gotten their comeuppance from people who took a stand. New York’s Governor Andrew Cuomo was forced to resign over repeated allegations of sexual harassment. His brother Chris was fired from CNN for having lied about the extent of the help that he tried giving his brother.

In 2018, the program director for the New York State Council of the Arts was fired after she was recorded loudly complaining about having to sit near a mother and her baby on a Delta flight to Syracuse. When the flight attendant refused to change her seat, she threatened this woman by saying, “You may not have a job tomorrow.”

In 2020, a woman who has been dubbed “Central Park Karen,” by social media called the police to complain about a Black man who had been “threatening” her. In reality, all the man did was to ask her to put a leash on her dog per the park’s posted policy. This woman subsequently lost her job with the investment firm, Franklin Templeton.

In all three of these incidents, there was documentation about what had happened and people took a stand to say enough is enough.

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8 Responses

  1. It’s tragic that you went through all of this. Many people have suffered a lot less and not have come through it all as well as you did. Well done to you!

  2. It is so tragic that you’ve experienced this abuse. Thank you for speaking up about this and sharing steps one can take. I hope the rest of your career has no bullying and so much support. Also, cheers for teacher unions, especially in the Southwest!

  3. In the UK, standard recurring of bullying incidents includes the impact on the victim, including emotional effects. So, not just the facts, the facts plus how it affected you.

  4. I was relentlessly bullied, harassed and abused by residential staff at the ultra-strict boarding school I was sent away to in high school. They made your boss look tame by comparison.

  5. How can you possibly have had your childhood experiences then become a teacher, instead of become anti-school ?
    What you call assignments, clearly homework, often becomes a teacher bullying of kids, or becomes an overwork abuse, like it did to breaking point for me resulting from a gifted labelling that gave teachers faith that I had no limits. This makes it impossible to make any sympathetic anti-bullying story out of saying that you persisted in setting harder homework than they were telling you to!!
    Any colleague giving you a view on any kid’s ability is fallible + could be wrong. That is what makes homework both an abuse and an accurate fit to international law’s definition of slavery. So what you are showing here is tragic intergenerational cycle.

    1. I teach Culinary Arts. During a normal year, Culinary Arts is a hands-on production class. I do not give homework. The experience that I shared in this article was from the 2020-2021 school year when our classes were completely virtual. The assignment in question was not homework. It was a daily assignment per district regulations and school policy.

      If you read my article, you would have read that I checked with the student’s special education teacher prior to giving her the writing assignment. I don’t know where you got the idea that I gave her a more challenging assignment than she was capable of doing. I also deeply resent your insinuation that I bully my students, that my students are “slaves
      or that I am somehow participating in a “tragic intergenerational cycle.”

      The fact that you have completely disparaged my life’s work is extremely offensive. You don’t know me. Your assumptions about me are both flawed and insulting.

      1. { The hostile emails began later that day. “… How dare you violate her IEP (individual education plan) by requiring her to write a 100 word essay!!” If the assistant principal had bothered to ask, I would have told him that I had talked to Jessica’s special education teacher to confirm that she was in fact capable of writing a 100 word essay. }
        Teachers asked would say I was capable of more than I was. Teacher opinions for a higher ability, and for pursuing a kid to exercise it, are fallible

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