Champions of the underdog must stand up to bullies

Published in the Courier Mail 24 February 2010

Sometimes a confluence of circumstances sharpens your focus, and you realise afresh the importance of something.

The first of these was a young woman in tears. It’s not entirely unusual that people cry in my office, due to the nature of pastoral support, however, my heart broke for this young woman. As she told of the possibility of having to return to a town in which she had previously been bullied at school, there was a look of genuine terror on her face.

Perhaps the occasion was more poignant for me as I had also just recently read the news reports about Brodie Panlock. Brodie had worked in a Melbourne Café for 15 months leading up to September 2006 and was subjected to vicious and consistent workplace bullying of the most horrific nature.

According to reports, 19-year-old Brodie was ‘held down by workmates, had fish oil poured in her bag, was drenched in chocolate sauce and was constantly told she was worthless’. Two of her male colleagues called her fat and ugly, and spat on her.

Sadly, after the end of an intimate relationship with one of her colleagues, Brodie tried to commit suicide by taking rat poison. Her tormentors then honed in on this incident with their teasing. They put rat poison in her pay envelope and encouraged her to take it. Brodie eventually leapt to her death from the fourth floor of a building in September 2006.

Bullying is an insidious issue. It can come in many forms – physical bullying, verbal bullying or even social bullying such as exclusion or hurtful gossip.

Governments, workplaces and schools need to be addressing the issue. In many, many cases they are. Yet it’s a difficult dynamic to monitor. A manager responsible for a large staff was recently telling me of the reluctance they encounter when trying to get people to report instances of workplace bullying.

However, if we all simply stand by, while those around us are bullying or being bullied, we are aiding the continuation of an unhealthy, and dangerous, culture.

It’s time that we owned the problem of bullying within our society. I have a feeling that to really grapple with this blight on our national scorecard, we cannot just outsource it to those ‘in charge’ to solve. We must each accept responsibility for creating a culture where bullying is no longer an acceptable form of violence.

We cannot be passive bystanders. When we see bullying, we must speak up. Silence is not an option. While this is challenging, it is possible, and it is an imperative if we are to prevent tragedies like Brodie’s.

We must firstly recognise the situation for what it is. It’s not acceptable, and it should not be normal, to have a culture of insult, belittlement, marginalisation, or jokes that are at the expense of another. We see it embedded within popular culture (and several television shows come to mind) so we must actively remind ourselves of the pain caused by such behaviour in the real world.

If we are observing bullying taking place, we must plan how to react. Think through what you will say if someone makes rude or intimidating comments to someone in front of you. Consider a response if belittling emails are cc’d or forwarded to you. Some forethought equips us to respond well when we are confronted with inappropriate behaviour and will provide a helpful caution for those acted unthinkingly.

Simply begin to act. Start recording what you are observing, whether in a diary, notebook or other means. While Australians have an aversion to ‘dobbing’ we are excellent at standing up for the underdog. A comprehensive overview of how this person is being humiliated and degraded will not only galvanise you to act, but it will provide the means to do so.

There’s one more thing you can do, although it doesn’t involve direct action. It’s simple yet profound in it’s ability to make a difference. When you become aware that someone has been a victim of bullying, determine to be intentional about encouraging, caring and reaching out to that person. Small acts of kindness can make a big difference to a person with a wounded soul. You may not be able to erase the pain of the past, but you can remind them of their value and point them towards a brighter future. It really is the least we can do.