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School Bullying Graduates to the Workplace. Here’s How We Stop It.

School Bullying Graduates to the Workplace. Here’s How We Stop It.

October is the month of apple picking, hayrides, carving pumpkins and trick-or-treating on Halloween. It is also National Bullying Prevention Month. More than one out of every five students are bullied. The type of bullying students experience includes being made fun of, called names, pushed or shoved and the destruction of personal property. Not surprisingly such actions have a negative impact on the students’ relationships, their school work and above all feelings about self.

The long history and prevalence of the school bully are such that it is a mainstay of popular culture and almost de rigueur for teen movies, sitcoms and books. The problem with this acceptance is that we often overlook not only the victims but also their fate. What becomes of the bullies? Do they upon graduation suddenly realize the error of their ways and transform into model citizens and workers?

The data says, no. Bullies continue to find targets, only their behavior tends to escalate, especially in the workplace. Research by the Workplace Bullying Institute (WBI), which defines workplace bullying as repeated harmful, abusive conduct that is threatening, intimidating, humiliating, work sabotage or verbal abuse, estimates that it affects 60.3 million US workers. Bullies, unsurprisingly, are primarily in a more senior or leadership position than their target, and 70 percent are male. Typically, male bullies target female colleagues while female bullies target their female coworkers. For the target, this again translates to feeling scared, unworthy and devalued. Many will leave their job which usually has a financial and or career impact. Organizations suffer due to falling productivity rates or other inconsistencies related to an unreliable workforce.

What the WBI study also highlighted is that the overwhelming sense is that for the most part schools do not take bullying seriously. Forty-six percent held a “sham” investigation, and a quarter of the schools did nothing. This rather lackluster response I find perplexing. Is it because we’ve taken a collective view that bullying is “normal” since we experience it throughout our school life, that we almost tacitly accept it as part of human behavior and therefore never really address the problem?

I hope that the current climate of #MeToo and other such movements, and the attention they are drawing on the workplace and the responsibility of an employer to ensure a safe working environment will expand to include a focus on bullying.  However, we need to start addressing this unacceptable conduct when it first exhibits itself. We know school-based bullying prevention programs decrease bullying by up to 23 percent, but if society were to take a more rigorous approach and implement some of the anti-harassment and bullying training that we are now introducing and enforcing in the workplace to the school environment might we stem the tide and prevent the migration of bullying from school to the office?

Our society’s acceptance of bullying behavior is more a reflection of our cultural conventions and if we educate and raise awareness about how unacceptable bullying is we can begin to eradicate it.

The key is education. Careful thought and consideration must go into the design and delivery of any training that attempts to shift historical norms. Skillsoft has invested heavily in brain science research to create learning that produces real behavioral change.

In his blog post, Neuroscience Research Correlates a Growth Mindset and the Capacity to Learn New Skills, my colleague Mark Onisk, Skillsoft’s chief content officer (CCO), describes in detail research that Skillsoft and Accenture are sponsoring with MIT and how we are using the findings to underpin our training content. The project is still ongoing, but already we know that learners need three things for an optimal learning experience: relevance, meaning and emotion. The bottom line is if one wants to address bullying in the workplace, it’s critical to illustrate bullying behavior and then demonstrate the appropriate responses and consequences.

Skillsoft incorporates real-world scenarios into our compliance training content to ensure that the learning experience is “seen” through the learner’s eyes. When individuals watch training scenarios that cause discomfort, they recognize the behavior that produces feelings of pain is wrong. This feeling remains and is triggered when a similar situation presents itself. By incorporating scenarios into our content, we generate an emotional engagement between the content and the student, and this strengthens learning and retention.

My daughter recently graduated from high school. When I spoke with her about bullying and what the school authorities had done in response, she informed me that the only measure taken was an elementary awareness program. That’s not enough.  Student bullies move onto the next phase and eventually the workplace, I don’t see any opportunity for real change unless we radically overhaul not just the story, but how and when we tell it.

Skillsoft’s Compliance solution offers anti-bullying training. Take a look at this Compliance Impact and explore a situation where an employee comes to recognize that a coworker is being bullied. Remember, if organizations really want to make the workplace a safer environment for all, then raising awareness and treating bullying as unacceptable behavior must become the norm.


John Arendes is the VP and GM of Compliance Solutions at Skillsoft.

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