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february 12, 2011

Bullies…

There is nothing I hate more than a bully. Bullies make me crazy, and my protective mode goes into overdrive at the first hint that someone around me is getting bullied.

As a kid, I grew up in a neighborhood full of boys. I was a complete tomboy, and had to learn to hold my own in order to be included in the gang. I carried a basketball everywhere, and didn’t take any lip from the boys around me.  Because I was smaller than most of the boys physically, I got used to having to deal with bigger or older boys.  I wasn’t intimidated by them.

I had two younger brothers that were just getting to be old enough to play outside without parental supervision when we moved to Denver. In our new neighborhood, there was a much larger, diverse mix of kids: boy, girls, younger, older.  We all had friends that we played with, and didn’t have to leave our street.  I could keep an eye on my brothers without having to actually play with the same kids. 

I distinctly remember a warm summer afternoon. We had been outside most of the day, riding bikes, playing hide and seek, doing all of the things kids do when they just have to stay within their mother’s shout.

The kid down the street, Michael, was right in between my brother, John, and I in age. He was also considerably larger than either of us. He had a smart mouth, and liked to pick on kids that were smaller than him.  I had been at the top end of the street, riding my bike in lazy circles, when I could see Michael and another kid chase my brother across the street, from our house to a neighbor’s yard. It was clear that they weren’t playing around. John was yelling, clearly in trouble.

Suddenly, Michael shoved my brother, and John fell. I saw red.

The next thing I knew, I was skidding to a stop in the grass, dropping my bike & tearing across the neighbor’s yard. Michael & the other kid were standing over my brother, fists clenched. I have no idea what I said to Michael, but I put myself in between Michael & my brother, and pushed. I backed him up several feet.

Hours later, as we were sitting down to dinner, my mother asked me if we had anything that we wanted to tell her. John & I both mumbled and shoveled big bites into our mouths.  Mom pressed a bit, to see if we would say anything.  She went on to say that our neighbor, Mrs. Johnson, had called.  She was the owner of the house where the incident had taken place.  In Denver, many of the houses on our block did not have air conditioning…you don’t really need it; but, the windows were open around the clock.  Mrs. Johnson had heard the whole thing.  Before she’d had a chance to step outside, to stop the older boys, she had heard me shouting at Michael, and coming to my brother’s defense.  Apparently, I had gone after the boys with a ferocity she hadn’t known I was capable of.  I had yelled at them to stay away from my brothers or I would tear their arms off and scratch their eyes out.  Mrs. Johnson had called to tell my mother that she should be proud that I stood up for my brother that way.

For the rest of the summer, my brothers remained unbullied, and Michael and his buddies stayed well clear of me.   That’s not to say that I didn’t spend time torturing my brothers…I was their big sister, after all, and what are big sisters for?

My most recent encounter with a bully forced me to quit a job that I had been in for ten years.  I had served as a mid-level supervisor in a national insurance brokerage.  The woman who had served as my direct report, mentor and friend had decided that she’d had enough of the corporate merry-go-round, and had resigned.  She wanted to go back to running her own small agency.  In all of our years working for this large company, we had dealt with a regional manager of the worst kind…he is a man who can be extremely charming, but can turn on you in a heartbeat.  He’s the kind that will belittle a suggestion or an idea, and then six months later, present it as his own.  He & my manager had competed in the industry for many years, prior to her joining the corporation.  As co-workers, he could never let that competitive nature go…he was always going out of his way to make her, and anyone that was loyal to her, look incompetent.

When my manager resigned, it was a blow to the company.  She had been a respected member of the team, and successful despite this man’s efforts.  I had also risen quickly through the ranks by staying under the radar.  After she left, things were in turmoil.  This man’s full fury was turned on me.  He was sure that she would completely ignore her non-compete clause and go after all of her old clients.  Her last day was on Friday.  Monday morning, I was called into his office, and he grilled me about her intentions.  I was in as much shock as everyone else, even though I’d had an idea that she was going to leave.  After several minutes of trying to assure him that things would run as smoothly as we could make them, he suddenly leaned across his desk, stuck his finger in my face and shouted, “You’d better not dick me over!  I know how close you two are, and I don’t trust you for a second.” 

At that point, I knew things were going to be rough.  The next seven days were the worst of my professional life.  Although I had done nothing to make them question my loyalty, my internet access was revoked, I was forbidden to call any clients, and my emails were monitored.  Finally, I had enough.  I had been one of the company’s biggest cheerleaders for years…after all, my manager had helped me to learn the industry from scratch and had given me many opportunities to grow and rise up the ladder.  My income had increased significantly, and I was well-respected in our local market.  To suddenly be cast as a spy, disloyal and under suspicion was unreasonable.  To know that I would now have to answer directly to the man who had made that part of our working life a misery for ten years was too much to ask.  Finally, after another confrontation with this man, I walked back to my office, picked up my purse, handed in my security pass and keys, and left forever.

These days, I am working again with my mentor.  We are building something from scratch, without having to break our non-compete agreements.  The support that we have received from our peers at other agencies and from the insurance carriers has been amazing.  The corporation that we left is struggling, losing more employees and many clients.  Several of those clients have sought us out, stating that they preferred not to work with our replacements at the old company.

My manager & I decided that we would never again allow ourselves to be bullied by men that were stuck in the Stone Age; and, we’ve never once regretted our decision to leave.

I refuse to be bullied, and I am proud to say that my kids have taken up that mantle.  My daughter has come to her brother’s defense on more than one occasion; and, now he is sticking up for kids at school that are getting picked on for stupid little things.  I have encouraged this and will continue to do so.   Watch out bullies…we’re watching for you!

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