How I survived workplace bullying | Sherry Benson-Podolchuk | TEDxWinnipeg

Translator: Leonardo Silva Reviewer: Mile Živković

Bullying is a slow and painful death,

and probably someone you know right now is suffering in silence.

Bullies and leaders: these are two things we choose to be.

Why is this important to me?

For 20 years, I was a victim of workplace bullying and harassment,

as a female officer in the RCMP,

and having survived, I wanted to help other people not suffer in silence.

I want to share the tools I created to survive

because, remaining silent, I become part of the problem.

At my first detachment, I dared to speak up against two officers

who thought it was funny to refer to me as "beaver,"

and other humiliating names regarding my body parts, female body parts,

in the office, in public, and on the radio so other detachments could hear.

First thing I did was remember what my parents said,

"When kids are teasy, you just ignore it, and they'll stop, and it'll go away."

Well, it didn't.

I tried that and, sadly, eventually people in the community

were referring to me with those humiliating names.

Second strategy was the direct approach.

I went to each one and asked them to please stop calling me these names.

They laughed, it continued.

And doing that was terrifying because one of them was my direct supervisor,

and as a result, he was in charge of my performance assessment.

Third thing I did was follow the chain of command.

I went to our boss, our detachment commander,

our leader,

and asked him to please tell them to stop calling me these names.

He said, "Well, maybe you enjoy the attention."

To make matters more complicated, my partner, with 15 years of service,

arrived at work drunk.

Before I could drive him home, he crashed his car into a parked car -

I don't know how people do that, but they do -

fled the scene, forced another vehicle off the road,

and just barely made it into his driveway by the time I caught up to him.

Later, he wanted and expected and assumed I would provide a false statement

as to the cause of the accident.

So, you can imagine: what a choice.

My ability to make ethical and lawful decisions was challenged

because I was being bullied and intimidated.

Ask yourself if you've ever said anything that was offensive, or hurtful.

Well, of course we have.

None of us is perfect. We all make mistakes.

The idea is hopefully we learn from those mistakes,

we move on from those mistakes and we don't repeat them.

The difference between a bully and a mistake is with the intent.

The bully wants to wound, to have power over,

to humiliate and to destroy.

The bully sets the stage for the target, for the victim,

for anyone who's considered "the other,"

and that could be those who don't fit into the culture of the organization,

those who look different in skin color, as we've seen with the police shootings,

those who dare to stand up and speak up against the command in control.

Basically, this could be any one of us,

and if no one says anything, it escalates.

Bullying can start out as teasing,

and because no one says anything, the violence escalates.

One night in December, I came to work, and I went to use the ladies washroom.

I opened up the wooden stall door and it fell off the wall,

landed on my face, split my forehead, and gave me a concussion.

This was meant to be a "joke."

Three days later, when I returned,

the maintenance officer said, "Sherry, I have no idea what happened,

but it looks like somebody intentionally loosened the screws."

I went to get my gun belt out of my gun locker,

and I noticed it was open.

In the inside, I had a blue gym bag.

Inside the blue gym bag was a dead prairie chicken,

with blood dripping all over my personal things.

This was meant to be a "joke."

So, my fourth ineffective coping strategy was to try and ride that bullying wave.

My fifth strategy was to change detachments.

Yet, even after moving from station to station,

nothing significant changed.

And as the years rolled along,

bullying incident, harassment, a shotgun training accident,

disability, intimidation, threats,

I realized that I was going to work in a hostile work environment

that was intimidating and isolating.

Why do people stay? Why did I stay, that long?

Well, one: financial. I needed the money. I was a single mom.

And it was fear, my comfort zone of fear,

those feelings of being empty,

a sense of hopelessness,

and helplessness.

That voice in your head - when you're bullied enough,

you start to think, "There must be something wrong with me."

And this hopelessness comes from a sense that nobody speaks up

because people know what's happening,

they see it, they hear it, but nobody does anything,

and this silence allows and condones the bullying to continue.

And being strong did not mean I was invincible.

I still remember that January morning, ten years ago, driving to work,

and I realized, "Oh, my gosh!

If I go to work one more day, I'm going to die."

I didn't know how I was going to die.

I just knew I was going to die.

That night, when I went to my bedroom, I reached for my sleeping pills.

I wasn't thinking of tomorrow.

I wasn't thinking of what I would miss:

birthdays, anniversaries, coming school grad,

traveling to Europe,

standing underneath that beautiful Eiffel Tower,

touching the Wailing Wall,

attending the United Nations in New York City,

years of love and laughter and fun and giggling.

The only thing I was thinking of was falling asleep and feeling nothing.

And out of the corner of my eye, there was a small school photo of my daughter,

and in that micro split second of hesitation,

that same voice said, "I can't do that to her."

You see, to be in that pit of despair

and to climb out to a place of empowerment,

well, that came in stages.

I had to begin to be curious about why some people truly believe

they have the right to behave a certain way.

I had to really be curious about my own pattern,

my own personal history,

"It's just something I need to change because I can't change them.

The only thing I have complete control over is me,

how I deal with things, how I react."

And I created my toolkit, my survival toolkit.

Number one: document, document, document!

I began to document the incidents of bullying way back in the beginning,

and it was really just a form of journaling.

I wrote down dates, times, places; who said what, when and where;

the good, the bad and the ugly, including my mistakes.

And, if anything, it gave me the power of my voice to say,

"Hey, this is what's happened to me. This is what I tried to do.

This is what didn't work. This is what did work."

And by journaling it, it was the power of my voice,

and in 2007, I thought, "You know what? Maybe this could be a book.

Maybe I could write something and help somebody else,

so they didn't get to that point of despair,"

because not everybody gets that sober second thought.

I'm a very visual person.

I had to write little stickies, and I put them all around the house,

in the bedroom;

one right by my clock, so when I turned off my alarm, it said,

"Wake up every morning with positive thoughts."

That's a choice.

I put them in the bathroom.

My husband sometimes would open up a drawer

and there'd be a little sign that says, "I love you."

I put them in the car and I put them at work,

so when I was getting dumped on and felt like crap,

I would open up the drawer and take a little note,

and then I would see a little saying that says,

"You are good, you are valued,

you are important, and you count."

This might not work for everybody in the audience, but this is nail polish,

and it's orange.

In case you noticed, that's my favorite color.

Every Thursday, either before I went to work or after I went to work,

I would paint my nails.

If it was before work, I would do it with my daughter.

It was our little bit of bonding time.

If it was after work, then I would do it by myself,

with a nice couple of tea.

It was something little, and it was very cheap,

but it made feel strong about me,

so I could go back and face another week of abuse.

I don't know about you, but exercise is important.

When you are under a lot of stress,

it helps you deal with stress, gets rid of that negative energy.

It helps you with your heart, with you sleeping patterns,

and it makes you feel strong,

so that you don't feel as intimidated, physically.

I got to know my policies, procedures, rules and regulations inside and out,

so that, when I was being abused, I knew more about the information

that the bully was trying to play a trick on me,

and I could prepare documents to say, "No. This, this and this."

Of course, it made more of a target,

but the point was I knew more information about their system than they did.

I went back to school.

The first class I took was Management Assertiveness Training,

because when people are bullied and abused, they lose their voice.

And I'm not just talking about at work. I'm talking about at home, too.

They lose this sense that they have the right to say no,

they have the right to change their mind.

And the most important relationship is with ourselves,

learning to value ourselves,

developing boundaries on behaviors I will accept and behaviors I will not accept,

at home and at work.

I continued to take classes in conflict resolution.

My university marks do not reflect my 25% in high school chemistry.



When my daughter saw my transcript, she said,

"Mom, you were a loser in high school!"


Everything I learned at university I practiced at home with my family,

my friends, and specifically at work,

learning the importance of effective communication and listening skills,

and the relationship that has in any conflict,

developing eye messages when you're dealing with a bully,

or someone who is more confrontational.

For example, "When you call me 'beaver' in the workplace, I feel humiliated.

Please, stop."

"When you take me into your office,

and you yell at me for 20 minutes and call me stupid,

I feel embarrassed. Please, stop."

So, you see, a bully is used to a certain way of responding,

and when you change that, maybe that will change the dynamics.

Either way, you've taken back your power,

and maybe others will speak up.

No, I'm not giving myself a haircut.

This is detaching from the bullying behavior:

not engaging in the abusive pattern,

understanding that everybody has their own personal history

and you have no idea what's going on with someone else's life.

The idea is to be curious, compassionate,

and forgiving with yourself as well as with others,

but this is not an invitation to be a doormat or a punching bag,

either at home or at work;

developing hobbies that are fun, energetic,

that make you feel good about you.

I love to bake.

I find that very relaxing, pounding out the dough.

So, you might have your own toolkit that works for you,

developing your own toolkit that fits with who you are.

The idea is that we really only see a snapshot of people,

and that, if we shift to curiosity instead of judgments,

then maybe we can get along a little bit better.

The idea is to never give up, never give up.

And it's never too late to expand your comfort zone.

I've been trying to address this systemic problem of bullying since 1998,

and it was my "mission to the Moon,"

in 2013, when I was asked to be part of the Senate Committee

on how to change the culture of the RCMP.

I was also asked to provide

input on what it is like for victims,

the long-term impact for victims of bullying and harassment.

And it was my mission to the Moon to be part of it,

and to see that 75% of my words were implemented

into the final recommendations that were submitted to the government.

We are who we are from our life experiences.

I am still the kind of person who likes to hide in the closet,

and jump out and scare my husband,

and then giggle like a five-year-old.

And notice that the big teeth - the big teeth -

there's no similarity there.


Having a positive attitude is very powerful,

because that's the one thing we have complete control over

and it gives us resilience in life.

No matter where you are, no matter where you come from,

everybody deserves to have a safe and healthy workplace.

If you think one voice, your voice, doesn't count -

it does!

Mother Teresa said, "I alone cannot change the world,

but I can cast a stone across the river and create ripples."

What do you see in your kit? How would you make your own toolkit?

You probably already have some tools.

The idea is to be creative.

This helps your children as well.

Be a leader because, really, it all begins with you.

Thank you.