I spent nearly 30 years as a Nike executive, ascending to leadership positions no woman had held before. My final role at the company was as the vice president/general manager of North America basketball. It was my dream job. On the night in Paris when I was to meet my new team, something unusual happened—or perhaps I should say, didn’t happen.
The global basketball team had tied this gathering to an event called “Quai 54”—a world streetball tournament held at the Trocadero, with the Eiffel Tower looming overhead. More than 20,000 fans cheered on as talent from ten nations competed in five-on-five basketball games under a banner that read, “Bring Your Game, Not Your Name.” I was in heaven as I watched what the players and the fans were wearing, reacting to, and experiencing.
Afterward, I and the other executives convened to our nearby hotel for corporate strategic review sessions. No meeting was more important than this one—my first with this new global team. My new boss, whose previous position I was filling, stood up. He welcomed everyone. I breathed in deeply, ready for him to introduce me to the team I’d be joining.
Only he didn’t. No name. No nod. No nothing.
I didn’t know it then, but failing to introduce me was a subtle bullying tactic often misdiagnosed as a lack of manners. Because I’d been at the company for more than a quarter of a century, I knew many of the people in the room, but still it bothered me. Introductions are important. They connect us to each other. They imply an endorsement of sorts.
On the other hand, it seemed like a minor thing, right? Perhaps my new boss was taking the “bring your game, not your name” theme literally.
But by not introducing me, this leader set the stage for how he would treat me from that day forward: as if I was invisible. It was not the first time I experienced workplace bullying, and at the time I wouldn’t have known to label it as such. But it was, and it laid the foundation for the treatment that eventually led me to leave the company I loved, when the emotional and physical costs became too much.
I’m not alone. According to 2021 data from the Workplace Bullying Institute, workplace bullying has affected almost 80 million U.S. workers. To provide some context, that means one out of every two workers has been affected by workplace bullying. That’s one half of the U.S. workforce.
It’s important to note what workplace bullying is not, as much as what it is. Workplace bullying is not simple rudeness or incivility. It’s not healthy debate, creative tension, or a difference of opinion. It’s not about being challenged or pushed or having a bad day. And it’s not about conflict.
Instead, bullying is about one person dominating another. It’s about dehumanizing, degrading, and devaluing targets. It’s about power and control. While there can be a sexual or physical component to workplace bullying, often there is not. Instead, the definition is somewhat vague: “persistent health-harming mistreatment.” It is a form of abuse that is not readily defined as taboo. In fact, many companies and organizations (shamefully) consider it a normal business practice.
That 2021 survey from WBI goes on to note that about 70% of workplace bullies are men, and their preferred targets are women. And the preferred targets of female bullies are also women. Why?
Sexism and scarcity have a lot to do with women being preferred targets. Sexism is a potent ingredient in an unhealthy workplace culture. Whether consciously or unconsciously, sexist assumptions perpetuate hierarchical thinking, which is limiting and detetrimental to employees’ well-being, performance, and job satisfaction.
Scarcity can be an effective marketing tool, but when implemented in the workplace environment, scarcity is also a dangerous enabler of an unhealthy organization. That sense of scarcity is leveraged to pit people from under-represented groups against each other.
Both add up to women being more vulnerable, and feeling they lack the power or support to fight back. It makes sense. Women in business are often in an inhospitable environment in which they don’t see many of themselves represented. When they do “make it,” they’re often “the only” woman in their role, so their “otherness” is obvious. When that one woman makes it through the gauntlet to the top tier, she operates in such a dictatorial way—perhaps trying to camouflage her own fear—that she does not help other women. After all, she hadn’t received help; why should she pull other women up? Instead, this sexism- and scarcity-driven environment is the perfect petri dish for workplace bullying to germinate.
The first step to making workplace bullying a thing of the past is to recognize this behavior in the office, on Zoom, or in closed door meetings. Bullies take aim at their targets in public settings or in private; they might bully them overtly with screaming and cursing—or they might covertly try to undermine them, or plant doubts about their skills. Bullies might also do all of the above.
The sad truth is that if you are being targeted by a workplace bully, you may not get much support from your employer. This person probably has friends in high places, and perhaps their behavior is even dismissed as “just the way they are.” HR often can’t help, or won’t. And as if workplace bullying isn’t slippery enough, it—unlike sexual harassment—is not illegal.
When this happens, targets are left on their own, unsteady, unsafe, and uncertain about what is going to come at them next. Targets feel confused, even crazy, and responsible for their own deterioration. I’ve seen once-confident people start to doubt their capability to perform even the most basic tasks. I saw one of them staring back at me from the mirror for years—and my husband and children saw that person too.
Women and men targeted by workplace bullies deserve so much better. Companies must get serious about setting no-tolerance policies for this behavior—and ensure the consequences stick. This might not happen until businesses wake up to the expensive truth: bullies cause your top talent to walk away, the heath and culture of your company to decline, and financial losses to add up, because of all of the above.
To those who have been targeted by a bully: I see you. You’re not imagining it. And if you need to move on from that dream job to wake up from this nightmare, it’s the best—and sometimes only—way to win.