How I Didn’t Become a Victim to Bullying: Caroline Dean at TEDxQueenstown (Transcript)

Following is the full transcript of workplace conflict and bullying consultant, Caroline Dean’s TEDx Talk: How I Didn’t Become a Victim to Bullying at TEDxQueenstown conference. This event occurred on April 19, 2015. To learn more about the speaker, read the bio here.

Caroline Dean – Workplace conflict and bullying consultant

Today, I’m going to tell you my story. And it’s the first time I’ve spoken publicly about it. Thank you.

And I’m feeling quite apprehensive about it. And, as Mary said, it’s actually been far more challenging getting to this point than I had realized. I felt fine about it, until I got to New Zealand. And, as the days got closer, I’ve got even less fine about it.

Last month, Jeremy Clarkson, who’s a Top Gear host, punched his producer in the face, and he was fired. He’d been warned multiple times about his behavior. In 2014, he was given a final warning. One million people petitioned BBC to have him reinstated, but, if you notice, the producer is missing from the conversation. We don’t know what kind of impact this has had on him, but we do know that Clarkson’s fans have blamed him for this situation. He’s been relentlessly pursued on social media.

The question I ask all of you is: who’s the victim and who’s the villain in this scenario? And just because Clarkson’s popular and famous doesn’t make what he did right. I’ve always been fascinated by right and wrong. At 10, I wrote a short story about what it would be like to be in solitary confinement. I wondered what it would be like to live in a small cell that I couldn’t leave. In my 30s, I taught life skills to minimum security prisoners on day release.

At university, I studied crime and criminal justice. And some years later, I went to work in a maximum security prison. It was the most interesting and exciting job I’d ever had, but it was also the hardest. A coronial report into suicides of five male prisoners, in a four-month period, found gross inadequacies in the system. The recommendation to change from warehousing prisoners to rehabilitation was why I was employed. My role was to develop pre and post-release programs to support long-term prisoners ready to get back into the community. I was full of idealism, ideas and energy. And, though I thought I knew what it would be like to work in a maximum security prison, I really had no idea. It was the most toxic and boiling system I’d ever worked in. I didn’t realize it at the time, though, but it would redefine my work from here on in, and it opened my eyes to a world of bullying and gave me the idea that we should be addressing bullying differently.

While I worked at the prison, I was bullied every day. Some days it was subtle, and I wondered if I’d imagined it. At other times, it was very direct. I was accused of trafficking contraband items, I was investigated routinely for alleged security violations, I was verbally threatened, and I was physically cornered. I felt safer in the company of prisoners than I did with my own colleagues, and I built relationships with them based on respect and compassion. They trusted me and, for the most part, I trusted them.

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By contrast, my colleagues operated as separate individuals. Everyone was out for themselves. There was zero trust, and we were pitted against each other. When I couldn’t summon the energy to go into the prison, I took refuge in my office outside the prison grounds. My resilience lowered – pardon me – and I was emotionally exhausted. I operated in a state of hypervigilance and fear, even when I wasn’t at work. I expected the worst all the time. It affected me, my family and my relationships, and it took over my life completely. I worked in the prison for four years, and, when I left, the bullying still didn’t stop.

I continued to tutor prison students on a voluntary basis, and I was falsely accused of supplying a prisoner with the plans to the new prison, which, I might add, were freely available in the public domain. As a result, I was banned from every prison in Australia for life. When I left the prison service, I suffered severe anxiety and regular panic attacks. I was self-destructive, obsessed with what had happened to me, unable to do even the most basic things, like shop or pay the bills or cook for my family. I thought about suicide. I suffered a complete breakdown, and was unable to work for some years. Though this situation sounds extreme, it’s actually more common than you’d think. One conversation I had with the director of the prisons was revealing. I expressed concern about noticing that management were bullying staff. He told me that, as far as he was concerned, there was no one being bullied because no one had reported it.

72% of employers deny, discount and defend bullying behavior. The director of prisons was a case in point. Staff told me that being bullied was common for them, but they’re adamant that they weren’t going to make a complaint. They told me it was a quick way to end their career. One wonders how long the BBC producer might last in his role, and, by the way, his name is Oisin Tymon, he’s 38 and he comes from Ireland. Following my prison experience, it would have been easy to believe that people are born bullies and deliberately want to cause others harm. Instead, I realized what happened to me was cultural, not personal. I knew that I wasn’t the only one being affected. Staff and management were all products of their environment, and, in this environment, it was normal practice to treat others badly.

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