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Viewpoint: Tell Bullies to Step Off

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The rooftop was getting hotter. All day it was the same with Bob, the chief of our four-man crew, who barked orders for materials: "Nails!" "Shingles!" He yelled at everyone, especially me, the low man. I was a 20-something student on a break from college, earning money for school. We were putting a roof on a suburban home on a hill overlooking Coraopolis, northwest of Pittsburgh. Bob's shouting punctuated the days.

"Water! Where the hell is that kid with the water?"

He stood and shrugged, his frame silhouetted against the sky. Down in the driveway where the spigot was, I hustled to fill the big water jug. I heard Bob carping about me while I was getting the water.

"College boy can't even do that right!" he said.

I was halfway up the ladder when I heard it, and something snapped.

Bob had been ordering me around and treating me like a jerk since I started working on his crew. I put up with it because I was young, and he was foreman, older and a lot bigger than me. He had a problem with me being a student, but I wasn't pretentious.

He had a rough, north-sider accent and dark, leathery skin. Lanky and muscled, he stood six feet, four inches, and weighed about 230 pounds; I was five feet, 11 inches, and about 210.

 

BARNES
Everyone comes to work with baggage. Some have a predilection to push others around, while others are susceptible to bullying. Pittsburgh men of my generation, the 40-somethings from certain parts of town, took a lot of rough stuff from our fathers when we were young—cuffs on the head and belt whippings. In our adolescence, a punch to the face was a fairly common discipline. Older brothers meted out a similar justice to younger brothers.

Domestic violence and workplace violence, the way I see it, are related: The bully wants to control his target, and the habit of controlling by violence at home transfers to relationships on the job.

A foreman, though, is not a father or brother.

You don't know everything about your coworkers. So, I recently called the owner of the roofing company that Bob and I worked for, to see what he thought about my run-in with Bob 20 years earlier. Brian said Bob had a heroin and booze problem and lost his wife and kids because of it.

The Boss of Nothing

But why was he such a jerk to me? Brian answered, "That was his domain. He's the boss of that job, which means he's the boss of you. It was the only boss he'll ever be, and he wasn't even that—he was the boss of nothing. I think drugs had a lot to do with it."

I never asked Brian why he didn't defend me against Bob, but I don't think he would do anything differently with his workers today. Back when I was being pushed around by Bob, I can say the prevailing wisdom was that, when bullied, you should stick up for yourself.

That summer day when Bob made his comment while I was getting the water, the blood pounded in my ears. I climbed to the top of the ladder, set the jug down, stood up with fists clenched and told Bob, "You got a problem with me? Bring it."

Without a word, Bob got up from what he was doing in the middle of the roof, went to the far corner and busied himself with another task. I thought for sure that I would have had to fight.

Infuriated and fed up, I climbed down the ladder. "I'm outta here!" I shouted. With my announcement, Bob celebrated by tossing some shingles in the air and yelling, "Whoo!"

After hitchhiking home, I called Brian and told him about the confrontation. I told him I had quit.

"You already had the better of him, so why'd you quit?" Brian asked.

Truth is, I couldn't stand the thought of working with that guy any longer. By making me quit and get off that roof, I think he got the better of me, too.

I wonder why even nowadays, there is no ready phrase or language that employees can use to censor the bad behavior of one worker intimidating another.

I think all the hardworking men and women in the construction industry would be better off if, when we saw bullying, we had the guts to just say two words: "Step off." 

Jonathan Barnes is a freelance writer and has been ENR's Pittsburgh correspondent for more than 10 years. He writes the blog Barnestormin and can be reached at pittsburghreporter@yahoo.com.

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