Workplace Culture

When Schoolyard Bullies Become Workplace Bullies

By Jon Hyman

Mar. 28, 2016

This is Donovan.

He’s 7 years old. And he has Noonan syndrome. Noonan syndrome is a genetic disorder caused by one of several genetic mutations. Donovan’s is of the PTPN11 gene. It is a multisystem disorder with an estimated prevalence of 1 in 1,000 to 2,500 births. In Donovan’s case, he has a bleeding (platelet function) disorder, a congenital heart defect (pulmonary valve stenosis), feeding and gastrointestinal issues (Celiac disease), ptosis of his right eye, small stature (for which he takes daily injections of growth hormones), and low-set ears.

By all accounts, he’s a pretty confident kid. He’s smart, funny, comfortable in groups of all ages, and overly sweet and affectionate. 

And, while he’s conscious of his differences, he’s never let them get him down. He embraces his daily growth-hormone injections because he knows they are helping him grow. He loves his glasses because everyone tells him how cool they look. He’s always quick with a Donovan-ism to break up a room. And he doesn’t mind his current toothless state, because missing teeth brings the Tooth Fairy, who brings money and future Lego Dimensions purchases.

That is, he never let them get him down until last week.

At school, a fourth grader made fun of his ears. And it really bothered him. It’s the first time I’ve seen him down in the dumps about who he is, or, more accurately, what it is about his syndrome that sets him apart.

As a parent, I had three reactions. In order:

     1. That %&?*! little punk. I’m gonna kick his ass. Truth is, the kid is a %&?*! punk. Lots of kids have issues with him, and will continue to have issues with him. 
     2. “Donovan, you need a hug. Sorry you had to hear that. We love you. Lots of people love lots of things about you. I can’t tell you not to let it bother you, because I can’t tell you how to feel. And I can’t tell you it won’t ever happen again. The fact is, I’m pretty confident it will. What I can tell you is that you will meet lots of people in life, and some will say mean things to you. Those who love you for who you are will far outnumber the meanies, trust me.”
     3. I’m not one of those parents who feels that I need to fix everything for my kids. I want my kids to grow up capable of handling their own problems. If I try to fix everything, they will never learn to be self-reliant. Instead they will learn to be dependent on others every time something goes wrong. The rest of today’s kids might grow up coddled, but mine won’t. My job as a parent is to provide my kids the tools to cope with adversity, not to shield them from adversity or to fix their problems for them.
Today’s schoolyard bully is tomorrow’s workplace bully. The question, however, is whether Gen Z (and whatever the generation after that will be called — Generation Alpha?) is prepared to handle the workplace bully. My fear is that we are raising a generation that is so prepared in relying on their parents that they will run to HR the first time someone offends their sense of anything at work.
Employees, your employer is not your parent. Employees need to take responsibility for their own problems and not burden HR with every petty workplace slight and insult. It’s when the self-help doesn’t work, or when the offense is so bad that self-help is not possible that employee issues need to become employer issues. An employer’s job is not to adjust every petty grievance between employees.
I felt (and still feel) horrible that Donovan’s feelings were hurt. It was his first experience in which someone treated him poorly because of his differences. And it won’t be the last. The question for him is how he reacts when it happens again, and what these experiences teach him about how to react if it happens in the decades to come at work.
Jon Hyman is a partner in the Employment & Labor practice at Wickens Herzer Panza. Contact Hyman at

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