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Combating Bullying in the Workplace: Insights from Former Nike Exec Megan Carle

Megan Carle talks with Alphy, maker of Reflect AI, about how to combat workplace bullying.

Megan Carle | Photo Credit Peter LaRowe

Getting our work done is tough enough. It’s even harder when we’re bullied — and many of us are. A 2021 Workplace Bullying Institute survey showed that 30% of Americans have suffered abusive conduct at work, 19% have witnessed it, and 49% of employees are affected by it. Millions more are bullied globally. 

Megan Carle, a former Nike executive who was so bullied that she quit, wrote Walk Away to Win: A Playbook to Combat Workplace Bullying, a 2023 guide on combating unhealthy workplaces. In an interview with Alphy, she shared how to identify and cope with this form of abuse. "It's so important to acknowledge that this is not endemic to Nike,” Carle says. “This is an epidemic. This is happening everywhere.” 

Forms of bullying vary. There’s overt public bullying —  loud and public displays of emotion, such as yelling or banging a fist on a table. There’s private bullying, in which a supervisor might praise us in front of coworkers and deride us behind closed doors. There’s gaslighting, in which we’re psychologically manipulated into questioning reality (supervisors or colleagues might deny they’ve said something to us or deny we’ve said something to them). The list goes on.

Bullying can lead us to feel stressed, anxious, and insecure about our abilities. It affects our trust with colleagues, and it can bleed into our personal relationships, too. Carle’s book is centered on her own experiences, but she includes the story of one woman who was so upset by being bullied that she threw up every morning before work, and the tale of another woman who was so distraught over being bullied she contemplated driving her car into a concrete barrier.

Often, bullying is detected only after the fact, after someone complains. Reflect AI is a proprietary technology that works as an email add-on to detect harmful and unlawful communication in real-time, before a message is sent. This innovative tool represents a proactive approach to combat workplace bullying and other unhelpful communications, empowering individuals and organizations to address harmful behavior before it escalates.

Carle emphasizes that bullying is the fault of the bully, not the person who is being bullied, as the behavior often stems from the bully’s fears and insecurities.  “I love the Michelle Obama quote, ‘Bullies are scared people inside of scary people,’” Carle says. 

Here’s another nuanced way to reframe our mindsets about bullying: People who are bullied aren’t victims, but targets, Carle says. Bullies, she says, are predators. They may target individuals who pose a threat to their perceived authority or competence, or enjoy the power and control they exert over others. “The bully targeted me just like a hurricane coming through my house,” she says. “I didn't ask for that. It. It found me.”

Organizations bear responsibility for helping employees deal with bullies, Carle believes. But not all human resource departments are helpful in that regard. Carle, a vice president/general manager of strategic initiatives, realized it was time to leave when she began to feel invisible and experienced dissociation at work. Redefining success was part of the strategy. Walking away from a company where she’d spent more than half her life was her way of winning. “I am not what I do,” she says. 

Carle suggests several strategies to combat workplace bullying:

Document everything: Targets of bullying should document their experiences to identify patterns of behavior and determine if the bullying is ongoing or isolated incidents. 

Try different approaches: Just as in sports or music, where you try different techniques, in dealing with bullies, you can try different strategies like ignoring, resisting, complying, or enlisting allies to help.

Enlist allies: One of the most effective strategies is to enlist the help of allies who can provide support and validation of your experiences. Allies can be powerful in confronting bullying behavior and advocating for change.

Seek help: While it's important to engage HR or management for help, not all HR departments are supportive. However, documenting your interactions with HR can be an important step in building a case against bullying.

Engage in self-care. Seek therapy, or engage in pleasurable activities outside of work. 

Should you decide to quit, Carle offers the following pointers: Save up enough money to live on until you land your next job. Get digital and hard copies of your positive performance reviews. Verify you’ll be paid out for remaining vacation and sick time. And make your exit date the first day of the month, to ensure you’ll have one more month of health care. 

The bottom line, says Carle, is that targets of bullying are not asking for it. Acquiescing isn’t a coping mechanism, because bullies thrive on seeing how much their targets will take. Recognize bullying for what it is, then start making choices. Ultimately, Carle wants people to see that “It's not your fault, you are not alone,” she says. “I hope that they will see it has nothing to do with them, and start to define their own win.”

Amanda Nurse is the editorial and operations coordinator at Alphy.

Reflect AI by Alphy is an AI communication compliance solution that detects and flags language that is harmful, unlawful, and unethical in digital communication. Alphy was founded to reduce the risk of litigation from harmful and discriminatory communication while helping employees communicate more effectively.


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