Choose Lateral Kindness in Confronting Workplace Bullying



A message from Dr. Nel Wieman, FNHA Deputy Chief Medical Officer during Workplace Bullying Awareness Week (Oct. 17-23)Dr-Nel-Wieman.jpg

Bullying should never be tolerated, but unfortunately, it is something that can happen in all kinds of situations and environments, including the workplace. Bullying is a public health issue that causes psychological pain, damages the morale of individuals and teams, and can even diminish an organization's reputation.

Developing a healthy office culture includes taking steps to ensure employees feel safe, valued, and respected. This means taking reports of workplace bullying seriously and dealing with them early on to ensure a professional, non-toxic, safe, harmonious working environment for all.

As the FNHA is an organization that supports and promotes health and wellness for First Nations people in BC, with employees who are either First Nations people themselves, or allies, I will frame the problem of workplace bullying using two terms that are well-known to most of us, i.e., “lateral violence" and “lateral kindness." These terms were developed by Indigenous scholars and are based on Indigenous ways of knowing.

Lateral Violence

Lateral violence is a term that refers to displaced violence; that is, anger directed towards members within one's own marginalized or oppressed community rather than towards the factors contributing to the anger. For example, a First Nations woman responding to internal or external stressors by bullying another First Nations woman in the workplace.

Lateral violence harms mental, physical, emotional, and spiritual health. It includes bullying, which may involve harassing, gossiping about, excluding, or stigmatizing others, as well as other unkind behaviours. Its roots lie in factors including but not limited to colonization, racism, discrimination, and intergenerational trauma.

I have experienced bullying in my life. As a Sixties' Scoop Survivor, I didn't know much about my ancestry (Little Rapids First Nation) when I was young, or how to speak my language. I have had some awful things said to me – painful racist name-calling – but I was also called names such as “apple" (meaning red on the outside and white inside) by other First Nations people.

These experiences showed me that we don't just have to look for instances of bullying outside of our First Nations communities; sometimes, greater harm can come from within our communities. We sometimes can think about, talk about, or behave negatively toward each other and cause great harm.

Lateral Kindness

Lateral kindness is an approach based on First Nations teachings and beliefs about respect, fairness, and the importance of social harmony, community, and healthy relationships. A lateral kindness approach is intended to help prevent or at least address and attempt to counteract lateral violence. An ideal workplace is one where the environment is built on a foundation of lateral kindness.

Many of our cultural teachings also include the message that we are all connected and that we are one, i.e., what happens to one, affects / happens to all. As First Nations people, we have more than enough to deal with. Healing and decolonizing from the traumatic effects of genocidal / assimilationist policies and systems such as the residential “school" system, the Sixties' Scoop, and the Indian reservation system means acting with lateral kindness toward each other to honour these teachings. It is time we start to focus on lifting each other UP and stop bullying amongst ourselves.

Using Lateral Kindness to Address Lateral Violence

Lateral violence sometimes stems from high-stress situations, and of course, keeping a job to earn a living while working with many other people is a potentially stressful part of most people's lives.

If you are experiencing bullying / lateral violence in the workplace, you may become angry, depressed, frustrated, or stressed because you just want peace and a safe work environment, and are not interested in becoming involved in a fight. 

You will want to remain calm and try to respond with kindness, as becoming emotional and angry, or returning the bad behaviour, will only make you appear unprofessional. This is what bullies aim for; they work to discredit you and get others to believe, along with them, that you are deserving of the bullying.

If responding kindly and calmly is not working, and the bully persists, you may decide to go to your manager. If they do not want to get involved, or have already been recruited by the bully, you will need to go to your human resources department to ensure your concerns are recorded and addressed. It is helpful to make a factual, non-emotional list of the incidents you feel are examples of bullying behaviours.

In the meantime, try to maintain your own peace of mind and focus on the practical steps you can take to end the problem, including doing your best to maintain healthy, professional workplace boundaries. For example, only talk about your experiences at work with someone trustworthy, and avoid talking about them with other coworkers.

Above all, be kind to yourself and don't allow others' unkindness to undermine your feelings of self-worth. Being bullied at your workplace can be frustrating, insulting, and depressing – but unfortunately, it is fairly common. If you're having trouble standing up for yourself, consider working with a counsellor to learn tools and strategies to strengthen your communication skills, confidence, and assertiveness.

Talking with a mental health professional about the stress of being bullied at work can also help support your emotional and psychological wellness. If you're feeling depressed or having thoughts of self-harm, please know that you are not alone, and see the resources listed below for more information.  


If you are experiencing bullying, and need help or someone to talk to:

24 Hour KUU-US Crisis Line: 1-800-588-8717​​

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