Are You a Pansy?

Belittling and insults can be forms of workplace bullying, but the author emphasizes that name calling doesn’t define one’s character.

As I sit in my second-floor home office looking down on the patio, I spy the recently planted pansies. In late fall every year, I plant pansies in the planters strapped to the iron railing around the patio. They replace the geraniums which are the summer occupants of the planters.

Over the years I have come to admire the pansies. I have tried other plants, but none have outshone the pansies for a winter flower. They are by far the toughest winter flowering plants I have ever seen. They do not in any manner represent the normal use of the word pansy.

When I was growing up, if someone was called a pansy it denoted a weak and powerless person. It had over time also become associated as a slur on gay people. The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines a pansy as a weak or effeminate man or boy, used as a term of abuse and disparagement.

When people bully others in the workplace, they often use words of disparagement meant to belittle the other person. These words are meant to make them feel inferior or in some manner lacking. For many bullies, using these words gives them a sense of power over others. Using racial and ethnic slurs seeks to accomplish the same goal. It’s about dominance or in some cases even hatred.

Name-calling started in elementary school for many of us either as the name-caller or recipient of the abuse. Some of the bullies on the playground would taunt other kids with physical and verbal assaults. Often the intent was to make someone cry, thereby confirming that they were a crybaby.

Unfortunately, some people have not left this childhood behavior on the playground but have taken it into the workplace.

What is a bully? Once again relying on Merriam-Webster, a bully is someone “who is habitually cruel, insulting, or threatening to others who are weaker, smaller, or in some way vulnerable.”

At some point in our lifetimes, we have all known or seen someone who met this definition and acted as a bully. It could be a playmate, a parent, a teacher, a spouse, a co-employee, etc. The list is endless because the potential interactions we have with others are also endless.

Bullying in the workplace has now been recognized as a significant workplace problem. There is training to spot bullies and what to do if bullying happens to you.

It will be impossible to wipe all bullies off the face of the earth. More are always being made at many playgrounds. Now that there is an official sanction on bullying in many workplaces, hopefully, these efforts will act to curb its spread.

The pansy has a name that doesn’t fit it all. The pansy is a very tough customer. You may be called names by a bully, but just remember the pansy – names don’t really define who you are.

About the Author

Joe Swerdzewski, former General Counsel of the FLRA & owner of JSA LLC is the author of The Essential Guide to Federal Labor Relations, A Guide to Successful Federal Sector Collective Bargaining, etc. For more info on JSA’s services, email or subscribe to JSA’s newsletter.