Dying to Be Heard?
Leah P. Hollis writes of the need to address workplace bullying after the tragic death of Antoinette Candia-Bailey.
Antoinette “Bonnie” Candia-Bailey
Many in the higher education community are mourning the untimely loss of a colleague, Antoinette (Bonnie) Candia-Bailey. The former vice president of student affairs at Lincoln University, in Missouri, was only 49 when she died by suicide. In emails sent before she died, she accused the president of Lincoln, a historically Black university, of bullying and harassing her, causing her mental harm.
Black women, in particular, note yet another woman of color, by her account, cut down by her organization, and they are startled that her employer, an HBCU, seemingly allowed this to occur. Unfortunately, scholars of workplace bullying are not surprised because time and again in our research respondents comment that they have considered suicide to escape a bully.
I have been studying workplace bullying for more than a decade. Between 58 and 62 percent of higher education employees face workplace bullying. The percentages are higher for women, people of color and members of the LGBTQ+ community. These vulnerable populations often do not have the power to resist organizational aggression and betrayal.
Though several states (California, Maryland, Minnesota, Tennessee and Utah) have some type of legislation or policy in place to prohibit workplace bullying, these are penned to protect the powerful employer; only Puerto Rico has strong workplace bullying protections in place. Workplace bullying is still to a large extent legal in the U.S., where under federal laws harassment must be tied to protected class status (race, gender, age, ethnicity, national origin, etc.) for an employee to take independent legal action.
Some organizations dismiss bullying as stemming from personality conflicts or difficult employees. However, workplace bullying is based on a power differential; when someone abuses the power they have over another, that abuse of power leads to emotional and psychological damage for the target. As we reflect on higher education, we know the bastions of power lie in the presidents’, provosts’ and deans’ offices. A close look at American Council on Education data on the college presidency reveals that such powerful positions are held primarily by white men. The power structures in higher education still fall along racial and gendered lines.
While it was once considered a universal, colorblind phenomenon, workplace bullying data confirm that race and gender matter and are statistically significant factors in the higher education workplace when it comes to bullying. Yet across many colleges and universities there appears to be widespread apathy about this problem. In a recent study of more than 200 human resources personnel at four-year institutions, more than 61 percent stated they didn’t know about workplace bullying training and that workplace bullying just isn’t a priority at their institution.
In this context, one can revisit the work of Carly Parnitzke Smith and Jennifer J. Freyd, scholars who have studied organizational betrayal. We, as higher education employees, rely on our institutions for our well-being, health-care coverage and, at times, education for loved ones. Naturally, we are financially dependent on that organization; therefore, when the organization falters, employees must decide if they will tolerate the problem to avoid rupturing the relationship or leave the relationship by taking another job.
I fear what we are witnessing at Lincoln University may amount to an organizational betrayal that cost a vice president her life. In reviewing the emails, one can see that Candia-Bailey, a 1998 graduate of Lincoln who took the vice president of student affairs job just last spring, submitted complaints about President John Moseley to the institution’s board and to human resources and sought accommodations for “severe depression and anxiety” under the Americans With Disabilities Act and the Family and Medical Leave Act. After receiving a negative performance evaluation this past fall, Candia-Bailey asked for a specific performance plan, but she claimed Moseley sidestepped the request. She received notice of termination Jan. 3 and was warned that if she did not vacate her campus apartment by the time her firing went into effect, in February, campus police “will promptly remove you and your possessions from the apartment.” I imagine her being stunned and appalled, feeling betrayed by her own alma mater.
If one did not think a Black woman could be abused at an HBCU, reflect on a recent study I conducted in which Black women from HBCUs made up 62 percent of the sample. Over all, the study revealed poor treatment and the abuse they faced while trying to achieve tenure. Between unequal-pay issues, overloaded course assignments and outsize service requirements, Black women are still treated like second-class citizens in the academy.
Candia-Bailey’s suicide resonates with me, as I have studied workplace bullying and its impact on vulnerable populations. Research respondents report depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder, insomnia, hypertension, panic attacks and suicidal ideation. As a result, bullied women specifically have reported irregular menstrual cycles, preterm childbirth and miscarriages. The stress of dealing with a workplace bully is health harming and life-threatening.
As we mourn for Candia-Bailey, we also need to recast policy to prevent such abuse for everyone. Though I am commenting on the Lincoln University tragedy and Black women specifically, the data show that anyone can face bullying. I receive calls from men, women and gender-fluid colleagues of all races and backgrounds, desperate to find relief from a workplace bully. While we in higher education have yet to embrace workplace bullying as an existential threat, we can consider some strategies to end this abuse:
- Seek a counselor or life coach. The human body is not built to withstand unrelenting mental and emotional stress. A stressed mind leads to emotional decisions, but a counselor or life coach can help develop an escape route or strategy for resisting the bullying.
- Share the problems with family and friends. Too often, bullied colleagues hide their pain in shame. By not sharing the problem, they lock themselves out of potential help and solutions from people who care about them.
- Unions and faculty senates can forge change. For example, the University of South Carolina has an excellent system to combat bullying, including an entire investigatory process and mechanisms for holding bullies accountable. Its Faculty Senate supports this process.
- If you choose to report a bully to human resources, be cautious about how that department has handled previous complaints. Though it is good to create a record of bad behavior, depending on the circumstances the target may exacerbate the problem by reporting it, since Title VII of the Civil Rights Act does not cover workplace bullying alone, absent its interrelation with a protected category.
- Write your congressperson to insist on legislation to make workplace bullying actionable in and of itself, like in Puerto Rico. A letter-writing campaign can further highlight the urgency for such policies. Several states, such as New York and Massachusetts, have introduced the Healthy Workplace Bill to prevent workplace bullying.
- When such legislation is debated at state capitals, join the hearing and testify about what you have seen or experienced. You can also send written testimony to be considered at the legislative hearing.
- Create an institutional policy to prohibit workplace bullying. Even if a state does not have a sweeping or effective policy, colleges and universities can craft policies to maintain a civil and respectful culture. Alamo Colleges District has an excellent policy.
- At the department level, even without an institutional policy, leadership can set the tone for civility and respect throughout the unit.
- Take a page from civil rights reforms: collective action can foster change. A large group of faculty and staff can insist on changes that sustain a healthy workplace.
The higher education community mourns the loss of Antoinette Candia-Bailey, yet we have also seen our colleagues endure similar issues. With two of three research respondents from the aforementioned studies reporting that they faced bullying, it is statistically reasonable that readers have witnessed or experienced workplace bullying. This psychological and emotional abuse erodes our mission and demoralizes the very people committed to educating our communities. Yet this epidemic of bad behavior continues to spiral out of control.
At Lincoln University, President Moseley is on administrative leave amid numerous calls for his resignation. The tragedy at Lincoln raises a terrible question—did Candia-Bailey have to die to be heard?
Dr. Leah P. Hollis, a Boston University Martin Luther King Jr Fellow for Social Justice, has been awarded the Lucy Wheelock Alumni Award for 2022. Specifically, the Boston University/Wheelock alumni network honors Hollis for “championing causes such as workplace bullying, discrimination, pay inequity, and gender bias.” Many of her colleagues comment that Hollis’ advocacy inspired the historical 9% raise for faculty and the introduction of more substantial pay bumps as the point of tenure and promotion. Boston University Professor and Dean Emeritus, Dr. Hardin Coleman stated, “it is impressive they way in which Dr Hollis uses her research and practical experience to effect real change in the world that often benefits the most vulnerable.” Hollis’s efforts align with Morgan State core values of excellence, integrity, respect, diversity, innovation, and leadership. Therefore, she is a recent awardee of the Dr. Iva G Jones award, the highest award bestowed on faculty at Morgan State University for research, teaching, services, and character.
Hollis has dedicated her academic research to workplace bullying and specifically how bullying disproportionately affects women and people of color. Her research informs her Social Justice course which won an award from AERA (American Educational Research Association). Hollis has penned over 50 articles and worked with over 300 colleges and universities to curtail costly and health-harming workplace bullying on campus. In the last year, she has completed two books with Routledge, Human Resource Perspectives on Workplace Bullying in Higher Education Understanding Vulnerable Employees’ Experiences (2021) and Black Women, Intersectionality, and Workplace Bullying Intersecting Distress(2022). Hollis continues to work through her consulting group, Patricia Berkly LLC
Julius knows he has been bullied since his arrival on the job.
While Julius was a stand out during the interview and the search committee liked him, his boss is jealous that he earned his masters at Penn. Julius threw a wonderful party for his mother’s retirement. Julius was even quoted in the news. No matter how Julius succeeded, his boss turned up his nose.
On most days, Julius was either strategizing on how to avoid the boss or working diligently to add to his resume and plot his departure At least once a week Julius was yelled at in open meetings. He found his office locked. No one would answer his questions and he soon found himself isolated on the job. He had a few buddies from his last job who were advising him to just get out. Nonetheless, the bullying at work was beyond a distraction. Julius returned to his old habit of smoking. He also realized that at least twice a week, he turned to over- the-counter sleep aids.
Though he was once a healthy young man, while he toiled under the boss’s jealousy, Julius turned to comfort foods more often.
Hamburgers and French fries with a nice beer was his favorite. He watched more television and fought off some depression. While his work didn’t suffer, Julius’ health did. Like most people who work in stressful situation, Julius found that his health was declining. What used to be a simple walk around the block, turned into a tortuous event. Julius’s comfort food choices led to cholesterol issues during his physical. He had even gained 25 pounds and had to buy new clothes. While his work didn’t suffer, his health did. In reflection, Julius realized he indulged in all his bad habits as stress relievers from work. He realized he needed to return to simple things to cut his health risk.
1. Walking – any walking whether around the gym or around the mall can help burn off the stress hormone cortisol that is released into your system during stressful situations
2. Have a support system who can listen to you ( hopefully while you are walking). Talking out the situation can help relieve stress.
3. Consider your options with the job. How long do you REALLY have to stay? Network with colleagues to find a healthier work environment.
4. Recognize that the bullying will not stop without an intervention. Unless leadership intervenes to deal with Julius’ boss, or the boss leaves, the boss will continue.
5. Sometimes the boss who is a bully is insecure. Instead of supporting or recognizing great talent, the boss abuses staff members like Julius.
6. Dealing with stress is difficult. Forgive yourself for those questionable habits and try to return to healthy habits
Though Julius recognized nothing could be done with the boss, his physical was a real eye opener. Julius realized that people were leaving every year; turnover was common. While he was bidding his time and managing his professional life, Julius realized that he couldn’t let bullying rob him of his health.
Did you know that being stressed out could cause brain damage?
These are the findings from Dr. Klaus Miczek, a Tufts University psychologist. He found a way to replicate bullying for rodents. By placing a larger and aggressive rat in a cage with younger rats, Miczek observed how the more aggressive rat pushed and abused the younger rats.
Those younger rats produced more stress hormones called corticosterone. He also found that his hormone could stay in the brain long after the incident. For young and developing brains of children, such stress creates a higher propensity for drug abuse, alcoholism, anxiety and depression.
Dr. Miczek found that four different incidents, of only five minutes each, had a lasting effect on the rats. In children with higher stress hormones, the immune system is weaker and memory is challenged. Bullying in humans kills nerve cells.
Therefore, those who face bullying for years are not only enduring the abuse at the time, the targets are compromising healthy brain activity to stay in an abusive situation.
For more information on this neuroscience research, please visit Brainfacts.org http://www.brainfacts.org/in-society/in-society/articles/2015/bullying-and-the-brain
She needed data from the research office, and also promotional materials from the institution’s marketing division. She was on a deadline, but still needed to move forward and show progress.
Layla was referred to Vivien in research. Vivien had come highly recommended and apparently a very competent colleague. During Layla’s initial contact with Vivien, they made a series of agreements about time line, gathering data, and how it should be conveyed for Layla’s project. Layla even developed a grid to confirm data in an effort to make Vivien’s job easier.
But something went wrong.
After the initial contact, Vivien didn’t welcome direct phone calls. Though through email, Vivien insisted she could deliver the data within the time limits and insisted with Layla “…and don’t call me.” Layla knew this was awkward. How could any two professionals work without communication?
When the deadline finally came, Vivien had not followed through with what was promised. Layla could work with the delay but needed more information to manage other parts of the project. Apparently, Layla made a big mistake in picking up the phone for clarity. Not only did Vivien refuse to answer, Vivien immediately fired back with a very nasty email…”I told you not to call me… you are disturbing me…!”
When Layla mentioned this email to her office mate the answer back was, “Oh yeah, Vivien is just like that…”
This excuse is often given when someone acts unprofessional in the office. When incivility and a nasty attitude goes unchecked, the aggressor becomes emboldened and holds the office hostage with his or her nasty behavior. But what can Layla do? She needs the data.
How to handle bad behavior:
- Trading self-respect for a project is never a good idea. Ignoring bad behavior only reinforces it and makes the aggressor more aggressive.
- Layla should speak up. No one should put up with a nasty attitude just to collaborate on a project. One of the reasons targets are bullied or picked on is because the aggressor perceives that the target will endure the abuse.
- Layla can find another way to work around Vivien. Are there other sources of data? Is there another way to present the report without Vivien’s information?
- Layla shouldn’t take it personally. The aggression apparently has personal issues. Layla never met Vivien before, and doesn’t have a history to make her that upset. Layla should check the behavior, then move onward and upward.
Remember, we train people on how to treat us. If we say nothing about the abuse, we are indeed accepting unacceptable behavior. Bullies and aggressive people act this way because they are “ALLOWED” to act out.
We are entering that cherished time of they year…
Halloween moving through Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Years is a time where office parties and progressively bad behavior seem to be overlooked underneath the haze of holiday cheer. There is nothing like spiked apple cider, rum cake and that mysterious red punch at the party to make colleague and supervisor overlook their better senses.
Employees who are new to their career might find this to be an invitation to join in the “reindeer games,” without considering the consequences when they sober up the next day. Take a page from Lance, the new assistant director who got a bit comfortable with his boss at a party.
With the apple bob at lunch and spicy cider mixture that somehow got spiked, the office staff was at ease in an environment that was typically tense and rigid. Lance was thrilled with the holiday cheer as his first year under his boss, Artie, was less than something to celebrate. Lance noticed that the rest of the staff was at ease too, maybe this was the end to the yelling and manipulative behavior that had been the norm for his department. Maybe Lance could finally relax.
Artie and Lance had a chance to chat over the apple cider.
Artie had let his hair down, discussed his own insecurities with upper management and with a buzz, confided in Lance about fears of losing respect at the top. Lance felt comfortable and joined in, sharing his own insecurities with his low grade point average in college, feeling unaccomplished with his quest of grad school, and his lack luster relationship with on-again-off-again girlfriend. For about 90 minutes, though induced by alcohol, they were civil human beings for a change. As the office party came to an end, the staff took their last nibbles at cookies and caramel corn, then returned to a relatively productive afternoon on the job. All seemed well.
The next day, Lance reported to work to find that things were “back to normal.” No one made eye contact with each other. There was a muffled tirade coming from Artie’s office. As Lance settled in, his cube mate remarked, “ the ogre is back…!”
Artie quickly came around the corner and berated Lance for being 15 minutes late. He reminded Lance that “this is why he couldn’t make the cut in grad school…” and that “… no woman would stick with him given his tardiness..” Lance was demoralized. All the things he had shared over spiced cider was coming back to haunt him publically. He was powerless to respond, and saw no relief from the terror which returned to the office.
Lance was caught in what he saw as an impossible situation. Without other support, he couldn’t imagine his next steps, let alone how to get to the end of the day. Advice to all employees, don’t be afraid of self-advocacy in regard to office bullying, however be careful in your tactics.
1. Keep a diary with dates and clear examples of harassment and bullying. Keep this diary, supporting emails about your performance and performance appraisals at home. Know however, employees don’t have a right to harbor proprietary information about the job.
2. Find out about the history of bullying in the office. Had others complained? What was the result? Did HR support the target or the bully? This information will determine next steps.
3. Quietly look for another job. Keep in mind that announcing a job hunt is actionable and can motivate an organization to terminate you. Don’t trust anyone in a toxic environment about your own plans to leave.
4. If the evidence supports a complaint, take records to HR about specific instances of bullying. Consider ways to couch the problem as a “what’s in it for them.” Show HR how the bully is hurting the organization, which is their main concern. Is the bully boss coercing staff to break the rules, overlook policy, or engage in other behavior that can hurt the organization?
5. If the bullying is occurring within a Title VII protected class (target is bullied because of race, gender, religion, pregnancy, genetic information etc) this can be an EEO charge where retaliation from the employer for reporting is against the law.
A few things to remember…
If the boss was a bully before the office party, he or she will continue after the office party once everyone sobers up. Don’t let your guard down just because it is the holidays. Further, don’t be afraid to learn your rights and strategize on how to advocate for yourself. Studies show that people who maintain a spiritual grounding and locus of control for their futures can weather the storm of a bully.
To learn more about her upcoming book on workplace bullying, the costs of higher education and the solutions and recommendations to higher education leadership also revealed through this study, visit Dr. Leah Hollis and Patricia Berkly, LLC at www.diversitytrainingconsultants.com Bully in the Ivory Tower is available on Amazon.com.