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Just a few years ago, I worked for a small business. I partnered with a man who started with more pay than I was originally offered, even though I had more experience and more education.
Jockeying for power was the name of the game in the “partnership.” He needed to be seen as more powerful, even though he most often had no updates at staff meetings. His exhausting know-it-all attitude came out even when I had more experience on a subject, as if I were invisible or not good enough. He fought for an office twice the size of others available despite my vocalizing concerns of equal respect and treatment in a male-dominated industry. He needed to be top dog even though he didn’t earn it. And he manipulated others into believing I was the problem.
The partner was a family member.
I ended up leaving the job. Some family members chalked it up to a personality conflict. Some took sides without ever hearing my side. And not a single shareholder stepped in to investigate the issue even though they were all aware of the problem.
I wasn’t entirely shocked. Genders had roles growing up in my family. Girls were the cleaners at the holidays, while boys were left with the men to relax. Mothers saw their daughters as extensions of their own images, dishing out harsher criticism and expectations to them. When I did stand up for myself, I was dismissed and belittled as “sensitive” or “emotional” — told to “relax” or “calm down” when I advocated for myself. The devaluing simply extended into adulthood.
It seemed that devaluing women was so deeply ingrained that my path was set in place before I even set foot in the door of the business. If you’ve been abused at work, these details are all too familiar.
When I began working after college, I saw similar patterns — patterns where it was easy to push around the harder workers, often women, the ones who wanted the organization to be great. I saw know-it-alls with lousy work ethics get ahead, using their charm and egos rather than track records to climb the ladder. I saw outright sabotage, false accusations, verbal abuse, and manipulation — and zero accountability when people spoke up. The rules were patriarchal — rooted in competition rather than cooperation. At every turn, I wondered if paths would be different if we swapped the genders of targets.
Let’s change the law
Make no mistake: men can be abused at work just as they can experience sexual harassment or domestic violence. But with 66 percent of targets being women, 53 percent of targets being Hispanic, African American, or Asian (but only 23 percent of the U.S. population combined according to Census.gov), and 61 percent of bullies being bosses according to a 2017 Workplace Bullying Institute (WBI) survey, workplace abuse is a perfectly legal form of sexism, racism, and classism — other flavors of abuse of power like sexual harassment — that prevent people from not only gaining power but also from getting basic dignity and respect.
The numbers are significant. With 38 percent of the U.S. population affected by workplace bullying according to the WBI and 327 million people in the U.S. according to Census.gov, 124 million in the U.S. have either experienced or witnessed workplace bullying. That’s the equivalent of the populations of California, Texas, Florida, New York, and Illinois combined. If we replaced the populations of just California, Texas, and Illinois with women only, we’d find the number of women affected by workplace abuse. That’s staggering.
For the most part, only those in protected classes — who can prove their harassment is from being in that protected class — have law on their side. But other laws don’t operate that way: behavior is what matters. Rapists and murderers aren’t only held accountable if their victims fit into a social bucket. But a workplace abuser can get away with severe abuse if gender and/or race, for example, are in common with the target, leaving the target on a slippery slope to suicidal thoughts — even though it’s the behavior that matters.
You may wonder if law will do any good if #metoo flooded our Facebook feeds despite having sexual harassment law. But ask any woman who worked pre-1964 what working conditions were like, and you’ll hear about how the needle has moved on sexual harassment in the workplace. No law completely rids our culture of a problem we realize we need to regulate because humans don’t have accountability without them.
In Massachusetts, we can do something about it, and we can do it now. If passed, the Healthy Workplace Bill, Senate Bill 1013 will hold employers accountable for bullying employees in Massachusetts by creating a legal claim for targets who can prove they were subjected to malicious, health-harming behavior and providing defenses for employers who act preventively and responsively to discourage frivolous claims.
The Joint Committee on Labor and Workforce Development — where the bill’s been sitting for eight months — has until February 10 to say yes or no to all bills put before them. Calling your own legislators in Massachusetts asking them to ask the heads of that committee to move the bill to the Senate will help tremendously.
If it moves forward, the bill then moves to the Senate and has until the summer to pass into law.
More than 30 other state legislatures have introduced workplace anti-bullying legislation.
Let’s create legal protections for everyone suffering from abuse at work. It’s time.
#metoo has left us wondering: what do we do next to make workplaces safer?
The answer: make abuse at work illegal. While sexual harassment is one way (mostly) women get kept down, there’s a whole host of other behaviors that keep down anyone whose competence threatens a boss or co-worker. Workplace bullying — verbal abuse, sabotage, and other behaviors aimed to humiliate — can become illegal — if we make it happen.
By February 10, all committees must make decision on the bills in their committees. So we have exactly one month to continue to ask these legislators to move the workplace anti-bullying Healthy Workplace Bill favorably out of the Joint Committee on Labor and Workforce Development:
- Our state reps to ask in writing Rep. Paul Brodeur
- Our state senators to ask in writing Senator Jason Lewis to do the same.
The last thing we want is for the committee to not move the bill forward because business owners’ voices were louder. Then we have until the summer to move this bill through the Senate and House. (We’ll need your help then, too. More about that later.)
Here’s our game plan:
- Spread the word about the bill and specifically ask people to ask their state legislators to write to Rep. Brodeur or Senator Lewis to move the bill forward.
- Forward this message to family, friends, and colleagues, and share this post on Facebook and Twitter.
- Email us at email@example.com with your legislators’ response (even no response). Soon we’ll publicize who’s NOT supported this bill as a way to sway voter opinion and to urge legislators to take action (remember: legislators want to win their next election and want your vote. Post on social media your legislator support or lack of it based on the actions of your legislators on this bill.)
If you haven’t yet reached out to your legislators, please do so before February 10:
- Email your legislators. Use this easy tool to send your letter.
- Call your legislator’s office to make sure they received your email. This step is important. Legislators receive so many emails, and many get buried in their email boxes. Call to make sure they received it and ask them again to ask the legislator that you request he or she write a letter to Rep. Paul Brodeur or Senator Jason Lewis asking for Senate Bill 1013 to move forward.
- Repeat the process for the second legislator.
We thank you for your support. Rep. Brodeur’s staff reported that they get the most calls in support of this bill — thanks to your action.
For more information on workplace anti-bullying legislation, read these recent articles:
To end sexual harassment on the job, end workplace bullying (LA Times, November 16, 2017)
Workplace bullying remains in the shadows (Boston Globe, December 30, 2017)
Workplace bullying affects nearly half of US workers. It’s time we did something about it. (Truthout, January 11, 2018)
The #metoo campaign about sexual harassment is about abuse of power at its root, and sexual harassment is only one tool for those in power at work to abuse it.
Boston Globe Reporter Beth Teitell put the spotlight on the umbrella of workplace bullying and its status in the Massachusetts legislature in her December 30, 2017 article “Workplace bullying remains in the shadows.”
- Boston Magazine: Spencer Buell, firstname.lastname@example.org, and Jamie Ducharme, email@example.com
- Boston.com: Dialynn Dwyer, Dialynn.Dwyer@boston.com @dia_dwyer
- Boston Metro: Kristin Toussaint, firstname.lastname@example.org @kristindakota
- WBUR: email@example.com
- WGBH: firstname.lastname@example.org
- The Atlantic: Sophie Gilbert, email@example.com
With the growing protest of sexual harassment in Hollywood, a lot of us are left wondering: why are we ignoring that when abuse of power isn’t of a sexual nature, countless competent and ambitious workers like Ann Curry get pushed out of their jobs? Why are only those in protected classes (gender, race/ethnicity, religion, color, national origin, age, sexual orientation, individuals with disabilities, and veteran status) accounted for under law when general workplace bullying is four times more common than sexual harassment? Why should someone choose between their health or a paycheck because their competence — rather than their protected class — threatens the power abuser?
While #metoo exposed that law can’t protect everyone when they’re forced to choose between speaking up or preserving their jobs, sexual harassment law certainly moved the needle on the norms of sexual abuse in the workplace. But when there are no laws to protect those suffering from verbal abuse, threatening, intimidating, or humiliating behaviors, and sabotage, CEOs have no accountability to pay attention to the health of their workplace cultures. So employees believe nothing will be done when they report abusive behavior, and rightfully so.
We all deserve protections from abuse at work, regardless of the form and who we are. “Otherwise, workplaces will continue to be used by narcissistic individuals as personal playgrounds for predatory actions, which can negatively impact individuals, organizations, companies, and societies,” says S. L. Young in his Huffington Post article “Harassment goes beyond sex, women, Hollywood, and politics.”
How do we do more to prevent abuse of power in the workplace? We demand change. The workplace anti-bullying Healthy Workplace Bill is stuck in the State House, and we need your help to move it forward.