What the Workplace Can Learn from Phoebe Prince

by Jul 18, 2012

With the heartbreaking January suicide of yet another bullied teenager, Phoebe Prince, a 15-year old in Massachusetts, the topic of bullying has again captured our attention. According to District Attorney Elizabeth Scheibel, who is charging nine teens for torturous harassment of Phoebe, several faculty, staff and administrators of the school were made aware of the bullying but took no action to help her.

Even her classmates were aware of the abuse, but chalked it up to teens-will-be-teens. They didn’t think it was at all out of hand. But Phoebe would be alive today if someone had only stepped in.

What we learned from this unfortunate set of events is that bullying should not be ignored by leaders or bystanders. Unfortunately that happens all too often in the workplace. Between 50% and 70% of the workforce is bullied at some point over the course of their career, and like Phoebe, leaders and peers never step in to help them.

Adults of bullying suffer just as much as children and teens – they develop feelings of anxiety, depression, decreased self-esteem, poor morale, humiliation, inadequacy, and helplessness, and even Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) according to several research reports.

Take Shannon for example, a former employee of a non-profit organization in San Diego. After five years of abuse at work and a manager who ignored her pleas for help, she found herself calling in sick and coming in late in order to avoid abuse. By the end, she’d hung a piece of paper over her alarm clock with the words, “Get up!” printed on it; her only inspiration and an ever failing attempt at motivating herself to endure one more anguishing day at work.

Not unlike others in her shoes, because her performance had suffered so much she was asked to leave the company. While it may not seem like it, she is lucky. She was forced out before things got even worse. Check out Beverly Peterson’s website (http://nojobisworththis.com). This documentarian and former target of workplace bullying has several clips about families who have lost a loved one to suicide because of bullying – just like Phoebe Prince’s family.

So what did we learn from Phoebe Prince?

1. Step in when you witness and incident of bullying.
Bullying only happens because the people around let it. If an individual starts to pick on another individual, and nobody says anything to him or her about it, the perpetrator will learn the behavior is okay. If somebody speaks up, however, the bully will realize peers and managers do not approve and the behavior will stop.

2. Do not blame the victim.
No one will claim that Phoebe Prince deserved what she got or that she was at fault – not only would that be an appalling and vile stance to take but it simply isn’t true. Why this blame game happens at work is beyond me; but most organizations do in fact blame victims just like Shannon. They are asked to “let it go” or “get over it” and when they can’t, their employment is terminated.

By the way, targets are usually very high producers and the bully picks on them because of their own shortage in self-esteem and feelings of being threatened by this high producer. Any organization letting a target go is shooting themselves in the foot by taking the abuser’s side.

3. Do not ignore complaints.
Respond to complaints about abuse immediately. If an employee complaints of sexual harassment, you would pull out the corporate policy handbook and follow the guidelines put in place to address it. Why wouldn’t you do the same when someone is abused? Same difference.

4. Focus on adjusting your corporate culture.
Even if you do address a complaint and the bullying seems to have ended, that is not enough to eradicate bullying from your workplace altogether. A strategic culture adjustment must be made, and can occur after obtaining buy-in from as many employees as possible. Get them involved in developing a vision of civility and the corporate policies that back it up. When employees feel included, they are more likely to take heed simply because they are personally invested.

5. Develop a healthy-workplace corporate policy.
Policies will not change the culture or prevent bullying, but they will serve as a handbook for behavior, provide guidance for handling complaints, and give permission to terminate a bully’s employment should that step need to be taken. Policies must be backed by management; otherwise they lose their influence as useful tools.

6. Be the change you want to see.
Maintain a positive attitude at all times. Treat others with respect and dignity. Avoid yelling and losing your temper. If you are frustrated, step away from others until you calm down. Encourage open discussions and employee empowerment. Develop rituals that applaud interpersonal communication skills, empathy, optimism, conflict resolution and positive attitudes as a part of the routine. Smile and laugh. You spend a lot of time at work so enjoy yourself; others will pick up on it.

Regarding the legalities of the situation, in 15 states, including California, schools are required to have an official policy to prohibit bullying among students, and many laws also encourage them to implement a bullying prevention program.

Bullying in the workplace, however, is 100% legal as long as the bully remains an equal-opportunity abuser. Harassment laws only cover protected classes. The authors of The Healthy Workplace Bill (http://www.healthyworkplacebill.org) hope to change that. Since 2003, the bill has been proposed in 17 states, including California, but without success.

Let’s not forget to mention that bullies are extremely expensive. According to the Bureau of National Affairs, American businesses spend up to $6 billion annually on increased absenteeism, presenteeism, turnover, workers compensation claims, health insurance costs and litigation related to bullying. Meanwhile bullies also decrease production, work quality, employee self-esteem, job satisfaction, loyalty, customer satisfaction, company reputation, communication and ultimately the bottom line.

In a civil and positive environment we learn more, innovate more, and produce more. We like our customers more, and we treat them and each other with more respect. We communicate more and come to work more. We are more engaged, loyal and motivated. And if there’s one thing Phoebe taught us, it is that bullying at work should not be ignored anymore.

About Catherine Mattice

Catherine Mattice, MA, SPHR, SHRM-SCP is President of consulting and training firm, Civility Partners, and has been successfully providing programs in workplace bullying and building positive workplaces since 2007. Her clients include Fortune 500’s, the military, several universities and hospitals, government agencies, small businesses and nonprofits. She has published in a variety of trade magazines and has appeared several times on NPR, FOX, NBC, and ABC as an expert, as well as in USA Today, Inc Magazine, Huffington Post, Entrepreneur Magazine, and more. Catherine is Past-President of the Association for Talent Development (ATD), San Diego Chapter and teaches at National University. In his book foreword, Ken Blanchard called her book, BACK OFF! Your Kick-Ass Guide to Ending Bullying at Work, “the most comprehensive and valuable handbook on the topic.” She recently released a second book entitled, SEEKING CIVILITY: How Leaders, Managers and HR Can Create a Workplace Free of Bullying.

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