Awareness of bullying is at an all-time high — and many states, including Massachusetts, have passed laws aimed at controlling the problems in schools. Now there’s a growing push to ban bullying in the workplace, but critics say it’s a classic case of good intentions gone too far.
To say Shelton Prince has a checkered past would be an understatement. The Lynn resident had a long struggle with chemical addiction and criminality; by his own estimate, he spent nine years behind bars. But back in 2008, Prince thought he’d turned his life around. As a sales rep selling drug-testing services around New England, Prince was making big bucks – and, he thought, doing good as well.
"I loved it," Prince said. "I loved it. By me having this opportunity to work with this company, it was like a dream come true."
But after Prince’s turnaround was celebrated in print by a columnist for the Boston Globe — that dream began to turn sour.
That’s when things started to get a little more fishy.
After his background became public record, Prince says, coworkers who hadn’t known his history started to mock him relentlessly.
"They would call me pimp — 'Where’d you get those pimp shoes from?' — as if they thought I may continue to, like, indulge in illegal activity on the side," he said. "I can remember one time, I went on vacation, and I came back, we were talking. 'Where’d you go?' 'Oh, I went to Georgia.' It was around the Fourth of July. And the comment was made, 'Did you all have watermelon and chicken?' I found that to be very offensive."
Prince says the harassment lasted four years — and seriously damaged his quality of life.
"If my wife, child said something I didn’t agree with, I would lash out on them," he said. "That was my way of escape, for what I was feeling."
"I ended up going to therapy behind this, you know, and it was like 3 years of therapy — intense," he said. "Anxiety attacks. depression. And this was all because I had not yet learned how to express what I was feeling in a healthy manner."
If proponents of the Massachusetts' Healthy Workplace Bill get their way, the behavior Prince claims he experienced could become illegal. That legislation would ban everything from “verbal abuse” to “humiliating non-verbal conduct” to acts that “undermine an employee’s work performance” — and make employers liable for especially egregious violations. Proponents say the law is overdue.
"I’ve seen, over time, how much organizations need help with this, and how much bad behavior still goes on," said Paula Parnagian, an organizational consultant. She says that even though a third of employees are bullied at some point in their career, many employers don’t know how to respond.
"The person may be doing it very subtly — so they may be kissing up and bullying down, or bullying across," Parnagian said. "So the manager doesn’t see it, so it doesn’t make sense. You know, 'Adam Reilly’s such a nice guy, I can’t imagine he’s doing that, and you must be overreacting to it,' number one. Number two: 'Adam Reilly is such an important guy to us, we’re going to handle him, but we’re going to handle him very gingerly.'"
But skeptics insist that the Healthy Workplace Bill is bad public policy. Bill Vernon, head of the National Federation of Independent Business Massachusetts, says that for the businesses he represents — which have an average of just five employees — a mere allegation of bullying would be catastrophic.
"They don’t have legal staff," Vernon said. "Once the lawsuit is filed against a small business owner, he or she is almost a loser immediately. They’ve already lost the expense of defending, even if the lawsuit is frivolous."
And Vernon adds, the bill’s definition of “bullying, abuse and harassment” is dangerously vague.
"I think that the language in this bill gives an opportunity for someone who is reprimanded, or trying to be told how to better improve their job performance, to say that that is harassment," he said.
If this debate sounds familiar, that’s because it is. Four years ago, after the tragic suicides of Phoebe Prince and Carl Walker-Hoover, Massachusetts passed an aggressive anti-bullying law for schools — even though critics said it would put educators in an untenable position. When it comes to workplace bullying, Vernon hopes that state lawmakers exercise more restraint.
"I think that too often, maybe, but I think society generally looks to government to solve problems," he said. "This is an example, frankly, that I think is an overstepping of government. That we can can solve this terrible problem in the workplace, when it occurs, without creating a new set of legal requirements."
But advocates like Parnagian, the organizational consultant, insist that the growing push to stamp out bullying is good news.
"The world has changed," she said. "It’s become a less hierarchical, more gentle place. People expect equal respect and dignity much more than 100 years ago."
And for victims like Shelton Prince — who says he’s still recovering from the abuse he experienced — watching the workplace-bullying bill become law would provide a measure of closure.
"From 2008 — it’s 2013 and I still get emotional just talking about this," he said. "Will it ever go away? I'm praying that at some point it will. Just put it behind me, not have to talk about it any more, you know what I mean? But it’s definitely something that people need to understand."