Leah Hollis has spent her career studying workplace bullying. Now, she’s in a position to prevent it.
“Racial justice through education has been the family brand,” says Leah P. Hollis. Her mother was the first affirmative action officer at the University of Pittsburgh at Johnstown. Her father, a school superintendent, desegregated the Johnstown school system and diversified its teaching staff. They both served on the Pennsylvania Human Rights Commission’s advisory board. Hollis (’98), the recently appointed associate dean for access, equity, and inclusion at Penn State’s College of Education, has followed in their footsteps.
As an athletics administrator in the 1990s, Hollis developed diversity training programs for Northeastern University. While doing diversity work, Hollis noticed that the people most likely to be victims of bullying came from marginalized groups. By the time she joined the faculty at Morgan State University in 2014, she had become an expert in workplace bullying—a topic that hadn’t received much attention from researchers because of a shocking truth: it’s not illegal.
Her first book, Bully in the Ivory Tower: How Aggression and Incivility Erode American Higher Education (Patricia Berkly, 2012), exposed the high rate of bullying in academia. For Black Women, Intersectionality, and Workplace Bullying (Routledge, 2022), Hollis used years of research to argue that the more complex someone’s identity, the more likely they are to experience workplace bullying. She received the 2022 Lucy Wheelock Award for her work and delivered the college’s 2023 convocation speech.
Awareness of workplace bullying has grown in large part because of the work of scholars like Hollis, many of whom are now shifting their focus to finding solutions. In addition to her ongoing academic research, Hollis is the founder and president of a diversity training consultancy, Patricia Berkly, LLC, through which she advises colleges and universities.
Hollis left Morgan State to join Penn State in August. After 15 years studying workplace bullying and advising colleges on workplace policies, she is stepping into an administrative role that has a direct impact on the culture—the nuances of which she’s gotten to know intimately. “Workplace bullying is based on a power differential—and who has the least amount of power in an organization? Women and underrepresented groups,” Hollis says. “My research informs how I think about access, equity, and diversity.”
THE BRUTAL TRUTH ABOUT WORKPLACE BULLYING
Civil rights legislation—Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, in particular—criminalizes discrimination based on an individual’s identity, including age, race, religion, sex, gender identity, and disability. But workplace bullying—repeated aggressive behavior intended to hurt someone—is not illegal in the US as long as it doesn’t target one of those protected traits.
“It’s legal to be a jerk,” Hollis says. “And that hurts a lot of people.”
Bullying occurs more frequently in higher education than in the general workforce. Power imbalances between students, staff, and faculty (some with the protection of tenure) can foster hostile environments. Colleges, as compared to the private sector, traditionally have fewer resources to deal with issues as they arise and may be slower to react. The job market is also unique, Hollis points out. For some jobs, the hiring cycle might take a year, meaning that someone who’s being bullied doesn’t have much professional mobility.
Perhaps most significantly, just because a person has power doesn’t mean they have people skills. “Think about it—how did you get to be the dean or the provost or the vice president?” Hollis says. “Because you studied a whole lot. But there’s nothing in there that trains you to have emotional intelligence, how to manage people, or how to have insight into how people are thinking.”
WHEN YOU HAVE A LARGE GROUP SAYING, ‘ENOUGH IS ENOUGH!’ YOU HAVE TO PAY ATTENTION.
Bullying can describe a range of behavior. Hollis cites aggressive behavior, like insults and cursing, as well as more passive actions, including cutting
someone’s budget or simply ignoring them. Other examples include using students as weapons by encouraging them to complain about someone, unfairly reallocating academic space, overloading someone with tasks, or burdening them with a challenging teaching schedule. Those most likely to be bullied are women, people of color, and members of the LGBTQIA+ community. “Because minorities tend to be in entry- and middle-level positions, not in the C suite, there’s a deficit in power,” Hollis says.
Hollis’ research at Morgan State revealed bullying’s most disturbing outcomes. She studied insomnia in bullied men and self-medication in Black women. She recalls meeting one woman who had gained 50 pounds, stopped sleeping, and ended up in an intensive care unit after
extended bullying. Another woman suffered a heart attack but said she couldn’t leave her job because her child needed her tuition benefit. “It almost killed me,” Hollis recalls the woman saying. Other people she’s spoken with have suffered panic attacks, seizures, and miscarriages. Some have contemplated suicide. “The body is not designed to withstand this stress,” she says.
A PATH FORWARD
As grim as some of her research has been, Hollis sees reasons for optimism. “More schools are adopting policies. More people are speaking up,” she says. “Younger people are more empowered to rail against abuse and being treated poorly. When you have a large group saying, ‘Enough is enough!’ you have to pay attention.”
While US policies still lag behind those of many global allies—Australia, Belgium, Canada, France, and all of Scandinavia, among others, have laws to prevent workplace bullying—states are making gains. More than 30 legislatures are considering workplace harassment bills, and Puerto Rico passed one in 2020. Perhaps a tipping point is near.
For Hollis, the important work has shifted from defining the problem to creating solutions. As a consultant, she has helped college presidents and their cabinets identify workplace bullying and intervene effectively. She audits bullying policies and advises human resource departments to prioritize them the same as Title VII policies.
Her pitch to colleges is simple: If you ignore bullying behavior, the problem will get worse. Workplace culture will suffer, productivity will be lost, and employees will be un-happy and unmotivated.
Now an administrator herself, Hollis is in a position to implement her own research. “Let’s train people on how to spot a bully, how to tamp it down, how to address it,” she says. “Let’s spend our time on the positive.”