When I heard about Dr. Antoinette Bonnie Candia-Bailey’s suicide and bullying, my heart sank. I took a long pause because I could, in fact, imagine some of what she must’ve experienced. Experiences like hers are part of the reason why I started my businesses and why I believe helping leaders become stronger leaders and create cultures where their employees can do their best is my calling: nobody should have to cry in the car on the way to and from work because they hate their jobs. There was a time when I thought all of the negative professional experiences I’d had must’ve been my fault; but over the years, I’ve heard enough stories and gained enough experience to know that the issue of broken workplace cultures is greater than me. It’s also greater than racism. These failures to lead and abuses of power lie at the feet of leaders.
I worked in an organization where I was treated poorly by two White co-workers who were angry because they didn’t believe that I deserved the salary that I was paid and because I was young and Black. While those two women actively targeted me, the rest of the organization actively ignored me with the exception of a Black administrative assistant. Ironically, she was able to do what I could not: she’d perfected a never-ending act of codeswitching. That was something that I was simply incapable of doing; so, I spent most of my time hiding in my office. Do you know how demeaning it is to go to a place where you know even the sound of your voice is rejected? You have no idea how stressful and draining it is to change the sound of your voice and tap dance to try to make your White co-workers feel more comfortable with you so that they won’t target you.
In a subsequent job, I learned through other leaders in our regional professional association that my boss made it known that she “needed a Black” when she was seeking to fill my position. Thus, my competence was in question when I joined the organization. I was marginalized from day one. She went out of her way to keep me in the dark about information that was critical to my ability to do my job. In many ways, she tried to undermine me by making sure that I would not have meaningful assignments or opportunities to develop. For the life of me, I couldn’t believe how someone who was more than twice my age could be so vicious. Surely, she wasn’t intimidated by me. But it didn’t stop there. This same woman would have temper tantrums and actually stomp her feet at me!
In yet another organization, I worked with a small team where, once again, I was the odd-person out; however, this experience was the absolute worst. It was soul-crushing. Mind you, the organization had a toxic culture way before I got there; however, I was willing to join the organization because I believed the leadership team was truly interested in making changes. I was naive enough to believe that I could be a part of that change and make a difference. Literally, on my first day, my colleague and officemate and I didn’t mix: our first conversation consisted of her complaining about and disparaging people. I knew I was not going to be exempt from it. One day, this woman told me that she and I were better than the people our organization served because we were educated. She had contempt for everybody, but she cozied up to the powers that were. She was Dr. Jekyll and Mrs. Hide, and for the next four years, I endured my own private hell. I became a victim of bullying and mobbing. Bullying is 1:1 abuse whereas mobbing occurs when a group targets one person. To this day, this continues to be the most humiliating experience of my professional life. Like Dr. Bonnie, I felt isolated and alone and my bosses were not supportive. Like Dr. Bonnie, I too, was fired. When you have a target on your back, everything, whether insignificant or tremendous, is amplified.
What I suspect made Dr. Bonnie feel particularly damned is that the abuse made her feel small in her own eyes. There’s something in your soul that is damaged when you’re perpetually attacked. That damage hits a breaking point when you realize that you should have started fighting back a long time ago because you finally see that it isn’t as simple as ignoring petty behavior. By the time I realized that ignoring it wouldn’t make it stop and that God wasn’t going to answer my prayer to take her out (I’m not kidding), it had gotten to the point where there was no fixing the situation.
From my last day to this one, that organization, nor its leadership team, has been held accountable for how I was treated (Believe it or not, bullying and mobbing aren’t necessarily illegal, so suing isn’t always an option). The truth of the matter is that termination was a relief. I was emotionally exhausted and just wanted to move on. But this did mean suffering the financial consequences of that experience (on top of killing my joy and self esteem), and I suspect Dr. Bonnie feared such. While it was hard to put my life back together, it built my resolve to never again let myself be kicked in the teeth every goddamn day.
May Dr. Bonnie rest in peace, and may leaders everywhere see themselves more clearly, see their impact on others, and do better.