Bullying doesn’t stop at school—workplace bullying is on the rise, with more than 60 million U.S. workers affected (according to a 2017 Workplace Bullying Institute survey). Yet the U.S. is the only industrialized Western nation not to have laws against abusive workplace conduct.
In light of that reality, Clevelanders Lauren Welch and Bethany Studenic are making it their mission to combat toxic workplace culture with “The Scarlet Letters Project: A Conversation on Workplace Bullying, Equity, and Trauma.” Designed as an awareness campaign, the Scarlet Letters Project provides an anonymous forum and much-needed outlet for people to share their stories and be heard.
“Retaliation is alive and well in Cleveland, so a lot of these problems live in silence and silos,” says Lauren Welch, executive director of the Women’s Leadership Guild and an assistant director of marketing for the Mandel School at Case Western Reserve University. “It’s important to create cultures that are safer, more inclusive, and supportive. I want people to feel empowered.”
To that end, Studenic and Welch recently opened the Scarlet Letters Project up for submissions and published the first story—about a woman’s experience dealing with harassment and discrimination in the U.S. Navy—on Medium earlier this week. All of the featured stories will be 100 percent anonymous with all personal details redacted, which Studenic believes is key to the effort.
“When you’re worried about facing backlash at work, it feels like there is really nowhere to go,” explains Studenic, a licensed social worker and co-founder of Enlightened Solutions. “We’re inviting people to be part of the dialogue without feeling like they have to gamble with their reputations.”
Both Welch and Studenic care deeply about prevalent workplace issues. Studenic co-founded Enlightened Solutions last October as a means of support, advocacy, and education around workplace inequity, while Welch is an outspoken advocate who says it’s “always been important to [her] to elevate the voices of those who’ve been marginalized.”
“Because I’ve called out many of the injustices that have happened in our community, people have reached out privately to tell me their stories," says Welch. "We know this is happening in many spaces and places, but there aren’t enough conversations happening out in the open—we need to be talking about this, and we need to be talking about it now.”
To further the dialogue, Studenic and Welch will host an event at Jumpstart at the conclusion of the story-gathering process in May. Along with a panel discussion to share the project’s findings, the event will feature an emerging networking model that’s trauma-informed and designed to support those experiencing anxiety after facing issues at work.
“Instead of the typical networking event that’s focused on selling yourself to others, this flips that [concept] on its head to focus on finding ways to support others—from offering advice to helping set meetings,” says Studenic. “It takes the onus off people to sell themselves, put a mask on, and be inauthentic. Instead of quantity, we’re focusing on quality.”
Studenic is also working with Enlightened Solutions board members to devise a survey that she calls “the first of its kind,” examining the prevalence of workplace trauma, mechanisms, and reporting outcomes. She also wants to create more resources for people facing workplace inequity.
“Traditionally, there haven’t been support groups or places to share your stories, get your questions answered, or find others who understand what you’re going through,” says Studenic. “We’re building expertise and answers that do not exist right now, and we’re one of the first firms in the country focused on this.”
As Studenic sees it, efforts like the Scarlet Letters Project are a vital step towards pinpointing true solutions.
“Workplace abuse, harassment, and bullying live and thrive in the dark,” says Studenic. “Until we can have these conversations, we won’t be able to understand the problem, let alone come up with solutions that actually work.”
To submit a story to The Scarlet Letters Project, click here.