When you see your coworker get mistreated, what can you do to show them you’re on their side? Some show solidarity by speaking up when it happens, while others complain privately. One government employee decided to go one step further and make a stand by walking out —for good.
In an act of solidarity for his coworker, the male press secretary for the Federal Emergency Management, Paul McKellips, said that he was quitting because FEMA’s front office was a “boys club” that was excluding the former head of external affairs, Susan Phalen, from meetings. McKellips stepped down on February 12, following Phalen’s resignation earlier in the month. McKellips said that FEMA was preventing Phalen from doing her job as a public affairs officer.
“When the front office shut her out, you effectively shut me out as well,” McKellips wrote in his two-page resignation letter obtained by POLITICO. “No matter how hard or how often she asked for a seat at the table, she was neither invited to strategic planning meetings nor given access to leadership.”
McKellips went on to directly accuse FEMA of a gender disparity: “[I] observed firsthand that [Phalen] was unable to penetrate the ‘boys club’ in your front office. Female executives are not treated the same way as their male counterparts at FEMA.”
FEMA said that it was not commenting on the case specifically, but noted that “our agency is committed to fostering a culture of inclusion and respect, promoting a culture that embraces diversity and allowing all employees the opportunity to achieve their full potential. We reject any assertion to the contrary.”
How to show solidarity with coworkers
Research shows that McKellips is not the only person in the workplace witnessing abuse. It’s a pervasive problem in many offices. A recent study found that 81% of U.S. employees said they either had been bullied or witnessed it happening to a coworker.
Joining forces with your vulnerable colleague, like McKellips did, is one research-backed strategy proven to work against bullying bosses. A study in the Academy of Management Journal found that when coworkers team up, they have more leverage to confront bullying managers. The study calls this strategy “coalition formation,” noting that, “The leader may rely on a specific follower in the team for key performance outcomes (e.g., sales promotion). If the focal follower is able to convince a highly valued follower to form a united, coordinated front against the leader, the leader may view the focal follower as a ‘single-unit’ with the valued follower.”
If you’re a valued worker, you can show solidarity by showing that your skills are contingent on the positive treatment of your bullied coworker. You are signaling ‘if they go, you go.’
Directly linking your resignation to a toxic work culture is one extreme way to provide documented proof to your bullied colleague that they are not alone. You saw it too. When you quit in solidarity with your coworker, you are throwing up a white flag, but you are waving it proudly for all to see.