CNN segment on New York workplace bullying legislation

Adam Cohen, the lawyer and news commentator whose evenhanded Time magazine piece on workplace bullying legislation helped to trigger a wave of attention to the Healthy Workplace Bill last week, was interviewed on CNN about the significance of the HWB’s passage in the New York State Senate. Once again, he gives a very fair assessment of the pros and cons of enacting the legislation.

This is more evidence that public awareness of, and support for, workplace bullying legislation has turned a big corner.  Within the past 10 days, Time and Parade magazines, MSNBC, and now CNN have featured the Healthy Workplace Bill.  In the Parade magazine online poll, some 93 percent of respondents voted in favor of a workplace bullying law. People are fed up about being treated abusively at work, and they are making their opinions known.

Psychological health in the legal profession

As I write this, thousands of law school graduates are studying and sitting for bar examinations across the country.  Those who pass (and, fortunately, the overwhelming majority do!) will be one giant step closer to being admitted to the practice of law in their state.

However, they are entering a profession in crisis.  As I noted recently, the recession has battered the legal profession, and the legal job market is very difficult for those seeking work, especially at the entry level.  In addition, the practice of law itself is often stressful, confrontational, and rife with anxiety, as the July 2010 issue of Your ABA (an e-newsletter of the American Bar Association) reminds us:

The life of a lawyer isn’t a cakewalk. Constantly judged in terms of winning and losing, and existing in a culture of attack and counterattack, lawyers face countless pressures. The emphasis on perfection that starts in law school seldom lets up once a lawyer is in practice, and the resulting stress only multiplies with impatient clients and exacting bosses.

The newsletter features an interview with psychologist Rebecca Nerison, author of Lawyers, Anger and Anxiety: Dealing with the Stresses of the Legal Profession.  It’s solid, substantive piece, with helpful insight and advice on managing stress and building personal resilience to the ups and downs of modern practice.

From the mainstream to the cutting edges

For those who want to venture beyond the mainstream, I’ll reiterate two mega-sources of possible interest.  Both are rich with possibilities for transforming the practice of law:

Therapeutic jurisprudence (TJ) is a movement that examines the law and legal practice  in terms of their therapeutic and anti-therapeutic qualities.  TJ founders maintain a website with an excellent online bibliography and host a Facebook page.  I have written about my involvement with the TJ community on numerous occasions.

Cutting Edge Law brings together a wealth of alternative perspectives on, and approaches to, legal practice, including TJ.  It hosts an in-depth website and a Facebook page.

How we bash every vocation

“Oh those lawyers…”
“Oh those CEOs…”
“Oh those contractors…”
“Oh those politicians…”
“Oh those doctors…”
“Oh those pro athletes…”
“Oh those cab drivers…”
“Oh those accountants”
“Oh those bureaucrats…”
“Oh those public schoolteachers…”
“Oh those sales clerks…”
“Oh those reporters…”
“Oh those social workers…”
“Oh those investment bankers…”

Have you thought about how many vocations are subjected to easy put downs starting with “Oh those…,” followed by a story? I have done so myself, and I can’t promise that I won’t do it again. (This, coming from the lips of a lawyer!)

So what?

I’m not 100 percent certain what the “takeaway” points are from this, but let me give it a shot:

First, if a vocation has a poor reputation, there often are elements of truth behind it.  (Believe me, I get it when people complain about the legal profession.)

Second, regardless of whether the negative characterizations are fair or unfair, their prevalence is making us very cynical toward our fellow workers. And a lot of us may be tossing these bricks from some pretty big picture windows.

Finally, if we want to improve the world of work and the products and services we all provide, then we need to ask hard questions of ourselves, our vocations, and our attitudes.

Will our avocations save us?

I am beginning to believe that our avocations will save us, personally in terms of enriching our lives, and publicly in terms of contributing to the greater community.

The Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary defines an avocation as “a subordinate occupation pursued in addition to one’s vocation especially for enjoyment.”  That’s a good start, but I want to add a few other qualities that separate avocation from a pure hobby, such as a sense of accomplishment and contribution to the broader community.

For example…

In 2008 I wrote about professional storm chasers who lead groups of weather enthusiasts around America’s heartland in search of tornadoes and other severe storms.  Tour guests are the beneficiaries of this shared expertise, exploring places and experiencing vistas that would be hard to discover on their own.

Recently I wrote about two long-time friends who have nurtured their creative passions for writing and music.  Their work not only provides personal artistic rewards, but also enriches those who are enjoying the fruits of their labors.

For many years I have taken a weekly singing class at a local adult education center.  The instructor is a Juilliard-trained vocalist who created the class for adult students who wanted to learn how to sing better, regardless of previous music experience.  Her “day job” is working in a university library.

Civic activism is a very satisfying way to contribute to the well being of our communities.  The causes fueling that activism are often grounded in personal experience.  For example, many of the folks who are advocating for legal protections against workplace bullying found this cause after personally dealing with abusive treatment on the job.

More than a hobby…

Hobbies are great.  They allow us to engage in an enjoyable pastime that captures our attention.

But avocations can be even better.  Like hobbies, they are satisfying and engaging, but often they also provide a deeper sense of accomplishment and contribution.

After all, there’s a difference between writing poetry solely for one’s personal journals and, say, sharing that work by publishing it and participating in readings.  The latter gives us a chance to interact with others and enrich the culture of our communities.

Compared to work…

In the best of worlds, our jobs would provide us with the best qualities of our avocations, topped off with a livable income.  Indeed, one of the goals of this blog is to explore how we can create better work and workplaces that move us closer toward that ideal.

But transforming the experience of work is a long, hard slog.  For many, work is largely a means to an end.  Especially in the midst of this recession, higher aspirations for work may have to go on the shelf, at least temporarily.

Likewise, the work of raising a family or caring for loved ones is demanding and sometimes thankless, even if the underlying devotions are the stuff of strong bonds.  Many other forms of personal expression may be sacrificed to the demands of caregiving.

Avocations, however, free us from some of those inherent limitations and obligations.  They can be remarkably liberating, a chance to pursue dreams and passions even within the inevitable confines of everyday life.

Let’s stoke this idea…

So why don’t avocations get more attention in our society?  Why aren’t we thinking more creatively about that third place between work and leisure?

No answers here.  I went to the Amazon website and did a search for “avocation.”  I was surprised by how the topic has been so neglected by observers of the human condition.

Nevertheless, we don’t need scholarly studies to teach us how avocations can make a difference in our lives and those of others.  In seeking to discover and create meaning in our lives, we can take it upon ourselves to put the idea of avocation high on our lists.

MSNBC interview on the Healthy Workplace Bill

This afternoon I was interviewed by MSNBC’s Contessa Brewer on the Healthy Workplace Bill, anti-bullying legislation I wrote that was passed by the New York State Senate this spring.

The interview ran live.  I haven’t seen it myself, but here’s a link.  The experience did remind me of how little time there is to communicate the complexities of something like workplace bullying in a segment that lasts but a few minutes.

That frustration aside, in terms of media coverage, this has been quite a week for the movement to enact the Healthy Workplace Bill. First Parade and Time magazines, now MSNBC!

With Time and Parade, the workplace bullying legislative movement goes mainstream

During the past few days, articles in Time and Parade magazines are evidence that the movement to enact the Healthy Workplace Bill has entered the mainstream.  We are witnessing the next big steps in the quest to provide severely abused workers with the protections they need and deserve.

Parade

The mere presence of the piece in Parade, which is included in Sunday editions of newspapers across the country, is a big deal. Parade captures America’s heartland.  But there’s more:

Online poll results

Online polls are hardly scientific, and the Parade poll on whether readers support or oppose workplace bullying legislation is no exception.  Still, it is significant that, as of today, some 92 percent of respondents to the online poll have voted in favor of the proposition that workplace bullying should be illegal.

Online comments

Parade doesn’t make it easy to add online comments to its articles. Its comment function is dodgy, and those who wish to post longer comments must go through an elaborate registration process. Regardless, the overwhelming majority of posted comments expressed deep concern over workplace bullying, and most supported legal intervention.

Time

Adam Cohen, writing for Time, pens an informative and very evenhanded article on the status of workplace bullying legislation:

Worker abuse is a widespread problem — in a 2007 Zogby poll, 37% of American adults said they had been bullied at work — and most of it is perfectly legal. . . . But the law generally does not protect against plain old viciousness.

That may be about to change. Workers’ rights advocates have been campaigning for years to get states to enact laws against workplace bullying, and in May they scored their biggest victory. The New York state senate passed a bill that would let workers sue for physical, psychological or economic harm due to abusive treatment on the job.

Time represents establishment, middle America — solid, conservative, no-nonsense.  When a fair & balanced piece on an emerging social movement shows up in Time, it’s a sign that change is in the air.

***

The Time piece is being carried on the Yahoo! home page today, and comments are piling in.

Bullied 5th grader writes to President Obama — and gets a response!

When West Philadelphia 5th grader Ziainey Stokes wrote to President Obama about her years of being bullied at school, she wasn’t expecting a response.  But she would receive a letter from the President, expressing his sympathy for her plight.  As reported by Anne Grant for NBC Philadelphia:

In the letter, Mr. Obama thanked Ziainey for bringing attention to the issue of bullying.

“Your letter demonstrates a desire to change the culture of your classroom as well as your community,” he wrote.

The letter also ended with a promise: “You deserve a safe, engaging, and enjoyable classroom, and together we will strive to make this a reality.”

Why not the workplace?

I’m delighted that a child’s experience of school bullying prompted such a great response from the President.  We must also strive to make our elected officials feel the same way about workplace bullying.  To paraphrase President Obama, don’t we all deserve a safe, engaging, and enjoyable place to work?

Will E-Readers Change the Way We Work?

This morning NPR featured a news segment by Wendy Kaufman about Amazon’s reported sales of its Kindle e-reader and e-books.  The company announced that during the spring and early summer, it “sold 143 e-books for every 100 hardcover books, a gap that is widening quickly.”  In addition, sales of the Kindle tripled after Amazon reduced its price from $259 to $189 in order to compete with other e-readers on the market.

Changing the way we read

Although the Kindle and its siblings have been on the market for several years, until now it would’ve been an exaggeration to say that they indicated a coming seimic shift in our reading habits.  But something is happening.  These days, you might expect to see someone reading a Kindle on the subway.  When I floated a question about the merits of the Kindle on Facebook, I was surprised by the Kindle owners who came out of the woodworks to sing its praises.  (Yup, it helped to convince me to buy one.)

Recently, the Apple i-Pad splashed onto the market as a multi-faceted device that includes e-reader capabilities.  If you fly a lot, you’re likely to encounter several passengers (okay, mostly guys) fiddling with them in rapt attention.

But will they change the way we work?

Nevertheless, for the time being, I don’t think that e-readers are likely to change dramatically the way we work, even for people who regularly use written materials for their daily tasks.

For example, although the Kindle has search, notetaking, and tagging functions, it is not as easy as having various documents, reports, and books around you for easy access and reference.  Although I have become a fan of the Kindle for leisure reading (it’s especially convenient for frequent travelers), it is most useful when reading a book from cover-to-cover.  Its emerging competitor, the i-Pad, can do a lot more things, but it is more a computerized gadget than a full-fledged computer.

Of course, it is quite possible that the next generation of these devices will have a more transformative influence on the workplace.  I see a souped-up variation of the i-Pad as having that kind of potential, bridging the gap between standard desktop and laptop computers and the more limited-function e-readers.

Globalization and workers 101: A quick primer

Globalization is a term that understandably intimidates many of us.  Current events sections of well-stocked bookstores hold dozens of titles on globalization, and newspapers, news magazines, and public affairs journals regularly devote meaty articles to the topic.  It all sounds so, well, imposing.

But you don’t have to wade through academic tomes and hefty journal commentaries to understand how globalization affects the labor markets and everyday workers.  This aspect of globalization can be boiled down to three basic propositions:

1.  Globalization of markets is driven by the need to expand profits.

2.  One way to expand profits is to discover and develop new customer bases for goods and services.  Reducing the costs of producing goods and providing services — which, in turn, allows price cuts — is a favored approach.

3.  A prime route toward expanding profits and reducing prices for goods and services is to reduce labor costs.  This means finding the cheapest competent labor working in the least regulated countries.

From North to South to…China, perhaps?

In the U.S., we saw this dynamic play out during the latter part of the 20th century.  As labor unions helped workers negotiate better wages and working conditions in northeastern and midwestern manufacturing plants, many companies moved their plants to less union-friendly southern states where they could pay lower wages and not worry as much about governmental regulation.

But that wasn’t good enough.  Companies eventually realized that they could pay even lower wages — as in fractions of the American minimum wage — by closing their U.S. plants and transferring manufacturing operations to other countries, especially developing nations where workers were eager for work and governmental regulations were either nil or hardly enforced.  China, Mexico, and others became popular destinations for multinational corporations.

And now to Bangladesh!

It turns out that at least in China, the workers are getting too uppity.  Stirrings of an independent labor movement have now grown into a genuine force, and wages of Chinese workers are improving as a result.  In other words, they’re getting too expensive.

Vikas Bajaj, reporting for the New York Times, tells us that Bangladesh is now making incursions into the Chinese manufacturing sector:

As costs have risen in China, long the world’s shop floor, it is slowly losing work to countries like Bangladesh, Vietnam and Cambodia — at least for cheaper, labor-intensive goods like casual clothes, toys and simple electronics that do not necessarily require literate workers and can tolerate unreliable transportation systems and electrical grids.

Race to the bottom

For many years, labor and human rights activists have invoked the phrase “race to the bottom” to describe the practice of companies opening and closing plants in a constant search for the lowest-paid workers.  This path of economic destruction has left devastated communities and impoverished lives in its wake, all in the name of higher stock values and inexpensive VCRs and t-shirts.

A better way?

Times labor reporter Steven Greenhouse reports on an American-owned garment factory in the Dominican Republic that pays its workers a living wage and doesn’t oppose unionization:

Industry experts say it is a pioneer in the developing world because it pays a “living wage” — in this case, three times the average pay of the country’s apparel workers — and allows workers to join a union without a fight.

The article goes on to question whether a doing-well-by-doing-good strategy can work:

“It’s a noble effort, but it is an experiment,” says Andrew Jassin, an industry consultant who says “fair labor” garments face a limited market unless deft promotion can snare consumers’ attention — and conscience.

It is a sad commentary that in today’s global economy, we cannot say for certain that paying a living wage to workers and financial viability are mutually compatible.  Stay tuned.

Opposing workplace bullying legislation: Are depression, PTSD, and suicide an “Emily Post problem”?

Sunday’s Parade Magazine is running a short feature on the legislative campaign for a workplace bullying law.  The online version includes a poll where you can vote to support or oppose legal protections against bullying at work.

An “Emily Post problem”

Of course, there are legitimate concerns that such a law could overreach and serve as a legal micro-manager of the workplace.  That’s why I have written the Healthy Workplace Bill — anti-bullying legislation that is the template for bills introduced across the country — in a way that balances the legitimate interests of workers and their employers.  Nevertheless, some insist on lobbing unfounded bombs against attempts to address abuse at work, as the Parade piece demonstrates:

“Making a federal or state case over the day-to-day management of any workforce is just plain nuts,” says Victoria Pynchon, an attorney-mediator in Los Angeles. “At best, it’s a jackhammer solution to an Emily Post problem. At worst, it’s a new scheme for extortion.”

She’s referring to the late American etiquette expert, Emily Post, in claiming that bullying is merely a problem of manners.

It’s about abuse, not etiquette

Perhaps Ms. Pynchon has never really sat down with someone who has suffered from depression or PTSD-type symptoms due to brutal, targeted, ongoing bullying at work.  Or maybe she is unfamiliar with the tragic phenomenon of bullied workers taking their own lives, as the stories of Jodie Zebell and Brodie Panlock illustrate.

It’s also possible that Ms. Pynchon is not familiar with the details of the Healthy Workplace Bill, which sets a very high threshold for recovery.  In order to prevail, an employee has to establish that the behavior was both malicious and harmful to mental or physical health.  The bill also includes numerous defenses and provisions to discourage frivolous and marginal claims.  In addition, it provides legal incentives for employers to act preventively and responsively toward bullying, hopefully before behaviors become abusive and disabling.  In short, as I have written previously on this blog, it is both “HR-friendly” and anything but a “job killer.”

In any event, we need to stand up to those who dismiss the suffering inflicted by severe workplace bullying when they mischaracterize abuse as bad manners.

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