To better our workplaces, these opposites must attract

To readers following this blog for any length of time, it’s no secret that I frequently write about the so-called dark side of work: Workplace bullying, mobbing, and harassment get a lot of attention here, and it’s the primary cluster of topics that leads people here via search engines. We’re still learning about the impact and costs of these forms of interpersonal abuse, and I’m committed to discussing them. However, we also must apply our insights on these destructive behaviors to the broad objectives of creating better workplaces and treating workers with dignity.

Sometimes our perspectives on work are split between more abusive, exploitative employment practices and more positive, wellness-oriented behaviors. At times, for example, I’ve sensed some distance with folks who favor a positive psychology perspective on employee relations; they may see my emphasis on workplace bullying and related topics as being immersed in the negative, to a point of excess. However, when I write pieces coming from a more positive, solution-oriented perspective, I may feel resistance from those who are steeped in hurtful workplace behaviors, with an underlying message that I’m being overly sunny.

The bottom line is that we need to understand the light and dark sides of work in order to be effective change agents. If we don’t acknowledge that psychopaths, almost psychopaths, and narcissists constitute a narrow but sizable and destructive bandwidth of CEOs and managers, we often will be blind to the darkness coming out of certain corner offices and boardrooms. If we overlook the possibilities of creating healthy, even (yes) happy job situations and of transcending debilitating fight-or-flight work environments, we often will find ourselves stuck in a dark place for an extended period of time.

It’s about balance and integration, yes? For my part, I’ll do my best to examine destructive behaviors at work and their impact on workers and organizations, while also highlighting how organizational change, law reform, and individual and social change can lead us to better, more dignified workplaces and work experiences.

We’ve got a lot of work to do, and understanding the bigger picture, with all its possibilities and limitations, is a good starting point.

New California law directs larger employers to engage in workplace bullying training and education for supervisors

Earlier this week, California Gov. Jerry Brown signed legislation (Assembly Bill No. 2053) requiring employers of 50 or more workers to engage in training and education for supervisors concerning workplace bullying.

The legislation amends an existing California law requiring covered employers to engage in training and education for sexual harassment. These employers are now directed to include “prevention of abusive conduct” in their supervisor training and education programs. The definition of “abusive conduct” draws heavily from versions of the Healthy Workplace Bill, covering:

…conduct of an employer or employee in the workplace, with malice, that a reasonable person would find hostile, offensive, and unrelated to an employer’s legitimate business interests. Abusive conduct may include repeated infliction of verbal abuse, such as the use of derogatory remarks, insults, and epithets, verbal or physical conduct that a reasonable person would find threatening, intimidating, or humiliating, or the gratuitous sabotage or undermining of a person’s work performance. A single act shall not constitute abusive conduct, unless especially severe and egregious.

The California law does not, however, create a legal claim for workplace bullying. Nevertheless, it is an important step forward and constitutes further recognition of the need for our legal system to respond to workplace bullying. This law follows legislation enacted by Tennessee earlier this year directing a state commission to develop a model workplace anti-bullying policy for the state’s public employers.

I’ll have more to say about these developments in a later post.

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World Suicide Prevention Day, 2014: Ties to work, bullying, and the economy

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This Wednesday, September 10 has been designated World Suicide Prevention Day by the International Association for Suicide Prevention (IASP), an agency associated with the World Health Organization. You’ll find a wealth of resources related to suicide prevention awareness and education on the IASP’s dedicated webpage. And you also can access a copy of the WHO’s 2014 report, Preventing suicide: A global imperative, available in several languages.

What does this have to do with a blog about workers and workplaces? As longtime readers know, a lot. Conditions at work, especially severe workplace bullying, have been linked to suicides and suicidal ideation. The global economic meltdown has been associated with rising suicide rates as well. Here are some of my previous posts on suicide as related to bullying (both workplace and school) and the state of the economy:

U.S. Army’s investigation on toxic leadership may yield valuable insights on bullying/suicide risks (2014) — “The United States Army is taking a hard look at the effects of toxic leaders on the mental health of soldiers, and the results may yield valuable insights on linkages between bullying behaviors and suicidal tendencies.”

Suicide and the Great Recession: Will we heed the tragic warnings? (2013) —  “In this era of the Great Recession, suicide has become a leading cause of death in America, especially among the middle-aged, and it is to our shame as a society that this reality is not an ongoing, dominant focus of our attention. Earlier this month, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) released a report documenting the alarming crisis….”

News report: Teen suicide in Japan followed virulent peer and adult bullying (2012) — “One of the most disturbing stories about a teen suicide linked to bullying comes from Otsu, Japan, where a 13-year-old boy was savagely bullied by both classmates and teachers before taking his life. The death occurred in October, but the story has just gone public.”

Suicides spike as Europe’s economy crumbles (2012) — “The meltdown of the European economy has been linked to rising suicide rates of workers who see no escape from their plight.”

Friends and families of workplace bullying suicide victims support Healthy Workplace Bill (2011) — “If you’re wondering about the terrible impact of workplace bullying on targets and their family and friends, a recent press conference in New York hosted by advocates for the anti-bullying Healthy Workplace Bill put the question front-and-center. Among the speakers were Maria Morrissey, sister of Kevin Morrissey, an editor for the Virginia Literary Review who committed suicide last July; and Katherine Hermes, friend of Marlene Braun, a California park service employee who committed suicide in 2005.”

Following suicide of Rutgers student, N.J. Senator to introduce anti-bullying legislation (2010) — “Following the suicide of Rutgers University student Tyler Clementi after images of him engaging in an intimate encounter with a man were posted to the Internet, U.S. Senator Frank Lautenberg (D-NJ) has stated that he will introduce legislation requiring colleges and universities to develop anti-bullying and harassment policies.”

Media tracks workplace bullying angle in suicide of Virginia journal editor (2010) — “The July 30 suicide of Virginia Quarterly Review editor Kevin Morrissey…, reportedly due to workplace bullying, has become the subject of growing media attention. Especially for those who are studying linkages between bullying and suicidal behavior, as well as instances of bullying in academe, this developing story merits your continued interest. In addition to Robin Wilson’s Aug. 12 article in the Chronicle of Higher Education and accompanying online comments, here are two more recent and extensive news accounts. You’ll find my interview remarks in both….”

Are suicides of French Telecom workers related to workplace bullying? (2010) — “(H)ere is a report from Matthew Saltmarsh of the New York Times on an investigation in France of some 40 suicides of French Telecom employees that may be related to bullying at work….”

Global news about workplace bullying and the law (2010) — “Four workmates of a young waitress who killed herself by jumping off a building have been convicted and fined a total of $335,000 over relentless bullying before her death. Brodie Rae Constance Panlock, 19, was subjected to the humiliating bullying by workmates at Cafe Vamp in Hawthorn, in Melbourne’s east, before she threw herself from a multi-storey car park in September 2006.”

Workplace bullying suicide of Jodie Zebell, age 31 (2010) — “This week, a Wisconsin state legislative committee deliberating on the Healthy Workplace Bill heard about the 2008 suicide of Jodie Zebell, who took her own life after enduring months of workplace bullying at the clinic where she worked as a mammography.”

The school bullying suicide of Phoebe Prince, age 15 (2010) — “Phoebe Prince was a 15-year-old girl at South Hadley High School in Massachusetts who was so mercilessly bullied by fellow students (in person and online) that she took her own life.”

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Suicide prevention resource in the U.S.

If you or someone you care about is having suicidal thoughts, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline can be reached around the clock at 1-800-273-TALK (8255). In addition, you can go to a hospital emergency room and ask for help.

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Working Notes: Interview with workplace anti-bullying activist, Kaplan survey on bullying & nurses, freelancers & nasty clients

Good morning, dear readers! Here are three items that may be of interest to you:

1. Tufts professor profiles Massachusetts anti-bullying activist and labor leader Greg Sorozan

Tufts University professor Lisa Gualtieri did an excellent in-depth interview Greg Sorozan, coordinator of the Massachusetts Healthy Workplace Advocates and union president. Greg has been a pioneering voice in the labor movement on workplace bullying and is an initial Fellow of the U.S. Academy of Workplace Bullying, Mobbing, and Abuse. I encourage you to read Dr. Gualtieri’s full profile of Greg; here’s the intro:

“Bullying is part of the spectrum of abusive behaviors that exist in this world. I know about child abuse, child neglect, sexual abuse, domestic violence, substance abuse, and now adult abuse at work. They all work together to create many, if not most, of the health and mental health problems we have,” said Greg Sorozan. Greg is President of SEIU/NAGE Local 282 and Massachusetts State Coordinator of The Healthy Workplace Bill, working to prevent bullying in the workplace. I read about his work in a Boston Globe article and his MA legislative activity and asked to interview him about his work as a patient activist.

2. Kaplan survey: Nursing school graduates concerned about workplace bullying

A survey by the Kaplan testing preparation company shows that nearly half of surveyed 2014 nursing school graduates are concerned about experiencing bullying and related behaviors. Here’s the lede from the Kaplan news release:

For those entering the workforce, typical top-of-mind issues include opportunities for growth, benefits, and job security — but nearly half of those entering the nursing profession voice another concern: being bullied by colleagues. According to a just-released Kaplan survey of over 2,000 nursing school graduates from the class of 2014, 48% say they are concerned about being the victims of workplace bullying or working in a hostile working environment. The survey also found that 39% personally knew nurses who were victims of workplace bullying or a hostile working environment.

 3. Freelancers Union piece on working with jerks

A sense of independence is one of the great appeals of going the freelance route, and that may include being able to work with agreeable clients instead of difficult ones. But it’s not always that easy; bullying-type behaviors rear their ugly heads in the indie sector as well. Kate Hamill, writing for the Freelancers Union blog, shares a bad client situation from her early freelancing days and lessons learned from it. Here’s a snippet:

Early on in my freelance career, I worked with a company that has since gone under – quite deservedly. Looking back, there were a lot of red flags: a haphazard hiring process, an unclear reporting structure (to this day, I can’t tell you exactly who my boss was), relatively low pay, and unreasonable demand. Most tellingly, they employed an army of freelance writers, with a high turnover rate.

…It didn’t take long for the client to become unpleasant. It started out with small things; deadlines that seemed unreasonable, unsubtle demands to work overtime, a tendency to ignore boundaries. I would send emails that got no response, only to get chewed out days later for not following policy. When I forwarded emails that exonerated me… no reply. They kept giving me more and more work, including assignments I was painfully unqualified for. Then I found out how much money they were charging THEIR clients for my services, while claiming I possessed certain certifications… that I didn’t.  I was making about 10% of what they were charging. Their language got increasingly harsh – with me, with everybody.

 

 

Bullying in the artistic sector

Recently I was contacted about a significant bullying situation in the organizing of a visual arts program. It confirmed for me how these behaviors are so universal, cutting across occupations and avocations.

The person who contacted me (let’s call him Walter) was teaming up with another arts enthusiast (let’s call her Eloise) to co-organize the event. Although Eloise initially exhibited great enthusiasm for the partnership, she soon began to push Walter to the side and took over key decision making and outreach for the event. Eloise’s behaviors began to look like a textbook list of common workplace bullying tactics:

  • Excluding Walter via behind-the-scenes machinations
  • Withholding necessary information from Walter
  • Refusing to reply to Walter’s requests and inquiries
  • Stealing credit from Walter
  • Wrongfully blaming Walter for overlooking details that were Eloise’s responsibility

Eloise’s persona suggests that she’s a classic narcissist, one of the most common descriptions for workplace aggressors.

More prevalent than in the military?

Walter’s experience is hardly unique. Lyn Gardner, in her theatre blog for The Guardian, wrote about bullying in the arts a year ago:

For many people working in theatre, bullying is a fact of life. The whispers about it are constant. One theatre chief is famous for the strops taken out on staff. People working in jobs seen (wrongly) as less “creative”, such as press or marketing, are frequently victims of this high-handed behaviour; but it can happen to anyone from stage hands to actors. Do the victims complain? Often not.

I’ve come across playwrights who have been bullied into silence and made to fear for their future careers by the very theatres who commissioned them. I’ve heard of producers throwing their weight about, and directors who treat theatre buildings as personal fiefdoms.

Gardner highlighted the work of Ann-Marie Quigg, author of Bullying in the Arts: Vocation, Exploitation and Abuse of Power (2011) :

When Anne-Marie Quigg investigated workplace bullying in the arts, her 2011 report revealed it was more prevalent in the arts than in the armed forces and the health service.

Whoa, that’s saying a lot…

Bullying of volunteers

This particular event was organized solely by volunteers, so technically it’s not a case of workplace bullying. On that note, last year I wrote that bullying of volunteers is a neglected subject that deserves to be studied more closely:

…(V)oluntary associations are a societal cornerstone, and a lot of folks devote time to them. Their experiences as volunteers not only impact them personally, but also have a ripple effect on our communities in general. It follows that we should understand the significance of when and how working relationships among volunteers become dysfunctional and even abusive.

Expectations vs. reality

So there you have it: An artistic event fueled by a love of the arts, organized by passionate volunteers. It sounds incredibly appealing, doesn’t it? Unfortunately, in this case at least, not for Walter…and possibly for others bullied and manipulated by Eloise.

From the “Hacker Ethic” to the “Antifree Movement”: On paying writers and journalists for their work

How have we reached the point where so many writers, journalists, and other creative folks are struggling to find gigs that pay them for their labor?

I submit that some of the core roots of our current situation can be traced to the early, idealistic days of computer hacking.

An early chapter in Steven Levy’s brilliant Hackers: Heroes of the Computer Revolution (1984) includes the story of MIT students who, during the late 50s and early 60s, devoted enormous amounts of time to tinkering with early computers on their campus. They honed a sort of attitudinal manifesto on the emerging power of computing that Levy would tag the “Hacker Ethic” (pp. 39-49):

  • “Access to computers…should be unlimited and total”
  • “All information should be free”
  • “Mistrust Authority — Promote Decentralization”
  • “Hackers should be judged by their hacking, not bogus criteria such as degrees, age, race, or position”
  • “You can create art and beauty on a computer”
  • “Computers can change your life for the better”

There’s a ton of idealism in these precepts. It imagines a world transformed by emerging computer technologies, and it reflects the early fascination with, and anticipation of, what digital power could do for society.

But there’s one point that, with the gift of hindsight, raises special concern: All information should be free. The Hacker Ethic didn’t get around to asking the logical question, If all information is free, then who will pay the producers and creators of this information?

Read it for free

The excellence of Levy’s book notwithstanding, “Hacker Ethic” never caught on as a branding term to help characterize the early age of computing. However, as the Internet became part of our everyday lives in the mid-to-late 1990s, we quickly assumed that the Information Highway was a freeway for us to read, print, and download without charge.

Sure, we expected to pay for products marketed via e-commerce, but when it came to information online such as articles in newspapers and magazines, the opposite was the case. Concededly, publishers of periodicals could not have anticipated how sharing articles from their print editions eventually would morph into people trading in their hard-copy subscriptions for free online access. But in lightning fast time, it was so.

As this trend became a stampede, conventional newspapers and magazines that had long been sustained by advertising found those dollars drying up. As subscribers dwindled and e-commerce proliferated, once-loyal advertisers took flight.

An emerging antifree movement?

This expectation of free online information has massive labor implications. If people aren’t paying for the articles they read online, then how are those who produce the content being paid for their work?

In an extended editorial essay titled “The Free and the Antifree: On payment for writers,” the editors of N+1 magazine examine the challenges of economic and technological systems conspiring to make it difficult for capable writers, journalists, editors, and other wordsmiths to get paid for their work and to earn a living:

If this was not yet a movement, it was definitely a mood—antifree—and it was fighting a more difficult battle than the proponents of free had. The Free movement had a few professorial spokespeople and millions of adherents; antifree was a small group of interested artisans speaking up for the dignity of being gainfully employed. As antifree grew beyond the small world of left-wing blogs, it attracted 25-year-olds who objected to being paid $50 by a corporate website that presumed them lucky to get the experience. It attracted veteran journalists who balked at being asked to write for a large, profitable magazine’s website for chump change. And it attracted unpaid interns, who at profitable media corporations (ranging from Condé Nast to Gawker), actually filed suit for violations of labor laws. These were individual stories, but they added up. The entities that had once supported journalists and writers were now doing their best not to pay them for the simplest of reasons: they could get away with it.

The N+1 piece favorably cites Ross Perlin’s Intern Nation (2011) — touted on several occasions in this blog — as one of the first books to come out of the antifree movement.

Back to basics

At times, advocates for intern rights have been greeted with derision, as if calls for the minimum wage in return for work rendered were somehow the yammerings of entitled young people. In reality, here in the early 21st century, the emerging antifree movement is about returning to a familiar, simple labor theme: People should be paid for their work. It may be laboring with mouse and keyboard rather than with pick and shovel, but it is work nonetheless.

Labor Day 2014: It’s up to us

On this Labor Day 2014, here’s the basic, fundamental question for each of us:

“What will I do to nurture dignity, opportunity, and well-being in the workplace?”

The world of work needs a lot of improvement right now. Many readers understand this through their own work experiences. Others have witnessed friends and family members struggling with bad workplaces.

It’s up to us to create the changes we want to see. It can range from living up to the Golden Rule at work, to joining collective efforts to create better workplaces.

In any event, we must be the change agents. It won’t happen otherwise. It’s as easy and as challenging as that.

Of possible interest

“I want to help stop workplace bullying” (2014)

“Rebellious Lawyering” conference: Discussing origins and meaning of the intern rights movement (2014)

Intellectual activism and social change (2013)

Insiders, outsiders, and change agents (2013)

Setting agendas for positive social change (2013)

The social responsibilities of intellectuals at a time of extraordinary human need (2013)

10 ways to make a difference: Advice for change agents (2013)

What if we applied the Golden Rule at work? (2010)

Advice to Young (and Not So Young) Folks Who Want to Make a Difference (2009)

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