“Can we help you with the problems we caused?” The ironies of employee assistance and wellness initiatives

Employee Assistance Programs (EAPs) and employee wellness programs are among the features of many contemporary workplaces, especially larger organizations that are in a position to devote time and money to extended human resources operations. They can serve useful roles in creating healthier, more productive workplaces and in helping workers with personal problems and challenges. Many are staffed by dedicated, trained EAP and wellness practitioners.

In less-than-wonderful workplaces, however, EAPs and wellness initiatives can play an ironic role: They exist in part to deal with the dysfunctional and unhealthy aspects of the organization itself.

Briefly explained…

EAPs are designed to help workers deal with personal problems that may impact their job performance and health. They may include providing advice and consultation, short-term counseling, and referrals to other care providers.

Common employee wellness initiatives may include anti-smoking counseling, exercise classes, weight control assistance, and mindfulness programs.

But what if…

So here’s the rub: What if the problems and challenges that lead workers to contact an EAP or partake in a wellness program are triggered by work-related stress or even mistreatment?

I’m not talking about the everyday stress that is part of many jobs. Rather, I’m referring to acute situations that can be attributed, at least in significant part, to bad management, interpersonal abuse (such as sexual harassment or workplace bullying), and unhealthy organizational cultures.

For example, what if a worker is contacting the EAP because she’s being sexually harassed by her boss? What if a worker enrolls in a smoking cessation program because undue stress created by a dysfunctional work situation has fueled a nicotine habit?

“It’s all about you”

These scenarios highlight the limits of EAPs and wellness programs: The focus is typically on the individual. However well meaning and helpful at times, they often are constrained in addressing systemic problems that may prompt someone to seek help.

To draw on the examples above: What will an EAP director do if an alleged serial sexual harasser is the same person who hired her? If participants in a smoking cessation program repeatedly complain about work-related stress, will the program coordinator be able to raise concerns about an unhealthy organizational culture?

I’m not suggesting that we get rid of EAPs and wellness programs because of these inherent limitations; quite the contrary. However, I am very curious to know how many dysfunctional, unhealthy organizations look like pure gold on paper because they offer these useful benefits, without addressing some of the internal, core reasons for why their workers access them.

Ethical failure at Rutgers: Abusive coach, bad management, questionable lawyering

Last week, Rutgers University men’s head basketball coach Mike Rice was fired after videotape of his ongoing verbal and physical abuse toward his players went viral. The video is a compilation of Rice at practice sessions, repeatedly yelling at his players (including loud profanities and homophobic slurs), aggressively grabbing and pushing them, and firing basketballs at them.

Rutgers athletic director Tim Pernetti reportedly knew of the behaviors as early as last summer.  He saw the videotape late last fall, and — after obtaining legal advice and consulting with Rutgers president Robert Barchi — gave Rice a slap on the wrist by suspending him for three games and imposing a fine.

However, the story resurfaced last week when the videotape went public. Suddenly, Rutgers found itself under a barrage of media attention, leading to a quick domino effect: At a Friday press conference, President Barchi said that he saw the video for the first time when the story was breaking and ordered Pernetti to fire Rice. Following Rice’s termination, Pernetti resigned amidst cries for his departure. Rutgers general counsel John Wolf also was shown the door. (Barchi, the guy at the top, still retains his job as of this writing.)

Ethical systems failure

The details continue to surface, so it’s likely that more information will flesh out the story of how this abusive coach managed to avoid termination until Rutgers had no other choice. But even with what we know, it’s clear that that Rutgers mishandled the situation at every level.

Bullying coach

After watching the video several times and reading a lot of the news coverage, it’s obvious to me that Mike Rice is much more than your stereotypical over-the-top coach. He’s got a hair-trigger temper, he’s verbally abusive, and he sees nothing wrong with physically assaulting his players. (For portions of the videotape, Google “Mike Rice Rutgers video” and get some choices.)

Guys like this should not be coaching.

John Baldoni, writing for Forbes, quickly put Rice’s behavior in the context of workplace bullying — even citing studies by the Workplace Bullying Institute — and urged employers to watch the Rice video:

Every senior executive needs to watch the video of former Rutgers basketball coach Mike Rice verbally and physically abusing his players during practice.

…Fear of the boss, coupled with the belief that management will not listen, cows employees into silence and so it is up to executives who want to do the right thing to initiate anti-bullying policies that ensure the protection of employees and the banishment of bullying.

Bad management

Departed athletic director Pernetti, the point person in the university’s handling of the situation, is a Rutgers graduate and a true believer in his alma mater‘s sports program. It’s likely that he was too invested in that devotion to render a sensible decision when Rice’s behavior and the videotape were brought to his attention.

However, there’s plenty of responsibility to go around, as Tim Eder reports for the New York Times:

But Mr. Pernetti is hardly the only person who watched the edited video and still approved of keeping Mr. Rice on staff until last week. The athletic department’s human resources and chief financial officer saw the video, as did the university’s outside legal counsel. At least one member of the board of governors saw it. Robert L. Barchi, the university president, has said he did not see it before last week, although at least one of his senior directors asked him to watch it.

Questionable lawyering

At the lengthy Friday press conference, Rutgers senior officials explained that in the fall, they consulted their legal counsel about how to handle the Rice situation. While perhaps engaging in some buck-passing, it is obvious that they felt they received bad advice. After speaking with their lawyers, the officials believed that Rice could be retained with the mild discipline imposed. (No doubt this informed their decision to relieve their general counsel of his duties when the story went viral.)

We don’t know the exact conversations between Rutgers officials and their lawyers last fall, but had Rutgers been my client, and even had I believed they could technically defend a decision not to fire Rice, I would’ve told them to consider the big downside risks of the light discipline they ultimately imposed (brief suspension, fine). Those risks would include future legal ramifications and creating a public perception (in this case, an accurate one) that they were sweeping abusive behaviors by their basketball coach under the rug.

In no way would that client have left the conversation without knowing my clear belief that terminating the coach was the better decision, planted on the ethical high ground.

It’s not just Rutgers

Rutgers couldn’t respond decisively and ethically to mistreatment that easily justified termination. Unfortunately, this institution is far from being alone. It simply got caught in a massively public way.

In organizations big and small, prominent and anonymous, abusive behaviors occur all the time — routinely protected, ratified, and even encouraged by a management structure that somehow doesn’t understand the human and institutional costs.

The sooner we understand that Rutgers represents a significant minority of organizations that have difficulty doing the right thing, the better we’ll comprehend the nature and impact of bullying and related behaviors at work.

Does research on predicting bullying behaviors by kids yield insights for identifying future workplace aggressors?

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In a recent column for Yahoo! Shine, Barbara Greenberg summarizes a study by Douglas Gentile and Brad Bushman, published in the journal Psychology of Popular Media Culture, that identifies six “risk factors that predicted future aggression and bullying behavior” in kids:

1. A tendency toward hostility

2. low parental involvement

3. gender with boys being more likely to be physically aggressive

4. a history of physical victimization

5. a history of prior physical fights

and

6. media violence exposure.

Here’s how the study was conducted:

The study by Gentile and Bushman looked at 430 children ages 7-11 in grades 3-5 from 5 Minnesota schools. For this study, children and their teachers were surveyed twice in a year – usually six months apart. Physical aggression was measured using self-reports, peer nominations, and teacher reports of actual violence.

Any relevance to workplace bullying?

The question of identifying likely workplace aggressors comes up more than occasionally in discussions about preventing bullying at work.

However, most of the popular and academic literature examining aggressors at work focuses on actual behaviors rather than identifying risk factors. There definitely are research opportunities in this realm.

Furthermore, workplace bullying tends to be in the form of psychological rather than physical abuse, so practically speaking it’s less likely that there will be a documented record of prior risk-level behaviors. Even if such a record exists, it is improbable that it will be shared among stakeholders in a position to act preventively, given standard human resources practices and confidentiality/privacy issues concerning employee evaluations.

Equally important is whether employers would even want to be able to “profile” candidates for hiring and promotion based on their supposed propensity to engage in abusive mistreatment of co-workers. Various commercially marketed personality tests may help to identify certain counterproductive traits, but their reliability as pre-employment screening devices is highly questionable.

It’s a topic rife with complications, much different from school situations.

***

Although the full journal article is not freely available, go here for the posted abstract:

Working Notes: Social media and workplace bullying, HR best practices for teachers, and midlife career switches

A few items worth noting:

1. Grad student Cecilia Akuffo’s New Journalism Project — An appreciative shout out to Cecilia Akuffo, a Northeastern University graduate student in journalism, who did a multimedia course project on my work relating to workplace bullying and the role of blogging.

Go here for her Workplace Practices blog post and here (or click above) for the interview posted to YouTube. (That’s my messy office in the background!)

2. ILO handbook on best HR practices for teachers – The International Labour Organization — the United Nations agency charged with advancing policies and practices for the well-being of workers — has published the first edition of the Handbook of Good Human Resource Practices in the Teaching Profession (2012). Even better, it’s available in a free pdf file in English, Spanish, and French. Here’s how the ILO describes the handbook:

Module 1 presents the recruitment and employment of teachers, based on the principles of equal opportunity, non-discrimination and professional competence. Module 2 further develops themes on conditions of employment, including leave entitlement and career development. Module 3 discusses the professional roles, responsibilities and accountability of teachers, while Module 4 examines the work environment, including hours of work and workload; class size and pupil–teacher ratios; and issues of health and safety. The question of teacher reward, salaries and incentives policies is discussed in Module 5, while Module 6 deals with the question of social security. Module 7 considers social dialogue and labour relations within the teaching profession. Questions regarding initial and further teacher education and training are examined in Module 8.

For school boards, school administrators, and teachers unions, it’s definitely worth a good look.

3. Marci Alboher on midlife career switches — Lawyer-turned-writer Marci Alboher writes about people deciding to pursue more meaningful work in their 40s, 50s, and 60s in a piece for the New York Times:

My reinvention wasn’t easy. After about two years, I weaned myself from the law and re-emerged as a journalist. It took a lot of work — classes, conferences, networking with writers and editors, learning from mentors 10 years my junior. In time I was getting regular assignments and writing for publications that included The New York Times. Even today, more than 10 years into my new career, I earn only two-thirds of what I was making in my last law job. But the trade-offs are worth it.

The subject of career reinvention was so fascinating to me that it’s become front and center in my current work. These days I’m working for Encore.org, a nonprofit that focuses on so-called encore careers. As people hit their 50th and 60th birthdays and realize they are far from done with work, millions are moving into new careers that combine making a living and a difference.

She is the author of a newly-published book, Encore Career Handbook: How to Make a Living and a Difference in the Second Half of Life (2013). My copy arrived today; it looks like a very useful read.

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Corporate Counsel: Take workplace bullying legislation seriously

Shannon Green, in a piece for Corporate Counsel (link here), explains how the possible enactment of the anti-bullying Healthy Workplace Bill is having an impact on lawyers representing employers. In essence, these lawyers are seeing more bullying-related claims from employees, and they’re training their clients to develop workplace bullying policies and other measures in anticipation of the Healthy Workplace Bill becoming law.

Here’s a sampling from the article:

No state has yet to pass legislation defining a cause of action, but according to experts, claims of workplace abuse are nonetheless on the rise. Their advice to employers: the time to train your workforce is now.

Legislation is currently pending in New Jersey, and 21 states have proposed laws on workplace bullying since 2003. The Workplace Bullying Institute advocates state passage of the Healthy Workplace Bill . . ., drafted by Suffolk University Law School professor David Yamada.

Practitioners are using the proposed legislation to create workplace training based on what their state laws would look like if passed.

***

In her management-side employment practice, Sharon Parella says she is seeing more and more claims of workplace bullying every month. The Morrison & Foerster partner says the allegations are significant, and they involve claims against all levels of employees.

“We’ve received claims where an employee is laughed at, teased, poked at incessantly by other employees in the group, excluded from social interactions,” she says. She often sees “an employee who is being really sabotaged at work, not being given help with assignments that he or she needs to be successful, or worse, being undermined so that his or her assignments are done poorly.”

What this signifies

In assessing whether conditions are ripe for the law to change, we look for indicators of greater receptivity to that change among key stakeholders.

The fact that management-side employment lawyers are working with their clients in anticipation of the eventual enactment of the Healthy Workplace Bill is an important sign. It’s also encouraging that these attorneys are acknowledging the wrongfulness of bullying behaviors and the harm caused by such mistreatment, even if they don’t necessarily agree with the proposed legislation.

Folks, we’re getting there. Workplace bullying legislation alone won’t end these destructive behaviors, but it will give employees a chance to recover damages and oblige employers to act preventively and responsively toward bullying at work.

Healthy vs. dysfunctional organizations

With some 800+ articles posted to this blog since late 2008, I’ve been periodically collecting pieces on related topics for your reading pleasure. Here are eight posts from 2011 and 2010 that address various aspects of organizational behavior:

1. What workplace bullying teaches us about the integrity of American employers (2011) — An employer’s response to psychological abuse of its workers says a lot about its core ethics.

2. Confidential settlements in employment cases: Poof, as if nothing happened (2011) — Gag clauses in settlements of employment cases often shield the worst employers from closer scrutiny.

3. How lousy organizations treat institutional history (2011) — Not all organizations treat their past alike.

4. “Strategic planning”: All too often, a time-sucking bridge to nowhere (2011) — In bad organizations, a drawn-out strategic planning process helps to justify and promote more dysfunction.

5. When bad employers retain thuggish employment lawyers (2011) — The worst employers often hire the least-wonderful employment attorneys.

6. How well does your organization respond to employee feedback and criticism? (2011) — The question says it all.

7. Do organizations suppress our empathy? (2010) — On organizational “heart quality.”

8. Is your workplace psychologically and ethically healthy? (2010) — A great list of questions that yield insights into the culture of your workplace.

The impacts of good and bad leadership on employee health

A bit of web surfing turned up a very useful 2011 blog post examining links between leadership qualities and employee health.

Richard Williams, Wallace Higgins, and Harvey Greenberg — consultants with Nehoiden Partners and writing for Boston.com’s Northeast Human Resources Association blog — start by building a pitch for leadership development programs:

Your boss should come with a warning label: May be hazardous to your health. Research once again has confirmed what we’ve always suspected – your boss can cause you stress, induce depression and anxiety or even trigger the onset of serious illness. It is not just bad managers who can negatively affect employee health, but it is also the lackadaisical and mediocre who can put employees on the sick list.

While the cost to employees is their health, welfare and sometimes their income, the cost to workplaces is lost productivity, turnover, training, disability payments and staggering health insurance premiums. Moreover, a whole new field of litigation is opening – lawsuits against “bad” bosses and the organizations that negligently allow them to supervise.

But hope is not lost. A careful review of the research on leadership behavior and employee health yields some important surprises about leadership development and its potential impact on employee health and performance. There appears to be a clear relationship between leader behaviors and employee health, which is a pre-requisite for good performance. Furthermore, those behaviors are specific enough to be part of an effective leadership development program.

Summarizing studies

The authors do an excellent job of summarizing research findings on leadership and employee health. Here’s a snippet:

  • Eleven studies found that positive leader behaviors were associated with lower levels of anxiety and depression while the lack of positive leadership behaviors was associated with higher levels of anxiety and depression. Kuoppala’s meta-analysis of the research on employee health and leadership behaviors concluded that employees with good leadership were 40% more likely to be in the highest category of psychological well-being, including lower levels of anxiety and depression.
  • Eight studies on burnout – physical or emotional exhaustion as the result of prolonged stress – found that positive leader behaviors led to lower levels of burnout.
  • Six studies on stress had mixed results. Four studies found a relationship between leader behaviors and stress; two did not. Taken altogether however these studies strongly indicate that positive leader behaviors can reduce stress while the lack of these behaviors creates an environment that increases stress.

The full blog article includes a link to citations of studies referenced within. If this topic is of interest, it’s definitely worth a click-and-print.

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