The NFL and domestic abuse: An evolving case study in horrific leadership

Before our very eyes, the National Football League — notably Commissioner Roger Goodell and various team executives and owners — is putting on a show of horrific leadership in the midst of domestic violence allegations against certain NFL players. The current wave of media attention followed the public posting of video footage showing now former Baltimore Ravens star Ray Rice delivering a knockout punch to his then-fiancee (and now wife) and then dragging her body out of an elevator. Days later, Minnesota Vikings star Adrian Peterson was indicted on child abuse charges. More stories involving other NFL players are now popping up.

The Ray Rice story is the most factually developed, at least for now. If you want a sense of the culture of the NFL’s front office and the character of some of its leaders, start by reading this excellent investigative report by ESPN’s Don Van Natta, Jr., and Kevin Van Valkenburg, “Rice case: Purposeful misdirection by team, scant investigation by NFL“:

Just hours after running back Ray Rice knocked out his then-fiancée with a left hook at the Revel Casino Hotel in Atlantic City, New Jersey, the Baltimore Ravens’ director of security, Darren Sanders, reached an Atlantic City police officer by phone. While watching surveillance video — shot from inside the elevator where Rice’s punch knocked his fiancée unconscious — the officer, who told Sanders he just happened to be a Ravens fan, described in detail to Sanders what he was seeing.

Sanders quickly relayed the damning video’s play-by-play to team executives in Baltimore, unknowingly starting a seven-month odyssey that has mushroomed into the biggest crisis confronting a commissioner in the NFL’s 94-year history.

“Outside the Lines” interviewed more than 20 sources over the past 11 days — team officials, current and former league officials, NFL Players Association representatives and associates, advisers and friends of Rice — and found a pattern of misinformation and misdirection employed by the Ravens and the NFL since that February night.

I submit that this story carries relevance far beyond the world of professional sports. In particular, the actions of Commissioner Goodell and Baltimore Ravens executives mimic those of countless other organizational leaders when presented with allegations of domestic violence, sexual harassment or assault, school bullying, or workplace bullying lodged against people they wish to protect due to personal ties or business interests. Whether the claims are directed at a powerful senior executive, a “rainmaking” business partner, a team’s star quarterback, or a golf buddy, they simply choose not to do the right thing.

Federal workers: If you blow the whistle, will you get new “office space”?

If you’re a federal employee who wants a new office, engaging in a bit of whistleblowing may be one way to get it. Unfortunately, it probably won’t be the corner window office on the top floor.

David Fahrenthold, reporting for the Washington Post, describes a common form of retaliation toward whistleblowers in the federal government, leading with the story of Paula Pedene, an administrator with the Phoenix office of the Veteran’s Administration:

Pedene, 56, is the former chief spokeswoman for this VA hospital. Now, she is living in a bureaucrat’s urban legend. After complaining to higher-ups about mismanagement at this hospital, she has been reassigned — indefinitely — to a desk in the basement.

In the Phoenix case, investigators are still trying to determine whether Pedene was punished because of her earlier complaints. If she is, that would make her part of a long, ugly tradition in the federal bureaucracy — workers sent to a cubicle in exile.

In the past, whistleblowers have had their desks moved to break rooms, broom closets and basements. It’s a clever punishment, good-government activists say, that exploits a gray area in the law.

The whole thing can look minor on paper. They moved your office. So what? But the change is designed to afflict the striving soul of a federal worker, with a mix of isolation, idle time and lost prestige.

The last point is worth comprehending. It looks minor on paper. It gives Uncle Sam plausible deniability, an out to claim that being relocated to the basement is simply a routine change in office real estate.

Fahrenthold does a nice job of putting Pedene’s situation in the broader context of how whistleblowers are treated in the federal government, so his full article is worth your while if the subject interests you.

Tip of the iceberg

The bottom line remains: Whistleblowers often pay a price for exercising their consciences, sometimes a big one.

We know that retaliation for whistleblowing can get worse, much worse, than being moved to the dungeon. Various forms of bullying, harassment, and intimidation, as well as wrongful discipline and discharge, often enter the picture. Although a lot of our focus on whistleblower retaliation tends to be on the public sector, it also occurs frequently in the private and non-profit sectors.

Legal protections may exist for a given situation, but establishing the causal link between the whistleblowing activity and alleged acts of retaliation can pose a challenge. Furthermore, if the retaliation appears to be mild in severity, it may not be legally sufficient to prevail on a claim.

If you search terms such as “report on whistleblowing,” you’ll also see that whistleblower retaliation is a widespread, global phenomenon, even in nations where employment & labor laws are generally more favorable to workers. In essence, it’s part of the ongoing tale of how some people in power respond when they called on their wrongful behavior.

Resources

Those who are in potential whistleblowing situations should seek out legal guidance. They may wish to check these sites for information, advice, and legal referrals:

Government Accountability Project

National Employment Lawyers Association

National Whistleblowers Center

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Hat tip to Susan Thomas on the Washington Post article.

Myths and realities about working in the non-profit sector

It’s possible to make a difference in the non-profit sector, but no one should assume that work life there is a picnic. Like for-profit and public employers, non-profit employers run the gamut. Some are terrific, many are okay, and others are positively dreadful.

In addition to facing the financial pressures of trying to do more with limited resources, non-profits suffer from their own brands of employee relations problems. So steer clear of the myths of non-profit employment, and understand the realities. Here are among the major ones:

1. Myth: Non-profit employers care deeply about their employees.

Reality: Don’t count on it. The non-profit sector sometimes forgets about its own.

In a 2007 piece for the Stanford Social Innovation Review, “Guess Who’s Socially Irresponsible?,” fundraising consultant Mal Warwick noted that “philanthropy — the love of humankind — is missing from the practices of many nonprofits.” He urged that non-profits must “come to understand that philanthropy begins at home.”

2. Myth: There’s very little bullying, mobbing, or sexual harassment in non-profits, because people working in that sector watch out for each other.

Reality: Some of the worst bullying, mobbing, and sexual harassment situations I’ve heard of over the past 15 years have come out of the non-profit sector.

A do-gooder organizational mission doesn’t ensure high-character employees. It’s one thing to fight for The Cause; it’s quite another to treat people decently. I’d be surprised if prevalence rates of interpersonal abuse are materially lower at non-profits than in the for-profit or public sectors.

3. Myth: You won’t encounter any psychopathic or narcissistic types in the non-profit sector; they’re only to be found in the big bad corporations.

Reality: Sorry, but these folks can easily turn up as senior administrators in non-profits.

It seems like such a disconnect when people with these personality traits and disorders are hired into institutions that embrace a social mission, but it happens — a lot. Once empowered, they may bully, connive, and manipulate, sometimes while serving as the charismatic, smiling face of the organization.

4. Myth: There’s very little hierarchy in the non-profit sector, because everyone is in it together.

Reality: Oh, don’t get me started on this one.

Malcolm Warwick observed that many non-profits use “strictly hierarchical, command-and-control” management techniques. Check out a typically large, multi-layered non-profit organization, and you’ll see what I mean.

5. Myth: Non-profit board members really care about the organization’s employees.

Reality: Non-profit boards often are comprised of business executives, many of whom don’t spend a lot of time worrying about the well-being of rank-and-file workers.

To the degree that employee relations matters are brought to their attention, they usually will be filtered through the organization’s top management. Workers’ concerns are more likely to be regarded as a nuisance than as a priority.

6. Myth: Lawyers that represent non-profits take on a more humanistic approach to employment disputes.

Reality: Do not make that assumption, ever.

Many non-profits, especially larger and more prestigious ones, are represented by corporate law firms that specialize in advising management. Especially if a non-profit has a track record of treating its workers poorly, one can expect its lawyers to echo those values and practices.

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Related posts

Prestigious honorary society president may be a bullying boss (2013)

Bullying of volunteers (2013)

Burnout in the non-profit sector (2012)

When the bullying comes from a board member (2011)

When bad employers retain thuggish employment lawyers (2011)

Workplace bullying in the non-profit sector (2011)

The dignity of a living wage

Across America, labor activists and other progressives are calling for a higher federal minimum wage, often citing the personal financial challenges that confront low-paid retail and fast food workers. The current minimum wage is $7.25/hour, though some states have adopted a slightly higher one. Advocates are calling for a new minimum wage ranging from $10.00 to $15.00 an hour.

Whenever a minimum wage hike is proposed or debated, opponents claim that doing so will reduce jobs. At the far end of that spectrum, virulent opponents of any minimum wage law claim that such government mandates are “job killers.”

Yes, I suppose if you got rid of the princely $7.25/hour minimum wage, you could take the same hourly rate and pay three people $2.00/hour and still have a $1.25/hour as a bonus for the CEO. But that’s not “job creation,” it’s exploitation. Take away the minimum wage and you get a labor situation like that in Bangladesh, where wealthy corporations pay factory workers a pittance and subject them to dangerous working conditions. (After all, American factory jobs moved overseas to avoid paying workers good wages and benefits!)

Current minimum wage and low-wage earners often find themselves having to access public benefits such as food stamps to get by. The low minimum wage means, in effect, that American taxpayers are indirectly subsidizing corporations such as Walmart and McDonald’s and their shareholders by supporting living expenses for workers who can’t afford to live on their paltry paychecks alone.

Above all, we need to frame this debate in terms of human dignity. Okay, so maybe that high school senior from an upper middle class family who works part-time to earn spare cash can get by on $7.25/hour. But for those supporting themselves and others, a full-time job at least should pay for the basics. In fact, let’s remember that Congress’s intent behind enacting the federal minimum wage law during the heart of the Great Depression of the 1930s was to provide a living wage. It’s a shame that we have to invoke the hardship of our last systemic economic meltdown to remind ourselves of that.

Why I cancelled my Amazon Prime account

I cancelled my Amazon Prime account earlier this week, and until working conditions for their employees improve, I won’t be shopping there nearly as often as I have previously.

Amazon Prime is a premium membership service that guarantees two-day shipping on almost every item ordered. For frequent customers such as myself, Prime offers easy, dependable, click-and-ship ordering, with hardly any waiting time for delivery.

However, revelations about Amazon’s labor practices have become increasingly disturbing, more specifically the working conditions in its vast merchandise warehouses. For me, the final straw was a recent Salon investigative piece by Simon Head, “Worse than Wal-Mart: Amazon’s sick brutality and secret history of ruthlessly intimidating workers,” detailing how the situation is much worse than I imagined:

As at Walmart, Amazon achieves [fast delivery systems] with a regime of workplace pressure, in which targets for the unpacking, movement, and repackaging of goods are relentlessly increased to levels where employees have to struggle to meet their targets and where older and less dextrous employees will begin to fail. . . .

Amazon’s system of employee monitoring is the most oppressive I have ever come across and combines state-of-the-art surveillance technology with the system of “functional foreman,” introduced by [Frederick] Taylor in the workshops of the Pennsylvania machine-tool industry in the 1890s. . . . London Financial Times economics correspondent Sarah O’Connor describes how, at Amazon’s center at Rugeley, England, Amazon tags its employees with personal sat-nav (satellite navigation) computers that tell them the route they must travel to shelve consignments of goods, but also set target times for their warehouse journeys and then measure whether targets are met.

All this information is available to management in real time, and if an employee is behind schedule she will receive a text message pointing this out and telling her to reach her targets or suffer the consequences.

From the clothes we wear, to the food we eat, to the computers on which we surf the online world, it’s hard to be a moral purist in today’s consumer marketplace. I get that. I also understand that a “rogue” office, factory, or warehouse can pop up in even the best of large companies.

Nonetheless, terrible working conditions appear to be baked into Amazon’s current operating mode. Customer convenience and service are important in the retail industries, but they should not come at the expense of employee dignity and well-being.

Many years ago, I cut my working teeth in retail stores. When the store floor was busy with customers, or when a shipment of goods had to be unloaded from delivery trucks, we stepped up and got the work done right. When things weren’t as busy, we dialed it down a bit. Overall, people did their jobs steadily and dependably, and we didn’t need to have our every move timed and monitored by managers. We didn’t make a lot of money, but we were treated decently. Amazon, however, regards its warehouse workers as human robots.

I’m not suggesting that we completely boycott Amazon. But customer options such as Prime fuel their very worst labor practices. Surely these workers deserve better working conditions, even if it means that we wait, say, three days rather than two for a delivery.

I wrote to Amazon explaining my decision and quickly received a reply saying that my concerns would be shared with the appropriate people. I hope this will be the case. For now, Amazon is a 21st century company with 19th century labor practices, and they need to hear from their customers.

Google: Awesome and not-so-awesome

Very few individuals have either all good or all bad qualities. Hopefully we have more of the former and less of the latter.

The same goes for companies, and few capture these extremes more than Google.

On the one hand…

I am not a Google power user, so I haven’t even started to tap its many features. But I am continually blown away by its capabilities as a search engine. In my experience it ranks multiple levels above its competitors.

I can type in bits of phrases and find exactly what I’m looking for. I can go on fishing expeditions and discover incredibly useful and interesting things. The other day I typed in an airport location to a home address, and up popped super accurate driving directions to help direct a cab.

In sum, Google has redefined how we obtain information. Its programmed “intuition” is brilliant.

Google also appears regularly on lists of the best employers, especially among high tech companies. It ranked no. 1 on the 2013 Fortune list of the 100 best employers. It topped a 2012 LinkedIn survey of most desired global employers. If you have the right skill sets, then this is a destination of choice.

Indeed, even Google interns make a fantastic salary. As reported by Glassdoor.com, software engineering interns are paid an average of over $6,000/month. This is a far cry from mega-gobs of unpaid internships offered by so many other employers that could surely afford to pay their interns.

On the other hand…

If you don’t have those high demand skills, however, your compensation prospects at Google may not be so great. For example, Laura Sydell reports for National Public Radio on how wealthy Bay Area companies like Google contract with firms that pay low wages to provide basic services:

Santa Clara County, Calif., is home to Google, Apple and eBay. So it’s no surprise that the median household income was $91,000 a year in 2012, one of the highest in the country. Yet one-third of the households in the county don’t earn enough for basic living expenses, even when they work at some of those big tech companies.

Take Manny Cardenas, a security guard at Google who lives in low-income housing in San Jose and commutes regularly to Google’s sprawling corporate campus in Mountain View. Cardenas, a stocky, soft-spoken 25-year-old, has been working as a part-time security guard at the search giant for the past year and a half. . . .

. . . Cardenas earns $16 an hour, has no benefits and never gets more than 30 hours a week. In a good month, he brings home about $1,400. If Cardenas didn’t live with his mother, he says, he probably wouldn’t have a roof over his head.

Granted, $16 an hour would be a living wage in other parts of the country. But it doesn’t go far in northern California. Because of the contracting arrangement, those wages will never be factored into Google’s average compensation figures. Google could, if it wished, exercise its economic clout and work only with contractors that pay living wages and benefits.

Unfortunately, Google also is using its abundant monies to advance a policy agenda furthering the interests of the wealthy and powerful. As reported by Nick Surgey for BillMoyers.com, Google funds a bevy of far right think tanks and advocacy groups:

Google, the tech giant supposedly guided by its “don’t be evil” motto, has been funding a growing list of groups advancing the agenda of the Koch brothers.

Organizations that received “substantial” funding from Google for the first time over the past year include Grover Norquist’s Americans for Tax Reform, the Federalist Society, the American Conservative Union (best known for its CPAC conference) and the political arm of the Heritage Foundation that led the charge to shut down the government over the Affordable Care Act: Heritage Action.

In 2013, Google also funded the corporate lobby group, the American Legislative Exchange Council, although that group is not listed as receiving “substantial” funding in the list published by Google.

Assessing

Are remarkable high tech innovations incompatible with a public policy agenda that embraces the common good? Can attractive salaries and model work environments for highly skilled workers co-exist with a living wage and benefits for all?

Socially responsible capitalism means taking the moral high road, even when there’s no government regulator forcing you to do so. When private companies enjoy great success, they can opt to share their bounties and support a rising tide that lifts all boats. Google has immense economic and, hence, political power. Wouldn’t it be great if the company opted to become a standard bearer for ethical, inclusive business practices?

“Compassionate management” sounds great, but can it sweat the tough stuff?

Last month, business writer Bronwyn Fryer blogged for the Harvard Business Review about the welcomed trend toward “compassionate management,” at least as measured by a growing number of conferences, panel discussions, lectures, and social media sites devoted to the topic. Here’s a snippet:

A growing number of business conferences are focusing in on the topic of compassion at work. There’s the International Working Group on Compassionate Organizations. There’s the Changing Culture in the Workplace Conference. Then there’s Wisdom 2.0, dedicated to “exploring living with greater awareness, wisdom and compassion in the modern age.” The speakers are no slouches: eBay founder Pierre Omidyar, Bill Ford (yes, that Bill Ford), Karen May (VP of Talent at Google), and Linked In CEO Jeff Weiner top the bill. At TED, Karen Armstrong’s talk about reviving the Golden Rule won the TED prize in 2009 and has given rise to a Charter for Compassion signed by nearly 100,000 people.

It’s a very good piece, chock full of links to learn more, and well worth reading in its entirety.

Nevertheless…

Hopeful signs notwithstanding, we know that compassionate management is far from the norm, as Fryer acknowledges.

Indeed, the overall emotional state of the American workplace shows a crying need for enlightened management practices. A recent Gallup Poll indicated that 70 percent of American workers “have ‘checked out’ at work or are ‘actively disengaged,’” as Ricardo Lopez reported recently for the Los Angeles Times. These high percentages of emotional disengagement have been pretty consistent since 2000.

Furthermore, readers of this blog know very well that workplace bullying is one of the most common forms of interpersonal abuse. When presented with reports of bullying at work, employers often dismiss the complaints or make the situation worse for the targeted worker. In fact, this occurs 62 percent of the time, according to a 2007 Workplace Bullying Institute national survey conducted with Zogby International pollsters.

Among the challenges…

As I wrote in my 2008 article, “Workplace Bullying and Ethical Leadership” (Journal of Values-Based Leadership), a real test of an organizational leader is what she does when presented with a valid report about workplace bullying that implicates a top executive or, better yet, that person’s friend. Will the situation be handled fairly and honestly, or will it be swept under the rug? All of the organization’s proclaimed devotion to ethics and social responsibility go out the window if the latter occurs.

The same can be said of compassionate management generally. It’s one thing to say all the right things; it’s a lot harder to do them, especially when the circumstances are inconvenient or uncomfortable.

In addition, compassionate management must encompass genuine inclusion. This means giving workers a real voice (and backing it up with protections against retaliation for exercising it) and striving to work cooperatively with unions in organized workplaces. It’s not about creating a facade of feel-good “niceness” that dodges difficult and thorny challenges.

And don’t forget the Golden Rule…

Fryer recognized the tension between cynicism and optimism that many of us balance when it comes to dealing with our workplaces, and she suggested that the Golden Rule is a good starting place for guiding our behaviors:

It’s just a hunch, but I suspect most of us are experiencing cynicism fatigue. The overwhelmingly bad news springing from the news media leaves most people with two options: either they become cynics who drown themselves in their own pleasures, or they try to make a difference. Most of the smart people I know are little a bit of both, but they fight their cynical side. They try to work on something of worth at work and in the world. There is no better way to start doing this than to practice the golden rule on an hourly basis.

I’ve written about the Golden Rule at work before. Like compassionate management, it’s easier preached than practiced, but it’s a worthy aspiration.

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Related post

Is your workplace psychologically and ethically healthy? (2010)

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