Fighting flight attendants: Not nearly as funny as it may seem

During the past week, we’ve been treated to two news stories about flight attendants getting into arguments that required their respective flights to head back to the gate.

One argument came on an American Eagle flight that was ready for take off. Ben Mutzabaugh, writing for USA Today‘s travel section, explains how it got started:

Passengers on a New York-to-Washington American Eagle flight were delayed for more than four hours Wednesday after the airline’s attendants got into an argument with each other, according to NBC Washington.

Witnesses tell NBC the spat seemed to begin when one attendant was on her phone. That’s when the flight’s other attendant made this announcement: “Everyone needs to put their phones away, and electronics and so on, including the flight attendant.”

On Wednesday, two attendants on a United Airlines flight got into it soon after take off, necessitating that the plane return to the airport. Mutzabaugh reports again:

A fight between two attendants forced a Chicago-bound United Airlines flight to return to Raleigh/Durham shortly after takeoff this morning, according to The News & Observer of Raleigh.

“Our law enforcement team was notified by the tower that the captain had requested law enforcement to meet the aircraft,” Mindy Hamlin, RDU spokeswoman, tells the News & Observer. “The aircraft had gotten about 50 miles out when he reported a possible assault on the aircraft.”

Flying the stressed-out skies

Fighting flight attendants. It sounds like the stuff of a late-night talk show monologue, doesn’t it?

But before we start making fun, let’s at least acknowledge that since 9/11, working in the passenger aviation industry has become an increasingly stressful job — especially for rank-and-file cabin crews. Layoffs and furloughs have been frequent. A job once associated with glamour and seeing the world has changed dramatically.

Flight attendants now are expected to be the front line eyes and ears against possible terrorism. They must work packed flights of passengers who are surly about going through the TSA security gauntlet and then stuffed onto planes with a beverage and pretzels to tide them over.

In addition to lousier working conditions, their compensation and benefits have been in a free fall. Their unions have been pressed to make major concessions, and airline pension funds have gone bankrupt. These cutbacks and pension fund implosions have occurred despite healthy bonuses given to high-level executives at many major airlines.

I don’t know anything about the individual flight attendants involved in these arguments. And regardless of the stressors they’re facing, the safety risks involved in these behaviors likely justify disciplinary measures.

That said, instead of joking about “cat fights in the air,” we should consider the strong possibility that stressful working conditions and sharp cuts in compensation are fueling tensions between these workers and making it more likely that similar incidents will occur.

News reports: Shooter near Empire State Building was a laid-off worker seeking revenge

At least nine people have been wounded and two are dead following a shooting this morning near the Empire State Building in Manhattan. One of the dead is the gunman, who was shot by police.

Early news reports at least raised the spectre of terrorism. One analyst even discussed the possibility that terrorists might stage a test run of sorts to see how law enforcement authorities would react to shootings in crowded midtown Manhattan. I suppose that in view of the memories of 9/11 seared onto New York’s consciousness, such speculation is natural.

But no, for better or worse, it apparently had nothing to do with terrorism. The shooter was a 53-year-old man who was laid off from his job, and his target was his former boss. Here’s a summary of news reports from Jason Sickles of Yahoo! News (link here):

The shooting occurred at 9:03 a.m. ET at Fifth Avenue and West 34th Street. The fatal incident was the act of a disgruntled former employee. The gunman, a 53 year-old women’s accessories designer named Jeffrey Johnson, was fired from his job during a corporate downsizing at Hazan Imports and returned to his office Friday morning to target his 41 year-old boss.

The shooter followed his coworker down 33rd Street, and shot him outside of Legend’s Bar, according to the New York Post. It is unclear if he fired into a crowd of pedestrians outside of the Empire State Building, or if pedestrians were caught in crossfire, reported the New York Daily News.

Frightening sign of the times?

Obviously we know way too little to make definitive assessments about what drove this man to do what he did. However, while conceding the likelihood of some pre-existing mental instability or illness, I’m willing to suggest that what pushed him over the edge had something to do with the desperation, fear, and anger that can accompany losing one’s job at middle age. I’m not making excuses for such a terrible act of violence, only offering a possible explanation.

Perhaps I’m guilty of speculatively filling in the gaps, but once I read some of these details, I had a sinking feeling that this is a sign of sad and desperate times.

Working Notes: August 22, 2012

Dear Readers,

From time to time I will use this new Working Notes feature to briefly flag items of interest, especially if I’m pressed for time and not able to write up a full blog post about each of them.  Here goes:

The e-mail deluge

Remember when e-mail was the neatest thing? Like when you had your first e-mail account? How exciting it was to receive and send those early missives! In fact, if you were like me, some of those e-mails involved exchanges with friends about “incredible” it was to be able to communicate this way!

AOL’s “You’ve Got Mail” message was so popular and recognizable that Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan could star in the 1998 romantic comedy built around the line. Today, they’d have to title the sequel “You’ve Got 5,000 E-Mails” — and they’d have to update the plot to have Amazon clobbering Barnes & Noble and Borders (RIP). (It would be a horror movie.)

If you’re looking for some quick but serious advice on how to control the deluge, Christina Reinwald recently contributed a helpful Boston Globe feature on managing your e-mail, “11 steps to clean up your inbox.”

Suicides in the U.S. military

Robert Burns reports for the Associated Press (via Yahoo! News, here) on the spike in suicides in the U.S. Army:

Suicides among active-duty soldiers in July more than doubled from June, accelerating a trend throughout the military this year that has prompted Pentagon leaders to redouble efforts to solve a puzzling problem.

The Army, which is the only branch of the military that issues monthly press statements on suicides, said 26 active-duty soldiers killed themselves in July, compared with 12 in June. The July total was the highest for any month since the Army began reporting suicides by month in 2009, according to Lt. Col. Lisa Garcia, an Army spokeswoman.

Suicides in the Air Force, Navy, and Marine Corps are at high rates as well. This is an ongoing tragedy and a national shame. I’ll be writing more about this in the near future.

More on unpaid internships

Christian Neumeier writes about unpaid internships in a thorough, informative piece for

Companies across the nation are gleefully denying interns fair wages for their work, in flagrant violation of long-standing labor law, and have the nerve to tell the world they are doing these people a favor.

I’ve written a lot about this topic. Go here for more blog posts and resources.

Kim Webster’s law school co-op with the New Workplace Institute

I’m delighted to welcome Kimberly Webster, Northeastern University law student and longtime Healthy Workplace Bill advocate, who will spend the fall quarter with the New Workplace Institute as a legal intern.

Northeastern, located here in Boston, is one of the nation’s leading training grounds for public interest lawyers. It is highly regarded for its innovative co-op program, in which students do full-time legal internships every other quarter. Kim has just completed her first year, and she’ll be joining us for her first co-op placement.

Kim will be playing an important role with several Institute projects, all of which you’ll be hearing about later.

More save-the-date: Author of Almost a Psychopath to speak at October 19 event

I’m also pleased to report that Dr. Ronald Schouten, Harvard Medical School and Massachusetts General Hospital and author (with James Silver) of Almost a Psychopath will be the featured speaker at the NWI’s Friday, October 19 program on workplace bullying, a half-day program in the morning through early afternoon.

I wrote a short, enthusiastic review of the book here and believe it offers valuable insights about certain individuals who engage in bullying at work and in abusive behaviors generally. We’ll be circulating more details about the program, which will be held at Suffolk University Law School in Boston, during the weeks to come.

Cruelty on a school bus

After watching this video, I am stunned by the unrelenting, ongoing, almost casual cruelty it depicts. A group of junior high school students from Greece School District in Rochester, NY, subject bus monitor Karen Klein to a profanity-laced stream of humiliating insults and threats. Suzan Clarke for ABC News reports (link here):

Klein, a 68-year-old mother of four and grandmother of eight, was riding on a school bus with several students from the district’s Athena Middle School in Rochester on Monday when she was subjected to mean and cruel mockery by several students.

In a 10-minute video that was uploaded to YouTube  on Tuesday by one of the students on the bus, several students can be heard taunting Klein, telling her she was a “fat ass,” “old ass,” dumb, poor and sweaty.  Most of the voices appear to be male, and their comments toward Klein are riddled with profanity.

The video is about 10 minutes long, but it feels like it goes on forever — or at least that’s how it must’ve felt to Karen Klein. One radio station blog reported that some of the kids involved posted it to their Facebook pages.

The video has gone viral, the news media have discovered it, and there’s even a fund created to support Karen Klein. (Google “school bus monitor video” and you’ll get dozens of news articles and blog commentaries.) At least there’s a public outcry about what occurred.

Okay, so lots of junior high kids can do and say mean things, and that doesn’t mean they inevitably will grow up to be horrible adults. But at a very young age, the kids in this video demonstrate the easy capacity for extreme, ongoing verbal abuse. There is no indication that they’re acting out of anger toward something that happened. They display not one ounce of conscience or understanding about what they’re doing to another human being. Apparently it doesn’t matter at all to them that she’s an older adult who obviously is becoming upset.

Let’s hope that Karen Klein is able to find a silver lining in the outpouring of public support she is receiving. And let’s hope these kids don’t grow up to become the adult versions of what they depicted in the video.


June 22, 2012 addendum — Jason Sickles reports for Yahoo! News (link here) that the fund for Karen Klein, originally intended to raise $5,000, has surpassed $500,000. Two of the boys involved in the verbal abuse have issued apologies. Unfortunately, but perhaps not surprisingly, both the school district and the children who participated in the incident have been subjected to harassment and threats.

July 2, 2012 addendum — News outlets (e.g., Christian Science Monitor story here) have reported that the boys who harassed Karen Klein have been suspended from school for a year, and instead will be attending an alternative school during that time.  Klein is quoted as saying that she is “fine” with the penalty.

When I first heard that a suspension was in the offing, I was troubled by the possibility. These kids need more structure and discipline in their lives, not less. But the provision of alternative school arrangements makes this disposition an acceptable one.

The impromptu online fund started to give Klein a “vacation” has now reached well over $600,000, which means she’ll likely have the option of returning to work or retiring. It is the “feel good” aspect of this story, one in which people continued to give (and give) even though they were well aware that the original fundraising goal was a modest $5,000.

It also gave rise to greater public awareness of bullying behaviors and their impact on targeted individuals. The case of Karen Klein is a hybrid of sorts: We tend to separate school bullying from workplace bullying, but this event blended the two, with an adult employee being severely bullied by a group of school kids.

Readers left very insightful comments to this post, and I’d suggest reading through them for their collective wisdom.


Here’s an update that reports on the remarkable success of the fundraising campaign to help Karen Klein and what she plans to do with the money now that she has some freedom to decide her future.

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’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.

Why we need psychologically healthy workplaces in the healthcare sector

It’s Saturday night and you’ve been in a car accident. Someone who had too much to drink swerved into your lane and caused a bad collision. You are in severe pain and fear that you’ve suffered serious injuries.

The paramedics arrive at the scene and whisk you to the nearest emergency room. Once there, you find yourself being cared for by a doctor and nurse who absorb information about your condition from the paramedics. As they check your vital signs, you pass out….

30 minutes earlier

For the sake of your own already sky-high stress levels, thank goodness you didn’t know that 30 minutes before your arrival, this doctor had been yelling mercilessly at the young nurse for a small mistake, right in front of her colleagues. The nurse was so rattled and embarrassed that she didn’t handle skillfully an emotionally out-of-control patient, who became angry at her and spat on her uniform just minutes before the paramedics wheeled you in.

It’s better you don’t know that your life is in the hands of a doctor with a short temper and a novice nurse who now is very skittish around him.

Violence, bullying, and incivility in healthcare

Folks who work in emergency rooms and psychiatric wards will tell you that physical violence at the hands of patients (and sometimes their family members or friends) can be a significant risk of the job. Healthcare workers can be hit, pushed, kicked, spat upon, and otherwise assaulted (physically and verbally) by the very people they’re trying to help.

In addition, bullying and incivility are common forms of mistreatment in the healthcare workplace. Nurses and nurses’ aides seem to get it the worst, but others are targets as well. The problem is so serious that in 2008, the Joint Commission, an independent, non-profit organization that accredits health care organizations and programs, issued a standard on intimidating and disruptive behaviors at work, citing concerns about patient care. (See blog series about bullying in healthcare, starting here.)

An imperfect storm

Earlier this week, I blogged about the National Conference for Workplace Violence Prevention & Management in Healthcare Settings, hosted last weekend by the University of Cincinnati College of Nursing. We heard a lot about physical violence committed by patients and about bullying & incivility dished out by co-workers.

What happens, however, when the two mix? Let’s say an emergency room treats potentially violent patients on a regular basis and also happens to be a place where employees treat each other so poorly that everyone is on edge? How do the concurrent risks of violence and bullying interact, to the point where workers are routinely stressed out and thus more prone to mistakes?

Let’s zero in on healthcare

This scenario underscores my belief that healthcare is a singularly important sector for studying and responding to disruptive behaviors of all types. The stakes could not be higher: They relate to workers and patients alike. A psychologically healthy healthcare workplace provides everyone with greater peace of mind, ranging from the workers to those of us who seek their help.

U of Cincinnati conference examines workplace violence, bullying, and incivility in healthcare

I just returned from the superb National Conference for Workplace Violence Prevention & Management in Healthcare Settings, hosted by the University of Cincinnati College of Nursing. This was one of those rare conferences where every speech, panel discussion, and poster session offered something informative and thought-provoking.

For the conference website, go here. Podcasts of conference programs will be posted during the summer.

Keynote address

An invitation to be one of the keynote speakers led to my being a part of the conference. Titled “Responding to Workplace Bullying in Healthcare: Ten Propositions,” here were my main points:

1.            The healthcare sector is an ideal locus for developing best practices to address workplace bullying, mobbing, and incivility.

2.            Somehow, someway, the case for taking workplace bullying seriously has to be made to the most powerful stakeholders, especially management.

3.            Medical schools need to inculcate students in the importance of developing and exercising social intelligence in the healthcare workplace.

4.            Nursing schools need to teach students about bullying behaviors and the need for personal resilience.

5.            Nurses’ unions are uniquely situated to raise concerns about workplace bullying.

6.            Physicians and nurses should not be promoted to management positions without training in management skills.

7.            Individuals who treat co-workers abusively should be counseled, disciplined, and – if necessary – dismissed.

8.            The enactment of legal protections against severe, targeted bullying at work could enhance, not hinder, the management and HR functions of the healthcare workplace.

9.            Internal codes of conduct in healthcare institutions should (1) promote responsible speech, (2) nurture civility, and (3) prohibit abuse.

10.          Research must inform practice, which — in turn — must inform research.

Many thanks

I won’t even attempt to provide a sampling of the good stuff we heard, though I will be discussing various presentations and poster displays in future blog posts. For now, I simply want to extend my gratitude to members of the conference committee, especially professors Gordon Lee Gillespie and Donna Gates and coordinator Katy Roberto Marston, for their extraordinary efforts and hospitality:

Gordon Lee Gillespie, PhD, RN, UC College of Nursing; principal investigator
Donna M. Gates, EdD, RN, FAAN, UC College of Nursing; co-investigator
Bonnie Fisher
, PhD, UC College of Education, Criminal Justice, and Human Services
William K. Fant
, PharmD, University of Cincinnati College of Pharmacy
Barbara Forney
, Program Manager, University of Cincinnati College of Continuing Medical Education
Michelle Caruso
, PharmD, BCPS, Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center
Terry Kowalenko
, MD, FACEP, University of Michigan Emergency Medicine
Alison C. McLeish
, PhD; UC Department of Psychology
Dianne Ditmer
, PhD, RN, FACFE, Kettering Medical Network
Christine Luca
, MSN, RN, University of Cincinnati College of Nursing
Katy Roberto Marston
, Conference Coordinator, University of Cincinnati
Carolyn Smith
, PhD(c), RN, Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center
Ahlam Al-Natour
, PhD(c), RN, University of Cincinnati College of Nursing
Peggy Berry
, MSN, RN, University of Cincinnati College of Nursing

“Work & Well-Being 2012″ in Chicago: June 28

The American Psychological Association’s Psychologically Healthy Workplace Program will be hosting “Work & Well-Being 2012,” a one-day conference in Chicago, on June 28. Here’s a preview of the topics that will be explored:

High-impact health promotion and wellness efforts … Workplace flexibility as a business strategy … Incentives and recognition … Preventing and addressing bullying and other counterproductive workplace behaviors … Lessons learned from award-winning companies … and more.

I’ll be presenting at the conference. Here are the featured speakers to date:

  • Michael P. Leiter, PhD – Director of the Centre for Organizational Research & Development at Acadia University in Nova Scotia. With more than two decades of research on organizational behavior, Dr. Leiter is an internationally known expert on work engagement, burnout and civility in the workplace.
  • David Yamada, JD – Professor of Law and Director of the New Workplace Institute at Suffolk University Law School in Boston. An internationally recognized authority on the legal aspects of workplace bullying and author of model anti-bullying legislation that has become the template for law reform efforts across the country.
  • Bey-Ling Sha, PhD, APR – Associate Professor in the School of Journalism & Media Studies at San Diego State University. Dr. Sha is an award-winning public relations researcher, teacher and practitioner. Her research areas include cultural identity, international public relations, activism and gender.
  • John Randolph, PhD, ABPP – Executive coach, consultant and board-certified clinical neuropsychologist in private practice in Lebanon, NH. A nationally recognized speaker on topics such as executive functioning, positive neuropsychology and leadership development.
  • David W. Ballard, PsyD, MBA – Assistant Executive Director for Marketing and Business Development at the American Psychological Association, head of APA’s Psychologically Healthy Workplace Program.
  • Matthew J. Grawitch, PhD – Chair of the Organizational Studies Program in the School for Professional Studies at Saint Louis University, an expert on healthy workplace practices.
  • Larissa Barber, PhD – Assistant Professor of Psychology, Northern Illinois University, an expert on workplace flexibility and work-home boundary management, as well as work stress and health behaviors.

It promises to be an interesting and engaging program. For more information, go here.

A metaphor for our times: Death and maiming at the racetrack

As if we needed more images of a society putting all at risk for more money: A team of New York Times reporters has documented rising levels of death and catastrophic injuries among jockeys and horses at America’s racetracks (link here). They open with a typical account:

At 2:11 p.m., as two ambulances waited with motors running, 10 horses burst from the starting gate at Ruidoso Downs Race Track 6,900 feet up in New Mexico’s Sacramento Mountains.

Nineteen seconds later, under a brilliant blue sky, a national champion jockey named Jacky Martin lay sprawled in the furrowed dirt just past the finish line, paralyzed, his neck broken in three places. On the ground next to him, his frightened horse, leg broken and chest heaving, was minutes away from being euthanized on the track.

The injury rates are spiking upwards amidst economic pressures facing the racing industry:

…(A)n investigation by The New York Times has found that industry practices continue to put animal and rider at risk. A computer analysis of data from more than 150,000 races, along with injury reports, drug test results and interviews, shows an industry still mired in a culture of drugs and lax regulation and a fatal breakdown rate that remains far worse than in most of the world.

If anything, the new economics of racing are making an always-dangerous game even more so. Faced with a steep loss of customers, racetracks have increasingly added casino gambling to their operations, resulting in higher purses but also providing an incentive for trainers to race unfit horses.

A metaphor for our times

Although the morality of the horse racing comes up from time to time in the media, to me there are much more compelling ethical issues concerning animals. Furthermore, I don’t know much about the world of the sport, and I don’t feel qualified to judge it.

Nevertheless, when the sport becomes unduly hazardous to riders and horses, it’s time to take a hard look at what’s going on. And what we have here is a metaphor for our times: To stoke the betting fires of those chasing a big pay day at the racetrack, man and horse alike are put in harm’s way, speed fueling speed, circling the track over and again, only to end up where they started.

As a result, the jockeys are facing greater than normal risks, and their choices boil down to staying vs. walking away. As for the horses, they don’t decide whether to be juiced up with drugs, and if they are badly injured as a result, they have no role in determining their fates.

Workplace wellness and workplace bullying

When you hear the term “employee wellness,” do you also think about “workplace bullying”?

That question has been buzzing through my head since yesterday, when it was my pleasure to speak at a program on creating healthy workplaces, sponsored by the New England Work & Family Association (NEWFA) — a group of human resources and wellness program professionals committed to supporting work-life balance — and hosted by the Boston College Center for Work and Family.

A tale of two halves

The first half of the program was an interesting panel discussion about workplace wellness programs, featuring presentations by NEWFA members who have developed and managed wellness programs. We heard about a variety of useful, pro-active initiatives, including health education and coaching (e.g., nutrition, exercise, smoking cessation), stress reduction, and mindfulness training.

The second half of the program was my presentation about workplace bullying and the challenges facing HR. Although I framed my remarks within the context of promoting healthy workplaces, it was clear that my piece was about the “dark” side of work. How else to describe a phenomenon that reduces productivity and morale and triggers a long list of negative health outcomes?

Will the twain meet?

Both pieces of the program related to the same general topic, namely, the creation and sustenance of healthy workplaces that embrace both productivity and employee well-being.  However, I couldn’t help but notice how the room tensed up as my talk explored the details about workplace bullying.

As I told the group, workplace bullying is a very threatening topic to many organizations, especially when the behavior is frequent and comes from a top-down direction. After all, boss-to-subordinate bullying is the most common combination, at least in the U.S. Furthermore, bullying and mobbing behaviors tend to be fueled by organizational cultures that enable or even encourage them. In short, bullying at work often points to responsibility at the top.

Contrasts in dealing with senior management

Perhaps this explains a fundamental difference in how and why senior management is consulted by HR.

Speakers on the panel about employee wellness explained that they often didn’t have to go to top management for specific approval about every new initiative they developed. In some cases, they simply went ahead with a program that eventually would become a regular offering, with no apparent pushback from the corner office.

When I talked about incorporating workplace bullying prevention and response into HR practices and training, however, I saw knowing nods in response to my advice to assess management tolerance for such initiatives and to consult legal counsel on liability exposure.

An integrated perspective

Perhaps I’m making excuses for the pizza I enjoyed the other night, but I don’t think we can de-couple bad habits such as unhealthy eating and smoking from undue stress at work. Indeed, it strikes me as ironic that we can talk more openly about wellness programs designed to reduce stress and improve health habits, while sometimes sweeping under the rug work-related conditions — such as bullying — that create a need for them.

In short, the quest for healthy workplaces cannot ignore fundamental conditions of work. It’s why I am thankful that NEWFA and Boston College created a program that allowed us to consider the workplace in a more balanced light.


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