Freedom From Workplace Bullies Week 2016: At the keyboard


This marks the annual Freedom From Workplace Bullies Week, as proclaimed by the Workplace Bullying Institute. Here in Boston, I’ve observed past Freedom Weeks by organizing various educational programs. But for this year I’m mostly at the keyboard, working on writing projects, including a co-edited, multidisciplinary, two-volume book project on workplace bullying and mobbing that I’ve mentioned here earlier. We’re looking at a publication date sometime in 2017, and with the bulk of the grunt work on our end spanning the current calendar year.

My co-editor, Dr. Maureen Duffy, is a leading authority on mobbing behaviors. She invited me to join her as a co-editor of the project after receiving an invitation from a publisher to submit a book proposal. We’ve assembled a super strong team of some two dozen chapter contributors, with a primary focus on developing an American perspective on workplace bullying, mobbing, and abuse. We are adopting an Ameri-centric focus to help distinguish our project from the many other excellent multi-author volumes that take global or European perspectives.

This is pretty unglamorous work, a long slog of reading, writing, and editing drafts of book chapters. However, it is the necessary stuff of building a knowledge base about these destructive workplace behaviors. The various chapters will summarize what we know about bullying and mobbing at work, discuss best practices and potential policy solutions for responding to them, and examine how these behaviors manifest themselves in various work sectors.

Our book project joins with the work of many others who are striving to stop the scourge of abusive work environments. Hat’s off to everyone who is part of these efforts.


What does it mean to be “onto something”?

(Image courtesy of

(Image courtesy of

Say I’m at a conference, workshop, or seminar, and someone offers insights or ideas that appear to open a new door to understanding and solving challenges big or small. My usual thought bubble is, hey, you’re onto something here! And if I get a chance to share feedback during the session, that’s the gist of what I’ll say.

What does it mean to be “onto something”? Well, if you search “onto something meaning,” you’ll get several similar explanations of the term. I like this one from Oxford Living DictionariesHave an idea or information that is likely to lead to an important discovery. 

Most of the discoveries in my realm tend to be solution-based approaches to challenges facing law & public policy, workers and workplaces, and so forth. Events such as periodic workshops on workplace bullying and on therapeutic jurisprudence, the biennial Work, Stress, and Health conference, the biennial International Congress of Law and Mental Health, and the annual Human Dignity and Humiliation Studies workshop are among those that frequently prompt my “you’re onto something” responses.

For change agents in any field, and those who want to be, what does this mean? As I suggested in the close of my recent law review article, “Intellectual Activism and the Practice of Public Interest Law” (Southern California Review of Law and Social Justice), it means finding “a place where one’s networks, circles, and tribes feel right in terms of shared or compatible goals, and where one’s activities and values are largely congruent.”

As I further acknowledged, it took me until my fifties to find that place. So if you want to be a difference maker, but you haven’t found your niche yet, try to be patient and remain open to messages and opportunities. Sooner or later, you’ll be onto something.

North of the border: On transforming our laws and legal systems

Prof. David Wexler, during a workshop break, at York University's Osgoode Hall Law School

TJ co-founder David Wexler, during a workshop break, at York University’s Osgoode Hall Law School

I spent Friday and Saturday participating in a workshop on therapeutic jurisprudence at York University’s Osgoode Hall Law School in Toronto, Canada. For two days I joined in stimulating, intense discussions with a small group of professors, lawyers, mental health experts, and graduate students to discuss how we can create laws and legal systems that are more invested in psychological health and well-being.

Therapeutic jurisprudence, or “TJ,” is a school of legal philosophy and practice that “concentrates on the law’s impact on emotional life and psychological well-being,” in the words of law professor and co-founder David Wexler (pictured above). For some 30 years, TJ adherents have been creating a global network of scholars, practitioners, judges, and students. My own attraction to TJ arose out of my work on workplace bullying and my broader commitment to creating systems of employment law that embrace human dignity.

The Toronto workshop was a sequel to workshops held in 2015 and 2014 at Suffolk University Law School in Boston and in 2012 at the University of Puerto Rico School of Law in San Juan. Our purpose has been to create small gatherings of TJ-affiliated scholars, practitioners, and students to share work in progress and to solicit feedback, as well as to build the TJ community. I have elaborated on the value of small-group workshops and symposia that promote genuine interaction and the forging of ongoing connections in a short essay, “Academic Conferences: When Small is Beautiful,” which may be downloaded without charge from my Social Science Research Network page.

In essence, we are planting seeds for important changes in the legal profession and in our legal systems. These aspirations will become more ambitious during the year to come, when we launch an international, non-profit membership society that will build the therapeutic jurisprudence community and expand TJ’s scope and influence.

Here were the workshop topics:

  • “Dealing with Sexual Violence on Campus” (Carol Zeiner);
  • “What Can Design Thinking Offer TJ (and vice versa)? (Nicole Aylwin);
  • “Emotional Intelligence for Judges” (Michael Jones);
  • “Loneliness in Old Age and Ethical Considerations” (Heather Campbell);
  • “Methodologies for the study of procedural justice within the operation of TJ related courts” (Voula Marinos);
  • “Feedback-Informed Judging” (Dale Dewhurst and Ann Marie Dewhurst);
  • “Practical Demands for Access to Justice” (Dale Dewhurst);
  • “Friends of Justice” (Ann Marie Dewhurst);
  • “Evolving scientific evidence and its potential effects on individuals (as distinct from case outcomes)” (Alison Lynch);
  • “TJ, forensic mental health, and the Ontario Review Board” (Jamie Cameron and Sandy Simpson);
  • “Considering the Profound Differences between Mental Health Courts and ‘Traditional’ Involuntary Civil Commitment Courts (Michael Perlin); and,
  • “Accessible Legal Writing and TJ” (Shelley Kierstead).

I spoke on “Psychological Trauma, Neuroscience, and Narrative: Bullied Workers and the Challenge of Storytelling,” building on this blog post from September.

Special thanks go to Osgoode Hall professor Shelley Kierstead — a veteran of TJ-related events — for organizing and facilitating this workshop, and to Osgoode Hall dean Lorne Sossin for his warm welcome to the Law School.

I’m pleased to report that in addition to very full days of discussion and dialogue, we managed to get in some terrific meals and a night of karaoke. I opted for some favorites from the Gershwins, Sinatra, and Tony Bennett. Singing is good for the soul, especially after many hours spent talking about reforming our laws and legal systems!

Outside the restaurant, awaiting a final group dinner. L to R, DY with Profs. Shelley Kierstead, Michael Perlin, and David Wexler

Awaiting a final group dinner, with Profs. Shelley Kierstead, Michael Perlin, and David Wexler

Road tripping


I understand if readers are wondering if I’ve turned this blog into a travelogue of sorts! Two weeks ago, I explained that I was spending several weeks as a visiting scholar at Valparaiso University in Indiana, my undergraduate alma mater. The main purpose of my visit was to work on a book project on workplace bullying and mobbing, and I’m happy to report that it was a productive time. I also got to catch up with friends and family in northwest Indiana. Overall it was a great visit.

On Thursday, I hop on a plane once more for a therapeutic jurisprudence workshop at York University’s Osgoode Hall Law School in Toronto, Canada. There I’ll be joining a group of law professors and lawyers to discuss how we can create laws and legal systems that are more invested in psychological health and well-being. We’ll be sharing, among other things, ongoing plans to launch an international non-profit organization dedicated to mainstreaming a therapeutic jurisprudence perspective in our legal institutions.

All of which is leaving me a bit short on posting longer commentaries here, but suffice it to say that the work grabbing my attention is all good stuff. 

Can America recover its dignity and find common ground after this presidential election?

A month from now, this horrible American presidential campaign will be concluded and the results should be known. Most of you aren’t surprised to know that I’ll be voting for the Democratic nominee, in large part because I dearly hope that the Republican nominee does not become our President-elect. Even if we manage to avoid that almost unthinkable result, however, I will not be cheering.

I wrote in the spring:

As this angry, vulgar, and often heartless American presidential campaign trudges toward its November 8 Election Day, I can’t help but wonder how we will start to pick up the pieces the day after.

This blog is mainly about work, workers, and workplaces. But the broader political climate certainly relates to jobs, the labor market, and employee relations, and that climate is quite dismal. Both the tone and substance of this campaign have been largely absent any sense of dignity, kindness, and empathy, and the interests of everyday workers and their families have been largely marginalized in the so-called debate.

To me this campaign represents the culmination of multiple breakdowns in our civic culture that started to brew during the latter part of the 20th century and have reached a fever pitch in the 21st. We have become unhinged and terribly polarized. We have lost our heart quality and compassion. We have lost our ability to communicate and to listen across partisan lines. A national election has become a dispiriting game show.

I carry these sentiments in light of exchanges with folks of different social, economic, and political stripes, including friends who may be voting in different ways from me on Election Day. The standard response is dismay, weariness, disgust, and/or alarm over this campaign season. However, will that understanding lead us to a better place, fueled by a commitment to jointly addressing the challenges that face us? I think it may depend on whether we can learn any lessons from this national embarrassment of the 2016 race for the White House.

Workplace bullying vs. “political correctness”

(Image courtesy of Clipart Panda)

(Image courtesy of Clipart Panda)

The other day I had an exchange with a fellow law professor who expressed great skepticism about the need for legal protections against severe workplace bullying, adding that he equated the topic with what he perceives to be an excess of political correctness in our civic dialogue. It became clear as our exchange went on that nothing I could say would sway him.

Based on his remarks to me, I think he also was coming from a place of exasperation toward current, hotly contested debates on college campuses on the need for “trigger warnings” and “safe spaces,” terms explained by Sophie Downes in the New York Times:

A trigger warning is pretty simple: It consists of a professor’s saying in class, “The reading for this week includes a graphic description of sexual assault,” or a note on a syllabus that reads, “This course deals with sensitive material that may be difficult for some students.”

A safe space is an area on campus where students — especially but not limited to those who have endured trauma or feel marginalized — can feel comfortable talking about their experiences. This might be the Office of Multicultural Student Affairs or it could be Hillel House, but in essence, it’s a place for support and community.

For what it’s worth, I’d rather have the values of respect, empathy, and intellectual rigor trying to co-exist among themselves than have either strict rules on freedom of expression or an embrace of free speech that serves as a pretext for hurtful verbal attacks on others. (The Golden Rule is a good start for me.)

But I’m not here to dive too deeply into that debate. Rather, I’m here to repeat a clarification:

Workplace bullying is not about political correctness, trigger warnings, oversensitive people, regulating speech, or mandating manners. Rather, it is about targeted, typically repeated, health-harming verbal and non-verbal abuse, often perpetrated to undermine someone’s job performance or even drive them out of the workplace.

And all too often, when targets of workplace bullying approach lawyers to see whether the legal system offers any relief from the torment, they are told sorry, as bad as this is, there are no obvious legal protections to help you.

The academic debates over political correctness and related topics are important, but we’re not even in that territory when it comes to genuine workplace bullying. Not even close.

On page one of the local paper…


The Northwest Indiana Times reports that a “recent survey of Northwest Indiana public employees found complaints of bullying, sexual harassment and drinking in the public workplace.” Bill Dolan’s front page article in the paper’s Friday edition highlighted the results of  a survey of some “1,500 local government employees in Lake, Porter and LaPorte counties” of the Hoosier State.

I grew up with the Times as a kid living in Hammond, Indiana. As I wrote in my last post, I’m now spending a few weeks at Valparaiso University in northwest Indiana, my undergraduate alma mater, as a Visiting Scholar in Residence at VU’s School of Law. Imagine my surprise when I opened the local paper over breakfast at the roadside hotel I’m staying at to see a headline mentioning bullying at work.

As someone who has been in research, public education, and advocacy work concerning workplace bullying since the late 1990s, I am always looking for signs that bullying at work has become mainstreamed as an identifiable, nameable, employee relations concern. This is evidence of that occurring. Fifteen years ago, I doubt that a front page sub-headline of the local northwest Indiana paper would’ve included such a reference.

Indeed, during my trip here, I’ve talked to several college and high school classmates who have experienced bullying behaviors at work, sometimes seriously so. During these discussions, I no longer have to go into a lengthy “Bullying 101” intro before they start telling me their stories. Putting labels on human behavior can be tricky and sometimes contentious business, but it can help to validate experiences and create a framework for understanding them.

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