New York Times Magazine: “How to Deal With a Verbally Abusive Boss”

As part of a theme issue on the future of work, this Sunday’s New York Times Magazine has a series of advice features by Malia Wollan, one of which is “How to Deal With a Verbally Abusive Boss” (go here and scroll down). I was quoted extensively in this piece, and I give major kudos to Ms. Wollan for pulling together a lot of information and advice on a topic that is hard to capture in one short column.

I’d suggest reading the piece in its entirety, but here are a few highlights:

“Ask yourself: Is the content of the abuse legally actionable?” says David C. Yamada, a professor of law and the director of the New Workplace Institute at Suffolk University Law School in Boston. If the yelling is related to your race, gender, disability, religion, age, national origin or sexual orientation, consult a lawyer, look up your state’s fair employment practices agency and consider filing a workplace-discrimination complaint. If, however, your abuser stays clear of those topics, you will find yourself in what Yamada refers to as “the void” — murky, psychologically dangerous terrain with little protection. “Generic verbal abuse is generally legal,” says Yamada, who drafted model legislation under consideration in multiple states that would make severe verbal abuse an unlawful employment practice.

The piece goes into greater detail, starting off with my advice that one should engage in “thinking steps before actions steps.” I touch upon the importance of reading one’s employee handbook, the merits of approaching human resources, and the possibility of standing up to an aggressor.

I didn’t mince words in terms of the likely outcome, especially in the absence of legal protections against workplace bullying:

You’ll most likely need to find another job. “I frequently hear from people who stayed too long in these abusive work environments,” Yamada says. “The psychological and health effects deepen to the point where there are long-term repercussions for their well-being.”

Wollan specifically wanted to discuss verbally abusive bosses, so we didn’t have an opportunity to get into other forms of bullying, such as covert and indirect behaviors, mobbing campaigns, and peer-to-peer aggression. Nevertheless, I think we managed to cover a lot of ground in this interview, which hopefully will be of help to some readers.

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For those dealing with workplace bullying situations, the Need Help page of this blog and the abundant resources of the Workplace Bullying Institute are good starts.

Using scholarship to make a difference

I’ve been spending large chunks of recent weekends working away on a law review article about therapeutic jurisprudence (TJ), the school of legal thought that examines the therapeutic and anti-therapeutic properties of laws, legal systems, and legal institutions. In this article I’m trying to pull together many aspects of TJ as a field of study, scholarship, and practice. As steady readers of this blog may know, I’ve been deeply involved in the TJ community for many years. TJ’s emphasis on the psychological impact of the law and the importance of human dignity has strongly shaped my own thinking and scholarship.

When I first became a law professor, I was skeptical about the potential of legal scholarship to influence law reform. My intention was to do scholarship in sufficient volume and quality to earn tenure, and then to pursue writing and activist projects that didn’t involve lots of citations and footnotes.

But my final law review article before going up for tenure was my first piece about the legal implications of workplace bullying, “The Phenomenon of ‘Workplace Bullying’ and the Need for Status-Blind Hostile Work Environment Protection,” published by the Georgetown Law Journal in 2000. (Go here for free pdf.) The response to that article helped to persuade me that scholarship can make a difference in the real world. And so I continue to go at it.

In the meantime, I’ve also written two law review articles that dig into the practice of legal scholarship and how it can be used to engage in law and policy reform activities.

The first article is “Therapeutic Jurisprudence and the Practice of Legal Scholarship,” published by the University of Memphis Law Review in 2010. (Go here for free pdf.) Here’s the abstract describing it:

The culture of legal scholarship has become preoccupied with article placement, citations, and download numbers, thus obscuring a deeper appreciation for the contributions of scholarly work. This article proposes that therapeutic jurisprudence (“TJ”), a theoretical framework that examines the therapeutic and anti-therapeutic properties of the law and legal practice, provides us with tools for understanding and changing that culture.

More prescriptively, the article applies a TJ lens to: (1) identify a set of good practices for legal scholarship; (2) examine the TJ movement as an example of healthy scholarly practice; (3) consider the role of law professors as intellectual activists; and, (4) propose that law schools nurture a scholar-practitioner orientation in their students to help them become more engaged members of the legal profession.

As law review articles go, it’s a fairly brisk piece that covers a lot of ground about the culture of scholarship in American legal education and proposes ways to make the practice of legal scholarship more genuine and attentive to addressing challenges of law and policy.

The second article is “Intellectual Activism and the Practice of Public Interest Law,” published by the Southern California Review of Law and Social Justice in 2016. (Go here to freely download a pdf of the article.) Here’s the abstract describing it:

Intellectual activism is both a philosophy and a practice for engaging in scholarship relevant to real-world problems and challenges, putting its prescriptions into action, and learning from the process and results of implementation. In the legal context, intellectual activism involves conducting and publishing original research and analysis and then applying that work to the tasks of reforming and improving the law, legal systems, and the legal profession. This article explores the concept and practice of intellectual activism for the benefit of interested law professors, lawyers, and law students.

This is a very personal piece, grounded in extensive scholarly, public education, and advocacy work that I have done in two areas: (1) fostering the enactment of workplace anti-bullying legislation and building public awareness of the phenomenon of bullying at work; and (2) participating in an emerging legal and social movement to challenge the widespread, exploitative practice of unpaid internships. It also discusses my involvement in multidisciplinary networks and institutions that have nurtured my work, examines the relevant use of social media, and provides examples of how law students can function as intellectual activists. This article closes with an Appendix containing a short annotated bibliography of books that are broadly relevant to the topics discussed in the text.

This is a somewhat longer piece, as it goes into considerable detail about how legal scholarship can be harnessed to engage in law reform activities. I discuss my scholarly and advocacy work concerning workplace bullying and unpaid internships as illustrations of intellectual activism. For those seeking guidance and inspiration on how to translate ideas into action, this article may be useful.

In my last blog post of 2019, I suggested that we should make 2020 a year of working on solutions and responses. This world is a very fractured and divisive place right now, and a lot of people are hurting as a result. For me, writing — of both the scholarly and popular varieties — is a way of answering my own call to action. It is a modest but hopefully meaningful path toward lighting candles amidst the darkness.

Can Amazon Prime members compel Amazon to treat its workers with greater dignity?

For many years, I boycotted Amazon Prime because of how Amazon treats its warehouse workers. But eventually I returned when I wanted access to Prime video and to be able to send gifts — especially books — with reliable delivery dates. I try to limit my Amazon spending to those categories and to ordering used books through associated vendors. But especially as someone who hasn’t owned a car for over 30 years, sometimes it’s awfully easy to click an order for the sake of convenience.

Nevertheless, Amazon’s labor practices remain disturbing, and yes, I feel guilty when I click that order. You see, it remains that the convenience that we experience as consumers comes at the expense of warehouse workers who have hard, exhausting, unsafe jobs in return for low pay. If you doubt me, then click here, here, here, and here for more details.

Ultimately, widespread unionization of Amazon workers is the key to improving their working conditions and compensation. But Amazon is virulently anti-union (e.g., here, here, and here), and workers who talk up unionization do so at their own risk.

So what is to be done? Well, Jobs With Justice, one of the nation’s best labor advocacy organizations for low-wage workers, is inviting we Amazon consumers to become voices for change, in the form of a new network called Prime Member Voices (link here). Here’s how they describe the network’s objectives:

Amazon Prime Members are a core part of the company’s business. Membership dues help fuel Amazon’s larger ambitions, but unfortunately many of those ambitions are in direct conflict with the issues we care passionately about. From truly horrific conditions inside Amazon Fulfillment Centers, to data collection, and selling technology to Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and police departments.

As Prime Members, we should have a voice and it’s why Jobs With Justice is calling on Prime Members to join together in Prime Member Voices, where we can work together and develop ways where our voice is not only heard, but leads to real systemic change within the company.

It appears that the goals of Prime Member Voices will go beyond labor conditions, and personally I’m good with that. Amazon has been a game-changing entrant into the retail marketplace, and their business practices should be scrutinized closely from the standpoint of the public good.

In terms of concrete actions, this announcement is concededly vague. Regardless, this is a potentially brilliant organizing strategy: Leverage the many Prime members who would like to access Amazon’s convenient ordering and shipping, while knowing that the workers are being treated better and that the company’s business practices are ethical and socially responsible.

I’ve signed up. It’s worth seeing where this goes. At the very least, if I’m going to benefit from Amazon’s delivery systems, then I owe it to the rank-and-file employees to support better working conditions that affirm their dignity and well-being. It can happen only when people join together and call for change.

Workplace bullying & mobbing: Applying Jennifer Freyd’s framework of institutional betrayal vs. institutional courage

Psychology professor Jennifer Freyd (U. Oregon) is helping us to understand organizations in ways that illuminate the dynamics of workplace bullying and mobbing. Last year (link here), I highlighted her work on “DARVO,” which stands for “Deny, Attack, and Reverse Victim and Offender.” I cited DARVO as an important concept for understanding how some workplace aggressors try to play the victim role.

Dr. Freyd’s latest contribution (link here) is framing the distinction between institutional betrayal and institutional courage.

Freyd defines institutional betrayal as “wrongdoings perpetrated by an institution upon individuals dependent on that institution, including failure to prevent or respond supportively to wrongdoings by individuals (e.g. sexual assault) committed within the context of the institution.”

By contrast, institutional courage is “the antidote to institutional betrayal. It includes institutional accountability and transparency, as when institutions conduct anonymous surveys of victimization within the institution.”

When organizations fail to address workplace bullying and mobbing, and especially when they take the side of abusers, they engage in institutional betrayal of targets and other employees. When they take workplace bullying and mobbing seriously, including the discipline and even termination of bosses and others who engage in work abuse, they are demonstrating institutional courage.

Freyd’s work centers on sexual violence in institutions, but her conceptualizations of institutional betrayal and institutional courage apply to other forms of workplace mistreatment. We hear countless stories of institutional betrayal concerning workplace bullying and mobbing. Unfortunately, we hear fewer stories of institutional courage. The most common “resolution” of a severe workplace bullying situation remains the departure of the target from the organization.

Freyd has started a non-profit Project on Institutional Courage (link here) to address institutional betrayal concerning sexual violence. Hopefully her work will offer some ideas for the workplace anti-bullying movement as well.

Ten popular MTW posts from 2019

Dear Readers, I’ve collected ten of the most popular MTW posts written during 2019. If you missed them before, I hope they will prove interesting and enlightening to you this time around. Here goes:

Man faced surgery, while bullying co-workers bet on his survival and gave him a toe tag (link here) — When Charlie Bowlby faced heart surgery, his co-workers placed bets on the likelihood that he would survive and gave him a mock toe tag before he went off to the hospital.

Speaking truth to power: Incivility & abrasiveness vs. bullying & mobbing (link here) — Bullying and mobbing are forms of abuse, not bad manners, and we should treat them accordingly.

Workplace bullying, DARVO, and aggressors claiming victim status (link here) — Dr. Jennifer Freyd’s conceptualization of DARVO — Deny, Attack, and Reverse Victim and Offender — applies to many workplace bullying and mobbing situations.

Workplace bullying and incivility: Does kissing up fuel kicking down? (link here) — One study suggests a link between kissing up to one’s superiors and picking down one’s subordinates.

It’s not Yale or fail: The college admissions scandal and our unhealthy obsession with school prestige (link here) — The burgeoning college admissions scandal has prompted a fast-developing and overdue dialogue about how the wealthy and powerful are able to game the college admissions systems on behalf of their children.

Workplace bullying: Should “creative” folks get a pass? (Uh, no) (link here) — A workplace aggressor should not be given a free pass simply because they happen to be creative.

A short list of recommended books for targets of workplace bullying and mobbing (link here) — I thought I’d offer a very selective list of four affordable books that I repeatedly recommend to others.

A short speech in Rome (link here) — The text of my acceptance speech after receiving the Bruce Winick Award for contributions to the field of therapeutic jurisprudence, at the International Congress for Law and Mental Health.

Boston Globe: Two important features on workplace bullying (link here) — Discussing two feature articles, one a piece on a former corrections officer who faced savage bullying and sexual harassment, the other a piece on bullying of resident physicians.

On following evil orders at work (link here) — What if an employee is directed or enlisted to take part in the bullying, mobbing, or harassment of a co-worker?

Recovering from workplace bullying and other traumatic experiences: “Can’t” or “won’t”?

(Drawing copyright Aaron Maeda)

When it comes to folks who are dealing with severe workplace bullying and mobbing, sexual harassment, or other forms of targeted interpersonal mistreatment, we sometimes see people who seem to be stuck in a place of rumination and obsession:

He just won’t move forward. I think he prefers to suffer and be a victim.

She just can’t move forward. She’s suffering and feels very victimized.

On the surface, these two characterizations may not sound all that different. But dig even a little deeper, and the contrasts illuminate.

“Won’t” suggests that a traumatized individual has affirmatively chosen, for the time being, to stay in this bad place and not move forward. True, on a more hopeful note, it also assumes a power and ability to choose to get better. That said, there’s a judgmental ring to “won’t” as well, sounding a bit like victim blaming for a present “refusal” to proceed with recovery and healing.

“Can’t” suggests factors, internal and external, that limit a traumatized individual’s ability to recover, heal, and move forward. It implicitly suggests medical and external reasons for why someone is stuck in place. But it also connotes, at least in this context, that maybe someone is stuck there for the long haul.

I admit that in moments of frustration, I sometimes have used “won’t.” But in the process of learning more about psychological trauma, I now understand that “can’t” is the more appropriate term. Trauma is bear of a thing to wrestle with, and oftentimes those who are dealing with PTSD, depression, and related conditions due to abuse can easily get stuck in place.

However, if we are going to use the more appropriate “can’t,” then we should add an important addendum: …at least for now. You see, the good news is that a lot of progress is being made when it comes to understanding and treating trauma.

In connection with a new course I’m teaching called the Law and Psychology Lab (described here), I’ve returned to Dr. Bessel van der Kolk’s groundbreaking, accessible book, The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma (2014). In re-reading its chapters, I’m once again reminded of the complexities of trauma and the emergence of multiple treatment modalities for helping those who are experiencing it.

In essence, currently various trauma treatment approaches await those who are ready to seek and participate in them. Furthermore, I sense that we are still in the early stages of developing effective treatments. Thus, there is real hope for recovery and healing right now, and additional hope for even better treatments down the road.

Highly recommended

On forgiving yourself for dropping the ball

(image courtesy of clipart-library.com)

Have you ever dropped the ball on a work-related project? I have, and it feels awful, even when I’ve had an understandable reason — usually related to being overcommitted and swamped. At times, the workload has been self-inflicted, the product of taking on too much or not being able to say no.

Typically, dropping the ball means that we’ve let others down by failing to do our piece of a project or delivering an inferior work contribution, due to lack of sufficient time or attention. Folks who have a tendency to overcommit or who may not be the best self-managers can be especially susceptible to dropping the ball. This includes people who have a strong sense of responsibility.

So what should we do when we drop the ball? I’ve given this some thought and come up with the following advice, while fully confessing that I haven’t necessarily practiced these points to perfection:

  • If you’re mortified and/or feeling guilty about dropping the ball, that’s good. It shows you have a conscience. Not everyone has that capacity.
  • In many instances, a sincere, honest apology is appropriate. It shows respect for the folks you’re working with or for, and it may well make you feel better and relieved.
  • If there are significant negative consequences — including practical, legal, or contractual ones — then owning up to the situation promptly is the best thing. It also may be possible to fix the situation.
  • Reflect upon how it happened and how to avoid similar problems in the future.

Above all, forgive yourself. Hold yourself responsible for your miscue and try to do better, but don’t let it be the bane of your existence.

Similarly, if someone drops the ball on you, try to be forgiving, especially if they apologize and explain what happened. After all, they probably feel bad and embarrassed on their end.

Of course, if you or someone else is dropping the ball all the time, then there’s probably a deeper or more systemic problem.

Ultimately, being responsible is a good thing, and so is cutting some slack for ourselves and others now and then.

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