Roundup: On organizational change rhetoric, strategic planning, and consultants

Hello dear readers, over the life of this blog, I’ve sometimes taken aim at certain popular management practices. Here’s a roundup of some of my favorites:

Using the empty rhetoric of change to justify or impose change (2015) (link here) — “With apologies to Bob Dylan, the times are always a-changin’. But if you buy into the rhetoric of certain practitioners of management-speak, then you’d think that the impetus for change occurs at those magic moments when they happen to be in charge.”

“Strategic planning”: All too often, a time-sucking bridge to nowhere (2011) (link here) — “My friends in management consulting may toss me out of the visitor’s lounge for saying this, but two words uttered together send a chill up my spine: Strategic planning. . . . Organizations should engage in smart, inclusive planning and evaluation. But there’s something about mega-processes like strategic planning that often do neither.”

Time wasters from top management (2017) (link here) — “Consultant Eric Garton, writing for the Harvard Business Review, posits that various time killing practices imposed from on high undermine employee morale and productivity…. These ‘practices, procedures, and structures’ include ‘too much process, too many meetings, meaningless goals, and time wasted on work that no one will ever care about.’”

If you work in higher education, beware the C word (2015) (link here) — “If you work in higher education as a professor, staff member, or low-to-mid level administrator, pay attention if you hear some variation of the following coming from the top: We’re bringing in XYZ Consulting to help with strategic planning and to assess what changes we need to make in order to survive/thrive/rightsize/move up in the rankings.”

Consultants and the “outsourcing of leadership” (2014) (link here) — “Take a look around your workplace. Are there consultants buzzing around, addressing practically every major pending concern or decision your organization faces? If the answer is ‘yes,’ then it’s likely that your employer is engaging in what a friend of mine brilliantly calls the ‘outsourcing of leadership.’”

One-way feedback: In-house employee surveys and the illusion of open decision making (2012) (link here) — “But hold on. Frequently these surveys are done with an underlying agenda, usually one that seeks validation for an already favored course of action. (A telltale sign is when obvious choices or answers are not provided as response options, or when the survey is framed to exclude entire points of view.)”

We bailed out Wall Street during the Great Recession, so let’s bail out Main Street and everyday people during the coronavirus crisis

(image courtesy Clipart Panda)

When the stock market crashed in 2008 and the world of high finance took a tremendous hit, the U.S. federal government came along and gave huge bailouts to Wall Street and its siblings. Most experts agrees that these dramatic moves were necessary in order to save the nation’s financial infrastructure.

Today, small businesses, non-profits, and individual employees are among those taking the hardest hit, as the economy essentially goes into quarantine due to the coronavirus/COVID-19 crisis. A lot of folks are understandably fearful about what their companies, organizations, and personal finances will look like during the weeks and months to come.

I’m not a public health expert, but drawing upon the mountain of information and commentary available, it appears that we’re at least a year away from widespread availability of a vaccine. In the meantime, a lot of very smart people are trying out different treatment approaches, but there’s no magic bullet for now. As I see it, this uncertainty is very likely to continue into next year.

All of which suggests that our elected and appointed officials, and other leaders in the business and non-profit sectors, must lead with a commitment to create a stronger social safety net and support for rebuilding businesses and organizations — while our medical and scientific communities work on treatments and vaccines that I’m confident we’ll eventually have to blunt this virus. It would help a lot if those promises — however unsupported by details at this moment — were made now, in order to soothe some of the anxiety and sadness that we’re already seeing.

WBI’s 2020 survey: The vital importance of funding workplace bullying research

One of the most important sources of information about the frequency, severity, and demographics of workplace bullying in the U.S. is the Workplace Bullying Institute’s periodic scientific national surveys. Designed by WBI director Gary Namie in conjunction with a national polling firm, these authoritative, carefully designed surveys are regularly cited by the news media and by researchers.

Dr. Namie is planning the next survey. Even with a generously discounted rate, these surveys cost money, so WBI is launching a crowdfunding campaign to help cover the expenses. I am happy to be among the donors, and if you can afford it, I hope you’ll join in. Please go here to support the 2020 survey through GoFundMe.

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To freely access past surveys, go here and click to either the 2017, 2014, 2010, or 2007 reports on the left side of the page.

Cover of the 2017 WBI survey

Life and work during coronavirus: We need large supplies of kindness

(image courtesy of cliparting.com)

Dear Readers, for the past few days I’ve been mulling over what to write about the coronavirus (COVID-19) situation and its relation to the everyday experience of work.

But as I took sparsely populated Boston subway trains to and from my university office today, I realized that all I wanted to say is that we need to be kind to each other during this challenging and scary time.

To offer a few examples: If folks are starting to work from home, please make an extra effort to express appreciation to those who must show up to work because they have no other choice. If you do patronize a business where workers rely on tip income, be generous if you can afford it, because it’s likely that they’re hurting. And by all means, please don’t hoard supplies of paper goods, food, hand sanitizer, and whatever. 

Life can be hard enough without a pandemic hanging over our heads. Hopefully we can minimize the impact of this virus while holding on to our best selves.

How strong (and fair) is the U.S. economy?

The next time someone tells you that the U.S. economy is going great — regardless of their political affiliations — you might suggest that they dig beneath the misleading surface of a low unemployment rate and (at least pre-coronavirus) a bubbling stock market. In reality, there are two economies at play in modern America, one for a narrow slice of the very well-to-do, and another for the rest of the populace.

In a piece for the New York Times (link here) Nelson D. Schwartz calls it the “velvet rope economy,” borrowing from the title of his new book, The Velvet Rope Economy: How Inequality Became Big Business (2020).

Whatever the arena — health care, education, work, leisure — on one side of the velvet rope is a friction-free existence. Red tape is cut, appointments are secured, doors are opened. On the other side, friction is practically the defining characteristic, with middle- and working-class Americans facing an increasingly zero-sum fight for a decent seat on the plane, a college scholarship, even a doctor’s appointment.

There has always been a gap between the haves and have-nots, but what was a tiered system in America is morphing into a caste system. As the rich get richer and more businesses focus exclusively on serving them, there is less attention and shabbier service for everybody who’s not at the pinnacle.

A tiered system, to borrow from Schwartz, implies at least some ability to move up. A caste system, however, suggests being stuck in place. But maybe there’s more room for movement in the U.S. system than we think. The problem is, these days it’s very likely to be downward.

For evidence of that, check out the facts, figures, and stories behind those workers who lost jobs and careers in the wreckage of the Great Recession and never found work at their previous income levels. For example, Elizabeth White’s important book, 55, Underemployed, and Faking Normal (2019), which I discussed last year (link here), chronicles that dynamic and provides advice and support for those dealing with these circumstances.

Earnings gap

Much has been written about the widening U.S. earnings and wealth gap. For a snapshot view, take a look at the Social Security Administration’s aggregate wage data, based on taxable wages for 2018 (link here) — the most recent year available:

  • Roughly half of American workers are earning $30,000 a year or less;
  • Those earning a modest $50,000 or so are paid more than 70 percent of the workforce;
  • A salary of $100,000 puts someone in the top 10 percent of earners.

And as this 2018 Business Insider piece by Hillary Hoffower shows (link here), even in cities where the median income is higher, typical middle-class living expenses far exceed those averages.

Retirement funding crisis

America faces a significant retirement funding crisis. I’ve been beating this drum for over 10 years on this blog, in concert with many others. Things are not getting appreciably better.

Labor economist Theresa Ghilarducci (New School for Social Research) is one of the nation’s leading experts on retirement funding and policy. She wrote in 2019 (link here):

The bottom line is that Americans do not have enough retirement savings. This is not because we drink too many lattes, as financial writer Helaine Olen has argued for many years, but because employers and workers are not required to contribute to retirement savings plans above and beyond Social Security. Many low-income workers once had some retirement security; janitors and ladies garment workers weren’t rich, but they had pension plans at work. Some gig workers, like job-to-job carpenters, also had pensions when they were in a union. What we need today is a portable universal pension system that supplements Social Security.

Some may still deny there is a problem. But the number of poor or near-poor people over the age of 62 is set to increase by 25% between 2018 and 2045, from 17.5 million to 21.8 million. If we do nothing in the next 12 years, 40% of middle-class older workers will be poor and near poor elders.  That is a problem.

One big event

As last week’s stock market drop precipitated by fears of a coronavirus global public health crisis illustrated, all it takes is one big scare to drive down values fast. Unfortunately, the trickle-down effects could reach even those who do not have much money, if at all, invested in stocks. Earlier this week, I was quoted by the Law & Crime site in a piece by Colin Kalmbacher on the potential employment implications of the coronavirus situation (link here). Among other things, I projected some of the long-term impacts if there are severe outbreaks in the U.S.:

“But in terms of how this affects the typical at-will employee, so much depends on how serious this turns out to be regarding both public health and economic impacts. Obviously if huge swaths of the workforce are infected with the virus, it will affect staffing and productivity wherever there’s a serious outbreak. Furthermore, if this reaches pandemic levels that trigger a 2008-style recession, then we could see layoffs in business sectors that are hardest hit. This would later trickle down to public sector and non-profit employment, as we saw with the Great Recession.”

In sum: At least since the early 1980s, our economy has become one of (1) flattening wages; (2) widening wealth gaps; and (3) reduced and eliminated employee benefits, especially retirement plans.

Ultimately, this understanding should translate into decisions we make at the ballot box. I hope folks keep these trends in mind during a 2020 election season that already looks to be short on facts and long on spin & lies. Hopefully there will be no velvet rope line when we show up to vote.

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.

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