Cruelty goes digital: Layoffs by email

(image courtesy of freepik.com)

It was probably inevitable: As an ultimate reminder to workers that they are quickly disposable and easily disposed of, some companies are resorting to standardized emails to inform people that they no longer have a job.

The pandemic has taught many companies that their workers can be efficient and productive working from outside of the office, and a good number of employers have embraced remote work as a new norm. Recent rounds of layoffs in the high tech sector are now showing us what happens when remote work meets the human resources function.

Among the more well-publicized examples, we have Google (12,000 layoffs) using standardized emails to notify employees of terminations, as reported by Kristopher J. Brooks for CBS News (link here):

Jeremy Joslin spent two decades as a software engineer for Google only to be laid off last week along with thousands of his co-workers. The way the company notified him was “cold,” Joslin said.

…Joslin and other ex-employees at Google said they received notice of their dismissal via an email sent to their personal address, which struck them as insensitive. Receiving no advance warning of what would be their last day at the company added further insult to injury, they said.

And then there’s Amazon (18,000 layoffs) using the same approach, as reported by Ariel Zilber for the New York Post (link here):

Fired Amazon workers griped about the e-retail giant using email to inform them they were no longer needed by the company, according to a published report.

At least five employees who were laid off Wednesday said they received a cold-blooded missive from management….

“Unfortunately, your role has been eliminated,” wrote Beth Galetti, the top executive at Amazon’s human resources department, in one of the emails.

“You are no longer required to perform any work on Amazon’s behalf effective immediately.”

Furthermore, although it was “merely” part of an emailed announcement of planned layoffs and not an individual layoff notification, PagerDuty CEO Jennifer Tejada deserves a negative shoutout for closing her rambling missive by quoting Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., on the challenges of leadership, as reported by Aimee Picchi for CBS News, link here:

I am reminded in moments like this, of something Martin Luther King said, that “the ultimate measure of a [leader] is not where [they] stand in the moments of comfort and convenience, but where [they] stand in times of challenge and controversy.”

From exit parades to inboxes

Back in 2011, I noted the popularity of an inhumane, in-person mode for conducting layoffs, known in some circles as the “exit parade.” Typically, the about-to-be-terminated employee is directed to report promptly to the human resources office, where they are told that this is their last day of work and provided with any necessary documents accompanying the separation. They may be allowed to return to their desk to gather their belongings, sometimes under the watchful escort of a uniformed security officer, in full view of their co-workers.

Quoting from one of my law review articles, I called this practice a degradation ceremony, appearing “similar in nature, though admittedly not in degree, to archaic military disciplinary proceedings where transgressors are marched past other soldiers under armed guard to face their punishment. Yet in the case of the dismissed employee, her sole ‘transgression’ may have been being on the payroll at a time when profits were not high enough.”

Well, at least in terms of the personal touch, the exit parade may seem like a warm and fuzzy approach to terminations compared to how some managers and executives are hiding behind their screens to inform workers that they are no longer needed.

Evading responsibility, accountability, and, well, humanity

In an op-ed piece for the New York Times critical of these digital termination notices (link here), journalist Elizabeth Spiers wrote:

As someone who’s managed people in newsrooms and digital start-ups and has hired and fired people in various capacities for the past 21 years, I think this approach is not just cruel but unnecessary. It’s reasonable to terminate access to company systems, but delivering the news with no personal human contact serves only one purpose: letting managers off the hook. It ensures they will not have to face the shock and devastation that people feel when they lose their livelihoods. It also ensures the managers won’t have to weather any direct criticism about the poor leadership that brought everyone to that point.

Again: “not just cruel but unnecessary.” Given a second byte of the apple, so to speak, it appears that certain denizens of corporate America have continued to deliver hard news in an impersonal and cold way, only this time, it’s as easy as hitting the return key.

Healthy Workplace Bill reintroduced in Massachusetts legislature

I’m happy to share that here in Massachusetts, the anti-bullying Healthy Workplace Bill (HWB) has been reintroduced in the new, 2023-24 session of the Massachusetts legislature. We are delighted that Sen. Paul Feeney (D-Bristol & Norfolk), a stalwart voice for workers, is again the lead sponsor.

The HWB permits targets of severe workplace bullying to seek damages in court and creates liability-reducing incentives for employers to act preventively and responsively towards bullying behaviors at work.

Currently, the HWB (link here) is designated as Senate Docket No. 712 (SD.712). Later on, it will be given a bill number.

If you would like to see workplace bullying protections become a reality in Massachusetts, then please contact your state representative and state senator and urge them to co-sponsor the bill. If you do not know the name of your representative or senator, then you may click here to find out.

Changes in the newly-filed bill

The newly-filed HWB contains some modest changes that I have made in the template version of the bill, in response to ongoing conversations with employment lawyers and employee advocates. Most significantly, it removes a requirement of showing intent to cause harm or distress to the targeted employee. Instead, a plaintiff must show “intentional acts, omissions, or both, that a reasonable person would find abusive.” This remains consistent with an understanding that targeted, health-harming bullying — the abusive mistreatment that this bill seeks to address — is not due to accidental or unthinking behavior.

In addition, the new bill makes some minor changes to enable recovery of emotional distress damages even when the bullying has not culminated in a tangible employment decision, such as a termination or demotion.

Fair-minded legislation

That said, this version of the HWB still allows us to honestly represent to employers that this carefully-crafted bill does not legally micro-manage the workplace. Equally important, it does not set the bar to recovery so low that it can be easily misused by workplace bullies to sue their targets, or enable lawsuits and threats of lawsuits for lower-level incivilities or disagreements. Alternative proposals that are being touted by others would throw those doors wide open.

Indeed, in an era where voices from the extreme ends of the spectrum are sometimes the loudest, advocating for balanced, fair-minded solutions can be challenging. In this realm, doing nothing is not acceptable. In the U.S., workplace bullying continues to cause enormous harm to employees and employers alike, without any legal check. We need to address this void in our current employment laws. On the other hand, allowing lawsuits for everyday arguments, differences of opinion, and unwanted work assignments would create significant chaos in our workplaces.

It’s time for workplace bullying to become an unlawful employment practice. The Healthy Workplace Bill remains the best option toward that end.

Watch and learn: Video recordings of 2022 programs

 

Hello dear readers, I’m linking below video recordings of several programs in which I participated during 2022. I hope you’ll find something of interest!

  • “Bullying and Incivility in the Academic Workplace” (March 2022) (link here) — I gave a presentation about “Bullying and Incivility in the Academic Workplace” to the Northeastern University College of Science in Boston, as part of a series on “Disrupting Academic Bullying.” I first cover bullying, mobbing, and incivility generally, then I examine these behaviors in academic workplaces.
  • “Creating Healthy Workplaces Through Legislation” (April 2022) (link here) — At a conference hosted by the U.S. Department of the Navy and Howard University, I was invited to participate in a panel discussion on “Fostering Professional Climates and Cultures Through Accountability.” The conference was the 2022 “National Discussion on Sexual Assault and Sexual Harassment at America’s Colleges, Universities and Service Academies.” I joined Rear Admiral Rebecca Patterson, Keetah Salazar-Thompson, and Kelley Bonner on this panel. My brief handout for the conference is posted here.
  • “The WBI Story: Drs. Ruth & Gary Namie” (July 2022) (link here) — I had the privilege of interviewing Drs. Ruth and Gary Namie, co-founders of the Workplace Bullying Institute and long-time colleagues and friends, about the history of their pioneering work to address workplace bullying. This program was part of Gary’s Workplace Bullying Podcast series.
  • “The Hero’s Call: Workplace Bullying” (Sept. 2022) (link here) — Suffolk Law alumnus and trial attorney Marc Diller extended an invitation to appear on his law firm’s video web series, The Hero’s Call. Marc and his colleague, Dr. John Naranja, asked me about my work around workplace bullying, the anti-bullying Healthy Workplace Bill, and associated activities in the field of therapeutic jurisprudence.
  • “The Dignity of an Intellectual Life for All” (Oct. 2022) (link here) — I organized and hosted an interactive discussion featuring Zena Hitz (tutor, St. John’s College and author, Lost in Thought: The Hidden Pleasures of an Intellectual Life (2020)), followed by a responsive panel of distinguished educators, including Joseph Coulson, Hilda Demuth-Lutze, Linda Hartling, and Amy Thomas Elder. Hosted by Suffolk University Law School and co-sponsored by the Basic Program in Liberal Education for Adults at the University of Chicago, Harrison Middleton University, and the World Dignity University initiative of Human Dignity and Humiliation Studies.

A case for therapeutic jurisprudence in legal education and the legal profession

University of Miami Law Review, 2021

University of Baltimore Law Review, 2021

This semester, I had one of my most enjoyable teaching experiences ever at Suffolk University Law School, via a unique course that I’ve designed called the “Law and Psychology Lab” (LPL), a four-credit, workshop-type offering that examines the intersection of law and psychology in ways that are relevant to legal practice, law reform, and the legal profession. The course explores law and psychology primarily through the lens of therapeutic jurisprudence (TJ), a multidisciplinary field of theory and practice that examines the therapeutic and anti-therapeutic properties of law and policy, legal processes, and legal institutions.

I’ve referenced TJ frequently on this blog. It has become a central framing theory for my work in drafting and advocating for legal protections against workplace bullying. It has also profoundly shaped the way in which I look at the law in general. In fact, from 2017-19, I served as the founding board chairperson of the International Society for Therapeutic Jurisprudence, a global, non-profit organization dedicated to public education about TJ.

I designed the LPL course to engage students in a variety of discussions, presentations, and projects. Ideally, it is intended to work best in an in-person format, with only occasional reliance on Zoom for specified reasons, such as guest speakers. However, after teaching the course the first three times either partially or all online due to the pandemic, this was the first offering that didn’t involve the ongoing use of Zoom to hold class.

Perhaps this is a reason why the course went so well this past fall. But the main reason is that we had a great blend of students who were eager to dig into the subject matter, engage one another in conversation, and keep an open mind toward new concepts and ideas. It was so gratifying to see the learning process unfold during the course of the semester. Among other things, it helped to underscore my belief that TJ has so much to offer in terms of reforming our laws and legal procedures and building our legal institutions. The ways in which my students discussed, applied, and even embraced TJ also illustrated its very practical utility; this is not highfalutin theory, disconnected from on-the-ground relevance.

I am now preparing to teach a very truncated version of the LPL during our one-week intersession period next week, a one-credit mini-course called “Introduction to Law and Psychology.” Although I would prefer to teach this course in an in-person format as well, I’ve opted to teach it online so that students will not have to return to campus a week earlier than their peers in order to enroll in it. Nevertheless, I hope this compact offering will provide students with some valuable insights and perspectives that will enhance their legal careers.

Law review articles

Bringing TJ into the law school classroom is partially what I had in mind when I wrote two law review articles that were published in 2021. I also wanted to provide legal educators and others with useful, accessible introductions to TJ.

The first was a lengthy, comprehensive survey of the field of therapeutic jurisprudence, titled “Therapeutic Jurisprudence: Foundations, Expansion, and Assessment,” University of Miami Law Review (2021) (free download, link here). Clocking in at over 90 pages, I use it as the primary text for the Law and Psychology Lab. The article has been very well-received with the TJ community and often is recommended to those who wish to gain an in-depth introduction to this field.

The second is a shorter piece, titled “Teaching Therapeutic Jurisprudence,” University of Baltimore Law Review (2021) (free download, link here), that offers ideas for incorporating TJ into the law school curriculum and makes bibliographic suggestions for reading assignments and research projects. This is now the primary text for the brief Introduction to Law and Psychology course mentioned above.

If you’d like to dip your toe in the world of TJ, then I recommend the University of Baltimore Law Review article. But if you’d like to jump and take a swim, then take a look at the University of Miami Law Review article.

***

Educators who would like to review the overall syllabi for the “Law and Psychology Lab” and “Introduction to Law and Psychology” courses may request copies from my staff assistant, Trish McLaughlin, at tmclaughlin@suffolk.edu. Please enter “Yamada Law and Psychology syllabi” in the subject line and provide your full name and institutional affiliation. Thank you!

Popular 2022 posts

Image courtesy of citypng.com

Hello dear readers, and welcome to the New Year! I collected ten of the most popular 2022 posts on work-related themes. If you missed them earlier or would like to take another look, then here’s your chance to read them:

  • “Gaslighting” is the Merriam-Webster 2022 “word of the year” (Dec. 2022) (link here)
  • Watching “Gaslight” (1944): One viewer’s guide (Oct. 2022) (link here)
  • Workplace bullying and mobbing: Annotated recommended book list for 2022 (Aug. 2022) (link here)
  • We need to dig beneath generic references to “toxic workplaces” (Aug. 2022) (link here)
  • “The Wire” as work primer (July 2022) (link here)
  • The Amy Wax situation: On academic freedom, diversity & inclusion, workplace mobbing, and cancel culture (July 2022) (link here)
  • Dr. Martha Stout on outsmarting sociopaths (including those at work) (June 2022) (link here)
  • On disability bullying (March 2022) (link here)
  • Bullying, mobbing, and incivility in the healthcare workplace (Feb. 2022) (link here)
  • A degrading money grab for classroom supplies in South Dakota (Jan. 2022) (link here)

Workplace bullying from the bottom up

In the United States, workplace bullying tends to be a top-down phenomenon. According to the latest Workplace Bullying Institute national scientific survey of workplace bullying in the U.S. (link to summary here), supervisor-to-subordinate bullying is by far the most frequent pattern (65%), followed by peer-to-peer bullying (21%). Subordinate-to-supervisor bullying, which some researchers call upward bullying, lags far behind in terms of prevalence (14%).

This makes sense. The American workplace tends to be hierarchical. The predominant U.S. rule of at-will employment allows an employer to terminate an employee for any reason or no reason at all, so long as it does not violate legally carved-out exceptions such as employment discrimination laws. Fewer than 15 percent of U.S. workers enjoy the greater job protections provided by collective bargaining laws. Overall, supervisors tend to enjoy a significant power advantage over subordinates.

But upward bullying is real, and like any other form of workplace mistreatment, it can be pretty awful for someone on the receiving end.

Harvard Business Review weighs in

Recently, the Harvard Business Review published an article by Ludmila N. Praslova, Ron Carucci, and Caroline Stokes (link here), exploring upward bullying and providing advice to targets. Here’s a snippet of how they explain this dynamic:

Upward bullying often starts with covert behaviors such as withholding information and subtle gaslighting. After eroding some of the bullied supervisor’s legitimate authority and psychological resources, bullies escalate to spreading rumors, circumventing, and insubordination, further undermining the target’s position and well-being. Typically, bullying by subordinates is enabled by support from the management one or more levels above the targeted supervisor.

…Bullying by subordinates can be fueled by personal characteristics such as charm or manipulation skills, by nepotistic relationships with next-level supervisors, or by membership in a clique. And wherever there’s rampant self-interest and a culture of winning regardless of ethics, you’ll find people willing to undermine anyone in their way to get what they want, regardless of where in the hierarchy they reside.

Their major categories of advice (accompanied by explanations) sound a lot like that given to other targets of workplace abuse:

  • “Don’t give in to shame.”
  • “Resist the allure of avoidance.”
  • “Write down what’s happening.”
  • “Seek help.”
  • “Monitor your accumulating emotions.”
  • “Prepare yourself to stand up to your bully.”
  • “Decide if it’s time to go.”

Standing up to the bully

From these clusters of advice, one stands out as being particularly noteworthy, and that’s standing up to the bully. Workplace bullying subject matter experts have known for years that the stand-up-to-your-bully advice, which has its roots in childhood bullying scenarios, often turns out badly when subordinates confront bullying bosses. Frequently this only exacerbates the situation, hastening the target’s demise.

However, a supervisor being bullied by a subordinate usually has a major advantage by virtue of the fact that they typically review the person reporting to them and may have a significant say in that employee’s compensation and job security. A target of upward bullying can aptly classify this behavior as being performance-related. (Of course, all targets of workplace bullying should be able to claim that as well. But especially in the more common top-down form, the target is often blamed or ignored when they report bullying to management.)

This does not mean that the target of upward bullying has it easy. The interpersonal side of dealing with a highly manipulative individual can be exhausting and exasperating, regardless of where bully and target stand on the organizational chart. And because more in-your-face bullying tactics are a surer way to get fired, frequently the bullying subordinate relies on passive-aggressive approaches that are harder to identify and comprehend. This can be maddening to sort out.

A complex topic in need of greater attention

The Harvard Business Review piece is especially welcomed because it adds insight to a type of workplace bullying that calls for more research and understanding. Search “upward bullying” or “workplace bullying by subordinate” and you may see what I mean. A lot of the research and commentary comes from other countries, where work cultures are more horizontal (i.e., less top-down), with greater union density and stronger worker legal protections. Under such circumstances, it makes sense that more upward bullying would occur.

In fact, I’ll offer a hypothesis that in the U.S., a disproportionate amount of upward bullying occurs in public sector and unionized workplaces, where workers tend to enjoy stronger job protections. Quite simply, it’s easier to terminate a bullying subordinate in an at-will employment setting than in one where more documentation of good cause may be necessary to defend the same action.

I’ll offer a further hypothesis that at least some of the claimed upward bullying in the U.S. involves workers with less power trying to exert some degree of influence over bad supervisory situations, including those where the boss is a jerk or even a bully. In such situations, passive-aggressive, indirect ways of expressing unhappiness or resistance may be the only viable paths available, at least until a better opportunity comes along. This, of course, should not be reason to dismiss the presence of genuine upward bullying, but it should be part of the discussion.

“Gaslighting” is the Merriam-Webster 2022 “word of the year”

 

Back in October, I shared a short viewer’s guide to the 1944 film Gaslight (link here), noting that it inspired the pop psych term gaslighting, which is “now used to characterize psychologically manipulative and controlling behaviors in interpersonal relationships, the political realm, and — of course — our workplaces.”

Well, little did I know that the folks at the venerable Merriam-Webster dictionary would designate gaslighting as their “word of the year” for 2022! Here’s Leanne Italie, reporting for the Associated Press (link here):

“Gaslighting” — behavior that’s mind manipulating, grossly misleading, downright deceitful — is Merriam-Webster’s word of the year.

Lookups for the word on merriam-webster.com increased 1,740% in 2022 over the year before. But something else happened. There wasn’t a single event that drove significant spikes in curiosity, as it usually goes with the chosen word of the year.

…“It’s a word that has risen so quickly in the English language, and especially in the last four years, that it actually came as a surprise to me and to many of us,” said Peter Sokolowski, Merriam-Webster’s editor at large, in an exclusive interview with The Associated Press ahead of Monday’s unveiling.

“It was a word looked up frequently every single day of the year,” he said.

This is Merriam-Webster’s definition of gaslighting (link here):

: psychological manipulation of a person usually over an extended period of time that causes the victim to question the validity of their own thoughts, perception of reality, or memories and typically leads to confusion, loss of confidence and self-esteem, uncertainty of one’s emotional or mental stability, and a dependency on the perpetrator

To learn more

I’m re-sharing a book recommendation and some earlier pieces here on gaslighting, especially as it pertains to the workplace:

To learn more about the dynamics of gaslighting, I recommend: Robin Stern, The Gaslight Effect: How to Spot and Survive the Hidden Manipulation Others Use to Control Your Life (2018 paperback ed.).

Past blog posts:

2012-2020: When gaslighting went mainstream (2021)

Gaslighting exists, and it’s horrible, so we should invoke the term carefully (2020)

Institutional gaslighting of whistleblowers (2018)

Reissued for 2018: Robin Stern’s “The Gaslight Effect” (2018)

Gaslighting at work (2017, rev. 2018)

Inauguration Week special: “Gaslighting” goes mainstream (2017)

Is gaslighting a gendered form of workplace bullying? (2013)

Gaslighting as a workplace bullying tactic (2012, rev. 2017)

Thanksgiving Week: Writing and remembrance

Hello, dear readers, I’m enjoying my traditional U.S. Thanksgiving trip to New York City right now. The 12 years I lived in this city (1982-94) were a personally and professionally formative time for me, so I always get a bit reflective when I visit.

With this morning’s publication of a piece contemplating the notion of personal libraries (see below for link) to the blog of Harrison Middleton University, where I’m doing a side gig as a 2022 Fellow in Ideas,  I thought I’d pull together variety of more recent (2018-present) writings from other sites, heavily themed on lifelong learning, books, popular culture, and personal nostalgia. I hope you find something here that strikes your fancy.

***

Contemplations on a Personal Library (2022) (link here)

Living history: The 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis as experienced by U.S. Navy officer on a destroyer (2022) (link here)

Forty summers ago, a first-ever trip to NYC (2022) (link here)

Pandemic Chronicles #26: Old postcards as time travel experiences (2021) (link here)

Embracing middlebrow culture: The Book-of-the-Month Club (2021) (link here)

Pandemic Chronicles #25: Monet, London fog, and memory at the Museum of Fine Arts (2021) (link here)

Studying the Great Books at the University of Chicago (2021) (link here)

Pandemic Chronicles #20: Witnessing “The Troubles” 40 years ago (2021) (link here)

Libraries as learning hangouts (2021) (link here)

What’s behind “More Than A Song”? (2021) (link here)

Pandemic Chronicles #8: And suddenly, our worlds became very small (2020) (link here)

Pandemic Chronicles #1: “Be careful what you wish for…” (2020) (link here)

Twenty-five years in Boston…whoa! (2019) (link here)

Music as a time machine: 1979 (2019) (link here)

What is it about cold weather that draws me to bookstores? (2018) (link here)

Two memorable semester breaks (2018) (link here)

“The Hero’s Call”: An alumnus interviews me about workplace bullying

One of the most gratifying things that I experience as a law professor is when I can reconnect with a former student who has built a successful and positively impactful legal career. Such was the case recently, when Suffolk Law alumnus Marc Diller extended an invitation to appear on his law firm’s video web series, The Hero’s Call.

Marc’s law firm is devoted to personal injury law, built around the conviction that those who suffer harms because of someone’s negligent, reckless, or intentional behavior should be entitled to compensation for their losses. And I’m delighted to note that Marc himself has become a highly accomplished and respected trial attorney here in the Bay State.

When the pandemic emerged, his firm launched The Hero’s Call series to spotlight the work of folks who are working to safeguard and advocate for the health and safety of others. Marc and his colleague, Dr. John Naranja, interviewed me for The Hero’s Call about my work around workplace bullying and associated activities in the field of therapeutic jurisprudence. To watch the 24-minute interview, go here.

Watch: “The Dignity of an Intellectual Life for All”

Dear readers, on October 21, I hosted a program titled “The Dignity of an Intellectual Life for All.” Focusing on Dr. Zena Hitz’s thought-provoking book, Lost in Thought: The Hidden Pleasures of an Intellectual Life (2020), the program examined the value of embracing the liberal arts and humanities for their own sake and considered how a rich intellectual life for everyone enhances human dignity. We opened with a conversation featuring Dr. Hitz, followed by a responsive panel comprised of four distinguished educators.

It turned out to be a wonderfully engaging, conversational program. A freely accessible recording has now been posted to YouTube. Go here to watch it!

Here are the program details:

Hosted by Suffolk University Law School and co-sponsored by:

Featured Speaker

Zena Hitz, Tutor, St. John’s College, Annapolis, MD, and author, Lost in Thought: The Hidden Pleasures of an Intellectual Life (Princeton, NJ: Princeton U. Press, 2020).

Guest Panelists

Joseph Coulson, President, Harrison Middleton University

Hilda Demuth-Lutze, English teacher (ret.), Chesterton High School, IN, and author of historical fiction

Amy Thomas Elder, Instructor, Basic Program of Liberal Education for Adults, University of Chicago, Graham School

Linda Hartling, Director, Human Dignity and Humiliation Studies

Moderator

David Yamada, Professor of Law, Suffolk University Law School, Boston, MA

This program was supported by the Faculty Initiatives Fund at Suffolk University Law School.

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