After Auschwitz, Viktor Frankl saw only two races

When Viktor Frankl reflected upon his experiences as a Nazi concentration camp prisoner, including time spent at Auschwitz, he concluded that humanity basically divided into two races:

From all this we may learn that there are two races of men in this world, but only these two — the “race” of the decent man and the “race” of the indecent man. Both are found everywhere; they penetrate into all groups of society. No group consists entirely of decent or indecent people.

This passage comes from Frankl’s classic work, Man’s Search for Meaning (p. 86, Beacon Press 2006 ed.), which I have praised in previous posts. It’s an extraordinarily gripping and perhaps odd book. Part 1, covering the first 90+ pages, is a compelling account of daily life in the concentration camps, punctuated by Frankl’s observations about human nature in such horrifying settings. Part 2, covering the remaining 60+ pages, is a more detached description of logotherapy, the school of psychotherapy founded by Frankl, a clinical psychologist. Logotherapy, as Frankl describes it, focuses the patient “on the future, that is to say, on the meanings to be fulfilled by the patient in his future,” while defocussing the patient on “all the vicious cycle formations and [negative] feedback mechanisms” (p. 98).

Some may quarrel with Frankl’s binary separation of humanity into categories of “decent” or “indecent” people. In fact, I reacted this way when I first read the quoted passage, thinking that human beings are way too complex to be placed into one of two big groups. Furthermore, Frankl’s own narrative of concentration camp life describes how people who have lived good, moral lives can be driven to self-preserving behaviors that may, directly or indirectly, hurt others. But then I tried to put myself in Frankl’s shoes, imagining what he saw and experienced in the camps. It makes sense to me that he ultimately drew this dividing line, however subjective.

Frankl’s description of concentration camp life and explanation of logotherapy may resonate with those who are experiencing psychological trauma due to nightmarish work situations. As I have written before, the eliminationist instinct is not limited to large-scale horrors. It can manifest itself in seemingly everyday settings such as our workplaces, too.

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A sidebar: In sharing Frankl’s words about the “races” of decent and indecent people, in no way do I want to diminish important, challenging discussions taking place over race and ethnicity in contemporary society. We can and should face the tough questions raised by our various diversities and strive to find ways to build acceptance of those differences in our workplaces, communities, and social groups. Rather, I wanted to share how someone who faced good and evil every day at the most fundamental levels came to look at groupings of human beings in a simpler way than we might today.

Workplace bullying and mobbing: Individual vs. organizational accountability

image courtesy of clipartfest.com

image courtesy of clipartfest.com

So here’s my question for today: When you think about accountability for workplace bullying and mobbing, do you think more about individual aggressors or about the organizations that hire and keep them on the payroll?

Of course, the pat response — in fact, the right one, I’d argue — is both. But I’d submit that the calculus is not uniform, and that the perch from where we sit may determine our personal answers. Here are a few of my observations on this question:

  • Bullying and mobbing behaviors are typically targeted and personalized. Sometimes the motivations for the abuse are transparent. But often they are not. Furthermore, they may not be rational, in that the underlying reason(s) for the abuse can be explained in a way that easily makes sense. Figuring out motivations sometimes can be a challenge for a targeted worker, adding to the confusion and bewilderment of the experience and sharpening the focus on specific aggressor(s).
  • Nevertheless, as intensely interpersonal as these behaviors may become, they usually cannot flourish without organizational sponsorship, enabling, or, at the very least, indifference. This applies specially to mobbing, which requires multiple players, often aided by institutional mechanisms.
  • For an individual targeted by bullying or mobbing, the natural focus is on the closest abusers and tormenters. However, the target often recognizes the organizational dynamic when reaching out for help and finding that little or no genuine assistance is available.
  • If we want to prevent and stop bullying and mobbing at work, the first view should be organizational and systems-based, looking especially at top leadership and workplace culture. Bullying and mobbing rarely thrive at organizations committed to treating their employees with a baseline of dignity and to hiring workers who share that commitment.

For those interested in the legal side, the anti-bullying Healthy Workplace Bill that I’ve authored recognizes both organizational and individual responsibility for creating abusive work environments. Under my template version of the legislation, those who have been subjected to severe workplace bullying may pursue claims against both their employer and the individual tormenters. Furthermore, in recognition of the overall role played by employers, the legislation includes liability-reducing incentives for employers that act preventively and responsively toward bullying behaviors.

A day of TEDx talks at Kent State University

With Mary Louise Allen at Kent State University, Ohio

With Mary Louise Allen at Kent State University, Ohio

On Saturday I was reminded of how much fun it can be to be back in school again, but without those pesky exams and term papers. A weekend trip to Ohio to see a dear friend included a visit to Kent State University for a day of TEDx talks sponsored by the school’s student government association.

The TED brand of lectures features a subject matter expert giving a short, punchy stand-up talk on a topic of compelling or emerging interest, closing with an instructive or inspirational message. The format has proven so popular that the TED organization now licenses other groups to host “TEDx” talks on topics of their own choosing, with the local host groups recruiting their own lecturers.

Kent State’s student government leaders took advantage of this opportunity to organize a day of TEDx talks on the broad theme of “Rewind. Rethink. React. Respond,” drawing mainly on the university community (educators, students, alumni/ae) for speakers. Personal development, entrepreneurship, and social change were recurring focal points throughout the day.

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The Kent State event made for a great day of thinking and learning. My friend Mary Louise and I were among the, uh, more mature folks in attendance, the lion’s share of the audience being students. Nevertheless, many of the talks related easily to a more middle aged population as well.

This started with sociologist and entertainer Bertice Berry‘s opening remarks, which included a warm, funny story about an airport encounter with a woman whose demeanor and beautiful, blonde appearance initially pushed her insecurity buttons but quickly grew into a mutual understanding of how bad experiences and messages planted in us as kids can burden us well into adulthood.

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In fact, two of my favorite speakers were among those who shared important experiences from their youth. Keri Richmond, a student leader at Kent State, talked about growing up in the foster care system and how her experiences have inspired her to advocate for foster children. Phil Kim, a business professor from nearby Walsh University, talked about being a high school dropout and the importance of giving people second chances. Another speaker, Krish Mehra, shared part of his childhood in real time, as this brilliant 11-year-old young man talked about the importance of understanding digital coding! 

For me, the day was one of being an appreciative listener. Usually when I write about conferences and workshops, I’m including my experiences as a speaker or participant. Here I had the luxury of being in the audience and appreciating the work of others, without having to worry about my own presentation! The rich variety of talks once again reminded me of the linkages of between individual and social change. They also reinforced how difficult personal experiences can lead people to become advocates for positive change.

“The rules don’t apply to me”

Image courtesy of Clipart Kid

Image courtesy of Clipart Kid

How much misconduct, corruption, and abuse in our society can be attributed to powerful people who believe the rules that apply to everyone else don’t apply to them?

I find myself coming back to this question over and again whenever I learn about significant legal or ethical violations committed by those in positions of considerable power. I’m hardly alone in thinking this way. Google the phrase “does power corrupt” and you’ll get tons of hits to studies and commentaries that basically say, yes, it often does. For example, in a 2016 piece for PBS NewsHour, Dr. Dacher Keltner of the Greater Good Science Center at UC-Berkeley details results of lab experiments where subjects are assigned higher power status:

Just the random assignment of power, and all kinds of mischief ensues, and people will become impulsive. They eat more resources than is their fair share. They take more money. People become more unethical. They think unethical behavior is okay if they engage in it. People are more likely to stereotype. They’re more likely to stop attending to other people carefully. It’s just this paradoxical quality of power, which is the good in human nature gets us power, and then power leads to the bad in human nature.

The effect is a chemical one, as Dr. Keltner explains:

When we feel powerful, we have these surges of dopamine going through our brain. We feel like we could accomplish just about anything. That’s where the power paradox begins, which is that very sense of ourselves when feeling powerful leads to our demise, leads to the abuse of power.

Now, I am not a high-and-mighty moralist when it comes to following rules for their own sake. Yes, there are rules of law and of everyday behavior that we should do our best to follow. However, I believe that some rules are unjust and/or unwise, and that discretion, mercy, and understanding should enter the picture too. But I’m not talking about the gray areas here, rather, I’m referring to abuses of power by those who have a lot of it.

What are the solutions? Citing a growing body of research, Dr. Keltner suggests that accountability and genuine transparency are key among them:

This really interesting new literature shows that when I’m aware of what other people think of me, when I’m aware of my reputation, I cooperate more in economic gains. I am more likely to sign up for environmentally efficient services. I am more likely to pay taxes. Just this sense that my actions are being scrutinized and my reputation is at stake produces better behavior for the public good or the greater good.

In addition, I’ll weigh in wearing my legal and public policy hat: The vital concept of checks and balances on power fundamentally shapes the United States Constitution and roles of the executive, legislative, and judicial branches of government. I think it’s a good idea for us to implement or reinforce such mechanisms in our public, private, and non-profit institutions. Also, when one individual, cohort, or institution becomes too dominant, we need what economist and author John Kenneth Galbraith called “countervailing power” to challenge these exercises of control.

We live in an age where abuses of power are common. The fixes are fairly easy to identify but hard to implement. We’ve got a lot of work to do.

The pleasure of supporting a local, socially conscious business

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Just days into their campaign, they’re close to their funding goal!

One January evening many years ago, I left my downtown Boston apartment and hopped on the subway to visit friends in the neighborhood of Jamaica Plain, on the city’s southwest edge. My assignment as a dinner guest was simple, to bring ice cream for our gathering. As I walked from the subway stop to my friends’ home, I stopped by a tiny little food store, the City Feed and Supply, to pick up the ice cream. Filled with organic products and local goods, the store so charmed me that I thought, hey, if the neighborhood can support a store like this, then maybe I should move here.

A possible move to Jamaica Plain turned out to be the main topic of dinner conversation with my friends. I would eventually contact a real estate broker and begin looking at places, with an eye toward buying a condo — my first-ever foray into home ownership. As luck would have it, later that year I would buy a place practically across the street from the very City Feed store that originally inspired my decision!

From the time I moved to Jamaica Plain until last fall, visits to the City Feed were practically a daily occurrence for me, with frequent runs for their delicious sandwiches (award winning, in fact), pastry, and coffee, as well as other sundries. The friendliness of the young group of store workers, many of whom are students and/or deeply engaged in artistic and creative work when not doing their shifts, was always part of the pleasure of going there. I also was delighted to support a locally owned, socially conscious business that thoroughly invested itself in the neighborhood.

In the meantime, co-owners and founders David Warner and Kristine Cortese would open a much larger store in the main drag of my neighborhood, replete with cafe space and an enhanced food menu. I would visit there on occasion and enjoyed the greater variety, but thank goodness my favorite “Little Feed” continued to thrive even after the arrival of “Big Feed.”

Alas, the Little Feed had to close down last fall, thanks to a need for significant, overdue repairs and renovations to its building. The City Feed owners expressed their hopes of re-opening, but not until very recently were they able to share plans to reopen the Little Feed and purchase the building that houses it. In order to raise money for the endeavor, they announced a neighborhood-based crowdfunding campaign, inviting loyal customers to buy stored value cards and house spending accounts, which in turn would give them a reserve of cash for a down payment and to restock the store.

Just days into this crowdfunding campaign, they already are closing in on their target amount, a huge testament to David and Kristine and the goodwill they and their employees have engendered in the neighborhood. As for me, I was only too happy to sign up for one of the big house accounts, knowing that I will once again be a regular visitor to the Little Feed. (Let’s just say that I’ll be covered for several hundred sandwiches and coffees and leave it at that!)

Without the Little Feed open and busy across the street, my part of the ‘hood has felt a little bereft. Such has been the place of that tiny storefront in my everyday life. But now it is about to rise again, and I’m happy to be a customer truly invested in its success.

Bad work situations: When do you need an employment lawyer?

Image courtesy of clipart panda.com

Image courtesy of clipartpanda.com

A negative performance review. An oral warning. A rumor that your job isn’t secure. Resistance — or perhaps retaliation? — in response to a concern you’ve raised about possibly unethical behavior. A gut feeling that you’re being singled out for mistreatment.

These are among the on-the-job signs that raise the question of whether it’s time to seek the advice of a lawyer.

When it comes to workplace situations, many people don’t seek legal advice until it’s too late, usually after a termination. I’d like to take a few minutes to urge that earlier is usually better and to offer suggestions on seeking legal advice. The bulk of what follows is written with American workers in mind, with apologies to many loyal readers who are from other countries.

Earlier is usually better

There is no hard and fast rule on when to seek the advice of an employment lawyer. But generally speaking, earlier is better. Knowing what rights you have and don’t have, and getting some sense of whether your concerns implicate employment protections, can help you assess your options and plan accordingly (legally and otherwise).

One’s instincts can be very useful in cueing a decision to seek legal advice. If it feels bad, it often is worthy of concern. In some cases, very early consultation may be appropriate, such as if you’re asked to sign a very restrictive non-compete agreement or any type of significant waiver of your employment rights.

In the case of a layoff or termination, legal advice may be helpful in weighing potential severance packages and agreements, even if you’re not contemplating a lawsuit.

Suggestions and points of information

  1. Consulting a lawyer in no way obliges you to file a lawsuit or take any further action. Those decisions are yours.
  2. In most cases it’s advisable not to inform your employer or co-workers that you’re seeking legal advice; that decision should wait until later. This is not a universal rule, but it should be considered the default starting place.
  3. Initial consultations with employment lawyers may cost you some money, and those fees can vary widely even among very good lawyers.
  4. Come prepared for any initial phone or in-person consultation. Have any relevant employment evaluations, employer communications, employee handbooks & policies, etc., available to discuss and share. If possible, prepare a short, chronological, bullet-point summary of major events related to your concerns.
  5. Legal consultations need not be limited to questions about potential litigation. They may also cover eligibility for benefits such as workers’ compensation claims, family and medical leave, and unemployment insurance.
  6. Human resources offices owe their allegiance to the employer, not to the individual employee. Reporting concerns to HR or a similar in-house office does not substitute for obtaining independent legal advice.

How to find an employment lawyer

I strongly advise seeking a lawyer who is experienced and knowledgeable in the field of employment law and who specializes in representing workers. Most attorneys in this field represent either workers (i.e., plaintiffs in potential claims) or management (defense); it is unusual to find those who work with both sides.

While this blog isn’t in a position to offer specific attorney referrals, resources for identifying employment lawyers are readily available. Many of the best plaintiffs’ employment lawyers belong to the National Employment Lawyers Association (NELA), a bar association whose members devote a large share of their practices to representing workers in disputes with current and past employers. The national NELA website offers online legal referral assistance and may be accessed without charge. State-level NELA chapters may have websites that offer similar online referral assistance or contain browsable member listings and links; the Massachusetts chapter is an example of the latter.

Local and state bar associations may also offer attorney referral services.

If you are specifically seeking advice on a workers’ compensation matter, then it’s preferable to consult an attorney who specializes in this sub-field.

Some legal services offices provide advice and representation on employment-related matters. Because of the heavy demand, income eligibility guidelines are pretty stringent, but if you are not employed and have few financial resources, it’s possible that you may qualify for assistance.

Alternatives to consulting a lawyer

Certain public agencies are charged with enforcing employment protections and may be approached by members of the public who have concerns and serve as intake portals for formal claims and complaints. These options may be viable alternatives to hiring a private attorney. The following is not an exhaustive list, but covers some of the most likely agencies:

  • The federal Equal Opportunity Employment Commission and its state and local counterparts, responsible for enforcing employment discrimination laws;
  • The federal Occupational Safety and Health Commission and its state counterparts, responsible for enforcing workplace health and safety laws;
  • The federal Department of Labor and its state counterparts, responsible for enforcing minimum wage and overtime laws, as well as other labor standards; and,
  • The federal National Labor Relations Board and its state counterparts, responsible for enforcing laws concerning collective bargaining and concerted worker activities.

Union members

In addition, union members should definitely contact a shop steward or union representative with concerns about potential discipline or termination. The protections offered in collective bargaining agreements typically far exceed those afforded to workers who are not union members.

For those who are experiencing workplace bullying

Many of us in the U.S. are all too aware that we currently have no direct legal protections against workplace bullying and mobbing. While I see that situation changing in the years to come, for now those who seek legal advice for workplace bullying are highly unlikely to find lawyers who specialize in bullying claims because, well, it’s hard to specialize in a sub-field concerning behaviors that are not yet the subject of direct liability.

For now, at least, obtaining legal relief for bullying and mobbing usually boils down to whether the mistreatment can be sufficiently shoehorned into existing legal protections, such as employment discrimination laws and anti-retaliation provisions of whistleblower laws. In some cases, employee policies or collective bargaining agreements may cover bullying-type behaviors, thus possibly creating contractual protections and obligations. It is helpful to think through these potential legal links before consulting a lawyer.

Just the beginning

Folks, these are hardly the first or last words to be shared on the topic of working with employment lawyers and the decisions involved in contemplating legal action. The full treatment would require a short book, and even then I doubt that all the contingencies could be covered. However, I hope these points are helpful to those who may be seeking legal advice in connection with a work situation.

To get through this time, we’ll need resilience and resolve…and “the better angels of our nature”

Keeping a stiff upper lip (Newspaper facsimile photo: DY)

As this fast unfolding, ugly era of America’s existence becomes more of a dire reality, I find myself searching history for inspiration. For example, in terms of grit and strength, I look at the people of England during the darkest days of the Second World War. This newspaper photo of St. Paul’s Cathedral in London standing tall amidst devastating Nazi bombing raids during the Battle of Britain in 1940 is such an iconic symbol of that national character.

I’m not being hyperbolic when I join with many others in saying that the Trump Administration is shredding the fabric of American democracy and ethical governance. And yes, I am alarmed at what is transpiring before us.

Given my liberal leanings, you might expect me to be saying this. But plenty of traditional conservatives are deeply concerned as well at the conduct of this President and his inner circle. Each new day includes some jaw-dropping development(s). Sometimes it’s about policy. Sometimes it’s about vulgar and raw displays of power and arrogance. Washington D.C. is no stranger to preening narcissism and overreaching power grabs, but we have never seen the likes of this during the past half century…and longer.

For those who are paying close attention with a growing sense of distress, it already feels exhausting. A lot of people are wondering when they’ll burn out.

I’ve used recent posts to suggest that during this time, nurturing our most important communities, pursuing meaningful hobbies and pastimes, and not forgetting other causes and concerns that are dear to us should be part of our bigger picture. I’ve also urged that we strive to understand the age we are living in  and the political, social, and economic dynamics driving it.

In addition, we Americans must continually grow and draw upon our resilience and resolve, at least for the next four years. These assaults will keep coming. Not only must we repel them, but also we need to develop our own visions and messages for what we want our nation to be. On that latter note, we should be heartened by stories like this one, reported by CNN’s Doug Criss:

The congregation of the Victoria Islamic Center in Texas was devastated. Its mosque was destroyed over the weekend in a fire, the cause of which is unknown.

Then an act of kindness revived their spirits — the leaders of the local Jewish congregation gave them the keys to their synagogue so they could continue to worship.

The leader of the mosque said he wasn’t surprised by the gesture.

“I never doubted the support that we were going to get” after the fire, Dr. Shahid Hashmi, a surgeon and president of Victoria Islamic Center, told CNN. “We’ve always had a good relationship with the community here.”

Hashmi said Dr. Gary Branfman — a member of Temple B’nai Israel in Victoria, as well as a fellow surgeon and friend — just came by his house and gave him the keys.

In his first Inaugural Address in 1861, on the eve of what would become the American Civil War, President Abraham Lincoln urged us to embrace “the better angels of our nature.” What happened in Texas earlier this week in the aftermath of tragedy captures that sentiment beautifully.

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