Workplace mistreatment: The importance of cross-situational empathy

Comprehending one form of workplace mistreatment, abuse, or trauma ideally should make us more empathetic toward those going through different, but similar experiences.

However, this is not always so. Over the years, on occasion I have observed the unfortunate tendency of some people who have experienced serious workplace mistreatment to be dismissive of the difficult experiences of others, even when those situations bear similarities to their own. For example:

  • Targets of workplace bullying who are dismissive of people alleging discrimination on the basis of race, sex, or some other group;
  • Those who are deeply concerned about discrimination in society but are dismissive of claims of workplace bullying, assuming that it’s not as bad; and,
  • Professionals who rail against the unfair or wrongful treatment that disrupted their career tracks, but who disregard the sufferings of underpaid and mistreated low-wage workers here and abroad; and,
  • Targets of workplace mobbing (group bullying) who put down targets of more one-to-one workplace bullying, as if mobbing by definition is worse.

I’m not suggesting that all forms of workplace mistreatment are alike and that we should regard them equally. Far from it. They may vary greatly in severity and longevity.

But they all involve various levels of distress, fear, anger, want, pain, and injustice, sometimes with long-term impacts.

Of course, drawing lines on our empathy may also be a defensive mechanism, a guard against “empathy exhaustion,” a more lay version of what clinicians might call compassion fatigue for those involved in medical and caregiving work. Indeed, with all the suffering in the world, can we really pour our hearts out to all of it without eventually burning out? Perhaps not, at least for us mere mortals.

But as I wrote some time ago, we need to connect the dots between various forms of trauma and mistreatment in order to comprehend how power is used and abused in our society. Sometimes it will lead us to understanding common sources and systems. That horribly bullied mid-level manager in a local manufacturing plant and that sexually harassed staff assistant working at the company’s corporate headquarters? The roots of their mistreatment may have a lot more in common than first meets the eye.

Only when we understand these commonalities can we build a broad-based movement that affirms the importance of dignity at work for all.

***

Great video on empathy — and under 3 minutes!

I’m changing the subject slightly, but as long as we’re talking about empathy, here’s a great little animated video on the subject by Dr. Brené Brown, author of Daring Greatly: How the Courage to be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent and Lead (2013):

Mental Health Blog Day 2015

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The American Psychological Association has dubbed May 20 as Mental Health Blog Day “to educate the public about mental health, decrease stigma about mental illness, and discuss strategies for making lasting lifestyle and behavior changes that promote overall health and wellness.” In response, I thought I’d collect a handful of articles from the past year that may resonate with this overall theme.

Mainstreaming psychological well-being in the law: TJ’s challenge (April 2015) — “What if our laws and legal systems focused on creating psychologically healthy outcomes for parties involved in legal matters and for society as a whole? What if considerations of economics (leaning right) and rights (leaning left) in creating law and policy were screened through the lens of psychological well-being of people affected by those laws and policies?”

Free course: The Science of Happiness (March 2015) — “Last fall I took a free online course, ‘The Science of Happiness,’ facilitated and taught by leading authorities on positive psychology. I thought it would be enlightening and useful not only for work, but also for my life in general. I was not disappointed. It was an excellent course, well-conceived and clearly organized, with plenty of compelling content. I can recommend it enthusiastically to my readers.”

Targets of workplace bullying: Pursuing healthy, immersive activities away from the job (January 2015) — “For some, delving into a positive, engaging, and immersive activity may serve as a healthy alternative to ruminating over a terrible work situation. This may be in the form of a hobby, a personal project, an avocation, volunteer work, or creating a side business. Shelley Lane did just that as she stepped back in time with her study abroad journals in the midst of her experience with workplace bullying.”

On being a change agent: The role of “Edgewalker” (December 2014) — “In her 2006 book, Edgewalkers: People and Organizations That Take Risks, Build Bridges, and Break New Ground, author Judi Neal writes that the “Edgewalker is someone who walks between the worlds,” an individual who builds bridges, works at the boundaries and soft edges, and operates in a visionary way. Neal draws heavily from diverse cultural and spiritual traditions in defining this role.”

“I am powerless” (Probably not, but let’s talk about it) (November 2014) — “Over the past couple of months, I’ve taken note of essays and blog posts where individuals have shared a sense of powerlessness to change things for the better. The saddest of these are proclamations: “I am powerless to (fill in the blank)….” They come from good people who care about making the world a better place, yet have reached a place of deep exasperation, frustration, or hopelessness. Some are venting, others are mourning. Some, having gotten it off their chest, will jump back into the fray, while others seem poised move on or withdraw.”

The courage of Monica Lewinsky (October 2014) — “For some 16 years, Monica Lewinsky has been paying a dear price for youthful mistakes that she happened to make with the President of the United States. Her affair with President Bill Clinton while serving as a White House intern became public in 1998, and it almost toppled Clinton’s Presidency. . . . In “Shame and Survival,” a piece that she authored for the June issue of Vanity Fair, Lewinsky, now 41, writes for the first time about what the ensuing years have been like. She describes the cruelties, ridicule, and humiliation, frankly but without excessive self-pity. . . . Lewinsky writes about her experiences with heart, insight, and thoughtful restraint.”

Competing visions of the “good life” (July 2014) — “John Ohliger (1926-2004) [was] an iconoclastic, pioneering adult educator, civic activist, and public intellectual whose work I have mentioned before on this blog. . . . In essays from the early 1980s, John foresaw the dilemmas over material goods that a modern, ‘first world’ society would face. He drew from the work of other leading adult educators to articulate two competing visions of the future for society. One vision was that of a ‘technological, top-down, service society’ that defined ‘the‘good life as affluence and leisure with high-tech big technology solving problems which lead to mastery of the environment.’ The other vision saw the good life as embracing ‘useful work, peace, self-fulfillment, and appropriate technology leading to harmony with the environment.’”

As graduation season approaches, some words of advice to students (and others) (May 2014) — “As a law professor at Suffolk University Law School, I’ve been serving as the founding faculty advisor to a new student-edited law journal, Bearing Witness: A Journal on Law and Social Responsibility. . . . When the editors of Bearing Witness invited faculty to contribute short pieces of advice for the second issue, I wasn’t sure what to offer. But then I started thinking about life in general, and suddenly the words came easier. Do not assume that I’ve done all these things right; rather, some of these points represent lessons learned. Here goes . . . .”

***

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U.S. Education Department survey: School bullying on the decline

Last week, the U.S. Department of Education announced survey results showing that school bullying is on the decline. Here’s a snippet of an Associated Press piece (via the Boston Globe):

The Education Department announced survey results Friday that found 22 percent of students age 12 to 18 said they were bullied in 2013. The figure, down 6 percentage points from 2011, is the lowest level since the National Center for Education Statistics began surveying students in 2005.

Could it be that a combination of public education, legal and policy responses, and greater attention by educational stakeholders is making a difference?

Research support

Buttressing these efforts is a growing body of research. For example, the American Psychological Association’s membership journal, American Psychologist, is devoting an issue to a collection of articles examining 40 years of research on school bullying:

A special issue of American Psychologist® provides a comprehensive review of over 40 years of research on bullying among school age youth, documenting the current understanding of the complexity of the issue and suggesting directions for future research.

. . . The special issue consists of an introductory overview . . . by [Shelley Hymel and Susan Swearer], co-directors of the Bullying Research Network, and five articles on various research areas of bullying including the long-term effects of bullying into adulthood, reasons children bully others, the effects of anti-bullying laws and ways of translating research into anti-bullying practice.

Implications for adult and workplace bullying

I dearly hope that this is firm trend. We know that bullying of school-age children can have lasting effects going well into adulthood. Furthermore, kids who become aggressors will sometimes continue those behaviors in family and workplace settings as they grow older.

In terms of looking at school anti-bullying efforts as a whole, perhaps we’re seeing the cumulative effect of many different initiatives. This would make sense. Bullying is not a purely individual phenomenon, and it requires multiple, intersecting, interacting responses to reduce its frequency.

Moreover, those of us in the workplace anti-bullying movement can draw lessons from measures to prevent and respond to bullying in other social contexts. School and workplace bullying have similarities and differences, but ultimately we’re talking about variations on a theme.

Slowly but surely, workplace bullying laws are becoming a reality in the U.S.

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Not too long ago, any reference to workplace bullying laws in the U.S. was purely aspirational. During the past three years, however, several states and municipalities have enacted workplace bullying laws that, while falling short of providing comprehensive protection to targets of these behaviors, signal America’s growing commitment to using the legal system to prevent and respond to abusive work environments.

Since 2003, some 30 American states and territories have considered some form of workplace bullying legislation, a variation of the Healthy Workplace Bill, model anti-bullying legislation I have drafted that provides targets of severe workplace bullying with a legal claim for damages and creates liability-reducing incentives for employers to act preventively and responsively toward bullying behaviors at work.

As the full versions of the Healthy Workplace Bill continue to gain support in state legislatures, several jurisdictions have enacted some form of workplace bullying legislation. Here is a brief summary:

Fulton County, Georgia (2012)

In 2012, the Commissioners of Fulton County, Georgia, adopted a workplace anti-bullying policy that covers county employees. Under the policy, suspension and termination are possible sanctions for those who engage in severe bullying behaviors.

The Fulton County measure prohibits abusive conduct such as repeated derogatory insults and epithets; conduct of a threatening or intimidating nature; and the deliberate sabotage of someone’s work.

Tennessee (2014)

In 2014, Tennessee enacted a statute directing a state commission to develop a model workplace anti-bullying policy for potential adoption by state, country, and local governmental entities. The new law does not create a legal cause of action for bullied workers. Rather, adoption of the state’s model policy or one that comports with its essential features will insulate a public entity from liability:

 …(I)f an employer adopts the model policy . . . or adopts a policy that conforms to the requirements set out in [the statute}, then the employer shall be immune from suit for any employee’s abusive conduct that results in negligent or intentional infliction of mental anguish. Nothing in this section shall be construed to limit the personal liability of an employee for any abusive conduct in the workplace.

Obviously this is far from ideal. The specific language of the immunity provision potentially transforms the Tennessee statute into an employer safeguard measure rather than an employee protection law. The model policy has been developed, drawing heavily upon language of the Healthy Workplace Bill, but so far Tennessee officials have balked at adopting and implementing it.

California (2014)

California’s employment discrimination statute requires “(a)n employer having 50 or more employees” to “provide at least two hours of classroom or other effective interactive training and education regarding sexual harassment to all supervisory employees in California within six months of their assumption of a supervisory position.” Now, thanks to the 2014 amendment, covered employers must include “prevention of abusive conduct” in these training and education programs. “Abusive conduct” is defined as:

…conduct of an employer or employee in the workplace, with malice, that a reasonable person would find hostile, offensive, and unrelated to an employer’s legitimate business interests. Abusive conduct may include repeated infliction of verbal abuse, such as the use of derogatory remarks, insults, and epithets, verbal or physical conduct that a reasonable person would find threatening, intimidating, or humiliating, or the gratuitous sabotage or undermining of a person’s work performance. A single act shall not constitute abusive conduct, unless especially severe and egregious.

The definition is a verbatim adoption of that contained in an earlier template version of the Healthy Workplace Bill. Furthermore, California’s requirements for sexual harassment training and education are fairly specific, but it is unclear from the language of the amendment whether training and education concerning workplace bullying will have to be as thorough as that for sexual harassment. Nevertheless, this will surely give rise to the development and marketing of education and training programs.

The California amendment does not create an independent legal claim for abusive conduct, which makes references to legally actionable conduct covered in the state’s discrimination law inapplicable to bullying situations unrelated to protected class status. However, this amendment at least raises the possibility of bullying-related wrongful discharge claims grounded in contract theory, and it certainly has caught the attention of California’s employment lawyers.

Utah (2015)

Earlier this year, Utah enacted a law requiring state agencies to train state supervisors and employees about how to prevent abusive conduct. This training, to be provided biannually, must include the definition of abusive conduct, its ramifications, resources available, and the employer’s grievance process. In addition, professional development training will also cover ethical conduct and leadership practices based on principles of integrity. The law covers only state workers and does not create a legal claim for bullying-related conduct.

Implications

  1. Workplace bullying legislation will be increasingly significant to employee relations stakeholders in the U.S.
  1. The current trend of legislative activity strongly favors public sector interventions.
  1. Laws such as California’s, which implicate private sector employers, are likely to have wider ripple effects on employee relations stakeholders, including lawyers, consultants, and trainers.
  1. The enacted state laws are very limited in scope. They heavily favor anti-bullying policies and training, while resisting the creation of new legal claims for damages for workplace bullying. This is not sufficient to encourage employers to take workplace bullying seriously.
  1. The definition of abusive work environments (a/k/a workplace bullying) as set out in the template Healthy Workplace Bill is very evident in recently enacted laws.

As I’ve written here before, legislative advocacy requires ongoing patience and determination; it is a not a game for those who expect quick, effective responses to even the most significant of problems. Nevertheless, this shows we’re making progress. American state legislatures in so-called red and blue states alike are demonstrating a willingness to seriously consider and even enact workplace bullying laws.

***

This blog post is adapted from my presentation, “The Impact of New Workplace Bullying Laws on American Employee Relations Stakeholders,” at last week’s Work, Stress, and Health conference, co-sponsored by the American Psychological Association, National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, and Society for Occupational Health Psychology.

Those who would like to read more in-depth commentaries about workplace bullying and the law may freely download my law review article on this and related topics from my Social Science Research Network page.

Conferences as community builders

Standing l to r: Greg Sorozan, Ellen Cobb, Ivonne Moreno-Velazquez, Maureen Duffy; Seated l to r: Jessi Eden Brown, DY, Kathy Rospenda

Standing l to r: Greg Sorozan, Ellen Cobb, Ivonne Moreno-Velazquez, Maureen Duffy; Seated l to r: Jessi Eden Brown, DY, Kathy Rospenda

All too often, academic and professional conferences are something of a chore, or in the worst cases, events to be endured. By contrast, a conference that fosters engagement and connection provides ample cause to be grateful.

That’s among the reasons why I’m an ongoing cheerleader for the biennial Work, Stress, and Health conference (WSH), co-sponsored by the American Psychological Association, National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, and Society for Occupational Health Psychology. I just returned from the 2015 offering in Atlanta, and I was greatly energized and inspired by the experience, in terms of both content and people.

I’ve already written about two compelling WSH conference panels (sustainable employment and toxic leadership in non-profits) and will share more in future posts, but I also want to underscore the general importance of positive conference experiences such as this one. Good conferences are community builders. They foster connections in big and small ways, allowing people to become part of a broader academic or professional community and to build ties within specific areas of interest.

Speaking personally, I tend to find this connective quality more often at smaller conferences, seminars, and workshops. WSH is among a minority of larger-scale gatherings (programs and concurrent panels running for three days) that manage to create a friendlier, more interactive atmosphere. I believe this is due in large part to the values that the conference sponsors bring to organizing and hosting the event.

Building good tribes and vibes

In his 2008 book Tribes: We Need You to Lead Us, author and entrepreneur Seth Godin popularizes the idea of informal tribes in society, consisting of people connected to each other by shared interests and enabled by easy methods of communication. Among other things, modern-day tribes can bring people together to organize for positive change, via networks that cut across distances.

The Internet, of course, now serves as a prime medium for these groups, but it’s important to have face-to-face gatherings as well, and that’s where conferences like this one come into play. Here is an international gathering of researchers, practitioners, educators, and students dedicated to reducing stress and enhancing health at work. Within this assemblage form smaller groups focusing on shared interests in research and practice. Hence, we see the Godin-esque tribes coming together in very exciting ways.

Workplace bullying

I was part of three panels on topics related to workplace bullying, and between speaker overlaps and a few good meals together, our little tribe took shape as well.

They’ve all been mentioned before on this blog, sometimes several times (click names for representative blog links), but this is the first time they’ve had an opportunity to interact with one another so extensively in person:

  • Jessi Eden Brown (licensed counselor in private practice, and professional coach, Workplace Bullying Institute);
  • Ellen Pinkos Cobb (attorney and author of a global guide to workplace bullying and violence laws);
  • John-Robert Curtin (veteran business and non-profit executive now turning his attention to the fostering of compassionate organizations);
  • Maureen Duffy (therapist and consultant, expert on workplace mobbing behaviors);
  • Ivonne Moreno-Velazquez (Univ. of Puerto Rico industrial/organizational psychology professor and professional coach);
  • Kathleen Rospenda (Univ. of Illinois at Chicago psychology professor and pioneering workplace bullying researcher); and,
  • Greg Sorozan (SEIU/NAGE union local president and a leading labor advocate for workplace bullying protections).

Unfortunately, Drs. Gary and Ruth Namie (co-founders, Workplace Bullying Institute) were absent from our group due to a last-minute cancellation of plans, but they and their signature contributions were with us in spirit.

I highly recommend the fried chicken, which I taste tested on two occasions

I highly recommend the fried chicken, which I taste-tested on two occasions

When the conference competes with the host city

As many veteran conference goers will admit, a prime attraction of any such gathering is the opportunity to explore the host city. That said, one of the major indicators of a quality conference is that it doesn’t leave much time to play tourist because the programs and people are so interesting.

For me, this was a quick visit to Atlanta, and a very busy conference. Other than a much needed walk after our feast pictured above, I didn’t get a chance to see anything of the city, despite its many attractions. But I’m not complaining. My head was full of ideas and information after three days of this conference, and I couldn’t be happier about that.

***

Related article

I’ve started to think and write more extensively about the nature of academic and professional conferences and gatherings. After hosting a small conference at Suffolk University Law School last year, I wrote a short article, “Academic Conferences: When Small is Beautiful,” which also served as an introduction to the conference proceedings. The essay may be freely downloaded, and here’s the abstract:

Large, impersonal academic conferences may be a necessary element toward building a career, but for many they are far from pleasant and at some point deliver more burden than benefit. This essay makes a case for organizing and hosting smaller academic conferences, workshops, and symposia that promote genuine dialogue and intellectual exchange, while moving at a slower, more contemplative pace. In addition, in offering post-program publication opportunities, we may consider packages of shorter essays as less demanding alternatives to full-length symposium issues of journals. This essay grew out of the author’s hosting of, and participation in, a small conference on therapeutic jurisprudence at Suffolk University Law School in 2014.

Toxic leaders in social change non-profits

Just because a non-profit organization is dedicated to changing the world for the better, don’t assume that its leadership is committed to creating a healthy, supportive workplace for the staff. That’s the underlying message of a terrific presentation by Vega Subramaniam, co-founder of Vega Mala Consulting, who presented on toxic leadership in the non-profit, social change sector at this year’s just concluded Work, Stress, and Health conference.

The biennial conference is co-sponsored by the American Psychological Association, National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, and Society for Occupational Health Psychology.

Subramaniam and her business co-founder, Mala Nagarajan, are using interviews and surveys of workers in non-profit, social change organizations to study the presence and effects of toxic leadership, which in smaller groups tends to center on the executive director. They are looking specifically at leadership within organizations committed to achieving systemic social change within given spheres of influence, in contrast to non-profits in human services or other charitable realms.

“Literally copy and paste”

Subramaniam reported that they could “literally copy and paste” examples of toxic leadership as experienced by one worker to another. These included creating cultures of mistrust, micromanaging and holding “incessant meetings,” capricious behaviors, unfair blame for mistakes, coercive work demands, and engaging in misrepresentations to grant funders.

Workers found that sorting out and coping with these toxic environments became all consuming, with negative effects on their careers, health, and personal lives. It makes sense: Those who work for cause-driven non-profits are often drawn by the organization’s social mission. It’s a chance to make a difference, maybe even change the world, or at least a corner of it. Especially against the backdrop of this idealism, being bullied and otherwise mistreated in such jobs can be a devastating experience.

Charismatic leaders

When the presentation tagged the potential significance of charismatic leaders who are not good managers in creating toxic work environments, I wanted to shout “hallelujah!” in response. Cause-driven non-profits often fall blindly for charismatic types in designating their leaders, and the results can backfire badly.

A few years ago, I discussed a variation of this type of leader in a blog post on the “Let-Me-Impress-You Club,” those folks who “have learned how to wow people in a room with their personalities and accomplishments, but . . . haven’t quite figured out how to lead when the going gets tough and they are no longer cheered by admirers.” I added:

It also reflects a fundamental problem with how we select people for positions of influence and responsibility. Too often we make these choices on the basis of Let-Me-Impress-You credentials and qualities, while downplaying, if not ignoring, other important indicia of who can provide effective service and leadership.

Very promising project

In addition to watching the presentation, I had a chance to talk to Vega and Mala about their project. They’re on to something very important here. They also have the experience and wisdom to interpret their results wisely and use the emerging insights to educate others.

Non-profits are hardly immune from bad leadership, as I’ve written on numerous occasions here. In fact, I was flattered when Vega showed a slide adapting my blog post about workplace bullying in the non-profit sector to help explain toxic behaviors by social change leaders. She highlighted factors such as the nobility of an organizational mission trumping decent treatment of employees, a lack of managerial accountability in relation to the organization’s board of directors, and the ongoing squeeze of scant resources.

Effecting positive social change is no easy task, and it is even more difficult when organizations created to advance that change are nasty places to work. I hope that this project will help to fuel healthier work environments for those who want to make a difference.

***

Related posts

The non-profit sector: So vital, but not all gooey feel-good (2015)

Myths and realities about working in the non-profit sector (2014)

Sustainable employability and workplace bullying

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What do sustainable employability and workplace bullying have to do with one another? Not a lot, I concluded, after moderating a stimulating panel on organizational justice and sustainability at this year’s Work, Stress, and Health conference, co-sponsored by the American Psychological Association, National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, and Society for Occupational Health Psychology.

Presenters Bram Fleuren (Ph.D. student, Maastricht University, Netherlands), Karolus Kraan (researcher, Institute for Applied Sciences, Netherlands), and Dr. Peter Schnall (clinical professor of medicine, UC-Irvine, and expert in work stress and heart disease) presented papers on sustainable work, globalization, and worker health.

Among the topics discussed was the meaning of sustainable employability, which Bram Fleuren defined as one’s employability not being negatively affected by work experiences over time. Peter Schnall added that we should aspire to make people healthier and more employable over time, not the other way around.

That little nugget of conversation resonated strongly with me. During our Q&A, I observed that workplace bullying can have destructive impacts on the sustainable employability of so many targets. This ranges from the challenges of explaining the circumstances behind job departures to prospective employers, to dealing with the health consequences and anxieties spurred by the abusive behaviors themselves.

A century ago in the U.S., manufacturing work and hard labor constituted primary ways of making a living wage, and it led to considerable physical wear and tear. In today’s America, wear and tear on the job is more likely to be associated with stress, and severe behaviors such as bullying are at the tip of that iceberg. As I suggested in a recent post, by the time people reach their 50s, many are being chewed up and spit out by a harsh economic system that no longer has much use for them.

When I introduced the presenters, I noted the small symbolism of their countries of origin. Europe, on balance, has been much more receptive to ideas such as sustainable employment, and so it is fitting that both Bram Fleuren’s and Karolus Kraan’s papers centered on this concept. The U.S. isn’t as enlightened in this way, and so it also was fitting that the American presenter, Peter Schnall, discussed how work contributes to heart disease.

And so, both ideals and realities dovetailed in one neat little 75-minute program.

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