A New Year, and Hopefully a Happier One

Thank you for being among the early visitors to this blog.  Yesterday we reached 1,000 “page views” (blogspeak for how many times someone clicked a page on the blog) covering the blog’s first two weeks of existence — hardly competition for the Huffington Post or the Drudge Report, but perhaps a sign that e-mailed pleadings to friends and colleagues are building a nice little readership.

The world of work and workplaces will remain compelling as we turn the calendar, and so I look forward to sharing more ideas and information with you during the year to come.

Finally, for many workers, this has been a brutal year.  If you, Dear Reader, are among them, please accept my wishes for a turnaround in your situation during 2009.

Here’s to a safe, fulfilling, and more solvent 2009.


No Ho Ho: Unsigned Holiday Cards

Around this time of year, business advice columns and blogs talk about the etiquette of sending out holiday greeting cards to employees and clients, such as this observation from legal marketing expert Tom Kane, who wrote that by not signing a card:

…the message(s) you are sending to the recipient may include one or more of the following:

  • I’m too busy
  • You aren’t important enough for me to personalize this card
  • Our relationship isn’t that important either
  • My secretary merely sent a card to everyone in my rolodex
  • The firm ordered the cards, and I’m not sure who sent them out

It would be better to not send a card at all.

Indeed, why bother?  Why kill trees and employee morale at the same time? Management and leadership are hard tasks, but some of their aspects simply require common sense and emotional intelligence.

On the other hand, maybe the boss is sending a message, intentionally or not. I once had a boss who sent unsigned holiday cards one year after signing them in previous years, and I said to myself that this is a sign he’s going to be leaving. A few months later, he announced his resignation!

(This post was edited as of December 2010.)

Good Court Decision But Horrific Tale

As 2008 comes to an end, I’d like to share with you one of the year’s most nightmarish judicial opinions, even though the court’s decision held for the underdog.

It’s the story of Jesse Maxwell, a worker for a Massachusetts paper company who in 2000 filed for workers’ compensation after injuring his neck, shoulder, and back while lifting a 100 pound object.  The workers’ compensation insurer denied his claim despite medical records showing a torn rotator cuff and verification from his employer’s human resources office that he was “totally or partially incapacitated.”  Maxwell, without income or other sources of support, became homeless, and his life spiraled into a personal and legal hell, triggered by the ongoing attempt by this insurer to discredit him and deny him workers’ comp benefits.

The primary defendant in this case?  AIG.  Yep, the same AIG that was among the first in the “conga line of bailout beneficiaries” (thank you, Maureen Dowd, for that line) when the current financial debacle began to reveal itself.

Maxwell’s lawsuit is grounded in allegations of intentional infliction of emotional distress and malicious prosecution.  The Massachusetts Appeals Court affirmed a lower court’s denial of AIG’s motion to dismiss, meaning that his legal claims are still alive.

The full story of what happened to this man is difficult to fathom.  If you can devote 30 minutes or so to reading the court’s decision in Jesse Maxwell vs. AIG Domestic Claims, Inc., the blow-by-blow story will be worth your while (three separate links are provided to ensure access to the decision):




This case also is a prime example of the protracted nature of litigation.  The Massachusetts Appeals Court issued a good decision.  But consider that an injury in 2000 led to all of this.  What’s left of someone’s psyche after such an ordeal, even if they “win”?

Soon to be applying to an office near you

At the high school level, it’s called “cyberbullying.”  At the collegiate level, as the Boston Globe reports, some students are using websites to spread malicious rumors, ridicule personal appearances, and otherwise try to make life miserable for their classmates:


What does this have to do with the workplace?  Well, take these lovely young folks and:

1.  Add 3-6 years.

2.  Put them in the workplace.

3.  These are your new colleagues.

4.  Uh oh.

But seriously, some of the posts and comments I’ve read from college students, not to mention graduate and professional students, on websites and online forums are so stunningly outrageous, mean-spirited, and self-revealing (in many ways) that I can only imagine what kinds of employees they will turn out to be.  Of course, many of us recall things we said in younger days (and maybe not-so-younger days) that we regret, but the Internet serves as a portal for the most reckless and destructive comments, with little accompanying sense of personal accountability.

Website(s) of the Week: Dignity, Humiliation, and “Rankism”

The quest for dignity at work cannot be undertaken in a vacuum.  We need to change values, attitudes, and behaviors in society as a whole.  Considering the social, political, and economic ideas that have prevailed over the past several decades, this may seem like a dream.  But some visionary pioneers are pointing the way:

Human Dignity and Humiliation Studies (HumanDHS) (http://www.humiliationstudies.org) [link fixed–DY] is a global network of scholars, practitioners, and activists who are committed to advancing human dignity and ending humiliation.  HumanDHS was founded by physician and social scientist Evelin Lindner (http://www.humiliationstudies.org/whoweare/evelin.php), a true global citizen and scholar.  The new HumanDHS director is psychologist Linda Hartling (http://www.humiliationstudies.org/whoweare/linda.php), whose important work on applying relational-cultural psychology to the workplace will be discussed in future blog entries.

The term “humiliation” may make us uncomfortable, as it represents one of the most agonizing of human experiences.  But we need to remember that attempts to humiliate people in the workplace are common:  sexual harassment, workplace bullying, and so-called “exit parades” of laid-off employees are but a few.  The leaders of HumanDHS have aptly and courageously recognized that affirming human dignity requires that we acknowledge the destructive impact of humiliation.

The building of a “dignitarian” society is the goal of Robert Fuller, a physicist, activist, and former college president who has been calling for an end to “rankism,” his term for the abuse of rank in our society.  His website, shared with co-author Pamela Gerloff, is a great introduction to his work and publications: http://www.breakingranks.net/.  The site includes information about Fuller’s very readable books about dignity and rankism.

You may find yourself starting to borrow the terms Fuller has coined, for once they become part of your everyday thinking, you see patterns of rankism and unnecessary hierarchy in many different settings.  Fuller, like the fine people of Human DHS, is helping to create a dialogue and a vocabulary that (re)introduce some core ideas about how we should conduct ourselves and treat others.

“Website(s) of the Week” is an ongoing feature of Minding the Workplace.


 “There are now more slaves on the planet than at any time in human history.  True abolition will elude us until we admit the massive scope of the problem, attack it in all its forms, and empower slaves to help free themselves.”

So reads the intro to “A World Enslaved,” E. Benjamin Skinner’s piece in March/April 2008 issue of Foreign Policy:  http://www.foreignpolicy.com/story/cms.php?story_id=4173.  Unfortunately, there’s enough to fill a book, and so Skinner has written A Crime So Monstrous: Face-to-Face with Modern-Day Slavery (2008).

We may not grasp the prevalence of slavery in part because other terms are used, such as sex trafficking.  For example, my Suffolk colleague Sara Dillon, an authority on international children’s rights, has written a thoughtful and provocative law review article on child sex trafficking, “What Human Rights Law Obscures: Global Sex Trafficking and the Demand for Children,” published earlier this year in the UCLA Women’s Law Journal:  http://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=1101617.

There are few more fundamental abuses of human dignity and labor.

Wellness Programs — Where’s the Stress?

When I saw this link to a promising-sounding “10 steps to a healthier employee population in 2009” piece on Boston.com  (http://www.boston.com/jobs/employers/hr/nehra/2008/12/10_steps_to_a_healthier_employ.html),  I hoped that it would say something, anything about stress and health at work.

To my disappointment, it didn’t.  As you can see for yourself, it’s about exercise, healthier eating, and physical fitness.  Important subjects, yes, but workplace wellness initiatives often neglect to address the sources of work-related stress that can lead to unhealthy habits and bad health outcomes.

Could it be that acknowledging work-induced stress would raise thorny questions about management practices, organizational hierarchy, and employee relations?  By contrast, it’s easier to talk about eating right, walking groups, yoga, and meditation (“Ooooom, I hate this job, ooooom”).

They beat me to it!

Sometimes it’s the little favors that can turn a workday into a pleasant one.  Case in point: Earlier today I e-mailed the hosts of Workplace Prof (http://lawprofessors.typepad.com/laborprof_blog/), a blog primarily for law professors who teach and write about employment and labor law, asking if they would mind my linking to them.  Right away they got back to me with their okay, and then they went and gave a plug to this blog on theirs.  A nice gesture, much appreciated.

Which makes me all the happier to carry through on my recommendation:  If you’re looking for a blog to help you track the latest legal and public policy developments in employment and labor law, Workplace Prof is the place to go.  Hosted by four law professors — Paul Secunda (Marquette U.), Jeff Hirsch (U. Tennessee), Marcia McCormick (Samford U.), and Rick Bales (Northern Kentucky U.) — Workplace Prof provides steady news and commentary on major court and administrative decisions, legislative developments, collective bargaining, and other aspects of employment relations.

You’ll also see lists and abstracts of published and about-to-be-published studies and articles related to the law of the workplace.  Workplace Prof’s links are very helpful as well.

Workplace Prof is not for the casual reader.  Academicians and scholars are its main audience, and many of the posts assume a baseline of legal knowledge.  In addition, Workplace Prof is not a legal helpline.  For workers seeking legal advice on employment matters, the National Employment Lawyers Association (www.nela.org) offers information and online referral assistance.

But for those who want to keep a serious eye on legal developments in employment relations, this is a valuable source of information.

The U.S. Workplace Bullying Movement at 10

In 1998, Drs. Gary and Ruth Namie founded the Campaign Against Workplace Bullying (now the multi-faceted Workplace Bullying Institute), marking the real beginning of an American movement to respond to the destructive phenomenon of workplace bullying.  During the ensuing ten years, we have witnessed the steady emergence of workplace bullying on the landscape of American employment relations.  Key developments include:

  • Media — Workplace bullying has received increasing news coverage by the print and electronic media, including articles in countless newspapers and feature segments on television news magazines.  The New York Times, Wall Street Journal, USA Today, and Washington Post are among the major newspapers that have devoted features to workplace bullying.
  • Stakeholder Awareness — We are seeing greater awareness and acknowledgement of workplace bullying among major employment relations stakeholders, including managers, human resources administrators, labor unions, and employment lawyers.  Some companies now include bullying in their employee handbooks, and some unions are raising concerns about bullying at the negotiating table.
  • Legislative Advocacy — There are now significant stirrings of grassroots legislative advocacy for workplace bullying laws, with variations of the Healthy Workplace Bill filed in some 12 state legislatures since 2003.  This movement is growing, with volunteer organizers working in many states to advocate for this needed reform in the law.
  • Research — Scholars from across the disciplines, ranging from tenured professors and seasoned practitioners to graduate/professional students, are presenting their research on workplace bullying at academic and professional conferences.  In American universities, professors such as Pamela Lutgen-Sandvik (New Mexico), Loraleigh Keashly (Wayne State), Joel Neuman (SUNY-New Paltz), and Suzy Fox and Lamont Stallworth (both of Loyola-Chicago) have become leading scholars on bullying and related topics.

But this movement has a long way to go before we can say that bullying has been “mainstreamed” into our workplace vocabularies:

  • Employers continue to devote much heavier resources into sexual harassment and workplace violence training, despite that bullying is more frequent and sometimes equally or more harmful to individuals and organizations.  Bullying situations are too often treated as mere personality conflicts.
  • Labor unions are just starting to put workplace bullying on their agendas, even when their members have experienced such treatment for years.
  • Too many therapists and mental health counselors dismiss complaints about bullying behaviors as ordinary stressors of being employed.
  • The legal system is woefully inadequate in terms of protecting severely bullied workers.
  • In relevant professional degree programs, such as organizational behavior, industrial/organizational psychology, mental health counseling, and law, workplace bullying is only beginning to appear in standard texts used by students.

I believe that the next five years will be critical for this movement, determining whether workplace bullying receives the ongoing attention it deserves — after all, 37 percent of American workers have experienced this mistreatment, according to the 2007 Zogby/Workplace Bullying Institute survey — or remains an interesting niche subject.  Several things need to occur, including:

  • States need to begin enacting workplace bullying legislation — hopefully some variation of the Healthy Workplace Bill — in order to provide targets of severe bullying with a legal claim and to provide an incentive for employers to take this behavior much more seriously.
  • Organized labor, down but not out in America, needs to take on workplace bullying as a cause, educating its members, proposing collective bargaining provisions covering abusive supervision, and helping to advocate for law reform.
  • Employers need to take workplace bullying seriously, regardless of liability exposure, for the sake of their productivity and the well-being of their employees. 
  • The mental health community needs to understand how widespread this behavior is and what it can do to people, and to develop effective counseling and treatment approaches.
  • The academic community in fields such as business administration, labor studies, psychology, and law must be encouraged to introduce students to this topic in a manner proportionate to its impact in the workplace. 
  • Above all, the general public must see workplace bullying as a profound violation of human dignity that denies someone the right to do his or her job without undue interference or harassment.

Readers, how can we shine a light on workplace bullying, to the point where it no longer needs explaining to the average American?  What will be the “tipping point(s)” that bring this problem squarely into the mainstream of our discussions about work?

[Note: Recently I opened a page on the Social Science Research Network to make available without charge my longer scholarly articles on workplace bullying and other employment law topics:  http://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/cf_dev/AbsByAuth.cfm?per_id=506047.]

%d bloggers like this: