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.

-David

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):

http://masscases.com/cases/app/72/72massappct685.html

http://www.socialaw.com/slip.htm?cid=18515&sid=119

http://caselaw.lp.findlaw.com/scripts/getcase.pl?court=ma&vol=appslip/18515&invol=1

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:

http://www.boston.com/lifestyle/articles/2008/12/29/dorm_rumors/

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.

Slaves

 “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.

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