The Recession as Stressor

Tahira Probst (Washington St. U., Vancouver) and Lindsay Sears (Clemson U.) write about the negative health impacts of the recession in the January 2009 issue of the Newsletter of the Society for Occupational Health Psychology:

Unemployment has been found to be one of the top 10 traumatic life experiences. However, some researchers suggest that financial stress, job insecurity, and underemployment may be equally – if not more – potent stressors. Individuals faced with unemployment, underemployment, job insecurity, and/or financial stress have strikingly similar outcomes.

In their article “Stress and the Financial Crisis,” the authors discuss how layoffs and financial stress help cause “negative psychological and physical outcomes” and suggest effective organizational and individual responses.

Full issue pdf: (scroll to page 3).


A Visit to The Labor Guild

On Monday I had the pleasure of visiting The Labor Guild ( in Weymouth, Massachusetts, to facilitate a discussion on workplace bullying as part of the Guild’s School of Labor Relations.  The discussion went very well, with lots of shared experiences and good ideas, thanks to the lively and engaged group of union members who joined us for the session.

Visiting the Guild was a special treat for me, as it was my first opportunity to become more familiar with a venerable Catholic-affiliated labor school started some 60 years ago.  In addition to its base of union activists and leaders, the Guild counts among its members a wide array of people involved in labor and employment relations, including management and neutrals.  Over the years, the Guild has evolved into a multifaceted labor relations center that offers labor education classes, manages union elections, and offers meeting space for labor and management negotiators.

The Guild is housed in an old Catholic high school, and thanks to a lot of volunteer work contributions from its members and supporting trade unionists, its offices and classrooms have a wonderfully homey feel to them, which was more than matched by the warm and down to earth folks I met there.  I’d like to offer a special thank you to AFSCME’s George Embleton, who served as my host and went out of his way to introduce me to so many of the fine people associated with the Guild.

What the NFL Draft teaches us about Personnel Selection

The National Football League held its annual draft of college players over the weekend, giving life to the dreams of some 250 young men and providing football junkies reason to spend two days glued to ESPN.  Whereas no sane person would want to watch a weekend’s worth of, say, live coverage of human resources directors extending offers to wannabe administrative assistants, the NFL Draft has become a major television sports event.

It’s also a prime example of how even the most extensive vetting of job candidates does not guarantee accurate personnel selection.  The average NFL draftee has been evaluated more thoroughly than candidates for just about any other job.  Pro scouts attend his games.  Tapes of his college games are viewed over and again by NFL general managers and coaches.  He probably was an invitee to the NFL Combine, a multi-day meat market where likely draftees are put through a variety of drills, tests, and interviews.  Teams that have a special interest in a player may invite him to a private workout.  After all this, the draft itself is more of a crapshoot than one might think.

Although early round picks do, on average, perform better than late round picks and undrafted free agents, some top draftees turn out to be massive underachievers or complete busts.  Looking at the key position of quarterback, we see many first-rounders who failed as NFL players: Ryan Leaf (San Diego Chargers), Cade McNown (Chicago Bears), and Akili Smith (Cincinnati Bengals) are three guys who were supposed to lead their teams to glory, and they all flopped.  By contrast, a skinny sixth-round pick named Tom Brady would become one of the league’s top quarterbacks and lead the New England Patriots to three Super Bowl championships.

To diehard NFL fans, this is old news and part of the league’s lore: Star selections bomb out, while some at the bottom of the pickings make the team and even become standouts.  But those in the field of employee relations would be well-advised to look at the NFL Draft as a prime example of how imperfect even the most extensive of personnel selection practices can be.

Does “Idol” Discriminate?

Recently I posed the question of whether American Idol’s Simon Cowell is a workplace bully.  (See  Now employment lawyer Ellen Simon has posted a blog entry asking if American Idol’s requirement that contestants be under 30 is violative of age discrimination laws:

My husband  is a pretty good singer (for sure I have a bit of a bias) and we have a good time at karaoke clubs.  My son is an agent in the entertainment business.  I  mentioned to my son that I thought it would be fun if my husband tried out for American Idol — not that he would win of course, but that it would be fun to go to a tryout. After he stopped laughing he said:

He can’t try out

Why not?  I said.

Because he’s not under 30.

Yes, that’s right.  In order to try out for American Idol you have to be under thirty years of age.

It’s an interesting question and post, triggered by the Internet phenomenon of Susan Boyle, the 47-year-old Scottish singer whose audition before Britain’s Got Talent wowed the judges and led to a YouTube video ( that has been viewed by some 50 million people.  Boyle’s success and her touching story makes American Idol’s under-30 policy seem rather, well, callow, legal questions aside.  At the very least, the policy is reflective of our nation’s obsession with youth and accompanying notions of attractiveness.

Full post:

Workplace bullying and compassion

From the latest issue of Bullybusters Bytes, newsletter of the Workplace Bullying Institute, this interesting commentary on workplace bullying and compassion:
Targets of bullying experience rejection by cowardly co-workers, indifference from HR and senior management, and limited tolerance by friends and family. Why aren’t people more compassionate? Why don’t they see the pain and help more? Brand new research suggests that we humans are wired to quickly and empathically react to the physical pain of others. For example, watching someone break an ankle and step on it triggers pain centers in our own brains nearly immediately. However, social pain or the mental anguish of others takes longer to trigger a response and that reaction requires much more brain work.

Link to pdf:


“The Masochism Tango” at Work

One of songwriter/humorist Tom Lehrer’s finest contributions to twisted music is “The Masochism Tango”:

I ache for the touch of your lips, dear,
But much more for the touch of your whips, dear.
You can raise welts
Like nobody else,
As we dance to the Masochism Tango…

Alas, it now appears that a recession-induced version of The Masochism Tango is playing out in our workplaces.  The Boston Globe‘s business ticker reports on a study by Kronos, Inc., an organizational consulting firm:

Unnerved by widespread layoffs and the recession, workers are pleading with their bosses to pile on more jobs even though they are already putting major RPMs on the workplace hamster wheel. . . .

The survey . . . found that employees want to work more even as “companies are cracking down on overtime to save on labor costs,” Kronos said in a press release.

In sum:  Driven by fears over job security, already stressed out workers are asking their employers to pile it on so they can prove their loyalty and dedication.  My guess is that many employers are happy to oblige.

Columbine and bullying: A corrective account

In the aftermath of the tragedy at Columbine High School in 1999, the two young men who killed 13 people before taking their own lives, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, were portrayed as bullied teens who didn’t fit in and who acted out their sense of isolation and resentment in a horrific rampage.  The abused became the abusers.

This common interpretation of what happened at Columbine is of particular interest to those of us who are addressing workplace bullying.  Like many of my colleagues, I frequently get questions about possible connections between workplace bullying and school bullying during the Q&A periods of panel discussions and presentations.  Some folks assume that schoolyard bullies become workplace bullies.  I am quick to add that, at times, those who are bullied at school may become bullies themselves, classic and sad instances of victims becoming aggressors.  I have frequently invoked Columbine as an example of that recurring scenario.

However, Andrew Gumbel of the Guardian newspaper, drawing on a new book (Dave Cullen, Columbine, 2009), writes that the story of the Columbine killers may be very different than what many of us have assumed:

Exactly 10 years ago on Monday, the world woke up to learn that two more unhinged American teenage misfits had snapped after years of bullying at the hands of the “jocks”, the sporting overlords of their universe, and gone on a murderous rampage with semi-automatic weapons through their suburban high school….

…Much of what we reported, though, was simply wrong, as attested by tens of thousands of official documents and other evidence that has at last seen the light of day after years of suppression by the local authorities. As the Colorado-based journalist Dave Cullen tells in his gripping and authoritative new book Columbine, Harris and Klebold had plenty of friends, did pretty well in school, were not members of the Trenchcoat Mafia, did not listen to Manson, were not bullied, harboured no specific grudges against any one group, and did not “snap” because of some last-straw traumatic event….

…The truth was more sinister. Their ambition, harboured for about a year and a half and chronicled meticulously on Harris’s website and in the boys’ private journals, recovered after their deaths, was to blow up the entire school. Not to get at anyone in particular, but because they hated the world and intended to have fun annihilating as much of it as they could.

Early, positive reviews of Dave Cullen’s book indicate that this new portrayal of Harris and Klebold will substantially change how we view what drove these two kids to do what they did.  Nevertheless, it remains the case that some people who are treated abusively will continue the cycle of mistreatment through their own actions, not to mention be at greater risk of harming themselves.  Furthermore, a more insightful understanding of what happened at Columbine should not detract from efforts to reduce bullying in our schools and workplaces.  If anything, it should only add to the urgency of taking abnormal psychological conditions, and the social conditions that may fuel them, more seriously.

Full story:

Surgical removal: Couldn’t wait to share the bad news

Courtesy of Yahoo! News and the Associated Press: “A nurse was called out of surgery so a manager could tell her she was being laid off.”

What more can you say???

Full story:

Shout-out to UConn I/O Psychology Program

On Friday I had the great pleasure of spending an afternoon with graduate students and faculty of the University of Connecticut’s excellent Industrial/Organizational Psychology program (, starting with a brown-bag session during which we discussed workplace bullying, and followed by lunch with a group of the students. 

It was an enjoyable and stimulating visit!  The brown-bag discussion covered a lot of interesting ground, and I was delighted to learn about the terrific research and educational work that UConn faculty and students are doing on workplace mistreatment and incivility.  Prof. Vicki Magley, a leader in the emerging field of Occupational Health Psychology, has helped to spearhead these initiatives.

Most of all, I enjoyed talking with the graduate students, a smart, engaged, and friendly group of folks who are knee deep (or beyond!) in developing their own scholarly niches.  Some are researching incivility-related topics.  Others are studying topics such as union-management relations, gender issues, and work-life balance.

Among the student cohort, I’d especially like to thank Leslie Golay, Michael Tuller, and Ben Walsh for their generous hospitality in facilitating my visit.  And by sharing some of their interests during our extended conversations, I learned more about the breadth of graduate research that is occurring within the UConn program, work that I hope someday will shape how scholars and practitioners look at workers and workplaces.

Workplace defamation suits on the rise

Tresa Baldus of the National Law Journal reports that workplace defamation lawsuits are on the rise:

Defamation lawsuits are on the rise in the workplace as employees take on employers over the right to reputation, suing over being labeled as damaged goods after losing their jobs.

With the economy forcing so many people out of work, lawyers say the environment is ripe for defamation claims.

Hat tip to Prof. Rick Bales at Workplace Prof (, who notes that the “article, however, contains no empirical data to support the thesis — just a list of recently filed cases and a series of anecdotal comments by practitioners.”

This topic is particularly significant for targets of workplace bullying who must endure behind-the-back attempts to sabotage their reputation through lies and rumors.  Defamation claims are hard to win, especially when the allegedly defamatory statements are grounded in innuendo or casual opinion rather than outright lies.  Nevertheless, it is worth noting that in the absence of a direct legal claim for workplace bullying, a defamation lawsuit is among the possible avenues for legal relief.

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