Bully Rats, Tasers, and Stress

New York Times science reporter Natalie Angier has an interesting piece in today’s edition (link here) about an experiment using lab rats to assess the effects of chronic stress, feedback loops in the brain, and how to reverse the damage.  It’s a good report on a thought-provoking study, but for me it confirmed what has become obvious:

According to Angier, the researchers exposed rats to stressful environments, including “moderate electric shocks, being encaged with dominant rats, [and] prolonged dunks in water.”  These “chronically stressed rats lost their elastic rat cunning and instead fell back on familiar routines and rote responses, like compulsively pressing a bar for food pellets they had no intention of eating.”  Their brains became rewired, as “regions of the brain associated with executive decision-making and goal-directed behaviors had shriveled, while, conversely, brain sectors linked to habit formation had bloomed.”

“In other words,” reports Angier, “the rodents were now cognitively predisposed to keep doing the same things over and over, to run laps in the same dead-ended rat race rather than seek a pipeline to greener sewers.”

Fortunately, once removed from the stressful environment and given a bit of vacation, the rats showed signs of recovery:  “But with only four weeks’ vacation in a supportive setting free of bullies and Tasers, the formerly stressed rats looked just like the controls, able to innovate, discriminate and lay off the [food pellet] bar.”

As I read the piece, I found myself thinking, yeah, I’ve seen this before.  I’ve witnessed the same feedback loop over and again with targets of severe workplace bullying and others who have been stuck in stressful, difficult, and highly dysfunctional work settings.  I’ve also seen genuine transformations when people remove themselves from these settings and spend time in healthier environments.

I will resist the temptation to ponder here whether it was necessary to subject animals to an experiment that sadly could be done with human subjects facing a variety of stressful real-life situations, including work.  Indeed, the results of this experiment merely reinforce a lot of what we’ve come to understand about unhealthy workplaces — and how to help folks who are suffering because of them.

Chief People Officer shares own workplace bullying experience

It’s no accident that many people who are calling for greater awareness of, and stronger responses to, workplace bullying have experienced this behavior personally or witnessed a close family member or friend endure it.

In the case of human resources and organizational consultant Kevin Kennemer, whose Chief People Officer blog has been featured here before, it was personal experience with a bad boss:

Why am I so passionate about the creation of great workplaces?  Why do I consistently admonish business owners and executives to treat employees with trust and respect? It is related to my unfortunate encounter with a sadistic, cruel and bully boss who routinely yelled, screamed, cursed and threw temper tantrums. When he didn’t get his way, or I expressed opinions that upset his tiny world view, he would go ballistic. He was like an evil two-year-old baby inside a fifty-year-old body.

This is very thoughtful, heartfelt commentary that closes with some advice on how to distinguish bullying behavior from a bad day at the office.

Here’s the full post: http://thepeoplegroupllc.com/2009/07/psychological-abuse-in-the-workplace-leads-to-rules-of-engagement/



Finding Happiness Amidst the Meltdown

Posting to his Psychology Today blog, leadership consultant and executive coach Ray Williams collects pieces of advice on achieving or maintaining one’s happiness in the midst of the recession.  He begins:

How can we be happy when our investment savings have dwindled, we’ve lost our job, or our house. The recession has had a negative impact on the lives of many people. Is it possible to be or remain happy?

Among the suggestions:

  • “Spend your money on experiences rather than material objects.”
  • “Pursue meaningful life goals.”
  • “Nurture meaningful relationships.”

As I posted last month, money makes a difference, especially during tough times.  All the happy talk or upbeat thinking in the world doesn’t pay the rent or the grocery bill.  But perhaps the recession is compelling us to get beyond material things and look more deeply into what makes for a good life.  Williams’s post offers some good food for thought on that.

“Pre-bullying”? How to mistreat job applicants

Alison Green, blogging on careers for U.S. News & World Report, writes about the “Five Ways Companies Mistreat Job Seekers.”  They include:

  • “Having no regard for the candidate’s time”
  • “Not sharing their timeline”
  • “Refusing to share their salary range, but asking you for yours”
  • “Misrepresenting the work”
  • “Not notifying candidates that they’re no longer under consideration”

Call it “pre-bullying.”  Nothing malicious or abusive, but certainly a sign that an employer already is playing power games and doesn’t respect its future employees.  After all, if this is how you’re treated during the mutual “courting” phase, imagine what work life is like after the deal is sealed!

Recession or not, job applicants deserve to be treated with dignity.  This kind of nonsense falls short of that mark.

For the full post, definitely worth a click:  http://www.usnews.com/blogs/outside-voices-careers/2009/08/03/5-ways-companies-mistreat-job-seekers.html

Management harassment and bullying up, reports Labor Notes

Labor Notes, the ongoing beacon of labor journalism, ran this piece by Jane Slaughter on the rise of management bullying of workers:

A Labor Notes survey this month found harassment in the workplace at unprecedented levels, with a sharp uptick since the recession began. It may be that a measurable chunk of the unemployed have been harassed out of their jobs, fired rather than laid off.

Union members report increases in verbal abuse, discipline including discharge, crackdowns on attendance, surveillance, hassling to work faster, forced overtime, and a concerted effort to get rid of older workers. “It’s at a level that I have not seen equaled in my 20 years with the company,” said Seattle UPS driver Dan Scott.

This is entirely consistent with other indicators, as we have noted before on this blog.

For the full article, “Harassment: The Recession’s Hidden Byproduct”: http://labornotes.org/node/2349

Beware the (Health Care Hating) Mob

Reasonable people can and do disagree on the right way to provide quality, affordable health care for all in America.  But I am stunned, absolutely stunned, by the orchestrated mob scenes to shout down and intimidate those who favor a comprehensive health care plan, being launched at town hall meetings hosted by public officials who are seeking public feedback.

As Paul Krugman writes in today’s New York Times, the mobs are supported by well-funded special interest groups that oppose health care reform:

Yes, well-heeled interest groups are helping to organize the town hall mobs. Key organizers include two Astroturf (fake grass-roots) organizations: FreedomWorks, run by the former House majority leader Dick Armey, and a new organization called Conservatives for Patients’ Rights.

The latter group, by the way, is run by Rick Scott, the former head of Columbia/HCA, a for-profit hospital chain. Mr. Scott was forced out of that job amid a fraud investigation; the company eventually pleaded guilty to charges of overbilling state and federal health plans, paying $1.7 billion — yes, that’s “billion” — in fines. You can’t make this stuff up.

This snippet from a strategy memo on how to disrupt and take over a town hall meeting hosted by a member of Congress provides a glimpse of the behind-the-scenes organizing:

You need to rock-the-boat early in the Rep’s presentation. Watch for an opp0rtunity to yell out and challenge the Rep’s statements early. If he blames Bush for something or offers other excuses — call him on it, yell back and have someone else follow-up with a shout-out. Don’t carry on and make a scene – just short intermittent shout outs. The purpose is to make him uneasy early on and set the tone for the hall as clearly informal, and free-wheeling.

In all fairness, our history teaches us that mob actions are not limited to the far right.  In this case, however, what we have is an orchestrated campaign to ensure that health care reform never happens, employing thuggish, bullying tactics that would get many of us disciplined or fired if we used them at work.

As Krugman notes, this is a far cry from a more idyllic America imagined by Norman Rockwell:

There’s a famous Norman Rockwell painting titled “Freedom of Speech,” depicting an idealized American town meeting. The painting, part of a series illustrating F.D.R.’s “Four Freedoms,” shows an ordinary citizen expressing an unpopular opinion. His neighbors obviously don’t like what he’s saying, but they’re letting him speak his mind.

(Italics mine……)

For Krugman’s “The Town Hall Mob”: http://www.nytimes.com/2009/08/07/opinion/07krugman.html

For the “Town Hall Action Memo” (pdf file): http://thinkprogress.org/wp-content/uploads/2009/07/townhallactionmemo.pdf.

Justice Sotomayor’s Impact on Employment Cases

I’m very pleased that Sonia Sotomayor has been confirmed as the newest Associate Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court.  However, for those who are wondering what the impact of this development will be on employment cases before the Court, the answer is probably more of the same, but perhaps with a twist.

That’s not a knock on our newest Supreme Court justice.  Indeed, I believe she will be a distinguished addition to the Court.  However, Justice Sotomayor is replacing the retiring David Souter, who has voted consistently with the liberal bloc of the Court.  Sotomayor, in all likelihood, will join that bloc, meaning that employment cases, especially those dealing with discrimination and harassment issues, probably will continue to reflect the Court’s divided nature.

But I did say, “with a twist.”  Judge Sotomayor took a lot of heat for her now (in)famous “wise Latina” remark in a speech.  In essence, she was saying that her experience impacts the way she looks at the law.  In reality, that is the case for all judges, regardless of whether they admit it.  Sotomayor’s ascendance to the Supreme Court probably won’t change the Court’s overall voting patterns, but the court opinions she writes, especially on matters affecting women and people of color, may well have a different kind of voice, one that helps to educate America about different perspectives informed by experience.

After all, it was a wise white male, Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., who wrote that “The life of the law has not been logic; it has been experience.”

You will find more detailed analyses of the significance of the Sotomayor appointment for employment law cases on other blogs, especially labor & employment law blogs listed on our blogroll.  Workplace Prof at http://lawprofessors.typepad.com/laborprof_blog/  and Today’s Workplace at http://www.todaysworkplace.org/ are excellent starting places.  As of this post, neither has written about today’s final confirmation, but both have carried informed commentary on Judge Sotomayor leading up to this vote.

In addition, it’s worth emphasizing that, notwithstanding the significance of this Supreme Court appointment, the most important picks for the federal judiciary will be appointments to federal circuit courts of appeal, whose opinions wield considerable authority in shaping federal employment law, and future Supreme Court positions in the event of the retirement of a conservative bloc member.

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