Why concentrated power at work is bad

For some time I’ve been meaning to share this neat little piece, “The Power Paradox,” by UC-Berkeley psychologist Dacher Keltner, which appeared in the Winter 2007/08 issue of Greater Good magazine (link here).  It’s about the corrupting influence of power, and it explains a lot of what we see at work. For example:

Perhaps more unsettling is the wealth of evidence that having power makes people more likely to act like sociopaths. High-power individuals are more likely to interrupt others, to speak out of turn, and to fail to look at others who are speaking. They are also more likely to tease friends and colleagues in hostile, humiliating fashion. Surveys of organizations find that most rude behaviors—shouting, profanities, bald critiques—emanate from the offices and cubicles of individuals in positions of power.

My own research has found that people with power tend to behave like patients who have damaged their brain’s orbitofrontal lobes (the region of the frontal lobes right behind the eye sockets), a condition that seems to cause overly impulsive and insensitive behavior. Thus the experience of power might be thought of as having someone open up your skull and take out that part of your brain so critical to empathy and socially-appropriate behavior.

Many of the magazine’s articles are freely accessible online.  A lot of good material there!

Succeeding as a waitstaffer: Hard work + social intelligence

Earlier this month, restauranteur Bruce Buschel posted “One Hundred Things Restaurant Workers Should Never Do” to the New York Times small business blog.  Here’s a sampling of Buschel’s advice:

10. Do not inject your personal favorites when explaining the specials.

42. Do not compliment a guest’s attire or hairdo or makeup. You are insulting someone else.

50. Do not turn on the charm when it’s tip time. Be consistent throughout.

60. Bring all the appetizers at the same time, or do not bring the appetizers. Same with entrees and desserts.

67. Never stack the plates on the table. They make a racket. Shhhhhh.

89. Never patronize a guest who has a complaint or suggestion; listen, take it seriously, address it.

While many items make sense to me from a customer’s viewpoint, the list strikes me as being overwhelming.  Some of it comes across as being control freakish.  Furthermore, I’m quite certain that other restaurant managers would take issue with some of them!  However, beneath the directive tone is a lot of common sense about succeeding in a service business.

Perhaps instead of warning people of 100 things not to do on the job, much of this advice could be recast in a more encouraging way.  Waiting on tables is hard work.  It’s physically demanding.  It requires people smarts and an engaging personality to be good at it.  (This applies whether you’re working at a neighborhood diner or a four-star restaurant.)  By cultivating employees’ social intelligence, a restaurant is more likely to thrive and staff are more likely to earn well-deserved, generous tips from appreciative customers.

(The web-posted comments from readers are interesting to read as well!)

For Buschel’s Nos. 1-50: http://boss.blogs.nytimes.com/2009/10/29/one-hundred-things-restaurant-staffers-should-never-do-part-one/

For Buschel’s Nos. 51-100: http://boss.blogs.nytimes.com/2009/11/05/one-hundred-things-restaurant-staffers-should-never-do-part-2/

Swedish study: When men bottle up anger at work, heart attack risk doubles

Not exactly the news I want to post a day before America’s Thanksgiving Day, but alas, this study speaks for itself:

Men who bottle up their anger over unfair treatment at work could be hurting their hearts, a new Swedish study indicates.

Men who consistently failed to express their resentment over conflicts with a fellow worker or supervisor were more than twice as likely to have a heart attack or die of heart disease as those who vented their anger, claims a report in the Nov. 24 online edition of the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health.

In fact, ignoring an ongoing work-related conflict was associated with a tripled risk of heart attack or coronary death, the study of almost 2,800 Swedish working men found.

I’m going to be writing more about the links between psychologically unhealthy workplaces and the risk of cardiovascular disease, but for now let me say that none of this surprises me.   We need to change our workplaces so that people feel free to express their concerns at work amidst a fair-minded, responsive institutional culture.  Our employee policies should embrace this, and our employment laws should protect responsible, non-disruptive speech at work.

Here’s the full article, with Ed Edelson reporting for HealthDay News, via Yahoo!: http://news.yahoo.com/s/hsn/stifledangeratworkdoublesmensriskforheartattack

Utne Reader’s 50 Visionaries

Since the mid-80s, the Utne Reader has celebrated the alternative press, highlighted independent journalism, and encouraged us to build a humane, creative society.  The Nov-Dec issue features “50 Visionaries Who Are Changing Your World,” folks who are pursuing “labors of peace, love, and justice.”  They include:

Wafaa El-Sadr, Founder, International Center for AIDS Care and Treatment Programs
Parmez Sharma, Filmmaker
Maya Enista, CEO, Mobilize.org
Richard Nash, Founder, Cursor
Julie Cajune, American Indian Education Advocate
Julia “Judy” Bonds, Co-director, Coal River Mountain Watch
Lance Ledbetter, Founder, Dust-to-Digital
Patricia van Nispen tot Sevenaer, Executive Director, ILA Microjustice for All

If you’re searching for inspiration and examples of how you can make a difference, spend some time digging into this feature.

Here’s the full article, with links to in-depth bios: http://www.utne.com/Politics/50-Visionaries-Changing-Your-World-Hope-2009.aspx

The legality and ethics of unpaid internships

A lot of people are working for free these days.  Many are students who are securing unpaid internships as a possible investment in a future career.  Others are unemployed and want to gain experience and contacts, so they are volunteering their time and talent.   They are heeding advice by career counselors and columnists to offer to work without pay as a way of opening doors to new jobs and careers.

From a practical standpoint, I don’t blame anyone for using the internship/volunteer route to enter or re-enter the workforce, especially in today’s difficult economy.  As an educator, I have given that advice many times to students and recent graduates.  But I do so with ambivalence.  Something is very wrong with our economic system when those who provide genuine labor are not compensated for their work.  While I can understand public and non-profit employers having to rely on unpaid interns, it is wrong when profit-making enterprises do not pay at least the minimum wage.

In addition, it’s very likely that many of these arrangements — especially the common practice of unpaid internships — violate minimum wage laws.  The Fair Labor Standards Act, the federal wage and hour statute, does allow exemptions to the minimum wage for those who meet “trainee” status.  However, one of the requirements for trainee status is that the employer “derives no immediate advantage from the activities of the trainees or students, and on occasion his/her operations may actually be impeded.”  This is an awfully tough standard to meet.  Most interns provide an “immediate advantage” to the employer, even if the work involves relatively unskilled labor.

It’s not necessarily the small “mom & pop” businesses that are stiffing their interns.  Several years ago, in researching a law review article on the rights of student interns (see link below), I was stunned to learn that as of 2000, employers such the ACLU, Brookings Institution, CNN, Merrill Lynch, MTV, Rolling Stone magazine, Sotheby’s auction house, and the White House were among the prestigious and presumably well-financed entities whose internship programs provided no compensation.  Hopefully that has changed, but even so, today there is no shortage of other employers who happily accept free labor.

We have become so accustomed to unpaid internships as a rite of passage that we ignore the significant social and economic class implications.  Fields such as journalism (print and electronic), politics, and the arts are infamous for offering unpaid internships.  It means that these opportunities are disproportionately limited to those who can afford to work for free.

I am skeptical that there will be any hue and cry against this widespread practice.  For students, volunteer internships have become very much a part of the educational and credentialing experience, and now many unemployed folks are joining the fray.  But is the minimum wage really too much to ask for anyone who is providing genuine work contributions to an employer?

For a freely downloadable pdf copy of my law review article, The Employment Law Rights of Student Interns (Connecticut Law Review, 2002)

Learning from the aftermath of workplace violence

Sadly, workplace violence has been in the news a lot lately, with the most prominent story being the horrible killings at Fort Hood in Texas.

Tom Jacobs, writing for the Miller-McCune magazine blog, reports on studies done as a follow up to the Virginia Tech killings in 2007 as possibly providing lessons that may help those who experienced the Fort Hood tragedy:

Psychological trauma among Virginia Tech students in the wake of the 2007 mass shooting was widespread and long-lasting, according to newly published research that suggests such tragedies are communal events with far-reaching ramifications.

The research provides insights that could be helpful to members of the Ford Hood community suffering post-traumatic symptoms in the wake of last week’s mass killing at the Texas military base, as well as to counselors working with that traumatized population.

The article concludes by suggesting that in light of findings in the research on Virginia Tech:

(I)n measuring the psychological impact of traumatic events, we may be overestimating the importance of direct exposure to the tragedy, and underestimating the importance of the person’s underlying life condition — the resources, tangible and intangible, they have to draw upon.

The full Miller-McCune blog post: http://www.miller-mccune.com/news/virginia-tech-study-contains-lessons-for-fort-hood-1603

Workplace bullying and American employment law: The state of research, education, and advocacy

I have posted an early draft version of a forthcoming law review article, “Workplace Bullying and American Employment Law: A Ten-Year Progress Report and Assessment,” which will appear in a symposium collection in the Comparative Labor Law & Policy Journal, published by the University of Illinois College of Law.  Here’s an abstract of the article:

This article details the early history of efforts to make American employment law more responsive to workplace bullying, covering a period roughly from 2000 to the present day, with much of the commentary grounded in the author’s personal involvement in these initiatives.  It starts by examining research, education, and advocacy efforts concerning workplace bullying and its legal implications.  It then explains the major provisions of the latest version of the Healthy Workplace Bill, model anti-bullying legislation drafted by this author that has been the basis of bills introduced in over a dozen states legislatures since 2003.  The article closes with an assessment of the future of legal and policy initiatives to protect workers against severe workplace bullying in the United States.

As law review articles go, it’s relatively short and attempts to cover a lot of ground.  It’s the most complete summary of legal and policy initiatives related to workplace bullying in the U.S.  The article still needs to go through the journal’s editing process, but the information contained in it should be useful to anyone who wants to know what progress has been made during the past decade and where we have to go from here.

Link to freely downloadable pdf of the article: http://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=1507950

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