The Terrible 2000s: Goodbye and good riddance

As the Terrible 2000s come to a close, it’s fair to say that this has not been a great decade for American workers and workplaces. Consider some of the evidence:

  • Bookend meltdowns — We opened the decade with the dot-com bubble bursting, and we closed it with a catastrophic economic meltdown.  The forces behind greed were once again immune to the lessons of history, and millions are paying the price as a result.
  • Labor — The labor movement, our primary voice for the everyday worker, continues to struggle.  Union membership is largely a public sector phenomenon.  Well under 10 percent of private sector workers enjoy the protections of a collective bargaining agreement.
  • Wages — The wage gap between rich and poor has widened, and the middle class continues to diminish.  Of course, we deny that this has anything to do with the state of the labor movement.
  • Integrity — Even apart from the Great Recession, we saw scandals, corruption, exorbitant executive pay, and pension excesses crossing over the private, public, and non-profit sectors.  What a lousy decade for leadership.
  • Dignity and safety — Too many employers continue to fuel or ignore discrimination, harassment, bullying, and worker safety violations.
  • Toil — Too many workers are toiling at double and triple shifts, because one job is not sufficient to provide a living wage.
  • Retirement prospects — As the population ages, a large proportion of middle aged and older workers are wholly unprepared to finance their retirements.  This was the case well before the markets crashed in 2008.
  • Generations — Older workers are staying in or returning to the labor force because they must.  Younger workers are experiencing difficulty entering it.
  • 9/11 — In 9/11, we saw the some of the most horrific acts of workplace violence in our lifetimes.  In the aftermath of 9/11, we failed to take care of the rescue and recovery workers who put their lives and health in jeopardy.  In the wars that followed 9/11, we then failed to give adequate care to veterans suffering from the physical and psychological mayhem of combat.
  • Health care — As the decade comes to a close, the richest nation on earth is long overdue on delivering quality, affordable health care to all who live here.

I apologize for the negativity, but I do not believe in ignoring the bad stuff.  Only by understanding it can we move forward.  I’ll put forth the outline for a more forward looking agenda next week!

A horrible, senseless act of workplace violence

On the afternoon of December 27, a 39-year-old convenience store clerk named Surendra Dangol was killed after handing over the cash from his till to the gunman who decided to shoot him despite his apparent cooperation.  The murder occurred in the Jamaica Plain neighborhood of Boston, where I happen to live.

District Attorney Dan Conley described the killing this way:

At about 3:00, the gunman entered the store, produced a firearm, and robbed Surendra. Contrary to some reports, there is no evidence to suggest that Surendra resisted or fought back. It’s clear that Surendra cooperated with his assailant. He didn’t act rashly or try to be a hero, and for that good judgment he was shot to death in cold blood.

The gunman then left the store and fled as a passenger in a four-door white sedan headed toward the Jamaicaway.

This was a shocking crime – not just because a man was killed but because he was gunned down for a small stack of bills that he gave up willingly. Surendra’s death should outrage every person of faith and conscience in our community.

Dangol was a native of Nepal, and he was saving up money to bring his wife and daughter to the United States.  Although he had just started to work at the store, customers who frequented it remarked that he was a friendly employee.  In other words, he was a decent man who was trying to make a better life for his family.

Universal Hub (a popular blog about Boston life that I contribute to on occasion) has the District Attorney’s full statement and a link to the store video released by the DA’s office of what happened that afternoon, without the actual shooting.  If you watch the video, you’ll see that Dangol was cooperating fully and did not appear to show any resistance or attitude.  For that he was shot. 

Workplace violence occurs in many ways, but this story brings it home.  Unfortunately, homicide is one of the leading causes of workplace fatalities, and workers in the retail service sector such as Dangol are among those at risk.  As a fact sheet from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration observes:

Workplace violence is violence or the threat of violence against workers. It can occur at or outside the workplace and can range from threats and verbal abuse to physical assaults and homicide, one of the leading causes of job-related deaths. However it manifests itself, workplace violence is a growing concern for employers and employees nationwide.

Link to the Universal Hub post and the store video:

Link to OSHA Fact Sheet (pdf):

Bahama Breeze racial harassment case shows we’ve still got work to do

Sadly, virulent, overt racial harassment at work is not a thing of the past: The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission announced a $1.26 million settlement of a racial harassment and discrimination claim covering 37 black workers at an Ohio location of Bahama Breeze, a national restaurant chain:

The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) today announced a class litigation settlement with national restaurant chain Bahama Breeze for $1,260,000 and significant remedial relief in a case alleging repeated racial harassment of 37 black workers at the company’s Beachwood, Ohio location.

In its lawsuit, the EEOC charged that Bahama Breeze managers committed numerous and persistent acts of racial harassment against black employees, including frequently addressing black staff with slurs such as “n….r,” “Aunt Jemima,” “homeboy,” “stupid n….r,” and “you people.” Additionally, managers allegedly imitated what they perceived to be the speech and mannerisms of black employees, and denied them breaks while allowing breaks to white employees. Despite the employees’ complaints to management, the alleged race-based harassment continued.

If anyone wants a reminder of why we still need employment discrimination and civil rights laws, look no further than the Bahama Breeze settlement.

EEOC’s press release:

Hat tip: Ross Runkel’s excellent LawMemo Employment Law blog:

The Ties That Bind: 14th Annual Workshop on Humiliation and Violent Conflict

A key lesson of spending the past decade combating workplace bullying has been comprehending the ties that bind us when it comes to addressing trauma, humiliation, and human dignity in our society. This was brought home to me very meaningfully at the 14th annual workshop on Humiliation and Violent Conflict, sponsored by the Human Dignity and Humiliation Studies (HumanHDS) network, a wide ranging group of global citizens, scholars, activists, and practitioners.

Two Day Gathering

The workshop was held on Dec. 10 and 11 at Columbia University in New York City.  Newly installed HumanDHS director Linda Hartling presided over the gathering, with the ongoing support and assistance of founding president Evelin Linder.  Participants were treated to two days of presentations and discussions on topics ranging from genocide and international relations to training police officers and mental health policy.

There were many highlights to the conference, but it is worth singling out a framing address by psychologist Michael Britton, a long-time HumanDHS board member, who talked about the destructive impact of contemporary neoliberal policies and practices on human dignity. Britton identified the need for community in settings large and small, bringing together “macro” and “micro” perspectives in a very insightful way.

I must admit, I was somewhat concerned that my presentation on workplace bullying might be regarded as trite after hearing discussions about the Holocaust and international human rights abuses.  But no, these folks “get it.”  They understand that abuse can take place in any number of settings, including the workplace.

Enduring Themes

Four conference themes, more implicit than explicit, resonated with me:

First, we all too often draw a dichotomy between “social change” and “individual change.”  In reality, they part of an interrelated collection of priorities and practices.  The workshop helped to illustrate that point.

Second, pain and wounds can drive positive change.  A number of presenters spoke from the heart, and it was clear that they carried or inherited some painful emotional baggage.  Such transparency can make people uncomfortable, but if we want to understand the human costs of mistreatment, we should not relegate these experiences to “academic” descriptions.

Indeed, as I listened to some of the talks, I thought about a favorite line from Those Who Save Us, a novel set in WWII Germany by Boston writer (and good friend) Jenna Blum: Who among us is not stained by the past? 

Third, and related to the first two points, individual growth over one’s lifespan can lead us to this good change. Several speakers spoke of how their personal growth and development helped them to understand their own and others’ behaviors and the prospects of changing them.  Perhaps this is natural in view of how many people at the conference had been trained in psychology, but I’d guess that most standard brand gatherings of psychologists and psychology professors don’t get so personal.

Finally, I think we are moving, ever so gradually, toward a common understanding of the effects of trauma and abuse in our society.  If you can grasp the dynamics of domestic abuse, then you’re well on your way toward understanding workplace bullying.  If you understand the Holocaust, then you know how some individuals are capable of eliminating others on small and large scales alike, without an ounce of remorse.

Take a Look

I hope that readers interested in some of these broader connections will check out the HumanDHS link to the conference proceedings:

You’ll get a sense of the program agenda and individual presentations. Lots of pictures too, including those of people in a circle holding hands. A little “touchy feely”? Yup, but I’ve been to enough lifeless, uptight academic conferences to welcome this blending of heart and mind.

This year’s No Ho Ho Award Winner: Phil Stamm, Hyatt Regency Boston GM

Sometimes it’s better just to keep your mouth shut.  At least that’s the advice of the day for Phil Stamm, general manager of the Hyatt Regency hotel in Boston, who used a Christmas Day op-ed piece in the Boston Globe to defend the controversial August termination of nearly 100 low-paid housekeeping workers from three Boston Hyatt hotels.

Hyatt terminated the workers after having them train their own replacements from a Georgia-based contracting company.  The workers claim they were told that they were training holiday temps.

The story has become a national one and a rallying cry for workers.  Stamm apparently wanted to tell the other side of it.  I’m not sure he did himself or Hyatt any favors.

Stamm’s op-ed: We feel your pain

Stamm’s op-ed makes it sound like Hyatt made the decisions only after engaging in every other cost-cutting move imaginable.  I’ll certainly concede that the hotel business is in difficult times right now.  But even giving him the benefit of the doubt on the economic pressures that raised the spectre of layoffs, Stamm’s dishonesty betrays itself when he pleads how Hyatt has taken extraordinary measures to help the laid off workers:

However, we have been able to extend a meaningful helping hand to our former colleagues.

In addition, each housekeeper received severance pay and an automatic extension of health care coverage – for which we are paying all the costs – through March 31, 2010. Housekeepers who accept the positions they have been offered with United Service Companies will then be eligible for health care coverage through that company.

At a time when the unemployment rate for Massachusetts came in at 8.9 percent, Hyatt took extraordinary steps to provide support to our former associates. All were offered full-time positions in Boston by United Service Companies, a national hotel staffing organization. We have also guaranteed that they will receive their Hyatt rate of pay in these positions through the end of 2010. As an alternative, our former associates can opt for a job preparedness and placement assistance program.

Reality: We really don’t feel your pain

The picture he wishes to paint is one of a company reluctantly making a decision to terminate these workers while providing abundant transitional support.

However, the reality is very different: Hyatt did not offer these options to the housekeeping workers until AFTER the public outcry about these terminations and the way in which they were done.  When the criticism started coming in hot and heavy, Hyatt had to make it look like it cared.

Stamm also intimates that the terminated workers were protected by a union when he criticizes the advocacy role of Unite Here in advising the workers.  This, too, is untrue.  The hotel workers were not unionized.  Unite Here entered the picture to support the workers after they were terminated.  However, in the web-posted comments to Stamm’s op-ed (see link below), it’s clear that some readers now mistakenly believe that the workers had union representation.

Yes, we are going through a very, very difficult recession, and in some cases, layoffs are necessary.  But Hyatt’s handling of this matter suggests there is more at play here, a sort of corporate sociopathy that deliberately tries to paint a misleading picture of how it has regarded these workers.

Stamm’s op-ed:

Previous blog posts on the Hyatt situation:

Philadelphia Eagles players reward cruelty by honoring Michael Vick

Each year, players on National Football League teams select a teammate to receive the Ed Block Courage Award for professionalism, commitment, and dedication to community.  This year, players on the Philadelphia Eagles selected Michael Vick, vicious abuser of innocent animals, as their award recipient.

In case you missed the bigger story, Michael Vick was suspended by the NFL for engaging in dogfighting activities and killing those dogs who were no longer useful.  He also did prison time for his crimes.  He was reinstated this season and signed with the Eagles.

Yahoo! sports blogger Chris Chase comments:

Today, the Eagles announced that Michael Vick was the 2009 winner of the Ed Block Courage Award, an honor given to a player who shows courage in the face of adversity. Vick’s teammates voted for the award, thus demonstrating how tone-deaf and out-of-touch NFL players are with reality.

According to Philadelphia Eagles players, the most courageous man on the team in 2009 was one who started the year serving time in prison for an act of extreme cowardice.

Those who have paid their debt to society should have options to reenter the workforce, and Vick was entitled to resume his football career after being released from prison and reinstated by the NFL.  However, it is a shameful sign of how upside down things can be in the culture of contemporary professional sports that his comeback season has been elevated to a symbol of moral courage by his teammates.

Chase’s blog post:,210601

Workplace bullying in health care IV: Nurses bullied and responding

Here’s a quick assignment: After you read this post, go to Google and type in these two words as a search request: nurses bullying.  If you had a dollar for every hit, you could retire right now and live very, very comfortably.

When it comes to workplace bullying in the healthcare workplace, nurses get the worst of it.  They are bullied by doctors.  They are bullied by fellow nurses.  And when patients act out, they’re more likely to take it out on a nurse than someone else, at times using physical violence.

Studies and More Studies

A recent study by the Joint Commission “found that more than 50 of nurses have been the target of some form of abuse at work and more than 90 percent have witnessed abusive behavior.  Furthermore, 75 percent of nurses who responded believed that this type of behavior can reduce patient satisfaction and disrupt care.”

A well attended symposium on bullying in hospital settings held at the Work, Stress, and Health Conference in November further highlighted the experience of nurses.  Paula Grubb (National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health) and Michelle Kaminski (Michigan State U.) presented papers on bullying of nurses that generated considerable discussion.

Two studies from the United Kingdom by psychologist Lyn Quine add support to these concerns.  Her 2001 study of National Health Service nurses found that:

Forty-four percent of nurses reported experiencing one or more types of bullying in the previous 12 months, compared to 35 percent of other staff. . . . Nurses who had been bullied reported significantly lower levels of job satisfaction and significantly higher levels of anxiety, depression and propensity to leave.  They were also more critical of aspects of the organizational climate of trust.

Quine’s 1999 survey of National Health Service employees found that 38 percent “reported experiencing one or more types of bullying in the previous year,” resulting in “significantly lower levels of job satisfaction.”

Nurses’ Unions as a Collective Voice?

Lots of nurses are unionized, and their unions may be in the best position to serve as a staging area for raising issues about bullying in healthcare.

For example, the Massachusetts Nurses Association has incorporated their concerns about workplace bullying into their workplace violence campaign.  Workplace bullying has been a topic of their workshops and annual meetings.  Several years ago, a small delegation of their members participated in a two-session roundtable on workplace bullying that I hosted at Suffolk University Law School, and the discussions were detailed and very personal.

Nurses’ unions can educate members in responding to bullying situations, negotiate abusive supervision clauses in collective bargaining agreements, support workplace bullying legislation, and provide assistance to bullied co-workers.  Along with healthcare organizations, they can work toward constructive responses to workplace bullying on individual and systemic levels.


This is the fourth and final post in a short series about workplace bullying in healthcare.

Link to the first post, discussing the Joint Commission standards

Link to the second post, discussing the Vanderbilt University Medical Center remedial program for physicians

Link to the third post, discussing tort (personal injury) claims that have been brought against doctors by co-workers for bullying behaviors

Workplace bullying in healthcare III: A sampling of legal cases

Here are three court decisions that illustrate how healthcare workers have attempted to use tort (personal injury) law against doctors for bullying behaviors, with varying success.

A bit of background: Although targets of workplace bullying currently do not enjoy abundant legal protections against this form of mistreatment, some have filed tort claims in an effort to gain redress.  As I have explained at length in two law review articles (“The Phenomenon of ‘Workplace Bullying’ and the Need for Status-Blind Hostile Work Environment Protection” and “Crafting a Legislative Response to Workplace Bullying,” both available in the Free Articles section of this blog), employees face an uphill battle using this legal route.  But some do prevail.

RAESS v. DOESCHER, Indiana Supreme Court (2008)

In the 2008 case of Raess v. Doescher, the Indiana Supreme Court affirmed a jury award of $325,000 for assault to a perfusionist (operator of “a heart-lung machine during open heart surgeries”) who brought an action against a surgeon for an altercation at a hospital.   The claim was based on the following factual allegations:

(T)he defendant, angry at the plaintiff about reports to the hospital administration about the defendant’s treatment of other perfusionists, aggressively and rapidly advanced on the plaintiff with clenched fists, piercing eyes, beet-red face, popping veins, and screaming and swearing at him.  The plaintiff backed up against a wall and puts his hands up, believing that the defendant was going to hit him…. Then the defendant suddenly stopped, turned, and stormed past the plaintiff and left the room, momentarily stopping to declare to the plaintiff, “you’re finished, you’re history.”

The Court’s decision was based largely on procedural and evidentiary issues.  It rejected a challenge to expert testimony about workplace bullying rendered by Dr. Gary Namie for the plaintiff, finding there was nothing in the record to suggest that Namie’s testimony was inadmissible, and ultimately holding that the issue was not properly preserved for appellate review.   It also held that the trial court “did not abuse its discretion in refusing” the defendant’s tendered jury instruction concerning workplace bullying.

The legal impact of Raess v. Doescher with regard to workplace bullying is modest because of the limited scope of the Indiana Supreme Court’s holdings.  It created no new legal claim, and did not expand substantive tort law in a way that might pave the way for future plaintiffs.  However, the decision has received national attention because the media characterized it as a successful workplace bullying claim.   It has been cited as evidence of a growing liability risk that counsels employers to take workplace bullying more seriously.

HOLLOMON v. KEADLE, Arkansas Supreme Court (1996)

Most bullying-type lawsuits that allege the a claim of intentional infliction of emotional distress are not successful, with courts holding that the offending behavior was not sufficiently outrageous.  Perhaps the most stunning example of this reasoning came in Hollomon v. Keadle, a 1996 Arkansas Supreme Court case that involved a female employee, Hollomon, who worked for a male physician, Keadle, for two years before she voluntarily left the job.

Hollomon claimed that during this period of employment, “Keadle repeatedly cursed her and referred to her with offensive terms, such as ‘white nigger,’ ‘slut,’ ‘whore,’ and ‘the ignorance of Glenwood, Arkansas’.” Keadle repeatedly used profanity in front of his employees and patients, and he frequently remarked that women working outside the home were “whores and prostitutes.”

According to Hollomon, Keadle “told her that he had connections with the mob” and mentioned “that he carried a gun,” allegedly to “intimidate her and to suggest that he would have her killed if she quit or caused trouble.” Hollomon claimed that as a result of this conduct, she suffered from “stomach problems, oss of sleep, loss of self-esteem, anxiety attacks, and embarrassment.”

On these allegations, the Arkansas Supreme Court ruled for the defendant Keadle, holding that Hollomon’s failure to establish that Keadle was made aware of her peculiar vulnerability to emotional distress was fatal to her claim.

SNYDER v. TURK, Ohio Court of Appeals (1993)

The defendant, Turk, was a surgeon performing a gall-bladder operation.  According to Turk, a nurse, plaintiff Snyder, was making mistakes and complicating an already difficult procedure.  Turk became so exasperated that when Snyder handed him the supposedly wrong instrument, he grabbed her shoulder, pulled her face down toward the surgical opening, say “Can’t you see where I’m working?  I’m working in a hole.  I need long instruments.”

At trial, after the plaintiff presented her evidence, the judge directed a verdict for Turk, holding that Snyder, among other things, (1) had not established the elements of intentional infliction of emotional distress; and (2) had not established the elements of battery (offensive or harmful touching).

The Ohio Court of Appeals agreed that the emotional distress claim was not warranted, it reinstated the battery claims finding that a jury could have found the physical contact to be offensive.


It is notable that all three of these claims were brought against individual doctors, not the hospitals or clinics where they worked.  It is quite possible this was the case because in many states, workers’ compensation precludes workers from bringing individual lawsuits against their employers for intentional harm at work.  Workers’ compensation is designed to largely replace personal injury lawsuits as a means of compensating employees for injuries suffered on the job.

However, workers’ compensation may not necessarily insulate individual co-employees from being sued.  Doctors should take note, as those who bully and have “deep pockets” (i.e., money to pay damages in a lawsuit) could find themselves personally liable for their own behaviors.


Link to the first in this series of posts on bullying in health care, discussing the Joint Commission standards

Link to the second post in the series, discussing the Vanderbilt University Medical Center remedial program for physicians

Link to the fourth and final post in the series, discussing bullying of nurses and how nurses’ unions can respond

Rumors and gossip at work

Chief People Officer Kevin Kennemer delivers a thoughtful, multifaceted post about the rumor mill at work.

Rumor mongering can undercut attempts to build a great organization:

If you are a business leader working to create a great workplace built on trust and respect, the typical company grapevine and rumor mill can work against your best efforts. 

However, the rumor mill can also be a natural product of inadequate communication from organizational leadership:

In companies where there is little communication coming down from the top, grapevine traffic will increase to counterbalance the information void.

The rumor mill can be a source of hurtful gossip — indeed, a lot skilled workplace bullies are experts at leveraging it — and ultimately we each bear personal responsibility as to whether to participate:

When someone volunteers a juicy piece of information while you make your morning or afternoon run to the break room, do you choose to participate, even if the information could be hurtful or degrading to a fellow employee? 

Kennemer’s full post:

Workplace bullying in healthcare II: Vanderbilt U program for doctors

Physicians can be hard driving, high performing individuals whose professional training usually doesn’t involve a lot of interpersonal skills development.  In fact, the process of going through internship and residency may involve a fair amount of harsh treatment, thus modeling behaviors that contribute to an aggressive organizational culture.  It’s not surprising that some doctors bully nurses, hospital workers, and their peers.

Vanderbilt University Medical Center program

From healthcare, here’s one interesting program created specifically to deal with doctors who engage in disruptive behaviors, including bullying.  The Center for Professional Health at the Vanderbilt University Medical Center has instituted a program for identifying, treating, and remediating disruptive behaviors by physicians.  Under the program, complaints lodged by patients and others are used to identify physicians who may be behaving in disruptive ways.  When necessary, a full assessment will evaluate all the circumstances surrounding a physician’s counterproductive behavior.  This will lead to an individually tailored plan of education and counseling.


The Vanderbilt program focuses largely on the circumstances and actions of the offending physician.  This makes eminent sense where the conduct has been inappropriate, disruptive, and potentially harmful to co-workers and patients, and the physician appears to be a candidate for whom education and counseling may have a positive remedial effect.  The Vanderbilt program appears well situated to deal with such cases in a fair and responsive manner.  Too many times, discussions about bullying and emotionally abusive conduct dismiss the possibility of working with the offending employee, but here this rehabilitative goal is paramount.


However, the Vanderbilt program is not without its limitations.  It implicitly downplays how a negative organizational culture or acts by other individuals may trigger or contribute to behaviors deemed “disruptive” in quite predictable ways.  For example, expressions of anger, derogatory comments about the institution, and various withdrawal strategies may be defensible, or at least understandable, responses to a dysfunctional, hostile, and/or non-inclusive work environment.  Ironically, targets of severe bullying at work may react in just such a manner.


To learn more

An article fully describing the Vanderbilt program, written by program founder William Swiggart and his colleagues, appears in the Summer 2009 issue of Frontiers of Health Services Management.  Here is the citation: William H. Swiggart, et al., A Plan for Identification, Treatment, and Remediation of Disruptive Behaviors in Physicians, Frontiers of Health Services Management, Vol. 25, No. 4 (Summer 2009).   The article is not freely available online, but a symposium issue of the journal on bullying in healthcare containing the Swiggart piece, another lead article, and two responses (including one that I wrote) may be purchased here.


Link to the first in this series of posts on bullying in health care, discussing the Joint Commission standards

Link to the third post in the series, discussing tort claims brought against physicians by healthcare workers

Link to the fourth and final post in the series, discussing bullying of nurses and how nurses’ unions can respond

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