Baristas Bullied in Brooklyn?

If you think that claims of workplace bullying are limited to the big bad corporation, you might want to check out the story of Gorilla Coffee, a crunchy granola cafe in Park Slope, Brooklyn, that had to close for 10 days following an en masse walkout of its staff in response to an allegedly bullying boss.

The cafe has reopened with mostly new baristas, after the story attracted attention from the New York Times, among other media outlets:

“We’re kind of just getting back to basics,” said one of the shop’s owners, Darleen Scherer, after receiving a warm welcome from customers and a cadre of new workers. “I said to everybody, ‘Let’s learn about coffee and do a good job and be happy.’ ”

Things were not so happy on April 9, when seven baristas, nearly the entire staff, quit over what they termed a “perpetually malicious, hostile and demeaning work environment” under [co-owner] Carol McLaughlin….

Ms. McLaughlin attributed the difficulties to an absence of communication and a clash of expectations. She said some workers had been put into leadership positions before they were ready.

“If they had made it clear that my coaching technique was not being received well, I could have changed it,” Ms. McLaughlin said, adding that some employees had chosen to stay.

News of the labor dispute broke a little over a week ago when an entire shift did not show up for work one morning.  Park Slope — where yours truly lived for 9 years back in the day — is a liberal, green-conscious (though now very expensive) community, so it attracted a quite a bit of local interest.

Scandals that aren’t

[Readers will note that my original post on this topic was written on April 27, 2010, when fuller details about Paul Levy’s conduct had yet to become public. The underlying facts are now known and well publicized: Levy had an inappropriate relationship with a female colleague in ways that negatively affected the work of the Beth Israel Deaconess Hospital of which he was CEO.

I’ve decided to keep the original post with the updates. I believe his resignation, announced in January 2011, was appropriate. Many other employees would’ve been fired outright for such conduct, and rightly so. I also remain very troubled by the groundswell of mostly anonymous Internet commentary that continually accompanied news reports of this story.]

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Paul Levy may not be a household name nationally, but within healthcare circles and New England generally, he is well known as the outspoken and forthright CEO of Beth Israel Deaconess Hospital in Boston.  His blog, Running a Hospital, is his popular platform for commentary about hospital administration and healthcare policy.

Anonymously dropping a dime

Well, it turns out that someone anonymously dropped a dime on Levy concerning an apparent personal lapse or indiscretion, and it was sufficient for the hospital’s board to check it out.  The whole matter resulted in an agreement between Levy and the hospital that his conduct had been inappropriate, but not sufficient for him to lose his job.  Levy himself has issued an apology for his conduct, without specifying what it happened to be.

At least that’s how the story is developing courtesy of the Boston Globe.  And frankly, unless the details pertain more directly to Beth Israel Deaconess as an employer or perhaps Levy’s performance as a boss, I really don’t care to know more about his supposed transgression.

Work and privacy

Levy’s anonymous well-wisher obviously wanted to create difficulty for him.  Levy is a public figure in these parts, and this incident may cause him some discomfort.  Mission accomplished, right?

And how sad if that is the case…You know how I first learned about this story?  I saw that people found this blog by typing in search terms such as “Paul Levy scandal.”  (WordPress’s blog management function allows us to see popular search terms, but NOT the identity of the individual web surfer, I assure you!)  Last year I wrote a blog entry about the hospital’s labor policies, and Levy responded with a perfectly appropriate critique of what I posted.  So when folks started hunting around the Internet for more information about Levy’s personal situation, the search engines picked up my earlier post.

Piling on

Good heavens, we’re seeing one of the most disturbing aspects of the Internet play out before us.  An individual’s personal transgression, which by all accounts must be measured against a strong record of organizational and professional leadership, is translated into a “scandal” in the public eye.  That is very, very wrong.  I may not be in agreement with everything Levy has said or done.  But this story may allow his critics to pile on top unfairly, and mob scenes scare me.

Update: The Boston Globe reports that the Levy situation involved a relationship with a female co-worker.

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May 3 update: Levy posts an apology on his blog, which includes the text of a memo released by Beth Israel Deaconess announcing that he was censured and fined $50,000 by the board of trustees, while being retained as CEO of the hospital.  Now that the matter appears to have been brought to a close, I’m going paste below my earlier response to one of the comments, as I believe it is equally appropo today:

Nothing I’ve read so far about this situation — though I confess I’m not nearly as well-read about it as others — suggests that it is anything but the kind of messy situation that occurs not-so-rarely in today’s workplace.

So, I’ll stick with my main concern.  You can try to turn this into a case study about employment relations, but based on the online comments I’ve read on both Universal Hub and boston.com, this is yet another instance of too many people who (1) get a kick out of watching the potential downfall or at least embarrassment of a public figure; and (2) get all worked up over the fact that they — as self-appointed judge and jury — haven’t been given all the facts they desire to pass proper judgment.

If this was a particularly compelling story of an office relationship gone bad that teaches us new important lessons about the perils of the contemporary workplace, maybe I’d feel differently.  But really now, this is same old, same old.

May 9 update: Boston Globe columnist Joan Vennochi takes a harsher view of Levy’s conduct in an op-ed piece:

Strip away the gauze and this is what the world sees: an arrogant CEO who intentionally put the reputation of his institution at risk to support the advancement of a female subordinate with whom he had a personal relationship.

Sept. 1 update: Gideon Gil reports for the Boston Globe that the Massachusetts Attorney General has sent an opinion letter to Beth Israel concluding that because Levy’s transgressions endangered the hospital’s reputation and management, the discipline imposed on him was appropriate and perhaps even necessary.

Jan. 7, 2011 update: Paul Levy submitted his resignation (link to letter, here). Although he does not give this situation as the reason for his departure, it would be surprising if the ongoing public criticism he has continued to field did not play a role in his decision.

FOX on the workplace: 24, Glee, and American Idol

If you want entertaining TV insights into work, school, and the American culture of popularity and success, three shows on the FOX network are worth watching: 24, Glee, and American Idol.  I’ve blogged about all three of them previously, but they deserve encore mentions.

24

The clock is ticking on 24, as Jack Bauer and Co. are in their final season of a successful nine-year run.  Kiefer Sutherland has enjoyed a career-defining role as agent Jack Bauer, whose on-again, off-again employment relationship with the (thankfully fictional) Counter Terrorism Unit (CTU) is the centerpiece of the series.

Why “thankfully fictional”?  Though treated by Presidents as part of America’s national security bulwark, over the years CTU has proven to be one of the most inept agencies imaginable,  often led by feckless, indecisive directors and hiring individuals who later turn out to be in cahoots with the bad guys.  (So much for the CTU HR office!)  This season’s foul-ups included (1) hiring a data analyst who had changed her name to escape a sordid past and been recruited by Russian terrorists to spy on CTU, and (2) allowing a car planted with an explosive device to drive right into CTU’s pick-up-and-go lane, resulting in an explosion that temporarily shut down the agency.

Ultimately, it’s often up to take-charge renegades like Bauer and attitudinal technology geeks like Chloe O’Brian (brilliantly played by Mary Lynn Rajskub) to save America’s backside while navigating around the bureaucratic bumblings of their bosses.  CTU may be fighting terrorist plots around the U.S. and the world, but if it reminds you of the absurdities of your own workplace, then you have discovered 24‘s most significant sub-theme.

Glee

Set in the fictional William McKinley High School in Ohio, the musical comedy/drama Glee has become a phenomenon in less than a full season.  Lead characters include teacher and glee club director Will Schuester (Broadway actor Matthew Morrison),  ruthless cheerleading coach Sue Sylvester (the scene-stealing Jane Lynch), glee club diva Rachel Berry (emerging star Lea Michele), and clueless jock/singer Finn Hudson (Canadian film actor Cory Monteith), but overall it’s an ensemble cast with many characters getting their occasional star turns.

For those of us who study bullying and organizational behaviors, Glee is a weekly casebook.  You see bullying of the glee club members by fellow students, and bullying of the glee club by Sue Sylvester and the school administration.  You see peer pressure, office relationships, and family baggage.  You see issues of race, religion, gender, and sexual orientation handled with a mix of irreverence and sensitivity.

In sum, the show captures the culture of many a modern American high school.  Glee is still discovering and shaping its voice, so to speak, but already it has demonstrated moments of pure brilliance.

American Idol

If media commentary is any indication, American Idol is struggling a bit, but it continues to deliver a weekly dose of making and breaking dreams of hitting the big time.  The early season episodes are built around snippets of promising and not-so-promising auditions, crowd shots and interviews, and heart-tugging stories of rags-to-riches and overcoming adversity.  The heart of the season is devoted to weekly performances by finalists before the panel of judges, led by the oft-caustic and sometimes bullying Simon Cowell.

Once the group is narrowed down to 12 finalists, the viewers get to vote on who stays and goes.  Here we also see the results of too much democracy and pure market opinion, with viewers sometimes making some truly bad choices.  This season, the young “tween” vote apparently has saved a couple of young male performers who probably should never have been finalists in the first place.

American Idol serves up a post-modern Horatio Alger story, promoting the idea that a combination of undiscovered talent, hard work, and the right breaks can lift someone into fame and fortune.  But it also buys into our winner-takes-all culture, not unlike a drawn out collegiate basketball tournament where one team is crowned the champion.  The better reality, perhaps, is that performing a song, just like playing basketball, can be a source of fulfillment for the artist and one of pleasure for an audience.

Alaska nurse blogs about workplace bullying experience

Alaska nurse Celia Harrison recently posted a long blog entry about her struggles with PTSD as a result of bullying at work:

I have tests I need to have done, yet can’t bring myself to go to the hospital to do them. I canceled one that was scheduled. My PTSD is triggered when I even think about going to a hospital in a rural area of this state that is known for workplace bullying. I can’t sleep before going for a test which normally would be a nothing event. It is knowing the hell some of the employees are going through that triggers the memories of what I went through.

Sadly typical

Harrison’s post is a form of raw testimony from someone who is still fighting through the demons of being abused at work.  It’s a long, and at times rambling discourse, sadly typical of the narratives that targets often write to describe their experiences.  Those who are unfamiliar with what workplace bullying can do to a person may find her story incredulous, but to those of us who have been studying this phenomenon, it carries a ring of truth.

As support for her own story, Harrison also reproduces a detailed Juneau Empire article about workplace bullying in healthcare.

Bullying in healthcare

Bullying in the healthcare professions has been a frequent topic for this blog.  Among the “most viewed” posts are those in a 4-part series on bullying in healthcare, including this one specifically on nurses.  Harrison’s story adds more evidence to the case for addressing these abusive behaviors effectively.

Hat tip to Michelle Smith, California Healthy Workplace Advocates

Accused workplace bullies suffer, study shows

Australian psychologist and Ph.D. candidate Moira Jenkins has studied bosses accused of workplace bullying and found that they “suffer severe health effects including post-traumatic stress disorder, depression and suicidal thoughts,” as summarized in a recent news report by Lauren Novak for the Adelaide Advertiser.

Novak further reported:

Jenkins…interviewed 30 managers accused of bullying, “breaking the long tradition of listening to only the victims’ point of view” and finding there are long-term health and career consequences – whether guilty or not.

“There was significant anxiety and depression among them,” Ms Jenkins said.

“Some of them had talked about post-traumatic stress disorder, some had contemplated suicide.

“There were considerable mental-health issues.”

This study helps to fill a significant void in the workplace bullying literature, and it raises a ton of important questions.  At bottom, it underscores the importance of preventive measures.  I have frequently remarked that bullying is a “lose-lose” proposition, in that bullying targets and employers often pay a price.  Jenkins’s work indicates there can be a third loser, the accused aggressor.

Jenkins will present her findings at the 7th International Conference on Workplace Bullying & Harassment, to be held in Cardiff, Wales, from June 2-4, and hosted by the University of Glamorgan.  I’m sure her work will yield plenty of engaged responses.

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Article about Jenkins’s study

Cardiff Conference website

University of Augsburg conference on workplace bullying and discrimination

Greetings from the beautiful Bavarian city of Augsburg, Germany, where before being stranded by volcanic ash I participated in a terrific weekend conference on workplace bullying and discrimination sponsored by the University of Augsburg Faculty of Law.

More a roundtable or symposium than a large, impersonal gathering, the conference featured participants from Europe and the United States presenting on comparative aspects of law and public policy pertinent to workplace bullying and discrimination.

European insights

As always, insights from our European neighbors continue to enlighten and inspire us.  Dr. Martina Benecke, dean of the Augsburg Faculty of Law, was our primary host and moderator.  I was particularly drawn to remarks about the German concept of violations of the fundamental constitutional right to personality (via Dr. Benecke)  and to the panoply of ways in which Dutch law addresses workplace mobbing situations (via Dr. Evert Verhulp, University of Amsterdam).

Other European speakers included Dr. Steffen Krieger (law firm of Gleiss Lutz), Dr. Luca Nogler (University of Trento), and Dr. Martine Le Friant (University of Avignon).  I learned something from all of their presentations and enjoyed meeting them.

New North American ally

From the American side of the Atlantic, I’m delighted that Prof. Lea Vaughn of the law school at the University of Washington is jumping into workplace bullying and abuse research.

Her presentation on the uses of neuroscience to understand how abusive workplaces harm individuals drew from cutting-edge scientific research and gave us an exciting preview of her forthcoming work.  (Gary Namie of the Workplace Bullying Institute and researchers in the field of occupational health psychology have been highlighting this scientific research, so Prof. Vaughn’s applications to employment law and policy will be especially welcomed.)

Ties that bind

The North American connection to the University of Augsburg came by way of Dr. Silvia Lang, whose 2009 visit to the Workplace Bullying Institute with Drs. Gary and Ruth Namie as part of her doctoral research led to invitations to participate in the Augsburg conference.  Drs. Benecke and Lang obtained a grant from the Thyssen Foundation that helped to fund the conference, including much appreciated travel and accommodation funding for their overseas guests.

I’m very much looking forward to coming home to the U.S., but this has been a welcoming and beneficial visit, not to mention a wonderful opportunity to experience a charming and historic European city.

Volcano-induced hiatus

Hello dear readers!

More posts to come, but for now I’m in Germany with fingers crossed that I’ll be able to get home to Boston by the end of the week.

I’ve been in Augsburg, Germany since Thursday, participating in what turned out to be a great little conference on transnational legal perspectives on workplace bullying, mobbing, and discrimination, hosted by the Faculty of Law at the University of Augsburg.  I’ll have more to say about the conference later.

But for now I’m one of the multitudes whose flight home was cancelled.  (Note that I didn’t use the term “great unwashed,” and hopefully it won’t apply before the adventure is over!)  If you’ve been following the global news, you know that it is a quite a scene here across the pond.  This shutdown of air space is unprecedented in Europe, and it is causing massive disruptions in travel plans and business and shipping transactions around the world.

Impact on workers

For some of us, this is proving to be an increasing inconvenience and a source of genuine anxiety.  But there are others who already are experiencing significant hardship:

  • Laborers in less-affluent nations who subsist on the farming and sale of perishables cannot ship their goods to their destinations due to the air traffic shutdown.
  • There are families who will not be reunited with loved ones on short leaves from military service because their uniformed family members cannot get home. 
  • Airlines are talking about temporary layoffs, and an already struggling industry is taking a huge hit that will impact their workers.
  • And I can only imagine what it must be like working in customer service for the airlines and other transportation carriers.  (If you’re a stranded customer, try to remember as you struggle with your understandable frustration about the honey vs. vinegar distinction.  Easier said than done, I know…)

This semester I’m teaching a course on International and Comparative Employment Law, and we spend considerable time discussing the implications of globalization.  This freakish, wholly unanticipated event is showing us just how easy it can be to send that world economy into chaos.  I’ll have some lessons to discuss with my students, assuming I can get back before the end of the semester!

(Post revised as of Monday morning)

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