The meaning of Steven Slater

Talk about instant celebrity!  JetBlue flight attendant Steven Slater has become a folk hero among workers who lived vicariously through his actions.  As the Toast of the Internet this week, he surely is experiencing his 15 minutes of fame, and then some.

But some disagree

Of course, not everyone is singing his praises.  One of the most thoughtful responses to the contrary comes from veteran airline pilot Chris Manno, whose blog JetHead shares another perspective on life in the skies.  Here’s a snippet of his post on the Slater situation:

On the day he snapped, cursing a passenger on the P.A., blowing an escape slide, grabbing a couple beers and sliding off the jet, Slater negated the day’s work of his peers….

Because on that same day, thousands of flight attendants were treated rudely by thoughtless, boorish passengers.

But they didn’t snap. They didn’t blow a slide. And though many likely wanted to, they didn’t curse their passengers, at least not out loud.

Duty vs. Take this Job and Shove It

Okay folks, we’ve got something of a culture gap here.  Those who identify with stressed out, mistreated service workers are cheering the guy.  Captain Manno gets that too:

Don’t get me wrong; I know thousands of flight attendants nationwide cheered the actions of Slater. But in the fantasy sense of wow, what a great gesture. The public is too often rude, surly, inconsiderate and they get away with it.

But I’m wondering if his objections to Slater’s folk hero status are more reflective of the worldview of an airline captain and (from what I can gather) former military pilot who places a lot of importance on a sense of duty.  Something tells me that captain Manno and flight attendant Slater would not be hanging out together even if they worked for the same airline.

That said, I disagree with Manno when he suggests that Slater’s actions somehow dissed the often hard and stressful work of his co-workers.  No one in their right mind is thinking that Slater has inspired scores of flight attendants to use the PA system to call out a jerky passenger and then activate the emergency slide.

If anything, Slater’s actions called attention to the daily work experience of flight attendants and others who toil in an industry under considerable stress. As I wrote a couple of days ago, that work has changed dramatically since 9/11, in terms of both compensation and working conditions.  My guess is that more passengers have been sensitized to these realities as we fly around in these crowded tin cans.

And then there was “Jenny”

On the heels of the Slater incident came the Internet-fueled story of “Jenny,” who supposedly used a dry erase board to announce in a series of messages that she was quitting her job, photos of which she sent via e-mail to her co-workers.  Among other things, she excoriated her boss for treating her like dirt and exposed that he’s using his office computer to spend many hours a week playing the Facebook Farmville game.

The Internet went crazy for the story.  Here was yet another creative job departure, this one speaking to cubicle dwellers across the nation.  I blogged about the story but quickly took down the post when it became clear this might be a prank, which it was.

How about some labor activism instead of acting out?

Steve and “Jenny” aren’t resonating with the public for nothing.  There’s a lot of pent up stress, frustration, and anger out there among workers who are dealing with difficult work situations.  Many don’t have the option of saying take this job and shove it, but they’re getting a vicarious thrill from those who do.

If I had my druthers, some of these folks would gather together and form the good unions we need to give workers a collective voice in bargaining for better working conditions. In any event, this real and contrived street theatre may be inspiring others to be more forthright about raising legitimate concerns at work, hopefully in more constructive ways.  If that is the case, then Steve Slater, Jenny, and their compatriots will have given us much more than a needed laugh.

Did workplace bullying trigger the suicide of a University of Virginia literary journal editor?

Robin Wilson of the Chronicle of Higher Education reports on the suicide of an editor for a University of Virginia literary journal:

When Kevin Morrissey walked to the old coaling tower near the University of Virginia campus late last month and shot himself in the head, he not only ended his own life, he exposed turmoil within the small staff of The Virginia Quarterly Review that now threatens the future of the high-profile journal.

Family members and people close to the review say Mr. Morrissey, the review’s managing editor, had been complaining to the university about workplace bullying by his boss, Ted Genoways. But, they contend, the institution did virtually nothing to help.

Workplace bullying in academe

As I said in a posted comment to the piece, while it is premature to make final judgments on what happened here, the basic scenario raised by the piece — workplace bullying, in an academic setting, targeting of a vulnerable individual, an employer ignoring pleas to intervene, with suicide as a consequence — is not over the top.

By far the most popular entry on this blog is one on bullying and mobbing in academe, posted here.  Readers should take special note of the work of University of Waterloo sociologist Ken Westhues, whose thorough, exhaustive case studies of bullying/mobbing behaviors in academe are remarkable and frightening.

And lest anyone think that workplace bullying cannot push an adult to harm himself or herself, please look at the story of Jodie Zebell, a young health care worker in Wisconsin who committed suicide.

We should not rush to judgment based on one news article. But we definitely should weigh the emerging facts in a context of understanding what workplace bullying is all about.

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Aug. 18 followup — The Hook, a weekly newspaper in Charlottesville, Virginia, ran an exhaustive news & investigative piece on the UVA tragedy by Dave McNair.  It’s required reading for anyone who is following this story.

Aug. 20 followup — I’ve added a post about emerging media coverage.

Aug 23 followup — NBC’s Today Show did a segment on the Morrissey suicide.  Link here.

Free article — Readers seeking an overview of workplace bullying and organizations may find helpful my 2008 article, “Workplace Bullying and Ethical Leadership,” available without charge here.

 

Website of the Week: Center for Retirement Research

If you’re looking for quality research studies and policy briefings on retirement issues in the U.S., the Center for Retirement Research at Boston College is an excellent starting place.  The Center’s director is professor Alicia Munnell, one of the nation’s foremost experts on retirement policy,

The Center describes itself this way:

The goals of the Center for Retirement Research are to promote research on retirement issues, to transmit new findings to the policy community and the public, to help train new scholars, and to broaden access to valuable data sources.

Whether you’re researching Social Security, traditional pensions, or 401(k) plans, you’ll find a ton of freely downloadable publications on the Center’s website.

The retirement readiness of today’s Baby Boomer generation is one of the major, looming concerns facing this country.  Centers such as this one will be at the forefront of analyzing these issues during the years to come.

Travelers policyholders and agents say “yes” to workplace bullying laws

Another sign that workplace bullying legislation is gaining wider public support comes from an unlikely source: A survey conducted by Risk Management PLUS+ Online, a newsletter by Travelers Bond & Financial Products for their policyholders and agents.

When surveyed on the question, “Do You Believe Laws Are Necessary to Protect Employees from Workplace Bullying?,” their readers answered:

  • Yes (52%)
  • No (39%)
  • Don’t Know (7%)

For the full article, go here.

The ground is shifting

Clearly this is not a readership one would predict to be so strongly in favor of workplace bullying laws.  After all, these are people who deal with liability and insurance coverage, the very business matters that may be implicated if employers and individuals face direct liability for severe workplace bullying, as the Healthy Workplace Bill directs.

Indeed, when the Healthy Workplace Bill becomes law, employment practices liability policies would have to be amended to cover workplace bullying situations, and employers would have a legal incentive to undertake preventive and responsive measures to minimize liability risks.

Surely readers of this newsletter would be aware of these implications, yet they strongly supported legal protections against workplace bullying.  Change is definitely in the air…

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Hat tip: Carrie Clark, California Healthy Workplace Advocates

JetBlue flight attendant got mad as hell and made a dramatic exit

Steven Slater, a JetBlue flight attendant with 28 years in the industry, finally got so fed up after dealing with a jerky passenger that he decided to make a dramatic exit.  As reported by Holly Bailey for Yahoo! News:

Police arrested a JetBlue flight attendant today at New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport after he got into a verbal altercation with a passenger and then fled the scene by sliding down the plane’s emergency evacuation chute.

The rest of the story includes language not suitable for a PG-rated blog, but it’s worth reading the full article for the hilarious details.  No doubt the guy has become an instant folk hero among flight attendants, ticket agents, and customer service reps who have had to turn the other cheek in the face of some rude and disrespectful behaviors from customers.

More seriously…

The job of a flight attendant has become increasingly stressful over the years.  In the immediate aftermath of 9/11, airlines took a huge economic hit, salaries were slashed, and cabin crews were asked to assume greater responsibilities for safety and security.  Today, the planes are often packed with passengers who are cranky over being stuffed into small seats with scant legroom, with little or no food served.  When passengers act out, flight attendants are likely to be on the receiving end.

(JetBlue happens to be one of my favorite airlines, as I have found their service to be consistently good.  The fact that this guy reached his breaking point and decided to go out in style doesn’t change that impression!)

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Aug. 9 followup — The story of JetBlue flight attendant Steve Slater has become a national phenomenon, as this Yahoo! news piece by Brett Michael Dykes, titled “Rogue JetBlue flight attendant hailed as working-class hero,” aptly demonstrates.

Aug. 12 followup — In considering the employment relations aspects of this situation, it’s also helpful to see the marketing and business implications for JetBlue.  Here are articles by Stuart Elliott for the New York Times and by Georg Szalai for Reuters (via Yahoo! news) exploring those ties.

And here’s an Associated Press piece interviewing passengers who were not so enamored of Steve Slater.

Aug. 13 followup —  Here’s my attempt to glean the meaning of the Slater incident.

Aug. 17 followup Workforce Management magazine says “it’s a wonder more frazzled airline workers don’t reach for their rip cord.”  Go here for the article.

Sept. 5 followup — Colleen Long reports for the Associated Press that Steven Slater has resigned his flight attendant position with JetBlue.

Oct. 19 update — Colleen Long reports for the Associated Press that Steven Slater has accepted a plea agreement that will keep him out of jail and require him to undergo counseling.

Can an apology help to prevent and settle employment litigation?

Can saying “We’re sorry” help to resolve employment disputes?

Diane Curtis, writing for the California Bar Journal, reports on the emerging role of apology and disclosure in preventing and settling legal disputes:

University of Illinois law professor Jennifer Robbennolt has done a series of studies that show apologies can help resolve legal disputes in cases ranging from medical malpractice and divorce and custody to disputed dismissals and personal injury. “Conventional wisdom has been to avoid apologies because they amount to an admission of guilt that can be damaging to defendants in court,” says Robbennolt….“But the studies suggest apologies can actually play a positive role in settling legal cases….”

What about employment disputes?

In dispute resolution, apology and disclosure most often are associated with areas such as medical malpractice litigation and criminal justice.  The stakes in these disputes can be very high, involving strong emotions, fatalities or significant injuries, and (in civil cases) considerable dollars.

You don’t hear much about apology and disclosure in the employment context.  Instead, even when it’s clear that a wrong has occurred, not infrequently organizations will (1) try to discourage someone from filing a complaint; (2) retaliate against the complainant; (3) admit no wrongdoing, even in a settlement; and/or (4) insist that the terms of any settlement be sealed.  And while no ethical lawyer will counsel retaliation against an employee, the other three tactics are completely within commonly accepted notions of an attorney’s obligation of zealous representation of a client’s interests.

As a result, there often is very little sense of reconciliation between the employee and employer.  Even those workers who are successful at negotiating a decent settlement are left feeling beaten up and betrayed by the process.  Bonds are shattered rather than repaired. From a psychological standpoint, outcomes are often extremely unhealthy.

Why not?

It would take considerable reworking of the commonly assumed role of an employer’s lawyer to encourage, when appropriate, apology and disclosure as a healthy approach toward resolving employment disputes.   Right now, too many management-side lawyers assist their clients in creating a public fiction: We do no wrong — never, ever.  However, is it possible that a different turn will lead to less litigation, less contentious dispute resolution, and — ultimately — better employee morale?

Hat tip: Cutting Edge Law

Connecting two dots of the Great Recession

Yesterday’s news items on Boston.com, the website of the Boston Globe, invited some connect-the-dots analysis concerning the Great Recession:

Item 1 — Nearly 41 million Americans receiving food stamps

Among the “most e-mailed” news items was this Bloomberg wire service piece:

The number of Americans who are receiving food stamps rose to a record 40.8 million in May as the jobless rate hovered near a 27-year high, the government reported yesterday.

…Unemployment in July may have reached 9.6 percent, according to a Bloomberg News survey of analysts in advance of the Aug. 6 release of last month’s rate. Unemployment was 9.5 percent in June, near levels last seen in 1983.

Item 2 — Commuting nightmare on Interstate 93

Interstate 93 is a major artery in and out of Boston, and its traffic conditions basically control a commuter’s state of mind during rush hours.  As reported by Eric Moskowitz, I-93 commuters have faced a giant headache of a drive this week:

The surface of Interstate 93 ruptured here yesterday for the second day in a row, creating a gash large enough to swallow a car and snarling traffic for miles while the state performed emergency repairs that officials said will have the road open for this morning’s commute.

This was not your ordinary pothole situation.  As further reported by Moskowitz:

The vast holes that opened 25 feet apart on consecutive days were not the typical spring potholes bemoaned by New England drivers, but were caused by something far more serious: the decay of concrete and steel attributed to years of postponed maintenance.

It’s not that simple, or maybe it is?

We’ve got nearly 41 million people on food stamps, with unemployment levels remaining high and steady.  We have roads and bridges in this country that are badly in need of repair, with safety and quality of life at stake.

Among other things, we need a public works program that puts people back on a payroll doing the vital work of rebuilding America’s infrastructure.  The details are considerable, and from a standpoint of public policy it’s no easy fix, but for starters let’s look into matching our millions of unemployed with some of the nation’s real needs.

Connecticut workplace shootings subject of instant spin

Yesterday’s terrible shootings at a Connecticut beer distributorship showed how quickly we move to adopt story lines that suit our respective agendas. In case you missed it, this is what happened, as reported by David Abel and Jack Nicas for the Boston Globe:

A truck driver caught stealing beer from the distributor where he worked killed eight co-workers before turning a gun on himself yesterday morning after company officials told him to resign or face being fired, employees and authorities said.

The man, identified as Omar Thornton by police, went on the deadly rampage at Hartford Distributors, where he had worked for two years. He also wounded two people.

In less than a day, two somewhat competing narratives, drawn from news accounts and Internet postings, have emerged to shape interpretations of this tragedy:

1. Thornton was a disgruntled psychopath who reacted violently after losing his job for good cause.

The scenario of a disgruntled, rank-and-file worker suddenly “going postal” after losing a job due to alleged misconduct has become strongly identified with concerns about workplace violence. News reports about the Connecticut killings frequently referred to past workplace killings that, at least on the surface, appeared to be similar.

Fears of dismissed employees reacting violently have fueled attention to the question of how to terminate people in a way that minimizes these risks. They have led to practices that, in my judgment, can increase the risk of angry and perhaps violent responses, such as “exit parades” whereby workers are escorted out of the premises by security personnel, sometimes in view of their co-workers.

2. Thornton was a victim of racial discrimination whose concerns were ignored by his employer.

According to the Globe:

Thornton, 34, who was black, had complained of racial harassment and said he found a picture of a noose and a racial epithet written on a bathroom wall, the mother of his girlfriend told the Associated Press.

But union officials said Thornton never filed a complaint of racism.

Some are seizing upon this piece of the story to paint another interpretation of events: Thornton was a victim of a hostile workplace that ignored concerns about racial harassment, and he finally snapped after he lost his job.

Let’s see how this unfolds

At this juncture, it’s hard to know whether the “disgruntled psychopath” or the “victim pushed over the edge” story is more accurate than the other.  It’s also possible that elements of both are true. In any event, we should be cautious about lumping stories of workplace violence and aggression into easy categories.

Updated article on workplace bullying and American employment law

I’ve posted an updated, revised version of a forthcoming law review article, “Workplace Bullying and American Employment Law: A Ten-Year Progress Report and Assessment,” which will be published this fall in a symposium issue of the Comparative Labor Law & Policy Journal, edited by Professor Katherine Lippel of the University of Ottawa.  The issue will contain pieces analyzing legal developments with regard to workplace bullying around the world.

The revision covers developments during 2010 and adds commentary about the current version of the Healthy Workplace Bill.  It also contains the text of the HWB in an Appendix.  Although it has been written for a scholarly journal, it is in fairly accessible language, engaging in legal terminology when necessary, but without overdoing it!

For a PDF copy, free of charge, go here and click the “One-Click download” button.

For all too many, the Great Crash is here

Bob Herbert’s columns for the New York Times have consistently, urgently raised concerns about the state of the economy and its impact on everyday people.  One of his latest highlights the findings of a Rockefeller Foundation study, indicating that economic insecurity is rampant and that a growing number of American families face financial ruin:

A rigorous new analysis for the Rockefeller Foundation shows that Americans are more economically insecure now than they have been in a quarter of a century, and the trend lines suggest that things will only get worse.

…The team’s findings were grim. Simply stated, more and more families are facing utter economic devastation: completely out of money, with their jobs, savings and retirement funds gone, and nowhere to turn for the next dollar.

Key findings

The Rockefeller Foundation report, available here, found that a “record one in five American households is financially insecure.” It further concluded:

  • Using data dating back to 1985, the index shows that economic insecurity has risen across all groups in America, though not equally.
  • Poorer households were twice as likely to experience a major income drop when compared with their wealthy counterparts.
  • Those without a high school education were about 40% more likely to suffer a decline than college graduates.
  • Because many Americans have little or no savings, it can take six to eight years for families to recover from a 25% income drop.

Spreading the blame

As Herbert suggests, there’s plenty of blame to go around:

Big corporations, sitting on fat profits even as the economy continues to struggle, have made it clear that they are not interested in putting a lot more people back to work any time soon. . . . Policy makers have dropped the ball completely in terms of dealing with this devastating long-term trend of ever-increasing economic insecurity for American families.

Answers?

So here’s the big think tank question: How do we create millions of good jobs at good wages? Regardless of one’s political leanings, it’s fair to say that if the answer was simple, presumably we’d be doing it already.

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Go here for a related post, “Jobs, Unemployment, and the Great Recession.”

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