Slate article on the suicide of Kevin Morrissey, Virginia literary editor

Emily Bazelon of Slate magazine, whose article on the school bullying suicide of Phoebe Prince I discussed earlier on this blog (link here), has weighed in with an investigative commentary (link here) on the suicide of Virginia Quarterly Review editor Kevin Morrissey, a tragedy that has attracted national attention due to allegations of workplace bullying at the hands of his boss.

Bazelon adopts the same skeptical mindset towards bullying that she demonstrated in the Phoebe Prince piece. I’m not going to engage in a line-by-line critique of her article, but time and again I saw how she used clever selection and juxtaposition of facts and quotes to cast doubt not only on the possibility that bullying contributed to Morrissey’s demise, but also on the general need to respond to workplace bullying effectively. Indeed, I even saw how she deftly used quotes from my own lengthy telephone interview with her to undercut the importance of enacting legal protections against severe workplace bullying.

The challenge for an emerging social movement

Bazelon reveals, once again, a sharp intellect and a lawyer’s ability to present facts persuasively. Perhaps this shouldn’t surprise us in view of her background: Selective private school, Yale College, Yale Law School, granddaughter of legendary federal judge David Bazelon, and distant cousin of feminist Betty Friedan. But her writings also suggest that her analytical skills outpace her demonstrated understanding of, and empathy for, people who have been on the receiving end of psychological abuse that falls under the category of severe bullying.

Herein lies a challenge to those of us who recognize the destructiveness of workplace bullying: How do we persuade smart people who, for whatever reasons, don’t yet understand the dynamics of this form of abuse and what it can do to others?

The raw material, unfortunately, is growing in abundance. We have an expanding body of published and documentary accounts of workplace bullying that tell the stories of those who have been bullied (sadly, sometimes to death).  We have an even larger collection of studies that identify the frequency of, and harm caused by, bullying at work, with more on the way.

Somehow, someway, we need to make our case more persuasively.

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Addendum: The online comments to Bazelon’s article take time to work through, but they capture the span of attitudes toward, and understanding of, workplace bullying. Some of the critiques of Bazelon’s commentary (I really can’t call it reporting) are much more articulate than my efforts above. The exchanges are sharp at times but mostly civil, and overall they present a very interesting back-and-forth dialogue.

Can an ethical HR officer survive at a bad company?

Say you’re a human resources director who honestly and fervently believes that treating employees fairly and with respect is a classic win-win practice. It makes for high productivity and happy workers, right?

If you work for an organization that shares your values, you’re a partner in a great match. But what happens if you don’t?

Kris Dunn’s HR oath

In a piece for Workforce Management, human resources expert Kris Dunn proposes a wonderfully edgy “HR Oath” (link here) for fellow practitioners. At least one provision of Dunn’s oath involves no small degree of personal risk:

Speak up at the possible risk of my job when I see my boss or a peer doing something that blatantly runs counter to the people mission of our company.

Kris, meet Mary

Over the summer, “Mary,” a long-time HR director blogging at Undercoverlawyer.com, wrote about attending the annual meeting of the Society for Human Resource Management (link here). She noted that most of the sessions addressed important topics in constructive ways. However, she then acknowledged the reality of going back to the office after the convention was over:

I’ve seen it time and time again: HR pros attend training and come home with a wealth of positive recommendations for making their organizations more “people-centered”. Then they’re hit with the reality of their top brass pushing back, saying that – although People Are Our Greatest Asset – we’re not really willing to invest the time and money in ensuring that our people are protected from bullying, retaliation and other adverse employment actions. The organization weighs the cost of defending against a lawsuit or governmental agency investigation and decides it’s cheaper to fight than to do the right thing in the first place.

Neck, meet chopping block

Mary further wrote about her own experiences:

A true HR professional doesn’t sell out his or her principles even when ordered by management to discriminate or retaliate against an employee. I’ve been the victim of retaliation by my boss and her boss for whistleblowing activities – and that’s why I’m your Undercover HR Director.

So there you have it: She stuck to her principles — in effect putting one of Kris Dunn’s postulates into practice — but now she is writing as the Undercover HR Director. Yup, sometimes there are costs for doing the right thing.

Ethics, meet reality

For HR practitioners who see their role solely as an extension of upper-level management, questions of how to treat the rank & file are easy to resolve: Go with what the bosses want, even if it means that someone gets screwed over or unethical behavior is swept under the rug. In cases of workplace bullying or sexual harassment, we know what this usually means.

Conscientious HR practitioners, however, face a dilemma when management philosophy and practice run squarely into the ethical treatment of workers. If they antagonize their bosses by doing the right thing, they, too, may find themselves on the firing line.

HR’s role

Obviously this calls into question HR’s role in shaping the culture of a workplace. Sometimes HR can “manage up” in terms of influencing an organization’s approach to employment relations. Good companies welcome this participation. At others, these opportunities may arise when timing and luck combine with extraordinary skill.

Furthermore, most personnel decisions are not so laden with dire consequences that HR is constantly caught in a bind. In fact, ethical HR folks potentially can serve as buffers between less-than-enlightened top management and those who are on the payroll.

All too often, however, it boils down to these truths: In workplaces that adopt and practice strong ethical values, HR practitioners can play a significant role in advancing a positive mission. By contrast, in workplaces that regard employees as expendable commodities, HR practitioners frequently become willing executioners of bad employment practices.

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For a related post, “HR was useless,” go here.

Supporting freelance workers: A policy agenda from Sara Horowitz

I just learned that today is International Freelancers Day, thanks to a piece posted to The Atlantic by Sara Horowitz, founder of the Freelancers Union, an advocacy group supporting America’s independent workers.

Horowitz takes this opportunity to remind us that freelance workers often fall between the cracks of existing public benefit safety net programs and employment protections.

A three-part agenda

Horowitz cites this cluster of policy priorities to help freelancers:

Independent workers need (1) unemployment insurance to stabilize their income – and the U.S. economy – when they are involuntarily unemployed; (2) protection from late or denied payments, which 77% of freelancers have faced; and (3) access to affordable health insurance, which is prohibitively expensive to an individual on the open market.

No brainer, right?

On the face of it, this is hardly an overreaching wish list.  Any worker would want such safeguards. But as Horowitz writes:

Despite the fact that close to one-third of the country’s workforce is comprised of independent workers, this sizeable chunk of our economy has none of the protections and benefits that “traditional” employees have. Health insurance? No. Unemployment insurance? Nope. Protection from unpaid wages, or race, gender, or age discrimination? Not a chance.

That’s 42 million workers

According to Horowitz and the Freelancers Union, some 42 million people may be classified as freelance or independent workers, representing roughly 30 percent of the American workforce.

This labor sector has grown significantly over the past three decades. However, existing employment protections and public benefit programs often require that someone be a traditional employee — i.e., someone who works for someone else and is on a standard payroll — in order to be covered.

Much more to say

In almost two years of hosting this blog, I haven’t paid sufficient attention to the freelance sector of the labor force. This will change. The more I look at the shortcomings of traditional organizations, the more I am convinced that non-standard work arrangements — including freelance and independent work — are among the options that can rescue people from the stressors of institutional life.

Right now, however, these routes are not a panacea, as the existence of the Freelancers Union makes clear. But for many people, an independent workstyle offers the promise of more control, freedom, and opportunity. This definitely makes it a path worth exploring and supporting.

The New York Times as Chronicler of the Great Recession

When I lived in New York City from 1982 to 1994, I had a love-hate relationship with the New York Times. Oh, how I enjoyed those big, fat Sunday editions, brimming with goodies like the Book Review and the Week in Review. And just buying the paper made me feel like more of a New Yorker, no small thing during the height of my love affair with the Wonder City.

But the paper also started to bug the hell out of me. With its advertisements reeking of conspicuous consumption and its content embracing of the excesses of the 80s and 90s, I stopped reading it every day. (In its place was the amazing New York Newsday, which during its run produced some of the best journalism I’ve seen in a big city newspaper.)

Today, I find the Times is an indispensable source of news and commentary about the Great Recession. Whether it means the paper is simply a reflection of the era, or a conscious shaper of our understanding of it, I’m not sure. But it merits enormous credit for consistent, in-depth coverage of the economic, social, and political conditions of our day.

An honor roll of reporters and columnists

Some ongoing highlights:

  • Reporters such as Louis Uchitelle and Michael Luo regularly deliver superb accounts on how the recession is hitting everyday people economically and psychologically.
  • Steven Greenhouse, one of America’s last dedicated labor reporters, consistently reports on how workers and labor unions are dealing with the recession.
  • Bob Herbert’s op-ed columns about the recession’s on-the-ground impact and the human costs of growing poverty deserve a Pulitzer, plain and simple.
  • Paul Krugman brilliantly weaves together economics and the bigger political picture.
  • David Leonhardt’s economics column is informative and insightful, blending policy with nitty-gritty reality.
  • Ron Lieber’s columns on personal finance often speak to the concerns of middle class folks trying to make ends meet and save for retirement.

A voice for the Times

Yup, the Times still runs pages of ads for stuff most of us can’t afford, its wedding announcements still read like abbreviated bios of the wealthy & connected, and its periodic fashion magazines tout exorbitantly-priced duds that often look plain silly on any normal human being. I see it as a necessary trade-off: The revenue generated by all this helps to pay for the rich coverage in the rest of the paper.

During the two years I have written this blog, I find myself increasingly linking to pieces in the Times. The content is so relevant, and so good, that I have to watch how often I do it.

I tend not to gush over mainstream institutions; I find that they rarely deserve the hype. For me, however, the Times has become the essential chronicler of our times. Forgive the cliche I’m about to invoke, but when newspapers everywhere are facing the realities of the digital economy, it stands as a beacon of journalistic excellence.

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Cross-posted with Second Thoughts, a new blog on adult education, lifelong learning, and positive social change, for which I am a co-host and regular contributor.

Germany weighing ban on employers’ use of Facebook to monitor workers and applicants

David Jolly, reporting for the New York Times (link here), recently wrote about proposed German legislation that would prohibit employers from using Facebook and other social network media to check up on workers and applicants:

The bill would allow managers to search for publicly accessible information about prospective employees on the Web and to view their pages on job networking sites, like LinkedIn or Xing. But it would draw the line at purely social networking sites like Facebook….

The bill has the support of German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s cabinet.

History and law making

When it comes to law making, it’s important to remember that both historical and recent events can influence the fortunes of proposed legislation. As Jolly further notes:

Germany’s Nazi-era history has made the country extremely cautious on matters of individual privacy. Concerns have been heightened in recent years by scandals involving companies’ secret videotaping of employees, as well as intercepting their e-mail and bank data.

Mixed uses in the USA

Would such a ban be feasible in the United States? Probably not.

Politically speaking, it would likely take some high profile instances of egregious employer misuse of personal information gathered from Facebook or a similar site to fuel the possible passage of a similar law.

More practically speaking, we have the simple fact that uses of sites like Facebook frequently mix social relationships and work-related matters. For example, writers, artists, and entrepreneurs often use Facebook to promote their work, as well as to keep up with friends. Many businesses and non-profit organizations also maintain a presence on Facebook, and this practice appears to be on the upswing.

Amid this electronic frontier — truly a world without secrets — it behooves each of us to exercise common sense about what we post on Facebook or any other online site, especially items that are publicly or quasi-publicly accessible.

From Australia, via Facebook: The raw impact of workplace bullying

Beyond Workplace Bullying Australia is one of the many Facebook (FB) pages that have formed in response to workplace bullying (more links here). A few days ago, I began noticing a series of short, wise, and plaintive posts from that page, obviously written by one person.

The honesty, emotional intelligence, and pain expressed in these posts struck me as a form of raw testimony about the destructiveness of workplace bullying and just how much work remains to address it. Dianne Wilkinson, the FB page administrator who wrote these posts, gave me permission to share them with you and to identify her as the author, which I am privileged to do:

So, I am now cut loose, with a serious PTSD, anxiety/depression psychological illness,the urgent treatment and support of which, without a job, I must try to fund myself and the trauma of the entire process will continue to burn and sear at my psyche for the rest of my life. How is that just???????

***

If my allegations were serious enough, why were my abusers, the perpetrators not equally required to undergo some psychological examination to support their claims at the preposterousness of my claims???

***

I gave my life to them for 25 years, my loyalty, dedication, honesty, integrity and my devotion. When I threatened to go public on extremely serious misconducts and abuses – emotional, psychological and sexual. They crushed me like an ant with the worst systematic, concentrated campaign of mind and soul destroying abuse that I had a complete breakdown.

***

I am one of the lucky ones, I did get a 30% impairment diagnosis with full culpability directed at my employers (former) I will be paid to retirement (albeit at a fraction of my former salary, but it is something as I have no capacity to ever take a productive role in the workplace) and my psychologists, psychiatrists, medical and pharmaceutical (funny pills) support will be paid for the rest of my life.

***

We all need to tell our stories. Not just my endless rantings. When we keep the silence, we empower our tormentors. Governments can deny there’s a problem & if you do not tell your stories there is no evidence of a problem – end of story. A great deal of pain is suffered and abusers will continue to brutalise, governments will continue to ignore as long as you keep the silence.

***

For many of us, ‘beyond workplace bullying’ is merely the next phase of the agony we have endured. With our defences down and our immune systems utterly compromised we will continue to deteriorate along a predetermined path of continued suffering.

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The absence of justice and sense of [c]omplete abandonment by the system remains ever a gnawing antagonism as our entire belief systems have been shattered and there is no compensation for being a good person. I speak of “we” because our stories are so alike and our abuses so textbook. It is we who must force these changes with our testimonies of cruel, inhuman abuses.

Willy Loman, defining success, and the Great Recession

In a thoughtful piece for Newsweek, columnist Julia Baird examines American attitudes toward success and failure against the backdrop of the Great Recession, using the life of Willy Loman — Arthur Miller’s lead character in Death of a Salesman — as a mirror for our times:

Willy is, perhaps, America’s consummate loser, a failure to his family. But if you can bear with me for one moment, imagine he lived in current times, not amid the postwar prosperity of 1949. Sure, his career was ebbing, but Willy kept a job for 38 years, he owned his house—he had just made the last mortgage payment—and had a wife and two children. Today he’d be a survivor.

Baird goes on to link unemployment with our evolving attitudes toward success and failure, noting that the latter was not always “associated with individual identity.”

Finding ourselves, accepting plateaus

In fact, adversity and failure sometimes can force us to dig deep and find our true selves. Baird cites a Harvard commencement speech by J.K. Rowling, who told the graduates that bottoming-out as a financially-strapped single mom prodded her to finish the manuscript that led to the Harry Potter series. Rowling smartly added: “You will never truly know yourself, or the strength of your relationships, until both have been tested by adversity.”

But Baird also implicitly recognizes that adversity won’t turn us all into bestselling authors. Hopefully the recession also teaches us “we can accept plateaus, understand that a life has troughs we can climb out of, and that a long view is the wisest one.”

“I coulda been a contender”

This maddening, perhaps uniquely American mix of boundless possibilities and harsh limitations can be hard to process. Journalist Abby Ellin, in a piece titled “I Coulda Been a Contender” for Psychology Today, examines her own life and career against the crush of personal and external expectations:

We all gauge our own success against that of others, at least in part, and we always compare up. Universal though it is, the negative comparison habit may be amplified by America’s striving spirit: Here, everyone can, and therefore should, make it to the top–or so we think. Those of us who’ve had more opportunities may wind up feeling that much worse.

Reading the rest of Ellin’s article, you sense the author is struggling to accept the lurking wisdom behind her own words. Her advice leads us to no other conclusion:

Every night, write down three to five things you feel proud about from that day. Recording your accomplishments keeps them front and center in your mind, an exercise that helps crowd out negative rumination.

…But back to real struggle

Ellin’s angst is readily identifiable to anyone who understands America’s culture of success — and if you don’t, just hang around a high-prestige college, law school, or business school for a few weeks and you’ll know what I mean.  In any event, this is not really what the psychological costs of the Great Recession are all about. The stakes run much deeper.

As I have written previously here, when reporter Louis Uchitelle began researching his book The Disposable American: Layoffs and Their Consequences (2006), he did not anticipate that he “would be drawn so persistently into the psychiatric aspect of layoffs.”  But he soon understood that the “emotional damage was too palpable to ignore.”  For the suddenly unemployed, “a layoff is an emotional blow from which very few fully recover.”

Uchitelle did his research several years before the meltdown. Today, these personal setbacks are hitting people in virtually every job sector, and cutting across socioeconomic groups. The poor, of course, pay the highest costs. Unemployment and poverty levels are at their highest rates in years.

Heroes

Julia Baird invites us to recast Willy Loman as a survivor, not a failure. I tip my hat to her for questioning how Americans are wired to think about success.

But maybe there is an even more meaningful narrative playing out across the country, one that stands as a rebuke to the borrow-and-bust mentality that led us into this mess. As the destructive power of this recession continues, millions of people are struggling to pay the bills, raise their families, and keep a roof over their heads. The stories of these lives are those of everyday heroes, not mere survivors.

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