Want a better company? Listen to your employees!

Business Week‘s Rachael King, in a piece titled “Workers of the World, Innovate,” leads with a story of how the Pitney Bowes corporation, makers of office equipment, improved its customer service call-in operations:

Yet rather than ask managers to come up with a fix, Pitney Bowes . . . executives put the challenge to the workforce. Within days, employees proffered a solution that the company then implemented. “It goes far beyond management deciding to change and to innovate, and there are so many good ideas that could be acted on that are with the people who are right there every day, dealing with customers,” says Pitney Bowes Chief Executive Officer Murray Martin. A measurable increase in customer satisfaction was “almost immediate.”

Pitney Bowes and other companies are using “collective intelligence” software programs to solicit employee input and recommendations on specific problems ard challenges.  The article reports that sales of these software programs are increasing significantly.

Peter Drucker likely would approve

The late Peter Drucker, management guru and author, likely would approve of these practices. In his book Managing for the Future (1992), he extolled the virtues of employee input and participation in problem solving.

Early 20th century industrial theory, he noted, believed in “the wisdom of the expert” and regarded mid-level managers and rank-and-file workers as a bunch of “dumb oxen.” World War II changed that philosophy, however, for when all the experts were in uniform, “we had to ask the workers.” Companies quickly learned that input from workers could increase productivity and improve quality.

The lesson, Drucker concluded, is that “partnership with the responsible worker is the only way” to succeed in today’s knowledge and service economy.

Listen, implement, and reward

Of course, it’s not enough simply to mine the best of employee suggestions for the benefit of the company. It’s also absolutely essential to reward the workers who provided the ideas.

Insecure organizations and leaders quietly implement the suggestions of others and don’t provide proper recognition; it’s called stealing credit.  Confident organizations and leaders, however, eagerly bestow appropriate accolades and compensation and build a culture of genuine participation.

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The Drucker passage above was adapted from my 1998 law review article, “Voices from the Cubicle: Protecting and Encouraging Private Employee Speech in the Post-Industrial Workplace,” Berkeley Journal of Employment and Labor Law, available as a free download here.

Washington Post on the suicide of Kevin Morrissey, Virginia literary journal editor

Today’s Washington Post features an extensive piece by Daniel de Vise on the suicide of Kevin Morrissey, editor of the Virginia Quarterly Review (VQR) whose death has been linked to allegations of workplace bullying at the hands of the journal’s editor in chief:

Surviving relatives and some co-workers portray Kevin Morrissey, 52, as the target of a workplace bully. Their narrative has an unlikely villain: Ted Genoways, 38, a decorated poet who led a transformation of the Review from a low-budget black-and-white journal into a colorful, edgy magazine that is cited among the best literary publications in the country. According to Maria Morrissey, Kevin Morrissey’s sister, a caustic e-mail from Genoways was on her brother’s computer screen when he died.

Genoways and some of his supporters say Morrissey’s death was simply a suicide: a man choosing to die and blaming no one, leaving a note that said, “I can’t bear things anymore.”

The article further notes that the University of Virginia, which publishes the VQR, expects to complete its internal investigation by the end of the month.

Two stories

The Post article reiterates the two competing accounts of what happened: (1) Morrissey was bullied to the point of suicide by his boss and the failure of the University to respond to his pleas for help; or (2) Morrissey was a deeply troubled individual who chose to take his own life.

As I have written earlier on this blog, the “bullycide” narrative is a plausible one for this situation. We have allegations involving a vulnerable individual, a bullying boss, repeated requests for help to the employer ignored or neglected, ending in a tragedy. However, allegations do not equal proof, and it appears that all the pieces of this story have yet to be assembled, at least in terms of what has been shared with the public.

Some of the criticisms of the press coverage suggest that reporters have jumped to conclusions about what happened here without sufficient evidence. I disagree; given what we know about the insidious nature of workplace bullying, this event merits the general substance of the coverage it is receiving.

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For previous commentary on this blog about the Kevin Morrissey/VQR tragedy, see here (NBC Today Show coverage), here (developing media coverage); and here (initial story via Chronicle of Higher Education).

Need tips for coping with work? Watch “Survivor,” says Bay State writer

I remember a conversation from 2000 with Gary Namie, during the early stages of my affiliation with the Campaign Against Workplace Bullying (now the Workplace Bullying Institute). He told me that he had done a radio talk show program devoted to workplace bullying, and callers kept comparing their experiences at work to a new TV reality show called “Survivor.”

Neither of us knew that the show would become something of a small-screen phenomenon, but the parallels that these callers had drawn to work were striking to us.

Fast forward

“Survivor” apparently retains its ability to connect with the experience of work. In a piece for the Southwest Airlines magazine (link here), Massachusetts writer Nathaniel Reade draws upon the lessons of “Survivor” to offer these pieces of advice for coping with the modern workplace:

1. Align yourself with the power person

2. Don’t fight the power—work it

3. Blend in with the crowd .

4. Charm but don’t intimidate your bosses

5. Make it look like you’re working hard  

6. Gripe to your dog

7. Trust no one

8. Choose good over evil

I don’t want to steal Reade’s thunder, so you’ll have to read the full article for his entertaining and insightful explanations on each point. I suggest checking it out, as this guy understands what it’s like to be stuck in a lousy workplace:

Several years ago, I toiled in the most dysfunctional office on Earth. The boss berated and criticized virtually every member of her staff to the point of tears. . . . And No. 2 was even worse: A master of smiley charm and managing up, she undermined anyone who threatened her, which meant most of the best people there.

***

You also can link to a pdf of the magazine version here.

Hat tip: Lisa-Marie Mulkern

APA’s latest on healthy workplaces and toxic managers

The current issue of Good Company, the e-newsletter of the American Psychological Association’s Psychology Healthy Workplace Program (phew, that’s a mouthful), includes several features of interest to readers of this blog.

Fact Sheet (It’s a keeper)

Folks, this is worth saving and printing out. It’s an updated Fact Sheet on psychologically healthy workplaces, loaded with bullet point summaries and sources on the following topics:

  • Workplace stress
  • Work demands
  • Work-life balance & flexibility
  • Employee health & healthcare costs
  • Mental health issues
  • Employee and organizational outcomes
  • The recession

Toxic Bosses

In a piece linking healthy workplaces with how managers relate to workers, Wally Bock writes:

Bosses make a difference in individual well-being. Early in my career, I worked with a manager named Cliff who defined the phrase, “hard-nosed.” He was also rude and hard-charging. The day was not complete without him stomping around the office in a rage.

Once, during one of his tantrums, a colleague suggested he calm down. “You’ll have a heart attack,” he said.

“I don’t get heart attacks,” Cliff growled. “I give ‘em.”

Advice

In his article, Bock expounds upon this short cluster of recommendations toward improving organizational leadership:

  • Improve your Boss Selection
  • Improve your Training and Support for Bosses
  • Train for and Evaluate Specific Stress-Reducing Behaviors

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Work, Stress, and Health Conference 2011

In addition, it’s worth flagging the dates for the next Work, Stress, and Health Conference, which the APA co-sponsors with the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health and the Society for Occupational Health Psychology:

May 19-22, 2011 — Orlando, Florida — Doubletree Hotel

This is one of the best multidisciplinary conferences around, with presenters drawn from a wide variety of fields in addition to psychology. I have a learned a ton from the programs at this conference and recommend it highly to researchers, practitioners, and students in disciplines related to employment relations.

Seth Godin: Seven keys to personal reinvention

Here’s a neat little freebie from Seth Godin, bestselling author of books on careers, work, and organizations: Brainwashed — seven ways to reinvent yourself.  Godin suggests that since we were children, we’ve been brainwashed into being average and compliant.  This has led us down the path to becoming cogs in a wheel, and that quality won’t help us survive or thrive in today’s difficult and volatile economy.

Instead, he urges us to “Do work that matters,” and he suggests “seven levers available for anyone (like you) in search of reinvention”:

1. Connect
2. Be generous
3. Make art
4. Acknowledge the lizard
5. Ship
6. Fail
7. Learn

I’ll leave it to your own curiosity to read this short piece and discover the meanings behind these concepts.  Like a lot of Godin’s writings, it’s up to the reader to contextualize the ideas in Brainwashed.  I believe his work is best appreciated as an invitation to imagine better possibilities.

Labor Day 2010: Is the Healthy Workplace Bill liberal, moderate, or conservative legislation?

On this Labor Day weekend of 2010, I’d like to consider the political implications of the Healthy Workplace Bill (HWB), the anti-bullying legislation I’ve drafted that has been the template for bills introduced across the country.

Briefly, the HWB provides workers with a legal claim for damages if they can establish that they were subjected to malicious, health-harming workplace bullying.  It also provides legal incentives for employers to act preventively and responsively, as well as provisions that discourage frivolous lawsuits.

Although many of the bill’s supporters are liberal in their political beliefs, people from across spectrum — save perhaps the far, far right — have endorsed it. This has led me to ponder the political leanings of the HWB, and here are some of my thoughts on that:

It’s liberal!

Okay, no surprises here: The Healthy Workplace Bill is protective legislation that benefits workers who have been treated abusively on the job. It enjoys a lot more support from liberals (especially) and moderates than from conservatives. More Democrats than Republicans have sponsored it in various state legislatures across the country. Labor unions and civil rights groups are getting behind it, while management and employers organizations are lining up to oppose it.

For example, as reported here in 2009, a major public employee union has been one of the key supporters of the HWB in Massachusetts. Earlier this year, the board of the liberal Americans for Democratic Action (whose executive committee I chair), voted to support the HWB. In opposition are groups like the Society for Human Resource Management.

So, this is a no-brainer, right? The Healthy Workplace Bill is your standard pro-worker, liberal legislation.

But wait a minute…

It’s moderate!

Winning a claim under the HWB will not be easy. It will require establishing that the bullying behavior was malicious in nature, a high standard of intent under the law. It also will require showing tangible physical or psychological harm. Weaker claims may be subject to a cap on emotional distress damages, a category that is the scariest litigation “wild card” for employers.

While providing compensation to severely bullied workers is a primary objective of the HWB, even more important is the goal of prevention. Toward that end, the HWB attempts to balance interests by allowing employers to sharply reduce their liability exposure by engaging in effective training, prevention, and response concerning bullying.

One prominent political writer has attached the label of “radical middle” to characterize the underlying politics of workplace bullying legislation. Mark Satin, whose Radical Middle newsletter and book (Mark Satin, Radical Middle: The Politics We Need Now, Westview/Perseus, 2004) have attracted wide readership, has written approvingly of our efforts to enact the Healthy Workplace Bill (here and here). 

It’s (sneakily) conservative!

The HWB does not single out any group or category of persons for special protections or preferential treatment. Instead, it proclaims that everyone should have a right to be free from malicious abuse at work. In essence, it borrows from our friends in New Hampshire and says, Don’t Tread On Me, just let me do my job without enduring disabling and demoralizing abuse.

True, maybe there’s nothing conservative about allowing legal intervention and liability to encroach upon management rights and the free market, but the underlying goals of the HWB are completely consistent with promoting productive workplaces and high-performance employees.

Perhaps that’s why when the New York State Senate voted to approve the Healthy Workplace Bill earlier this year, it did so with strong Republican support, including a GOP lead sponsor.

Bottom line: It’s about promoting worker health, dignity, and productivity

When I first started researching the legal implications of workplace bullying, I assumed that existing employment laws provided sufficient protections and legal relief for bullied employees. Only after discovering this was not the case (by a longshot) did I draft the Healthy Workplace Bill.

For now, maliciously subjecting an employee to psychological abuse is largely legal in this country, and even those who are bullied out of jobs and careers often find themselves without recourse under the law. In the meantime, productivity suffers and morale sags when bullying is left unchecked. Workplace bullying is a phenomenon where just about everyone loses.

Whether deemed liberal, moderate, or conservative in nature, the Healthy Workplace Bill promotes worker health and productivity. It’s not perfect — there is no such thing when it comes to drafting legislation — but it fills a massive gap in the law. On this Labor Day, I include it on my wish list for America’s workers, so that all may have a baseline right to dignity on the job.

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Addendum: In the newly-released 2010 public opinion survey on workplace bullying conducted by the Workplace Bullying Institute and Zogby International pollsters, some 64% of respondents supported anti-bullying legislation that tracks the language of the Healthy Workplace Bill. In terms of political self-identification, this included 90% of liberal respondents, 78% of moderate respondents, and 47% of conservative respondents. It is especially notable that there is fairly strong support even among conservatives. 

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For more information

Healthy Workplace Bill Legislative Campaign

If you’d like to become active in the national campaign to enact the Healthy Workplace Bill, click here.

Scholarly articles about workplace bullying and the law

My longer scholarly articles about the legal implications of workplace bullying can be downloaded without charge from my page on the Social Science Research Network, linked here. This includes Workplace Bullying and American Employment Law: A Ten-Year Progress Report and Assessment, which will be published later this year and can be accessed in a pre-publication draft form here.

Shorter presentations and commentaries about workplace bullying

Many of my shorter pieces on workplace bullying, as well as a copy of the HWB introduced during the 2009-10 session of the Massachusetts legislature, can be downloaded without charge from my page on Academia.edu, linked here.

On animal labor: Chicken cages as sweatshops

Readers, I’m going to ask you to give me a little room on this one. I’m not quite sure this will sound right, but it’s been on my mind for a couple of weeks…

Battery cages

Two Sundays ago, the New York Times devoted a nearly a full page to a photo story about changing factory farm conditions for egg-laying hens.   The piece, “A Hen’s Space to Roost” by Bill Marsh, broke my heart a little.  It included a big color photograph of a “battery cage,” the tiny cages in which the hens live out their lives in spaces of about 7 by 7 inches per bird. Some 97% percent of the eggs produced in the U.S. are from birds confined in these cages.

They go insane

Not mentioned in the Times article is the fact that these caged hens often go insane.  Many of us who enjoy eggs and poultry have rationalized our habits by assuming that chickens are next to brainless.  But that’s not the case.  As animal researchers, animal rights advocates, and folks who simply observe animals will attest, chickens have personalities and form bonds with one another.  When they are warehoused in cages that allow them hardly any movement, they can lose their minds.

Slightly better

As the Times reports, even the hens housed in “cage-free” conditions (representing 2 percent of eggs produced in the U.S.) aren’t exactly living it up. They are kept in huge barns that allot them an average of 12 by 12 inches per bird.

Only the “free-range” hens enjoy anything resembling the kind of idyllic farm life we might imagine.

It’s about the money

According to the Times article, here are average store prices for a dozen eggs: Hens in battery cages, less than a dollar, white or brown; cage-free hens, $2.37 (white) and $3.33 (brown); free-range hens, $3.66 brown organic.

Public health impacts

In his column today, Times columnist Nicholas Kristoff added public health to the list of concerns associated with battery cages:

Inspections of Iowa poultry farms linked to the salmonella outbreak have prompted headlines about infestations with maggots and rodents. But the larger truth is: industrial agriculture is itself unhealthy.

Repeated studies have found that cramming hens into small cages results in more eggs with salmonella than in cage-free operations. As a trade journal, World Poultry, acknowledged in May: “salmonella thrives in cage housing.”

At the store, choices and dilemmas

So..are battery cages the equivalent of sweatshops for animals, or even worse? Are the public health concerns associated with them the animal equivalent of Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle at the turn of the last century?

Sweatshops, after all, are about the exploitation of labor to make money. And these animals are being horribly exploited for our benefit.

I’m not claiming that chickens should be elevated to human status in terms of how we treat them. (While I’ve managed to cut down on my consumption of meat and poultry considerably, I have been unable to make the full transition to vegetarianism.) Also, I get the virtues of thrift, especially now, with millions struggling to put food on their tables.

That said, we should not forget that animals live and labor in harsh, at times intolerable conditions so that we can pay less money at the cash register. As we strive to create a more humane and sustainable society, we should keep these concerns in mind.

So you want to be a writer?

High on the list of dream jobs for literary and intellectual types is that of being a successful writer. But in a Digital Age when buying and reading books seems to be giving way to watching videos online and expectations that everything can be downloaded for free, what is the future of book authorship as a vocation or an avocation?

Folks, the ground is shifting in some major ways. Here are some of my observations and impressions. Beware — long post ahead!

Writing a book is just the beginning

Writing a book is hard work, but building a readership can be just as challenging. I have seen the future of the latter through the work of two dear friends, Jenna Blum and Hilda Demuth-Lutze.

Jenna Blum works her way onto the NYT bestseller list

Jenna (website here) is the author of two novels published by major commercial houses, Those Who Save Us (Mariner, 2005) and The Stormchasers (Dutton, 2010). She has managed to turn her passion into her job.

Those Who Save Us, a gripping human interest story set in WWII Germany, spent dozens of weeks on the New York Times bestseller list for trade paperback fiction. But it was not an instant success. Jenna harnessed the novel’s natural appeal and did countless book club and store appearances, corresponded religiously with her readers, and maintained a strong presence on the Internet.

She is doing the same outreach and marketing for her new book, The Stormchasers, a terrific story of a sister and long-lost twin brother with bipolar disorder, set in America’s Tornado Alley. In fact, she has spent much of the late spring and summer on the road. While traveling to and fro, she spends hours replying to e-mails from her readers.

Some might think that Jenna had it made once she signed her book contracts. Not so. Her success shows us that most authors must become marketers if they want to sell books.

Hilda Demuth-Lutze’s Kingdom

I recently wrote about Hilda, an Indiana-based high school English teacher and novelist,  in a post about pursuing one’s passions at midlife (link here). Hilda’s second novel for young readers, Kingdom of the Birds (Kirk House Publishers, 2010), features a village boy in 14th century Germany who is summoned away for a year of service at Wartburg Castle and interweaves encounters with Martin Luther and the history of Reformation Germany.

Hilda has created a neat little blog for her book. She posts about the historical background that informed her story, her planning of the book launch, and how her connection with Lutheran-affiliated Valparaiso University (our undergraduate alma mater) contributed to her book.  Perhaps because I’ve known her for years, I see how the blog has a personal, organic connectivity to it, that of an author who is very comfortable with the story she’s told and how the path of her own life led her to write it.

Hilda, too, recognizes the importance of promoting her work. Recently, she wrote about selling copies of her book along with other goods at the local farmers’ market:

Some people seem awed by the fact that an ordinary woman selling soap is also an author.   Others, I suspect, wonder whether I am a “real” author, whatever that means.  But I’m as real as they come.  Like many other writers published by small presses, I am the one most responsible for publicizing my books.  My publishers can only do so much—I need to be actively involved in marketing my wares in a variety of venues.

Communities of writers in search of support and savvy

The image of a solitary Hemingway at a Left Bank cafe with pen in hand is a powerfully seductive one for budding writers. The writing life still allows for such coffee house moments, though today it includes vying with a half dozen others for electrical outlets to power laptops!

That said, in conversations I’ve had over the years with book authors, I’ve learned that many were inspired and prodded through their connection with a writing community, be it an MFA program, a continuing education workshop, or a self-organized writers’ group — face-to-face or online.

An excellent example here in Boston is Grub Street, Inc., a non-profit school for writers. Grub offers workshops, seminars, and support services for novice and experienced authors alike.

It is instructive that Grub’s offerings include numerous courses on publishing and promotion. For the fall session, the Grub website listed 11 workshops and seminars on topics such as guerrilla book promotion, developing an online presence, and publishing options.

Meeting Paige at the Harvard Book Store

When I recently visited the Harvard Book Store of Cambridge, Mass., one of the great independent bookstores, it looked like they had replaced a section of books with a small steam engine. The heavy machinery turned out to be one “Paige M. Gutenborg,” the nickname of the store’s new books-on-demand printing press. “Paige” gives readers access to books from Google and public domain databases, as well as self-published works offered through the bookstore’s printing services.  The store even provides online manuscript preparation advice and submission directions for writers (link here).

The significance hit me quickly: Here’s an independent bookstore, for decades intertwined with the literary culture of brainy Cambridge, now enabling authors to self-publish their work. Whoa…

Amazon, Kindle, and e-publishing

In a July NPR news segment by Wendy Kaufman about Amazon’s reported sales of its Kindle e-reader and e-books, listeners heard that during the spring and early summer, Amazon “sold 143 e-books for every 100 hardcover books, a gap that is widening quickly.”  In addition, sales of the Kindle tripled after Amazon cut its price sharply in order to compete with other e-readers.

Amazon is now offering a variety of platforms for self-publishing, including Kindle downloads. It is premature to say whether these are viable paths for writers to publish and showcase their work to the public, but the raw opportunities are opening up.

Seth Godin goes the self-publishing route

Seth Godin, author of a series of bestselling books on organizations, careers, and work, recently sent shockwaves through the publishing world when he announced that from now on, he will be self-publishing his work. In a blog post (link here) he explained:

All a long way of saying that as the methods for spreading ideas and engaging with people keep changing, I can’t think of a good reason to be on the defensive. It’s been years since I woke up in the morning saying, “I need to write a book, I wonder what it should be about.” Instead, my mission is to figure out who the audience is, and take them where they want and need to go, in whatever format works, even if it’s not a traditionally published book.

Agents as gatekeepers

Of course, the Old World has not disappeared. Agents continue to serve as gatekeepers to the world of commercial book publication. I hear from aspiring novelists that many an agent constantly scouts for the next breakout bestseller, has something of a fetish for precocious young talent, and avoids stories too quirky or complex. The offbeat book that doesn’t fit into a “hot” category, especially if written by a new (and slightly more mature) face in the crowd, faces a big challenge in securing a book contract.

Changes

In sum, it may be the best of times and the worst of times to be a budding author. (And that sentence alone explains why I leave the writing of fiction to others.) Here’s the upshot:

As we deliberate over the future of the book, traditional publishing avenues are likely to remain as guarded as ever, especially for authors whose work does not promise wide commercial appeal. I wouldn’t bank on that changing dramatically.

On the other hand, we may be at the beginning of a huge transformation, one in which the negative attitudes toward self-publishing and other alternative routes to publication are dissolving, perhaps rapidly — even if the traditional book deal remains a sought-after prize. And perhaps some entrepreneurial types will establish more small presses that take advantage of new technologies to publish non-mainstream writings in affordable and accessible venues.

Especially within this emerging realm, self-marketing and the marketplace of public opinion — such as reader reviews posted to online sites — will exert greater influence on what is bought and read. Authors of niche books will see opportunities open up, but they’ll have to identify their readership base and appeal to it directly.

There is a lot of good work out there that hasn’t hit the printed (or digital) page because traditional publishers aren’t biting. For the sake of readers everywhere, and in the interests of a literate society, I hope the nontraditional publishing options will create more opportunities for deserving writers to share their work profitably with the world. As a reader whose tastes run from the conventional to the offbeat, I’m excited about these possibilities.

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