On the practice and legality of unpaid internships

This blog has addressed periodically the widespread, often exploitative, and frequently illegal practice of unpaid internships. It appears this topic is finally receiving needed attention. For those who are interested in learning more, here are three resources from the past year worth downloading:

U.S. Department of Labor fact sheet

Good sign: In April, the U.S. Department of Labor’s Wage and Hour Division released Fact Sheet No. 71, providing guidance on determining whether student interns must be paid the minimum wage and overtime by for-profit, private employers. It can be downloaded here.

George Washington University conference book

In October, George Washington University hosted a conference, “The Regulation of Unpaid Internships,” which included an excellent program book that can be downloaded here. It’s full of useful information.

Economic Policy Institute policy memorandum

In April, the Economic Policy Institute released a detailed policy memorandum, “Not-So-Equal Protection–Reforming the Regulation of Student Internships,” which can be downloaded here.

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My 2002 article

I am pleased that my 2002 Connecticut Law Review article, “The Employment Law Rights of Student Interns,” anticipated many of the issues being addressed today. In it, I suggested that failing to pay student interns often violates minimum wage laws and may leave them without the protections of employment discrimination laws. The article can be downloaded here.

Understanding the bullied brain

Science writer Emily Anthes, in an excellent feature for the Sunday Boston Globe (link here), summarizes the latest neuroscience research showing how bullied kids can suffer from lasting brain damage:

A new wave of research into bullying’s effects, however, is now suggesting something more than that — that in fact, bullying can leave an indelible imprint on a teen’s brain at a time when it is still growing and developing. Being ostracized by one’s peers, it seems, can throw adolescent hormones even further out of whack, lead to reduced connectivity in the brain, and even sabotage the growth of new neurons.

This damage, Anthes reports, is very similar to the enduring effects of severe childhood physical and sexual abuse. In essence, it goes way beyond kids stuff:

What the scientists found was that kids who had been bullied reported more symptoms of depression, anxiety, and other psychiatric disorders than the kids who hadn’t. In fact, emotional abuse from peers turned out to be as damaging to mental health as emotional abuse from parents.

And into the workplace

In another important Globe piece today (link here), reporter Jenna Russell profiles one-time school bullying target Anthony Testaverde, age 29, an honor roll student who was taunted repeatedly about his spinal deformity and avoided college largely out of fear of being bullied again. The experience has followed him to the point of impacting his ability to earn a living and build a career:

Deeply self-critical and preoccupied with what others think of him, he said he cannot be at ease in large groups and has found it hard to stay at one job, because even minor workplace conflicts trigger fears and the urge to flee.

Russell’s summary of the long-term effects of childhood bullying, drawn from personal accounts collected by the Globe, sounds an awful lot like a description of PTSD:

Common threads run through their stories: the spotlit vividness of the memories. The anger at their own failure to fight back or get revenge. A sense of lingering impairment, felt again and again in flare-ups of self-doubt, anxiety, or rage.

Neuroscience and workplace bullying

This research is extremely pertinent to workplace bullying. First, it explains how individuals bullied as kids may be more prone to experience even milder forms of workplace aggression as bullying.

Second, it leads the way for deeper understanding of the destructiveness of workplace bullying. Gary Namie of the Workplace Bullying Institute (see his blog post, here) and researchers in the field of occupational health psychology have been citing neuroscience research demonstrating the post traumatic effects of severe workplace bullying.

For those of us drafting and advocating for workplace bullying laws, this work helps to make our case. That’s why I was delighted that at a conference on workplace bullying and the law at the University of Augsburg last spring (brief summary here), Prof. Lea Vaughn of the University of Washington School of Law presented on how neuroscience might inform the anti-bullying law reform movement.

Much more

This is cutting-edge work, and we are just starting to scratch the surface of it. Suffice it to say that it has the potential to revolutionize our understanding of the damage caused by psychological abuse across the lifespan. I’ll be revisiting this topic in future posts, but I especially wanted to share the Anthes and Russell articles with readers now.

Boss downsizes self

Here’s a nice holiday season story worthy of mention: When Lola Gonzalez, owner of a small business that conducts background checks for job applicants and prospective tenants, realized that she needed to trim payroll expenses because of the ongoing effects of the recession, she decided to start at the top. As reported by USA Today‘s Paul Davidson (link here):

The owner of Accurate Background Check in Ocala, Fla., says she couldn’t bear to fire employees who have worked there for years. So she stopped paying herself a six-figure salary and got a job for less than half the pay as a social worker.

As the article makes clear, Gonzalez and her husband are managing okay despite the reduced income that has required some belt tightening. But even if this act falls short of a supreme sacrifice, it stands firmly in contrast to so many accounts of CEOs continuing to rake it in — and sometimes getting big bonuses — even as their companies freeze or reduce pay and benefits for others, lay off workers, and cut back on hiring.

At a time when socially responsible management can be more a marketing concept than a business practice, stories like this one help to remind us of what it really means.

The snooze (at work!) that refreshes

Angela Haupt’s article on the value of naps at work (link here) may seem like just the right complement to a long Thanksgiving weekend:

Falling asleep on the job may be evolving into office protocol—not grounds for termination. A growing number of companies are recognizing the health benefits of a quick snooze, including increased alertness, enhanced brainpower, and fewer sick days.

The article goes on to note that short naps at work may be especially refreshing for those who habitually don’t get enough sleep — which includes a lot of us.

I doubt that the American workplace will suddenly embrace the mid-day nap, but it’s worth noting how it might actually enhance employee alertness and productivity!

Helping targets of workplace bullying: The need for an integrated counseling approach

Many years of talking to targets of severe workplace bullying have reinforced my belief that we need to fashion multifaceted counseling approaches for people who are dealing with this form of abuse.  At least three categories continually intersect:

Mental health counseling

We know what bullying at work can do to people: Anxiety attacks, depression, PTSD-type symptoms, and more. Bullying targets often need help dealing with these mental health outcomes and finding their way out of the morass. Therapists who understand workplace bullying can be essential in these circumstances.

Career counseling

Workplace bullying often poses a severe threat to one’s vocation or profession. Simple questions such as “should I stay or should I go?” are full of ramifications that may not be easily visible to someone who is struggling under the boot heel of a tormenter. Sometimes it is the catalyst for rethinking a career path. Career counseling or coaching can help someone explore these options and work through tough decisions.

Legal counseling

As I have written extensively, even in the absence of direct legal protections against bullying, various claims such as tort law, discrimination law, and whistleblower protections may apply. In addition, possible employee benefit options may include workers’ compensation, disability benefits, unemployment insurance, and family & medical leave. A lawyer also may be able to help negotiate a severance agreement that includes provisions such as a positive reference. Sorting out these options often requires expert legal knowledge and assistance.

The Need for an Integrated Approach

These areas often overlap. Career options are going to be informed by a target’s mental health. Funding for counseling may require accessing employee benefits. A lawsuit may promise compensation but impacts both mental health and career decisions. Typically, however, it is up to the individual to bring together these various pieces. And when folks are in a state of distress, chances diminish that they will be able to do so.

I frankly don’t have any easy answers to this, but I think we should look at other social service settings where caseworkers attempt to draw together various service providers to help people in need. An integrated approach to helping targets of severe workplace bullying will be of great help to those who are trying to make sense of an array of often perplexing choices and difficult circumstances.

Class matters: Student organizations at colleges and universities

Attention former collegians: Did you participate heavily in campus activities?

If so, you’d feel at home at some of today’s colleges. James Petersen, writing for the Education Life supplement to the New York Times, highlights the proliferation of student organizations on some of America’s campuses:

Organizations have gone viral. Harvard has more than 400, up from about 250 six years ago. The University of California, Berkeley, has more than 1,000 organizations. The University of Wisconsin, Madison, estimates more than 800, with a Web site that encourages students to “Discover your passions. Bring your résumé to life.” The Web site of the College of William & Mary, which has 400 clubs, boasts “endless geekery from quiz bowl to Ping-Pong to heavy metal.”

Meaningful activities

Student organizations offer marvelous opportunities to gain skills, nurture new interests, make friends, and generally enrich one’s college experience. Students learn how to work with others, coordinate projects, and organize events. For many, friendships forged while helping to run college publications, creative projects, affinity groups, student governments, and fraternal organizations lead to bonds that endure long beyond commencement.

Class differences

Grinnell and Brown are among the other schools mentioned in Petersen’s article. Get the picture? Yes, extracurricular life is especially rich and abundant at prestigious schools. Parental earnings and/or financial aid packages make it more possible for students at these schools to get involved in campus life. Their university administrations love to tout campus activities to prospective students and their parents.

But it’s not like that for everyone who goes to college, not by a long shot. Although the coming-of-age “college experience” of going off to a campus away from home has been part of the middle-class American Dream for many decades, it has been more aspirational than real for many who pursue bachelor’s degrees. Nowadays, with sky high tuition straining the budgets of even upper middle class families, and more students obliged to work to pay for expenses and to obtain internships to pad resumes and grad school applications, extracurricular life can be among the casualties.

Nat Hentoff at Northeastern

Memoirs about immersion in campus activities often come from professors recalling soggy details of life at Ivy U. or Oxbridge back in the day. However, at least in the past, it has been possible to create enriching extracurricular experiences at practically any college or university. On this point I think about journalist and free speech advocate Nat Hentoff’s memoir Boston Boy (1986), where he recounts the seminal experience of working on the Northeastern University student newspaper in the 1940s.

Northeastern has since become a “hot” school for budding collegians, but during Hentoff’s student days it was a hardscrabble college for Boston-area working class kids and others who fell short of admission to more prestigious venues. Nonetheless, the student newspaper served as his classroom and apprenticeship. Through student and faculty mentors he learned about covering the news. From clashes with the University administration, he learned about censorship. Without this experience, it is very possible that his life and career path would’ve been different.

Providing opportunities

Today it’s much harder for the typical student to replicate Hentoff’s experience at Backyard U. Many students now opt to go to community college as a cost-saving measure, thus breaking up the continuity of their college experience. Those enrolled in 4-year schools are often juggling part-time jobs and internships with their studies.

What’s often lost is a path toward finding one’s interests and even calling through the kind of experiential learning that extracurricular activities can afford.  They also provide opportunities to develop social competence and leadership skills — qualities that will help anyone in work and life in general.

Don’t get me wrong: I’m not claiming that an individual is forever deprived because she didn’t get to write for the college literary journal or run for the student government. However, I am suggesting that lives can be enriched and seeds of meaningful careers can be sown through immersive extracurricular activities, and that it would behoove us to offer these opportunities to as many students as possible.

Is stress the “black plague” of the 21st century?

In a 2007 group interview, organizational psychologist Cary Cooper, a leading authority on workplace stress, opined that stress is the “black plague” of our times. He added:

I see stress as the main source of disease or the trigger for disease in the 21st century developed world.

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We know stress is a major risk factor for a range of illness from heart disease to immune failures and more and more research is being done on cancer now.

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Now that jobs are intrinsically more insecure for everybody – from shop floor to top floor, guess what – the illnesses – stress related illnesses are going up the hierarchy. So now nobody’s safe.

Cooper gave the interview in 2007, before the economic meltdown. Even then, he noted that stress is bad for public health. It’s running up and down the organizational chart. And it is a by-product of the developed world that many of us have chosen to embrace.

In searching for silver linings in the current economic mess we’re in, perhaps a reassessment of how we live and work — with an eye toward psychologically healthier practices — will lead us to something better.

In centuries past, a plague would simply run its course, leaving devastation in its wake. Will we be more pro-active and harness all that we know about people and organizations to stop the plague of stress in its tracks?

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Hat tip to Dianne Wilkinson for the interview link.

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