Los Angeles Times piece on workplace bullying and the Healthy Workplace Bill

Tina Susman of the Los Angeles Times leads her excellent piece on workplace bullying and the Healthy Workplace Bill (link here) with the story of Kathie Gant, who worked as an administrative assistant for an attorney who treated her abusively. The lawyer yelled at her, threw things at her, and once even locked her in a storage closet.

From target to advocate

Gant sought counseling and eventually brought herself to testify recently on behalf of the Healthy Workplace Bill before a Maryland state legislative committee:

After months of taunts and needling by her boss, Gant said she ended up on a psychiatrist’s couch and nearly in a psych ward.

With a quavering voice and tearful demeanor, Gant testified about her job situation during a legislative hearing this month at the state Capitol as Maryland became one of the latest states to consider legislation against workplace bullying.

Fixing misconceptions

It’s obvious in reading objections to creating legal protections against workplace bullying — both in Susman’s article itself and posted comments — that there remains a wide chasm between those who have experienced, witnessed, or otherwise come to understand workplace bullying and those who have not.

Too many believe that workplace bullying is about managerial style.  Nothing could be further from the truth, unless you consider routinely screaming at people, becoming physically threatening, or deliberately setting up someone for failure to be valid management techniques. Workplace bullying is about abuse, not legitimate management practice.

Still, others are either uninformed about the limitations of current employment protections or deliberately trying to confuse people into believing that workplace bullying is adequately covered by existing laws. I drafted the Healthy Workplace Bill only after my exhaustive assessment of existing employment laws led to the inescapable conclusion that too many targets of severe workplace bullying had little or no recourse under the law.

Suicide of Wisconsin schoolteacher connected to state budget cuts

Matthew Rothschild, editor of The Progressive magazine, reports that the March 8 suicide of a Wisconsin schoolteacher has been tied to her distraught state over the attack on state workers (story link here):

Jeri-Lynn Betts, an early childhood teacher in the Watertown, Wisconsin, school district, died on March 8 of an apparent suicide.

A colleague says she was “very distraught” over Gov. Scott Walker’s attacks on public sector workers and public education.

Betts, 56, was a dedicated teacher who was admired in the Watertown community.

Very complicated matter

We must be careful in attributing specific causes to suicide, but it appears that the Madison-based political magazine has checked out this story carefully before going public with it.

Soon after Betts’s death, “two members of the school district contacted The Progressive about her death, calling it a suicide and saying it was connected, at least in part, to the policies that Walker has proposed.” The magazine’s investigation found, among other things, that:

. . . A police [officer] took a statement from Susan Kemmerling, who worked with Betts as a special education paraprofessional for the past decade.

“Susan advised me that Geri had a long history of depression,” Officer Jeffrey Meloy wrote in his report. “Susan stated that the last several weeks had been ‘stressing her out’ due to the protests and the introduction of the budget repair bill and the uncertainty involved in the teaching world, as far as who was going to have jobs and what services were going to be cut.

The article doesn’t dodge the fact that Betts had suffered from depression. It does point out, however, that many teachers across Wisconsin are experiencing high amounts of stress and anxiety due to the budget cuts and the public bashing they are receiving in the media.

“Bullycides”

The Betts tragedy bears a sad resemblance to the phenomenon of “bullycides,” discussed previously on this blog:

An unfortunate but apt term entered our lexicon this year, “bullycide,” referring to suicides linked to bullying at work and schools.

In the workplace context, two such deaths became especially prominent. One involved the July suicide of Kevin Morrissey, an editor at the University of Virginia’s Virginia Quarterly Review, which was linked to severe bullying by his supervisor, the journal’s editor-in-chief.

Another involved the 2008 suicide of Jodie Zebell, a health care worker whose story was shared with the Wisconsin legislature when it deliberated upon the anti-bullying Healthy Workplace Bill (see below for more on the HWB).

Granted, Betts and other teachers are not being targeted personally by these budget cuts. But the tone of public ridicule and dismissiveness about the value of their contributions to the greater good — fueled by politicians who need to demonize them in order to justify the cuts and strip them of collective bargaining rights — no doubt has been a source of considerable demoralization and stress.

In other words, when people experience their dignity being taken from them, tragic consequences are bound to follow.

Work on TV: American Idol without Simon Cowell

Two years ago I considered the question of whether Simon Cowell, the famously caustic judge on “American Idol,” was a workplace bully (post here):

Because Simon is the toughest judge, contestants often appear apprehensive when it’s his turn to comment.  If Simon praises the performance, the contestant breathes a sigh of relief and beams with delight.  If he pans the performance, the poor contestant tries to take it in stride.

I concluded that while Simon is something of a bully, many have experienced worse:

I’m not endorsing or defending Simon’s style or practice.  He’s a bonafide jerk, and he sometimes abuses the power his role confers upon him.  His Idol fame makes him a workplace bullying poster boy.  But as some readers can certainly attest, there are many, many bosses out there much worse than Simon Cowell.

Exit Simon

Simon is gone now, having moved on to other (equally or more lucrative) projects. Two other judges from last season, Kara DioGuardi and Ellen DeGeneres, were not retained, creating an opportunity to remake the judges panel.

The corps of Idol judges now includes holdover Randy Jackson and newcomers Jennifer Lopez and Steven Tyler. The addition of two famous performers obviously was designed to bolster ratings, but both Lopez and Tyler have proven to be solid in their roles.

Kinder, gentler, and still entertaining

The remodeled Idol judging panel also shows the dramatic effect of removing a bully from the workplace. Although I’ve missed several episodes, I feel comfortable saying that the 2011 edition of American Idol is a kinder place, even when the judges issue pointed critiques of less-than-stellar performances.

Both Lopez and Tyler bring a natural sympathy and respect for those who are auditioning and performing.

Tyler, surprisingly, also happens to be a bit of a class clown. Lopez has shed her diva personality and at times plays the role of maternal softie when it comes to dealing with the young performers.

What’s missing is the gratuitous meanness that Cowell often brought to reviewing performances he didn’t like. The palpable apprehension on the faces of contestants awaiting his critique and the deer-in-the-headlights looks as some struggled to react to one of his heavily barbed criticisms are no longer standard parts of each episode.

The effect of Simon Cowell’s departure on ratings is harder to determine. Ratings have been down, but they have been on the decline during the past few seasons, and this may be only a continuation of that trend.

Back to focusing on the talent

This appears to be a talented group of finalists, with a few of the contestants showing real star qualities early in the season. Think what you may about the talent show format, but during its 10 years, “American Idol” has unearthed some genuine stars. Perhaps the focus away from Simon Cowell’s bullying reviews will help to shine a more proper light on the young folks who are trying to make a splash on the Idol stage.

Workers aren’t reaping the benefits of America’s productivity gains

A new Economic Policy Institute report indicates that shareholders, not everyday workers, have reaped the lion’s share of the benefits from America’s considerable productivity gains over the past 20 years. According to Zachary Roth, writing for Yahoo! News (link here):

Despite large gains in productivity over the last two decades, the report finds, wages for American workers have been stagnating.

The study… by Lawrence Mishel and Heidi Shierholz of the Economic Policy Institute, found that productivity grew by a whopping 62.5 percent between 1989 and 2010, but that real hourly wages increased by just 12 percent over the same period. That suggests that companies are giving far more of their profits to shareholders, and far less to workers. Indeed, corporate profits are 22 percent above where they were before the recession.

Perhaps there are no big surprises here, as the EPI study merely documents what a lot of workers have been experiencing in their paychecks. Still, it’s useful to assemble this data to show how our economic system has been rigged to benefit the most fortunate.

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The full report by Mishel and Shierholz, The Sad but True Story of Wages in America, can be downloaded here.

Ezra Klein comments further about the EPI report for the Washington Post, here.

Website of the Week: eBossWatch

Many readers of this blog are familiar with eBossWatch (link here), the popular website founded by businessman Asher Adelman that chronicles the stories of bosses you’d least like to work for, but for the uninitiated, I’d like to call this to your attention.

100 worst bosses

Every year, eBossWatch assembles its list of the nation’s 100 worst bosses, as judged by a panel of experts in employment relations, organizational behavior, and workplace consulting. It serves as an important reminder that bad bossism remains a part of the work experiences of so many workers. Through links to relevant news stories, we also learn more about specific situations that led to including someone on the list.

Two Bay State bosses on the 2010 list

Two Massachusetts bosses share the dubious distinction of making 2010 “Worst Bosses” list (link here):

  • Dentist Nelson Wood of Affordable Care, Brookline, MA, is No. 22.
  • Lieutenant Barbara Bennett of the Massachusetts State Police is No. 87.

Next step: Understanding organizational cultures

Most bad bosses also happen to work at organizations that enable and/or protect their behaviors. In fact, some of the accounts of bad boss behavior detail how employers ignored complaints from workers about sexual harassment, bullying, and ethical lapses.

eBossWatch serves a valuable function in highlighting the continuing abuse that workers experience. If we want to tackle these horrible behaviors more pro-actively, we also need to get at the organizational cultures that fuel them.

Workplace bullying in the military

When I first started talking to people about workplace bullying, many would use military references, drawing upon images of hard-core drill sergeants and demanding officers. I’ve never felt comfortable with that instant association, perhaps because most of the career military folks I’ve known have struck me as being fair, even-keeled, and self-disciplined individuals.

Nevertheless, it would be equally wrongheaded to assume that the military services are immune from such behaviors. After all, we’re talking about people. Indeed, U.S. Air Force captain Genieve David recently speculated that high suicide rates in her branch of the service may be attributable, at least in part, to workplace bullying (link here):

Last year the U.S. Air Force lost 84 lives to suicide and this year the statistics have surpassed that. You’ve seen Wingman down days, taken the suicide awareness training, and have read commentaries from senior Air Force officials on taking care of each other–but no one has talked about bullying in the workplace as a possible factor that may contribute to these feelings of hopelessness or considering suicide.

My hypothesis

I am going to hazard a guess that workplace bullying is no more or less frequent in the military than in many other demanding, high stress vocations. However, when workplace bullying does occur in the armed forces, it may well be harsher and more aggressive due to the chain-of-command structure of the military and the macho culture of everyday military life. I further would guess that bullying behaviors are especially severe when the target is a non-conformist or is regarded as a boat rocker or whistleblower.

This is a topic worthy of deeper investigation, but for now, here are two stories about bullying in the military:

Bullied out of the Irish army

At the 2010 International Conference on Workplace Bullying & Harassment in Cardiff, Wales, I attended a compelling session on whistleblowing and bullying that featured retired Irish Army captain Tom Clonan. Clonan shared with us the disturbing story of how he was retaliated against after submitting a report to his superiors about extensive levels of bullying, sexual harassment, and sexual assault directed at female soldiers by their male colleagues.

Clonan had done the report as part of his doctoral research. As a result of this research project, he was subjected to an ongoing campaign of ostracizing by fellow officers and publicly accused by the military of fabricating his study.

It took an inquiry by the Irish Minister for Defence and Tom’s own libel suit against the Minister of Defence and the Chief of Staff for the Irish Defence Forces (eventually settled) to vindicate his name.  Nevertheless, his military career — until these events on an upward trajectory — was in shambles. He now is the Security Analyst for The Irish Times and a lecturer at the Dublin Institute of Technology School of Media.

A pioneering career run aground

Last year, Time magazine ran a piece (link here) detailing the career of U.S. Navy officer Holly Cowpens, whose style of command was so abusive that when her ship ran aground, the sailors on board were singing “Ding dong, the witch is dead,” knowing that such a major screw up could result in her being relieved of duty.

Time‘s Mark Thompson continues with the story:

Graf’s next command, as captain of the guided-missile cruiser U.S.S. Cowpens, would be her last. Graf was relieved of duty in January, after nearly two years on the Cowpens, for “cruelty and maltreatment” of her crew, according to a blistering Navy inspector general’s report obtained by TIME. The report has rocked the service to its bilges because it calls into question the way the Navy chooses, promotes and then monitors its handpicked skippers.

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Hat tip to eBossWatch for the Capt. David blog post.

Hope for worker dignity comes out of a union meeting in Massachusetts

Being an academician and a lawyer, it’s rare that I get inspired by meetings, but thankfully there still are exceptions.

On Thursday, it was my good fortune to be a guest speaker at the monthly Joint Executive Committee meeting of SEIU/NAGE in Massachusetts. The invitation came by way of Greg Sorozan, president of SEIU/NAGE Local 282 and one of the leading labor activists in the anti-bullying movement.

Union leadership toward worker dignity

Thanks to Greg, union state director Kevin Preston, union legislative agent Jim Redmond, and others, SEIU/NAGE has become a national example of how dedicated labor leadership can play a critically important role in addressing workplace bullying, to the benefit of all workers in the state.

Two years ago, they successfully negotiated a “mutual respect clause” in their collective bargaining agreement that includes bullying behaviors, covering some 21,000 state workers.

Soon afterward, they played a critically important role in getting State Senator Joan Menard to introduce the Healthy Workplace Bill for the 2009-10 session of the Massachusetts legislature. They have carried through on their commitment by helping us to reintroduce the bill for the 2011-12 session, this time with 2 main sponsors and 11 co-sponsors in tow.

Yesterday’s meeting was more of an update and discussion than a rally-the-troops speech. We talked about the legislation and upcoming contract negotiations, as well as the realities of handling claims of workplace bullying as shop stewards and union leaders.

And there, folks, was the best thing about it. It was part of an ongoing conversation. I first talked to the union several years ago about how organized labor can respond to workplace bullying. My remarks were aspirational then — hope, not reality. However, these union leaders took up the challenge and have been at it ever since.

Humanizing public workers and public employee unions

The nation’s anti-union forces currently are mounting a virulent campaign to demonize public workers and their unions. To build public support for squashing them, it helps to dehumanize, caricature, and ridicule them, right?

During the meeting, I learned about efforts being undertaken to counter that assault. It’s a labor coalition campaign called Working Massachusetts (website here), and one of its major projects is a series of radio spots airing across the state, containing short interviews with public workers talking their jobs and the work they do. For a link to the latest, go here.

Lisa Smith, NAGE’s senior communications officer, explained the rationale: It’s about sharing stories of public workers with the public. They include personal accounts of training police officers to do CPR, of engaging in flood control efforts to save communities from destruction, and of clearing snow away from hospital driveways. Through these spots, the public is reminded of the vital, commonplace work being done by state employees.

I have long believed that organized labor needs to take its case more directly to everyday Americans. This gives me hope that labor leaders are starting to understand the need to do so.

Thuggery in Wisconsin, but hope in the Bay State

The meeting was held the morning after the Republicans in the Wisconsin state senate used a procedural technicality to approve Governor Scott Walker’s bill stripping most state workers of almost all of their collective bargaining rights. I must admit that, with human rights on the wane in Wisconsin, it was heartening to see smart, committed, pro-worker union activism and messaging here in my own backyard.

More importantly, the meeting reminded me of the central importance of the labor movement in watching out for the rights, safety, and dignity of workers everywhere.

Not convinced? Think again…

If you don’t get the need for unions, consider the opposition to legal protections against workplace bullying:

  • The Chamber of Commerce routinely opposes the Healthy Workplace Bill on the ground that the complete management discretion and the free market, not pesky lawsuits for treating workers abusively, will best solve all problems of unfair treatment.
  • The Society for Human Resource Management calls workplace bullying legislation unnecessary and costly, instead preferring that most abused workers trust their HR rep to rectify the situation while the law offers few incentives for employers to act responsively.
  • If all else fails, armies of highly paid corporate lawyers are ready and willing to put workers through years of litigation hell if they dare bring a lawsuit against their employer.

On the other hand, labor unions have been amongst the most committed organizational supporters of the Healthy Workplace Bill. They have devoted staff resources toward advancing the legislation, submitted written statements in support of the bill, and urged their members to contact their elected officials.

Labor voice a must

I realize that not all supporters of the Healthy Workplace Bill are fans of unions. Some may have had unpleasant personal experiences with them.

True, unions are fallible organizations, like any other kind of group endeavor. And a bad union is just that. But these imperfections render the labor movement no less necessary. A world without organized labor is a world that has declared open season on everyday workers.

If you doubt my words, go to Wisconsin and do whatever you can to arrange a meeting with Governor Walker. Tell him you understand the need to strip workers of collective bargaining rights, but that you’d really like him to endorse a bill protecting employees — including state workers — against severe bullying and abuse at work. Tell him he can be a hero by standing up to “special interests” like the Chamber of Commerce, Society for Human Resource Management, and the management-side employment bar.

And then let me know when he stops laughing.

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