A California county grand jury issues a report on workplace bullying in local government

A Ventura County, California grand jury has issued a report finding that workplace bullying is a serious problem in county government and recommending that the county Board of Supervisors adopt an anti-bullying policy and collect information on bullying in county government offices.

Main findings

The investigation was triggered by a public complaint, leading to a 33-page report (link to pdf here) containing these main findings:

The Grand Jury found that bullying is occurring in County government and that the County has no anti-bullying policy. Employees have escaped from bullying by leaving their County positions. These employees did not file complaints of bullying because they perceived they could not get a fair and impartial investigation into their complaints. They felt their situation would worsen if their identities became known.

Common bullying behaviors included:

  • “Employees were yelled at by managers in group meetings and in public areas.”
  • “Employees, including those who were highly experienced, were excessively monitored by managers to such an extent that they left their positions.”
  • “Employees were isolated both organizationally and physically. Some employees were organizationally separated from their functional groups into single person work units that bypassed their former supervisor and reported directly to a higher manager.”

Main recommendations

The report makes specific recommendations:

The Grand Jury recommends that the Ventura County Board of Supervisors (BOS) issue a policy against bullying and collect data to identify the existence and extent of bullying in branches of County government. The CEO-HR should establish an independent process to report cases of bullying.

Background: The purpose of a grand jury

Most readers are familiar with the work of grand juries in the context of criminal proceedings. In those settings, jurors are assembled to consider whether there is sufficient evidence to issue a criminal indictment.

What occurred in Ventura County involves a less familiar function for county-level grand juries, that of an overseer or monitor of county government and municipalities within a county, vested with some investigative powers.

Thus, it is important to keep in mind that a report such as that issued by the Ventura County grand jury is not the equivalent of criminal indictments. In this setting, a grand jury may serve as a fact finder and issue recommendations as this one did, but that typically is the extent of its authority.

Getting attention

The grand jury report is attracting local attention. As John Scheibe reports for the Ventura County Star (link here):

The Ventura County Grand Jury recently concluded that workplace bullying is a problem in county government offices and encouraged county officials to develop a policy against bullying in the workplace.

…John Nicoll, assistant county executive officer and the director of human resources for the county, said county officials are preparing a response to the grand jury’s report.

This is an encouraging development for the anti-bullying movement. The reach of the Ventura County report may be limited — after all, its findings and recommendations apply only to certain government employees within the county and do not have a lot of teeth — but it serves as a valuable tool for public education locally and beyond.

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For those who want to learn more about the role of grand juries in our legal system, Wikipedia does a very nice job of explaining, here.

Understanding work, workers, and workplaces: The importance of being multidisciplinary

Readers who have been blissfully spared the buzzwords of academe may wonder what professors mean when we use terms such as “multidisciplinary,” “interdisciplinary,” “cross-disciplinary,” and “transdisciplinary.” Is it just a bunch of mumbo jumbo, or does it really matter at some level?

At least when it comes to understanding employment relations, it can matter a lot. Let’s take a quick look at why.

Definitions

In academic-speak, a “discipline” is a conceptual framework, a defined subject-matter area that lends itself to teaching and research, such as economics, anthropology, sociology, political science, psychology, and the like. The term also is used to refer to professional settings, such as business, medicine, law, and so forth.

Thus, terms such as multidisciplinary and interdisciplinary often are used rather interchangeably to mean incorporating perspectives from these disciplines in examining a given topic, situation, or problem.

The importance of mixing it up

So, for example, in examining the effects of the recession — on its face, an economic problem — we might also look at how the stress of a lousy economy affects people psychologically. In doing so, we’re thinking in a multi/inter/cross/trans disciplinary manner.

And when, say, doctors and lawyers get together to consider public health policy, they are exchanging insights from their professional disciplines of medicine and law in ways that hopefully add up to more than the sum of the parts.

Applied to workplace bullying

I have learned a ton about the critical importance of multidisciplinary thinking. In particular, in seeking to develop legal and policy responses to workplace bullying, I have benefited mightily from insights drawn from many academic and professional disciplines.

Among these, psychology has yielded the most valuable insights. Indeed, over the years I have spent many profitable hours in conferences, seminars, and conversations with folks trained in psychology. When paired with the “in the trenches” perspectives I’ve gained from talking to countless numbers of people who have experienced workplace bullying, I have a pretty good understanding of what this behavior is all about.

Clear thinking

Strip away the multi-syllabic terms and what are we left with? I think it’s called common sense.

Understanding work, workers, and workplaces calls upon us to draw upon the whole of our knowledge base about human behavior and the organizations we’ve created. Thankfully, it doesn’t require us to spend our waking hours reading academic treatises and journal articles, but it does mean that we should avoid becoming trapped in mental silos when examining a social problem and how to respond to it.

Setbacks, remakes, and comebacks: Recovering from the real world

Television talk show host Conan O’Brien’s commencement speech at Dartmouth College (full text here) has gone viral on the Internet, and with good reason: It’s a great speech, finishing with honest, hopeful remarks about seeing your world collapse and then remaking it.

The lesson O’Brien shares is drawn from the personal aftermath of losing his coveted spot as host of The Tonight Show:

But a little over a year ago, I experienced a profound and very public disappointment. I did not get what I wanted, and I left a system that had nurtured and helped define me for the better part of 17 years. I went from being in the center of the grid to not only off the grid, but underneath the coffee table that the grid sits on, lost in the shag carpeting that is underneath the coffee table supporting the grid. It was the making of a career disaster, and a terrible analogy.

But then something spectacular happened. Fogbound, with no compass, and adrift, I started trying things. I grew a strange, cinnamon beard. I dove into the world of social media. I started tweeting my comedy. I threw together a national tour. I played the guitar. I did stand-up, wore a skin-tight blue leather suit, recorded an album, made a documentary, and frightened my friends and family.

Ultimately, I abandoned all preconceived perceptions of my career path and stature and took a job on basic cable…. I did a lot of silly, unconventional, spontaneous and seemingly irrational things and guess what: with the exception of the blue leather suit, it was the most satisfying and fascinating year of my professional life.

…How could this be true? Well, it’s simple: There are few things more liberating in this life than having your worst fear realized.

Moving forward and taking a plunge

OK, so Conan O’Brien would not have been hungry and homeless had he been unable to retool his career. But through no impropriety on his part, his fall was spectacular and public, and it’s clear he was left reeling in its wake. No doubt he experienced some excruciating private moments of fear, anxiety, sadness, and doubt.

Those moments can be notably acute in the midst of significant midlife setbacks. In the work context, a sudden layoff or termination may be especially difficult. The loss of a livelihood or career due to workplace bullying and abuse can be downright traumatic.

But people can and do recover. In the decade I’ve spent learning, writing, and talking about workplace bullying, I’ve become familiar with many examples of resilience and moving forward. For some, it has been a long process, and many have experienced a rock bottom point before finding the strength to lift themselves up again.

A few of these stories have a note of dramatic triumph to them, while most have represented more quiet victories. The common bond? Every one of these folks summoned deep reserves of courage and resilience — often to their own amazement.

Perhaps Conan O’Brien realized that about himself as he sat down and prepared his graduation remarks.

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Related posts

In recovering from adversity, past adversity can fuel our resilience

Adversity, resilience, and trust

Willy Loman, defining success, and the Great Recession

It’s not a “gray area,” it’s an alarm going off

I’ve been meaning to share Rick Bell’s superb post at Workforce Management‘s Ethical Workplace blog (link here), urging employers to take seriously behaviors that all too many dismiss as “gray areas” or “borderline”:

• The “familiar” physician who makes suggestive remarks to patients and staff.
• The prominent partner who kisses an associate and makes “friendly” but personal comments about her husband’s ethnicity.
• The utility executive known for a frosty demeanor and dismissive gestures in meetings held to review project issues and problems.
• The surgeon who yells at colleagues but never uses “illegal” racial, sexual or ethnic language.

All too often, Bell concludes, they end up costing organizations in big ways:

Over the years, I’ve run into leaders who have behaved poorly and then witnessed the disasters caused by their conduct: patient abuse and medical errors, financial collapses, environmental disasters, massive legal risk, safety lapses and the loss of vital and talented team members.

Bell urges employers to rename these gray areas, using terms such as “hazard” and “danger” to convey their true significance.

What bad organizations have in common (among other things)

Legal eagles will note that many of these behaviors do not often lead to the filing of lawsuits. And bad organizations often adopt a mindset that if it’s not obviously illegal, it’s not worth incorporating into training programs, including in employee handbooks, and addressing forthrightly when complaints arise.

Of course, some of these situations will elevate to liability risks. Equally important, they are costly behaviors that do not necessarily show up on the scorecard or stat sheet, to borrow sporting terms. Instead, they eat away — often quietly — at employee morale, loyalty, productivity, and retention. The “bottom line” impact may be difficult to quantify, but only the ignorant pretend there is none.

In the aftermath of the Phoebe Prince tragedy, a supportive teacher is bullied out of her job

When will they ever learn?

After South Hadley, Massachusetts high school student Phoebe Prince took her own life following a brutal campaign of bullying by her classmates in 2010, one of her supportive teachers — Deb Caldieri — was bullied out of her job by principal Dan Smith and other school administrators.

Boston Globe columnist Kevin Cullen shares the story (link here):

Her name is Deb Caldieri, and she has been driven from the school as surely as Phoebe was hounded to the grave. Her career and her health have been ruined.

This being South Hadley High, she has suffered all this mostly because she had the temerity to question the way her superiors handled the whole mess.

She didn’t follow the party line at South Hadley High, which from the beginning was to blame Phoebe and excuse the bullies. Phoebe was the outsider, the clueless blow-in from overseas who brought all her troubles on herself. That was the party line.

Cullen’s full column is worth your click-and-read, as he goes into considerable detail about how Caldieri was booted around and now finds herself in a nursing home, struggling to recover her health.

Those familiar with severe workplace bullying and dysfunctional organizations will nod heads in recognition.

Tip of an iceberg

The terrible story of Deb Caldieri should be understood in its broader context: Principal bullying of schoolteachers is a serious problem.

Education professors Joseph and Jo Blase have documented this phenomenon in their groundbreaking 2002 book, Breaking the Silence, Overcoming the Problem of Principal Mistreatment of Teachers (reviewed here).

In addition, the National Association for Prevention of Teacher Abuse (link here) is dedicated to addressing these behaviors through public education and advocacy.

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Related posts

I have written extensively about the Phoebe Prince suicide on this blog. For links to additional articles, please go here.

More (and perhaps more and more) on bad bosses

The theme of bad bosses is popping up a lot these days in the popular media, and the trend appears likely to continue.

Five types of bad bosses

For example, Amy Levin-Epstein, writing for CBS MoneyWatch (link here), identifies five types of bad bosses:

“The Vague One”

“The Micromanager”

“The Bully”

“The Narcissist”

“The BFF”

I’ll quarrel a bit with her categories and suggest that narcissistic bosses often are among the worst bullies.

More importantly, I’ll once again take issue with the common practice of offering one-size-fits-all advice on handling bad bosses. Each situation is different, and a miscalculation can have serious consequences. It’s not something easily reduced to a line or two in an advice column.

Coming to a theatre near you

In early July, the movie “Horrible Bosses” will be opening at theatres across the country. You can click the link to the trailer above. Here’s what the blog ReallyBadBoss is saying about it (link here):

Hollywood is banking on the fact that zillions of Americans hate their bad bosses enough to fork over the $10+ price of admission to see Jason Bateman, Jason Sudeikis and Charlie Day plot the ultimate demise of their respective bosses played by Kevin Spacey – a white color [sic] schmuck -, Jennifer Aniston  – a sexual predator – and Colin Farrell – a drug addicted, fiercely-combed-over pig.

With this type of movie, I think we’re looking at either a smash success or a soon-to-be-forgotten flop. If “Horrible Bosses” strikes the right chord with moviegoers’ experiences of work, it could join “The Devil Wears Prada,” “Office Space,” and “Nine to Five” on the list of leading cinematic portrayals of the joys of working in offices.

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Related posts

Getting back at a bad boss

Website of the Week: eBossWatch

Most Bosses Think They’re Great (and How They COULD Be)

Rice University: When smart places do dumb things

In one of the less wonderful employee termination decisions to go public recently, Rice University in Texas has fired a campus police officer for going to the aid of two Houston police officers who were shot in the line of duty, a couple of blocks off campus. Zachary Roth reports for Yahoo! News (link here):

It was a Saturday on campus when David Sedmak, a Rice University police officer, heard “Officer down, officer down!” on his scanner: Two members of the Houston Police Department had been shot downtown. Sedmak rushed to the scene to help his fellow officers.

But Rice didn’t see Sedmak as a hero. Instead, the university fired him, citing “dereliction of duty.”

The university said in a statement that its officers often assist other law enforcement agencies when the need arises. But Sedmak erred, it said, by not informing the university police dispatcher about where he was.

Houston police officers and their union are supporting Sedmak and calling for him to be reinstated. The article quotes a representative of a Texas association for police officers as saying that unless an officer is a chronic disciplinary problem, this kind of situation should be addressed with corrective counseling if necessary, but certainly not termination.

Private vs. public employment

Rice University is a private institution, and Sedmak is not a member of the police officers’ union. That in itself may explain why persuasion and publicity are being used in an attempt to have him reinstated, rather than resorting to arbitration and grievance processes that can be invoked in collective bargaining situations.

In any event, this strikes me as being among the reasons why employees need protections against unfair or unjust discharge. Most American workers are at-will employees who can be terminated for any reason or no reason at all. Especially in view of the exigent circumstances present in this situation, termination seems to be a harsh, even mean-spirited result.

Fringe benefits at stake too

At stake is more than “just” one job. As reported in television news coverage of the situation (link here), Sedmak left the Galveston police department to take the job at Rice so his children would qualify for tuition benefits at the university. Now their educational plans may be seriously disrupted as well.

It galls me when defenders of the legal status quo remark that if someone doesn’t like or loses his job, he can simply pull himself up by his bootstraps and find another one. For most people, even a voluntary job change has repercussions and stress points. With an involuntary job loss or forced resignation, however, the consequences can be personally seismic, sending shock waves throughout an immediate family.

How’s this for an epitaph? “She lived a balanced life”

The importance of “work-life balance” is something of a shibboleth to those of us who talk and write about psychologically healthy work environments, and on numerous occasions I’ve made blithe references to it. But at times, I find myself questioning whether this is an unattainable and sometimes wrongheaded ideal — at least as applied to individuals.

Parsing the definition

Wikipedia (link here) defines work-life balance as:

a broad concept including proper prioritizing between “work” (career and ambition) on one hand and “life” (Health, pleasure, leisure, family and spiritual development) on the other.

The mere use of the word “balance” leads us to a debate that cannot be resolved. How do we apportion our time among these categories? Is it 50/50, 30/70, or 60/40?

And how do we define “work”? For example, “family” usually is placed in the “life” side of the ledger. But I doubt that a parent taking care of kids equates family responsibilities with leisure! For many, it’s physically and emotionally demanding work.

Time at work

Beyond the definitional nitpicking, I get the general idea: We spend a lot of time at work, especially in America. Economist Juliet Schor brought this issue into our contemporary policy debates in her 1993 book, The Overworked American: The Unexpected Decline of Leisure, marshaling data showing that U.S. workers spend a lot more time at work than counterparts in other nations.

So, in questioning the concept of work-life balance, I agree that things in America (and elsewhere!) are out of, umm, balance.

“I want it all”

But implicit in the notion of work-life balance is the idea that we can have it all, if only we can find the elusive formula for fitting the pieces together in the right way.

The YouTube video pasted into this article — from the Broadway show “Babe” — captures that wishful thinking. Three women of different ages and life circumstances meet by chance in a doctor’s office, and they share with each other how they want it all.

But most of us can’t

Way back in 1985, Norman Redlich, the dean of NYU Law School, referenced those Broadway lyrics in his remarks at our graduation convocation. His message: It sounds great, but most of us can’t have it all. There are choices to make and realities to navigate in a life that moves all too quickly.

So there we were, sitting among family and friends in beautiful Carnegie Hall, thinking that the world is our oyster, and the dean is telling us it’s probably not.

It’s one of the few useful pieces of advice I’ve heard among a sea of mostly banal, forgettable remarks at graduation ceremonies.

Instead

Many women, especially, have understood the impossibility — or at least the unlikelihood — of having all of life’s pieces conveniently coming together at the right places and right times.

Instead of chasing such an elusive goal, I suggest that we all redirect our focus to qualitative questions of what makes for a good and meaningful life, while remaining aware that choices and events may constrict our flexibility.

For some, that meaningful life may be grounded in raising a family or pursuing an avocation. For others, it may mean devotion to a career or a cause. For lots, it will involve a perpetual juggling act. A fortunate few may achieve a zen-like blend that allows them to check all the boxes. And still others may find meaning in overcoming significant personal or family challenges.

“She lived a balanced life”

Ultimately, aren’t we — and the world — better off for having made a positive difference in some way? You know, like starting a company, raising kids, helping those in need, serving one’s community or country, saving animals, or inventing or creating or making or teaching or fixing something?

As I see it, work-life balance should remain a priority for employment relations, but when it comes to individual lives, we need to embrace a much deeper set of questions. After all, does anyone really want to be remembered for having “lived a balanced life”?

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Related posts

Beyond happiness: Founder of “positive psychology” movement expands his vision

What’s your legacy work? (And how can you de-clutter your way to it?)

What will be your body of work?

Are You a Marathoner or a Sprinter?

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June 11 update: In a sad coincidence, Dean Redlich died this week. His obituary, which details his rich life and career, can be read here.

The American academic response to workplace bullying: A grounded orientation

Serious social problems typically attract a variety of scholars who engage in research and education designed to address them. This is no different with workplace bullying in the U.S.

However, whereas some social problems attract gobs of attention from those affiliated with elite academic institutions, the American academic response to workplace bullying has been driven, for the most part, by professors holding appointments at state and regional private universities. I believe this is a telling reason why so much of the important scholarly work concerning workplace bullying has genuine real world application.

Pioneering scholars

Consider the current institutional affiliations of some of the pioneering American academicians on workplace bullying and related behaviors: Loraleigh Keashly (Wayne State), Joel Neuman (SUNY New Paltz), Pamela Lutgen-Sandvik (New Mexico), Suzi Fox (Loyola-Chicago), Judith Richman (Illinois-Chicago), and Kathleen Rospenda (Illinois-Chicago). Fine schools all, but not the Ivy League.

What ties their work together is a quality of intellectually stimulating research that consistently demonstrates on-the-ground relevance. This is not the space to engage in a summary of their studies and writings, but suffice it to say that their work is the stuff of both fascinating seminar discussions and practical insights into workplace behaviors.

In the emerging field of occupational health psychology, which has proven to be very hospitable to workplace bullying research, we see similar types of institutional affiliations. For example, the current and past presidents of the Society for Occupational Health Psychology include Vicki Magley (Connecticut), Janet Barnes-Farrell (Connecticut), Robert Sinclair (Clemson), Peter Chen (Colorado State), and Leslie Hammer (Portland State).

At this juncture, Robert Sutton (Stanford) is one of the few professors affiliated with an elite American university who is devoting serious attention to bullying-type behaviors.

Law schools

A similar picture emerges in terms of legal scholarship on workplace bullying. Most of the significant law review commentary has originated from a small group of law professors holding appointments at regional law schools.

In addition to my work as a professor at Suffolk University Law School in Boston, other law professors authoring major pieces primarily about workplace bullying have included Brady Coleman (formerly at South Texas), Susan Harthill (Florida Coastal), and Kerri Stone (Florida International).

Non-traditional universities

Finally, non-traditional, distance learning universities are playing a major role in training the next wave of scholar-practitioners to enter the fray.

In fact, many of the first American dissertations and theses on workplace bullying came from students enrolled at places such as Walden University, Fielding Graduate University, Capella University, and the University of Phoenix.

Why? Because the flexible delivery models and practice-friendly orientations of those schools are hospitable to adult learners, and workplace bullying is more likely to be a topic that attracts people who have experienced the workplace.

Origins

This grounded response has been strongly influenced by the roots of the American movement to respond to workplace bullying.

Much of the original impetus to label and address bullying at work in the U.S. came from Drs. Gary and Ruth Namie during the late 1990s.  More than a decade later, their Workplace Bullying Institute (WBI) is the most significant North American non-governmental organization addressing the problem today.

WBI is not a huge think tank operation; its small staff works on all aspects of bullying, ranging from its effects on individuals to the need for effective legal responses. While WBI has moved beyond being a shoestring operation, its resources pale compared to those of the Chamber of Commerce and the Society for Human Resource Management, two trade associations with very different takes on workplace bullying and the need for legal reform.

WBI has served as an important link between the practice and academic communities. From the start, the Namies made a concerted effort to link university professors, practitioners, and activists who are committed to addressing workplace bullying, and I believe that orientation played a critical role in creating a core community that respects both research and practice.

Ground level

Workplace bullying can lend itself to abstract theorizing, but it makes more sense when grasped at the ground level.

Thus, universities that welcome scholarship about workplace bullying may well be those that are neither fearful nor disdainful of the real world and do not greet the term “applied research” with knee-jerk hostility. They may be more likely to attract faculty and graduate students who have not led rarefied lives that might cause them to scoff at the notion of people and organizations suffering from the psychological abuse of employees.

Also, it is probable that workplace bullying, especially before it started to enter the mainstream of American employment relations, scared off more than a few potential professors and graduate students at elite schools because it seemed too risky to delve into something new and unexplored. Caution and timidity are two dominant, less-admirable traits of academe, and their hold can get stronger as one climbs the academic hierarchy.

Challenge

However, this relative paucity of elite institutional affiliations means that the American intellectual response to workplace bullying is something of a Little Engine That Could. While we can pat ourselves on the back for our populist look & feel, we also know that in traditional academe, institutional prestige counts for a lot with some folks.

Furthermore, in surveying law school employment law casebooks, industrial/organizational psychology treatises, labor relations texts, and the like, it is worth noting that workplace bullying still doesn’t get a lot of play. If workplace bullying is to become fully integrated into the study and practice of employment relations, that must change.

In sum, we academicians have our work cut out for us in terms of educating our colleagues about workplace bullying and its significance as a topic of research and study.

Bullying across the lifespan: In senior facilities, too

We know all about school bullying and workplace bullying. Now, sadly, we can talk about bullying in senior homes.

Like junior high

Paula Span, blogging for the New York Times (link here), reports:

This phenomenon, a sort of social bullying, apparently comes as no surprise to administrators of senior apartments, assisted living facilities, nursing homes and senior centers. “What happens to mean girls? Some of them go on to become mean old ladies,” said Marsha Frankel, clinical director of senior services at Jewish Family and Children’s Services in Boston, who has led workshops (innocuously called “Creating a Caring Community”) for staff and residents.

Span quotes a woman whose mother was bullied in an assisted care facility, referring to the behaviors as exclusionary and cliquish, much like junior high school.

Bullying across the lifespan

We need to keep connecting the dots. Bullying doesn’t stop once folks leave high school.

There is no one-size-fits-all response. Combinations of education, counseling, training, and legal intervention must be tailored to fit the various settings in which bullying occurs.

But it starts with acknowledging the ubiquity of these behaviors throughout our lives.

Maryland coalition

An example of this expansive approach is the Montgomery County [Maryland] Coalition for the Prevention of Bullying and Related Health Risks, an informal coalition of mental health providers and educators formed three years ago to address bullying behaviors.

Coalition members have been active in supporting legislation and public policy initiatives in Maryland that address bullying issues, especially within the schools.

Co-founder Dr. Jorge Srabstein of Children’s Medical Center in Washington D.C. has been promoting understanding of “bullying across the lifespan” as a way of grasping how abusive behaviors start at a young age and endure through our senior years, and the Coalition is a living manifestation of that commitment.

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