Will an improving job market lead to a rush of departures by unhappy workers?

The terrible economy has forced people to stay in jobs in which they are not happy. As Gary Namie at the Workplace Bullying Institute points out (link here), this means that a lot of workers have had to tolerate bad, even abusive, working conditions for lack of other choices.

But now, as sectors of the job market slowly show signs of improvement, folks are looking for greener pastures. Katie Johnston Chase of the Boston Globe suggests that even slight upticks in job openings could trigger a rush of departures by unhappy workers (link here):

Now, as the economy slowly improves, many disgruntled employees who waited out the worst of it are ready to jump ship.

Nearly two-thirds of employees are testing the job market, according to the 2011 Deloitte Human Capital Trends report. Another study by Metropolitan Life Insurance Co. found that 1 in 3 people want to quit their jobs this year.

…As workers gain confidence in an improving job market, a big dam is about to burst, employment specialists say. In some cases all it takes is one discouraged person leaving a company to give others the courage to do the same thing.

Overall, this is not a happy workforce. As a graphic accompanying the article shows (link here), employee loyalty has been on a steady decline since the 2008 meltdown.

Musical chairs?

But consider these questions: Does an improving job market mean that new, better jobs are being created, or are they simply variations on a not-so-great theme? And doesn’t this mean that to some extent, unhappy workers simply will be swapping jobs with other unhappy workers, while underlying problems at their respective workplaces go unaddressed?

The bottom line is that any kind of job creation right now helps people get back to work and offers more flexibility and opportunity for all job seekers. But we also need to be attentive to the quality of worklife, looking at how workplaces can become psychologically healthier so as to benefit workers and their employers alike.

Keashly and Neuman on workplace bullying in academe

This post is long overdue: Last year, Loraleigh Keashly and Joel Neuman, two pioneering scholars on workplace bullying and related topics, co-authored an excellent journal article on bullying of and by professors.

Their piece — “Faculty Experiences with Bullying in Higher Education: Causes, Consequences, and Management,” published in Administrative Theory & Praxis (abstract here) — synthesizes the literature on bullying in academe and concludes with recommendations. It should be considered a “must read” on the topic, a succinct complement to Ken Westhues‘s voluminous case studies of mobbing in academe.

Professors, are you nodding your heads yet?

Keashly and Neuman offer seven propositions based on their review and analysis of the data:

1. Bullying by faculty tends to be indirect rather than direct, due to the “norms of academic discourse and collegiality.”

2. Tenured faculty who are bullied are more likely than untenured faculty to reduce their commitments to institutional work.

3. Tenured faculty are more likely than untenured faculty to engage in “direct aggression and bullying” in response to “perceived norm violations.”

4. Tenured faculty tend to direct overtly aggressive behaviors toward untenured faculty, staff members, or students.

5. Tenured faculty tend to use “indirect forms of aggression” towards peers, department chairs, and senior administrators.

6. Untenured faculty are more likely to use “indirect and passive aggression” against the perceived sources of their stress and frustration.

7. Institutional cost-cutting measures are associated with “workplace aggression and bullying by faculty.”

I have a feeling these propositions resonate with a lot of people in academe. In fact, they’re so on point that some profs will be left wondering if Joel & Loraleigh had followed them around with video cameras!

Prevention and response

The authors offer sensible measures to address these behaviors. First and foremost, they favor early actions that prevent scenarios “from escalating into increasingly hostile and damaging situations such as bullying.” These include building faculty awareness and establishing clear and transparent personnel policies regarding promotion, tenure, and performance review.

When conflicts arise, the authors recommend that informal approaches be taken before a situation becomes deeply adversarial. However, various types of mediation, arbitration, and legal process may be necessary.

Without saying so directly, it’s clear that the authors understand the, well, quirkiness of professors, including the fact that interpersonal skills may not be as well developed as analytical ones! Indeed, the value of this piece is reinforced by the authors’ deep and subtle understanding of both workplace bullying and the culture of academic life.


The full article can be ordered here. Some readers may have free online access to the piece through institutional subscriptions.


Related posts

Study on incivility toward graduate students reports effects similar to workplace bullying

Tenure decisions and bullying in academe

More on bullying, mobbing, and harassment in academe

Workplace bullying and mobbing in academe: The hell of heaven?

Recycling: On making a difference, engaged leadership, and a New American Dream

From the archives of this blog, cogitations for change agents:

1. Advice to Young (and Not So Young) Folks Who Want to Make a Difference (October 2009) — “If you want to make a difference, find something you care about and stick with it. Look around you: Most of the difference makers have staying power. They are driven by heartfelt commitment and a desire to do something meaningful.”

2. Wheatley’s call for fearlessness and engagement (July 2009) — Organizational change expert Margaret Wheatley: “If leaders took the time to engage people instead of clamping down on them, not only would employees perform better, they’d also be more innovative and focused.”

3. Greider’s New American Dream (May 2009) — Journalist William Greider: “Here is the grand vision I suggest Americans can pursue: the right of all citizens to larger lives. Not to get richer than the next guy or necessarily to accumulate more and more stuff but the right to live life more fully and engage more expansively the elemental possibilities of human existence.”


[Editor’s Note: In addition to maintaining a list of articles that have remained very popular on this blog — see the Popular and Notable Posts page — every month or so I’m recycling relevant posts from more than a year ago. Hopefully they will be of interest to newer readers.]

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.


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.


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.


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.

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