Our low “spirit level”: America ranks 27th out of 31 nations in global social justice study

Based on measures of social justice, America ranks 27th among 31 member nations of the Organization for Economic Co-Operation and Development (OECD), according to “Social Justice in the OECD — How Do the Member States Compare?,” a report released last week by Bertelsmann Stiftung, a private German foundation.

Here are some of the low points for the U.S. in the report:

  • 28th in income inequality
  • 29th in poverty prevention
  • 28th in child poverty
  • 22nd in unemployment and long-term unemployment
  • 20th in access to education
  • 23rd in health care
  • 25th in debt levels

In no category does the U.S. place in the higher ranks.

Overall, the four nations ranked immediately above the U.S. are Portugal, Slovakia, South Korea, and Spain. Only Greece, Chile, Mexico, and Turkey rank below the U.S.

“We should be ashamed”

New York Times columnist Charles M. Blow references the study and writes:

We have not taken care of the least among us. We have allowed a revolting level of income inequality to develop. We have watched as millions of our fellow countrymen have fallen into poverty. And we have done a poor job of educating our children and now threaten to leave them a country that is a shell of its former self. We should be ashamed.

The Times also prepared an excellent graphic that highlights selected measures in the report. The full report is only 50+ pages, with lots of easy-to-read charts and summaries.

America’s “spirit level”

In The Spirit Level: Why Greater Equality Makes Societies Stronger (rev. ed. 2010), British epidemiologists Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett examined comparative economic and social data and found that social and health problems worsen as inequality grows.

In fact, overall wealth is less predictive than distribution of wealth in forecasting the well-being of a populace. In terms of public health, they found that while the poor are the biggest beneficiaries of greater equality, the wealthy make gains as well. Here’s a short YouTube video of Wilkinson and Pickett explaining their book:

The U.S. fares poorly in The Spirit Level as well, mirroring the findings of the OECD study.


What else is there to say? America, we’ve got our work cut out for us.

Sunday School: A video about a different way of seeing others

On Monday morning, many of us will start into our daily and weekly routines, and some of which will include life’s everyday hassles and aggravations.

This video starts out that way, too. And although the man featured in it may seem a bit whiney and self-centered as he deals with bad drivers, long lines, and inconsiderate people, it’s not as if many of us haven’t felt the same way.

Give this 4+ minute video a chance. It’s produced by a church whose beliefs I don’t fully agree with — my own faith being very much a work in progress — but the video itself makes no effort to proselytize or even talk about religion. It has nothing to do with work, politics, or the economy. It’s just a good, healthy, yet modest life message that could stick with you longer than a dozen sermons.

It makes me think about my subway commute to and from home and work. Although I like the convenience of being able to read the paper or a book on the subway, people can be loud and rude, and on occasion I let it affect my disposition. Maybe this will encourage me to look at the experience a little differently.


Hat tip: Andrea Gamba Mariani


Study: Legal secretaries don’t like working for female attorneys

Here’s a study that will fuel thorny discussions about female-to-female working relationships in the office: As reported by the ABA Journal (link to article by Debra Cassens Weiss, here), “(w)hen Chicago-Kent law professor Felice Batlan surveyed 142 legal secretaries at larger law firms in 2009, not one expressed a preference for working with a female partner.” Ninety-five percent of the online survey respondents self-identified as female.

Here are some of the comments left by survey respondents:

• “Females are harder on their female assistants, more detail oriented, and they have to try harder to prove themselves, so they put that on you. And they are passive aggressive where a guy will just tell you the task and not get emotionally involved and make it personal.”

• “I just feel that men are a little more flexible and less emotional than women. This could be because the female partners feel more pressure to perform.”

• “Female attorneys have a tendency to downgrade a legal secretary.”

• “I am a female legal secretary, but I avoid working for women because [they are] such a pain in the ass! They are too emotional and demeaning.”

• “Female attorneys are either mean because they’re trying to be like their male counterparts or too nice/too emotional because they can’t handle the stress. Either way, their attitude/lack of maturity somehow involves you being a punching bag.”

• Women lawyers have “an air about them.”


Professor Batlan interpreted the results for the ABA Journal:

Batlan wondered if legal secretaries’ attitudes toward women lawyers is influenced by societal expectations. “For a woman to serve a man is an arrangement that conforms to and reproduces dominant and traditional, although contested and changing, gender arrangements,” she writes. “Gender structures tell men that they are entitled to women’s help and that women are supposed to freely give it.”

Other possible reasons: Men still have the power in law firms, and legal secretaries want to work for those in power. Or women lawyers may be more abrupt because of tensions created by conflicts between work and family. Or female lawyers may perceive that the secretaries are willing to do more work for male than women bosses, creating frictions.

Can female-to-female workplace bullying research shed some light?

From my anecdotal observations, even today female attorneys are indeed put between a rock and a hard place. A profession grounded in very stereotypically male behavior expects lawyers to be sharp-edged advocates. However, women perceived as being “strong” are more likely to be judged harshly, while those perceived as being “nice” are more likely to be judged as “weak.”

The Batlan study also resonates with research being done on female-to-female workplace bullying. I’m copying into this post a portion of a previous piece that I wrote in April, “Female-to-female workplace bullying: Homespun theory on an imperfect storm.” I believe it’s very relevant to this topic:

An imperfect storm

So why does female-to-female bullying get such attention? And why does this aggressor-target combination appear to exact such a high price from those on the receiving end? Here is how I connect the dots, based on the observations above and my own surmise:


First, if women tend to bully more indirectly, they will be regarded more negatively. In our culture, we regard covert and indirect attacks as more devious than overt and direct attacks. In some ways, they are more frightening to us.

Think in military terms: “Sneak attacks” are always considered more treacherous and “cowardly,” sometimes associated with “unmanliness.” Direct attacks are considered more “honorable,” even when less effective.

Thus, when women bully in ways consistent with statistical indications, their actions will be judged more harshly than those who bully directly.


Second, if women perceive incivility more readily than do men, then they are more likely to recognize and struggle with indirect or covert behaviors that some men may never even notice. It means that women will suffer more due to bullying behaviors.

Double standard

Third, generally speaking, women are judged more harshly than men in the workplace. A male manager may be regarded as “tough,” while a female manager may be called a “b—h” for acting in the same manner.


Fourth, it’s quite possible that, especially in professional workplaces, female subordinates enter an organization half-expecting female supervisors to be more supportive and mentoring, rather than hostile and undermining. When they experience incivility at the hands of these individuals, their sense of betrayal is more palpable.


Finally, if female bullies are more adept at enlisting others to join in on the mistreatment, this may give rise to more mobbing-type behaviors.

Adding it up

These factors coalesce into an imperfect storm, whereby women who have been treated poorly or even abusively at work by other women are more likely to perceive the behaviors in very negative and hurtful ways. It may help to explain, for example, why female-dominated professions such as nursing have cultures of incivility — “nurses eat their young” is a well-known quip — grounded in characterizations of “catty” aggression.

This also means that women have to be more self-aware of their behaviors than do men, on average. It is unfair that women who mistreat others may be judged more severely than men who act in the same way, but that is an enduring reality.

Recycling: Perspectives on the workplace anti-bullying movement

For those who are veterans of the American movement to stop workplace bullying, the commentary in these posts may be old stuff, but for relative newcomers to the cause, they may provide helpful background:

1. A brief history of the emergence of the U.S. workplace bullying movement (January 2010) — A brief history of a (still) very young movement.

2. Immersion in the Twisted World of Abuse at Work (January 2009) — Reflections on the 6th International Conference on Workplace Bullying, held at the University of Quebec at Montreal in 2008.

3. The U.S. Workplace Bullying Movement at 10 (December 2008) — Assessing the progress of, and challenges facing, this nascent social movement.

[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.]

Can workplace incivility ever be healthy?

Have you ever been in an argument that became heated and angry, but concluded with a resolution of differences and perhaps even the strengthening of a friendship or relationship?  If so, was expressing anger part of the path toward getting to a better place?

Sorting and working through differences can be emotional stuff. We care about what’s being discussed. Egos enter the picture. At times, perceived injustices are involved. On occasion, past baggage can play a role.

Sometimes we need to express our emotions in order to move toward resolution. The decibel level may rise — hopefully not too high — and harsh words may be exchanged before our better natures prevail.

What about work?

Those of us who study workplaces generally assume that incivility is a bad thing. After all, an interaction involving incivility can ruin a work day, especially if it comes from your boss. At times, incivility can elevate into active disrespect and even bullying. When such behaviors run rampant, their sum total makes for a lousy workplace. So…less incivility beats more incivility, hands down.

However, there are times when incivility may be an understandable consequence of a disagreement or difference of opinion. Such exchanges — often marked by the use of otherwise rude, harsh, or offensive words — can clear the air, hopefully paving the way toward a healthy resolution.

In fact, when these feelings are buried, they may lead to passive-aggressive behaviors that only make things worse. On an institutional level, the unavailability of emotional release valves may fuel what psychologists Linda Hartling and Elizabeth Sparks call “pseudo-relational” cultures, i.e., workplace cultures that value superficial “niceness” over constructive change and honest dialogue.

Caveats and definitions

Of course, there are some big caveats here. I’m not suggesting that any workplace become an emotional free-for-all; we all need to exercise a degree of self-control. In addition, when “clearing the air” opens the door to a more powerful party exacting retribution on the less powerful one, well, that compounds a nasty situation. We also need to understand how differing power relationships affect how communications are perceived.

Furthermore, I realize that many definitions of workplace incivility cover behaviors that some of us would deem bullying. Without parsing all those variations, I’ll simply say that when incivility morphs into targeted, abusive bullying that affects someone’s job performance and well-being, it’s never an acceptable method of “resolving” differences.

The role of the law

I think we should leave it to individuals and organizations to wrestle over questions of what constitutes civil vs. uncivil behavior. When it comes to legal standards, I agree with the Supreme Court’s sentiments, repeated in major decisions interpreting sexual harassment law, that the law should not become a workplace “civility code.”

But once that work environment becomes abusive, it’s time for the law to step in. We have some of those protections in place today when situations involve discrimination and harassment based on protected class membership such as sex, race, religion, or disability. Unfortunately, a gaping hole in the law remains with workplace bullying, and that’s why I drafted the anti-bullying Healthy Workplace Bill and why advocates across the country are asking state legislatures to enact it.

Incivility vs. bullying

At times I have used terms such as bullying and incivility somewhat interchangeably. But in reality, there often are stark differences. Workplace bullying is a form of abuse. It involves a party or parties exercising institutional and/or personal power over another in a hurtful way.

By contrast, some expressions of incivility, while not enjoyable or advisable as a general state of affairs, can be part of a process of resolving workplace differences and disputes, at least under the right circumstances.


Related posts

Crushing student loan debt: America indentures its next generations

If you’re wondering why many educated young folks are becoming part of the Occupy movement that is sweeping the nation, the horrible job market and crushing student loan debt make for a powerful motivation.

Perhaps this signals a long-awaited awakening. Maybe, just maybe, they are beginning to understand that preceding generations — having created an economy that sank under the weight of subprime loans and easy credit — are front loading the costs of further education and training onto their shoulders.

Human toll

In a segment for National Public Radio (link here), Jennifer Ludden tells the story:

With the nation’s student-loan debt climbing toward $1 trillion, it’s taking many young people longer than ever to pay off their loans. Two-thirds of college students now graduate with debt, owing an average of $24,000. But some borrow far more and find this debt influencing major life decisions long after graduation.

Ludden goes on to tell the stories of graduates who are dealing with debt so mountainous as to negatively affect plans concerning careers, marriage, and children. Escalating monthly payments of over $1,000 are not unusual, with some payment plans stretching out over 30 years.

Some of the culprits

Alex Pareene, writing for Salon (via AlterNet, here), aptly observes that members of older generations who attended college when it was more affordable just don’t get it:

They don’t understand that these kids accepted a home mortgage worth of debt before they ever even had a regular income, based on phony promises, and that the debt is inescapable, regardless of life circumstances or ability to pay.

Bankruptcy laws

Those who are unable to secure a decent job in this meltdown economy cannot look to the bankruptcy courts for relief, thanks to a federal bankruptcy law that was largely written by the credit card industry:

Thanks to the horrific 2005 bankruptcy bill, one of the most nakedly venal modern examples of Congress serving the interests of the rentiers and creditors over the vast majority, debtors cannot discharge student loans through bankruptcy. The government is shielded from the risk, and creditors are licensed to collect by almost any means they deem necessary, giving no one in charge any real incentive (beyond basic human decency) to fix the situation.

For-profit universities

Pareene also singles out a group of powerful, wealthy for-profit universities who are enrolling economically vulnerable individuals and saddling them with student loan debt in return for degrees of marginal value:

The impossibility of escaping student loan debt is why an industry sprang up to foist useless, overpriced degrees on vulnerable people. It’s a scam, but a profitable one, and respectable enough for major establishment players to feel comfortable making a killing on it.

(Without defending the avaricious business practices of some of the for-profit universities, I would add that many of the so-called non-profit schools and state universities are charging exorbitant tuition rates, also requiring students to go deeply into debt.)

A coming meltdown?

The human toll of these loans on new graduates is bad enough. But what happens if these indentured souls become largely unable to pay off their educational debts and start defaulting en masse?

More than a few banks have made out like bandits from the student loan industry. It’s not unlike how they and their brethren cashed in on the corrupt subprime housing market — until, that is, the bottom fell out. Are they — and we — about to pay for excessive profiteering from student borrowing?

For years, those in the know about higher education financing have suggested that college tuition and student debt are reaching unsustainable levels. I believe we have arrived at that scary and precarious moment. Stay tuned.


Oct. 26 update: Very coincidentally, the Obama Administration announced yesterday that in 2012 it will institute a cap on student loan repayments, limiting them to no more than 10 percent of a graduate’s income. Alister Bull reports for Reuters, here.

Quiet cover-ups

See Hear Speak No Evil Monkey

(image courtesy of Clipart Library)

Several years ago, a young woman who was following developments concerning workplace bullying shared a personal story with me.

She once held a job as an administrative assistant, and her boss had been sexually harassing her. She described how his conduct was both verbal and physical, and in my view it likely constituted a hostile work environment in violation of employment discrimination laws. In addition, her boss was known for having harassed other young female employees.

She reported the harassment to the human resources director, who promptly told her there was nothing that could be done about her boss’s wrongful behavior. Instead, she was offered a lower paying position in a different department. Because she was relying on her employer’s tuition subsidy benefit for employees completing degree programs, she reluctantly accepted this less-than-ideal “resolution.”

Quiet cover-ups

When we contemplate cover-ups and corruption in organizations, we typically envision high-profile corporate and political scandals involving lots of money and/or power.

But quiet, more modest cover-ups, such as this one committed by a complicit HR director who protected a harassing boss and the organization from being held accountable, occur with much greater frequency. In these instances, those who opt not to file lawsuits in response to illegal behavior — often for understandable reasons — are left to cope as best they can.

A true test of institutional integrity is how an employer responds to complaints from workers near the bottom of the organizational chart who make credible reports of unlawful conduct. It is easy to bury these complaints — especially, for example, when the aggrieved party is a young woman who does not wish to make waves.

These ground-level corruptions, however, are indicative of an employer that lacks a commitment to ethical behavior. Is it an exaggeration to suggest that such an organization has the core potential to become the Enron of tomorrow?

Occupy movement goes global: 900 cities and counting

The social protest movement that started several weeks ago with Occupy Wall Street has gone global, as Esther Addley reports for Guardian newspaper (link here):

  • 60,000 protesters in Barcelona, Spain
  • 25,000 in Santiago, Chile
  • 5,000+ “massed outside the European Central Bank” in Frankfurt, Germany
  • 4,000 in London
  • 3,000 in Auckland, New Zealand

Addley adds:

The Occupy campaign may have hoped, at its launch, to inspire similar action elsewhere, but few can have foreseen that within four weeks, more than 900 cities around the world would host co-ordinated protests directly or loosely affiliated to the Occupy cause.

Testifying on the human costs: Occupy the Boardroom

As protests mount, others are finding ways to spread the message online. Joshua Holland, writing for AlterNet (link here) reports on Occupy the Boardroom, a project that allows members of the public to share personal stories of what the economic meltdown has done to them and their families. For example, here is what one woman from North Carolina wrote to fellow Tar Heel Erskine Bowles, co-chair of the President’s national debt commission:

Like you I’m from the Tar Heel state so I thought I’d tell you my story. A couple of years ago my father died waiting for a liver transplant. It was an ugly, horrible death and left me parentless while still in my 20s. My brother and I inherited the small ranch-style house my father worked his whole life to pay off. (Our mother died during our childhoods.) I wanted to take care of my father’s money so I invested it. Six months later I had lost over half of it when the crash happened. I lost half of my father’s life savings because of the corrupt practices of Wall Street. My father worked his whole life. He was the 11th child of a sharecropping family and was sent to the cotton fields before he was ten. He completed high school but there was no money for college so he went to work at blue-collar jobs which he used to support us his whole life.

When I think of the money I lost, I think of my father’s hands. I think of his broken, scarred hands that built a home and future for me. It wasn’t just money that Wall Street stole. Futures, trust, hard work and respect — those are the things Wall Street corruption has stolen from the American People, not just money. I don’t think everyone on Wall Street is corrupt, but the system is, and I want to do my part to correct it, even if it’s just writing a letter like this. I owe my father that. Mr. Bowles, I hope you do your part too. Because of your position, you are a powerful person in our society. So I ask you, how will you use your power? What will your legacy be?


Watch and listen to this catchy video and song above, “We Are the 99%,” posted on YouTube.

Related posts

Economics 101: Defining terms and saving capitalism from itself

From “punk-styled kids” to airline pilots, is Occupy Wall Street the start of something big?

Post-meltdown America: An economic recovery for the wealthy

Globalization and workers 101: A quick primer

Website of the Week: APA’s Psychologically Healthy Workplace Program

Especially given this week’s observance of Freedom from Workplace Bullies Week 2011 (October 16-22), it’s fitting to highlight the American Psychological Association’s Psychologically Healthy Workplace Program (PHWP).

The PHWP describes itself this way:

The Psychologically Healthy Workplace Program (PHWP) is a collaborative effort between the American Psychological Association and the APA Practice Organization, designed to educate the employer community about the link between employee health and well-being and organizational performance. ThePHWP includes APA’s Psychologically Healthy Workplace Awards, a variety ofAPA Practice Organization resources, including PHWP Web content, e-newsletter, podcast and blog, and support of local programs….

The website contains a lot of useful, free content, and merits some time spent exploring. A few highlights:

Psychologically Healthy Workplace Awards

Each year, the PHWP recognizes a small number of employers across the nation for creating psychologically healthy workplaces:

Nominees are selected from a pool of previous local winners and evaluated on their workplace practices in the areas of employee involvement, health and safety, employee growth and development, work-life balance and employee recognition.

You may go here for further descriptions of the 2011 Award winners:

  • Cross, Gunter, Witherspoon & Galchus (Arkansas)
  • eXude Benefits Group (Pennsylvania)
  • San Jorge Children’s Hospital (Puerto Rico)
  • First Horizon (Tennessee)
  • Northeast Delta Dental (New Hampshire)
  • Kaiser Permanente Center for Health Research, Northwest (Oregon)
  • The MITRE Corporation (Virginia)
  • City of Grand Prairie (Texas)

Current Good Company newsletter highlights workplace bullying

At the website, you also can sign up for a free subscription to the PHWP’s online newsletter, Good Company.

The lead article in the October 19 issue is Dr. Donna M.L. Heretick’s “Recognizing and Confronting Workplace Bullying,” which gives a solid overview of the topic and concludes with a suggested model for organizational responses:

A step-wise model of mandated responses might be:

  • “Informal intervention” for single incidents of unprofessional behavior;
  • Level 1, “awareness intervention” where a pattern of behavior is being identified;
  • Level 2, “authority intervention” where the pattern continues; and,
  • Level 3, “disciplinary intervention” where there appears to be no improvement after previous interventions or the first offense is notably egregious (Hickson, Pichert, Webb, & Gabbe, 2007).

Personal kudos

I’m a fan of the PHWP for personal reasons as well as professional ones.

One of my earliest blog posts mentioned the Psychologically Healthy Workplace Awards. However, rather than crediting the APA for creating an awards program using important, relevant factors, I criticized them — in a somewhat snarky tone — for what they didn’t measure, then proceeded to announce what criteria I thought were important.

Yup, I had used a cheap straw man tool to make a point. But instead of taking this law-professor-turned-organizational-psychology-commentator to task, Drs. David Ballard and Matthew Grawitch of the PHWP left a collegial, even-handed comment, thanking me for my post and explaining why the APA used certain criteria in making the awards.

As someone new to blogging, their response was a gracious lesson to me in healthy online dialogue. Since then, on several occasions Dave Ballard and the PHWP have featured posts from Minding the Workplace on their Facebook and Twitter pages and blog. In short, they walk the talk, and I am very appreciative.

“On Limiting the Abusive Exercise of Employer Power”

For legal geeks like me, one of the starting places for understanding the modern state of workers’ rights is a classic 1967 Columbia Law Review article by University of Kansas law professor Lawrence Blades, “Employment at Will vs. Individual Freedom: On Limiting the Abusive Exercise of Employer Power.” He opened his article with these words:

It is a widely accepted proposition that large corporations now pose a threat to individual freedom comparable to that which would be posed if governmental power were unchecked. The proposition need not, however, be limited to the mammoth business corporation, for the freedom of the individual is threatened whenever he becomes dependent upon a private entity possessing greater power than himself. Foremost among the relationships of which this generality is true is that of employer and employee.

Blades noted that the underlying assumptions supporting the dominant rule of at-will employment — which allows an employer to terminate an employee for any reason or no reason at all — were no longer applicable:

Such a philosophy of the employer’s dominion over his employee may have fit the rustic simplicity of the days when the farmer or small entrepreneur, who may or may not have employed others, was the epitome of American individualism. But the philosophy is incompatible with these days of large, impersonal, corporate employers; it does not comport with the need to preserve individual freedom in today’s job-oriented, industrial society.

He would go on to argue that at-will employment should be supplanted by legal rights that protect workers against wrongful discharge.

Fast forward

Blades’s article is considered a seminal commentary on the increasingly lopsided allocation of power in the modern employment relationship. Although he may not have fully anticipated the growth of the service sector and the non-profit sector and the significance of employment discrimination law, his success is in how he foresaw the expansion of private economic power and shaped the thinking of employment law scholars and other legal stakeholders.

Although courts and legislatures have fashioned myriad exceptions to at-will employment since then, most American workers remain employed on this basis and generally can be fired for any reason that doesn’t violate employment discrimination laws, a variety of whistleblower and anti-retaliation provisions, and a handful of other protections.

Workplace bullying

Among the more common forms of employee mistreatment, workplace bullying remains the most frequently neglected by American employment law. And because supervisors and bosses are the most frequent perpetrators of bullying behaviors (at least in the U.S.), Blades’s concerns about the imbalance of power in the American workforce are especially applicable.

When a worker is bullied by a boss, all too often the abuse falls outside of existing worker protections. However, if an employee complains about workplace bullying or attempts to stand up to an abusive supervisor, the rule of at-will employment permits the employer to discharge her in summary fashion.

This is why I wrote the Healthy Workplace Bill, which gives severely bullied workers a legal claim for damages, creates legal incentives for employers to act preventively and responsively toward bullying behaviors, and protect those who report or file a legal action in response to workplace bullying. It’s also why I wholeheartedly support Freedom from Workplace Bullies Week (Oct. 16-22), which serves to educate the public about workplace bullying and what we can do to stop it.


Full citation: Lawrence E. Blades, “Employment at Will vs. Individual Freedom: On Limiting the Abusive Exercise of Employer Power,” 67 Columbia Law Review 1404 (1967). (Although I am unable to provide copies to readers, the article is available via subscription databases such as JSTOR, Westlaw, and Lexis/Nexis.)

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