Prof says “Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer” promotes bullying

Credit: CBS.com

Santa may need a mediator to sort out this brouhaha, but there’s a professor at Long Island University who claims that the CBS holiday television classic “Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer” promotes bullying.

Reindeer games

As reported by Pittsburgh’s CBS affiliate KDKA (link here), Long Island University special education professor George Giuliani “says ‘Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer’ promotes bullying.” He’s even written “a book about it called ‘No More Bullies on the North Pole.'”

According to the professor, “the message that Rudolph’s uniqueness must have a useful purpose for Rudolph to be accepted is the wrong message for our children.”

Psychologist Paul Friday, interviewed by KDKA, takes a different view:

I think the idea that you can take something as innocent and as nice as “Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer” and pull some kind of psychological or sociological pathology and place it on there – I think this guy has too much time on his hands.

Maybe I need a life

Okay, I’m actually going to dig deeper into this one.

To me, “Rudolph” is a great ANTI-bullying tale. The story makes us feel sorry for Rudolph, Hermey the Elf/Dentist, and all the denizens of the Island of Misfit Toys, and it teaches us that everyone brings something worthwhile to this world.

If you’re a little kid soaking it in, it teaches you about empathy and being accepting of differences and individual choices. Rudolph is ridiculed and ostracized because of a physical difference. Hermey is bullied by the senior elf because he’d rather be a dentist. The Misfit Toys are forgotten by Santa every year. But ultimately, the story ends in their acceptance.

And with that said, I’ll return to watching DVDs of “The Wire.” Have a holly jolly holiday, everyone!

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Hat tip to John Smurda of Ohio Healthy Workplace Advocates for the KDKA piece!

At-will employment and the legality of workplace bullying: A brutal combo punch

In the U.S., the combination of at-will employment and the lack of protections against workplace bullying make for a brutal combo punch that often leaves mistreated workers legally powerless.

In October I wrote a short post criticizing the rule of at-will employment, which allows an employer to terminate an employee for any reason or no reason at all. In America — in contrast to many other nations — at-will is the presumptive employment relationship.

This leaves workers especially vulnerable when they are subjected to severe workplace bullying by a supervisor, enabled by the employer. Because most bullying falls outside the protections of current employment law, workers have scant legal recourse, and employers have little incentive (at least from a liability standpoint) to act preventively and responsively.

Hollomon v. Keadle

When I first started researching potential legal protections against workplace bullying, I assumed that a tort claim called intentional infliction of emotional distress (IIED) would provide severely abused workers with sufficient redress.

I was in for a big surprise: Most bullying-type lawsuits that allege IIED are unsuccessful, with courts routinely dismissing claims even before they get to trial, mostly on grounds that the offending behavior was not sufficiently outrageous. (Furthermore, in many states, IIED claims against employers are precluded by workers’ compensation laws.)

My “poster case” for this reasoning came in Hollomon v. Keadle, a 1996 Arkansas Supreme Court decisions that involved a female employee, Hollomon, who worked for a male physician, Keadle, for two years before she voluntarily left the job.

Hollomon claimed that during this period of employment, “Keadle repeatedly cursed her and referred to her with offensive terms, such as ‘white nigger,’ ‘slut,’ ‘whore,’ and ‘the ignorance of Glenwood, Arkansas’.” Keadle repeatedly used profanity in front of his employees and patients, and he frequently remarked that women working outside the home were “whores and prostitutes.”

According to Hollomon, Keadle “told her that he had connections with the mob” and mentioned “that he carried a gun,” allegedly to “intimidate her and to suggest that he would have her killed if she quit or caused trouble.” Hollomon claimed that as a result of this conduct, she suffered from “stomach problems, loss of sleep, loss of self-esteem, anxiety attacks, and embarrassment.”

The Arkansas Supreme Court ruled that even if every one of Hollomon’s allegations were true, Keadle’s behaviors were not sufficiently outrageous to allow the case to proceed to trial.

Hypothetically speaking

You may be thinking, what about self-help measures? What if Hollomon had stood up to this guy and basically told him off, perhaps right there in the waiting room where he routinely humiliated her in front of patients? What if she would’ve told him, you pompous, threatening jerk, how can you treat me like this in front of your own patients? Have you no decency?

Had this occurred, the rule of at-will employment would’ve permitted Keadle to fire Hollomon immediately, on the spot, while adding a few more choice words on his own.

No free speech rights

But then you might ask, doesn’t Hollomon have a right of free speech under the First Amendment? Doesn’t she have a right to dish it right back to Keadle?

In a nutshell, no. Constitutional free-speech protections do not apply to private-sector employees. (They also are very limited for public-sector workers.) While it’s possible that anti-retaliation provisions of other laws might protect certain types of whistle blowing and reporting activities, there are no obvious possibilities under this scenario.

Indeed, had this been a larger medical practice with an HR office, the at-will rule would’ve permitted the firing of Hollomon merely for filing a complaint about Keadle. The only remotely viable avenue that I can see for Hollomon in approaching HR, looking at it from a 2011 rather than 1996 lens, is taking some of Doc Keadle’s abusive language and trying to fashion it into a sexual harassment complaint. But that could be a stretch.

Yes, there’s more

Let’s take this scenario one more step. Suppose that after being terminated following her hypothetical outburst in the waiting room, Hollomon applied for unemployment benefits.

Unfortunately, it’s possible the employer could successfully oppose her claim on grounds she was fired for misconduct. You see, misconduct is one of the standard reasons why unemployment benefits can be denied. While state courts and agencies vary widely in what they define as misconduct, in some states this may be sufficient to deny her application.

One-way boxing match

Talk about a one-two punch: The combination of at-will employment and the general legality of workplace bullying means that an employee being subjected to targeted, ongoing psychological abuse at the hands of a supervisor often has little, if any, legal protection to stand upon.

It’s cases like Hollomon v. Keadle that prompted me to draft the Healthy Workplace Bill, which provides severely bullied workers with a claim for damages, creates legal incentives for employers to minimize potential liability, and protects those who report workplace bullying from retaliation. After all, one-way boxing matches are monstrously cruel, even if they are “just” a battle of words.

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For more about the Healthy Workplace Bill, please go here.

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For serious study

If you really want to study the relevant inadequacies of current American employment law, several of my law review articles will either keep you up all night or help you get to sleep:

The Phenomenon of ‘Workplace Bullying’ and the Need for Status-Blind Hostile Work Environment Protection – Georgetown Law Journal, 2000 (first comprehensive law review article on workplace bullying, including a thorough discussion of IIED claims for workplace bullying-type behaviors).

Voices from the Cubicle: Protecting and Encouraging Private Employee Speech in the Post-Industrial WorkplaceBerkeley Journal of Employment and Labor Law, 1998 (explains why private-sector employees have few free speech rights; slightly dated but basic legal discussion largely holds up today).

Human Dignity and American Employment Law – University of Richmond Law Review, 2009 (setting out the philosophical and public policy parameters for a system of employment law that safeguards human dignity).

Building a global society that embraces human dignity

I’ve just had the privilege of participating in the annual workshop of the Human Dignity and Humiliation Studies (HumanDHS) Network, a global gathering of scholars and practitioners devoted to advancing dignity and ending humiliation in our society. The workshop was held on Thursday and Friday at Teachers College of Columbia University.

Here’s how HumanDHS describes its mission:

We are a global transdisciplinary network and fellowship of concerned academics and practitioners. We wish to stimulate systemic change, globally and locally, to open space for dignity and mutual respect and esteem to take root and grow, thus ending humiliating practices and breaking cycles of humiliation throughout the world.

We suggest that a frame of cooperation and shared humility is necessary – not a mindset of humiliation – if we wish to build a better world, a world of equal dignity for all.

It’s not easy for me to capture to breadth and depth of this gathering. In programmatic terms, it consists of several roundtable discussions, dialogue sessions, and lectures (plus a dash of live musical entertainment) — in other words, on the surface it may appear to be just another conference. But what happens during that time is very special, a sharing of experiences, research, ideas, and actions ranging from trauma and healing in Romania to cultural issues implicated by English language instruction in Zanzibar. You can look at the overall agenda here.

Leaders

The founding president of HumanDHS is Dr. Evelin Lindner, a physician, psychologist, and self-styled global citizen whose life mission is rooted in the displacement of her family during the ravages of the First and Second World Wars. Evelin speaks in visionary terms of what our society can become, and she’s ever conscious of how pain and trauma call upon us to embrace those ideals.

The director of HumanDHS is Dr. Linda Hartling, a psychologist and leading authority on relational-cultural theory who worked with renowned psychiatrist Jean Baker Miller. Linda’s work in identifying different types of workplace cultures is one of the most valuable framing concepts I’ve encountered in trying to grasp variations in organizational life.

Evelin and Linda would be quick to emphasize that HumanDHS is a large assemblage of people dedicated to both scholarship and action. Ideas, research, and theory are deeply respected. Concrete actions to advance positive individual and social change are celebrated.

World Dignity University

This year’s workshop also served as a sort of brainstorming session about a new HumanDHS initiative, the World Dignity University, described as follows:

The education branch of Human Dignity and Humiliation Studies (HumanDHS) aims to increase our understanding of the negative consequences of humiliation and generate support of alternative approaches that promote human dignity. We have therefore begun in 2010 to form a World Dignity University.

We wish to disseminate the research findings related to dignity (with humiliation as its violation) to a wide variety of audiences. Thereby we wish to contribute to the capacity of people to build peaceful societies and be mindful of how humiliation may disrupt the social fabric and how social cohesion may be sustained by preventing humiliation from occurring.

Although still in the very early stages of development, World Dignity University will offer educational programs and a university press dedicated to addressing human dignity and humiliation. I’m tremendously excited about its potential. See the video clip above for more of Evelin’s and Linda’s ideas about this initiative.

Personal appreciation

My discovery of HumanDHS several years ago has been a genuine gift, made possible by the welcoming spirit of its pioneering core group. Today I serve on the HumanDHS global advisory board, at this year’s workshop I shared some of my work concerning workplace bullying and the practice of intellectual activism.

In addition, I join with New York Law School professor Michael Perlin — a leading authority on mental health law — in having strong connections to both the HumanDHS Network and the Therapeutic Jurisprudence movement, the latter of which has been a common topic on this blog.

Workplace bullying and families of targets

Workplace bullying often creates victims in addition to the target of the abuse. In particular, close family members often pay a price as well, as personal relationships are severely tested and sometimes fractured.

Many bullying targets, and those who have interviewed, counseled, and coached them, have known this for a long time. Now, emerging research is helping to build the evidence-based case. Here are two helpful pieces:

“Workplace Mobbing: Individual and Family Health Consequences”

Maureen Duffy and Len Sperry co-authored a 2007 piece, “Workplace Mobbing: Individual and Family Health Consequences,” Family Journal (2007) (abstract here; subscription necessary to access full article):

Family members of mobbing victims, of course, are significantly affected. . . . The victim’s preoccupation with the mobbing experience is likely to result in both obsessive preoccupation and general lack of communication or in a need to constantly talk about the mobbing as if it were the only aspect of the victim’s life. …If the victim is forced out of a job, the resulting loss of income causes financial stresses and the ensuing strain of shame and humiliation of not being the provider he or she once was.

Depending on the circumstances of a mobbing victim’s expulsion from the workplace, questions about reemployability may surface, affecting the entire family in a profound way. The victim’s shame and humiliation may then come to encompass other members of the family. Marriages in which one spouse was a mobbing victim will be affected at every level of the relationship.

“The Fallout from Abusive Supervision: an Examination of Subordinates and Their Partners”

Dawn Carlson and Merideth Ferguson, with Pamela Perrewe and Dwayne Whitten co-authored this newly published study, “The Fallout from Abusive Supervision: an Examination of Subordinates and Their Partners,” Personnel Psychology (2011) (link here; subscription necessary to access pdf):

(O)ur first theoretical contribution is that abusive supervision contributes to the experience of work-to-family conflict and relationship tension. Further, abusive supervision works through work-to-family conflict to contribute to relationship tension. Thus, our research contributes to abusive supervision research in demonstrating that these stressful events do not just affect subordinates while at work but also contribute to the experienced strain of the subordinate and his or her partner….

…Our second theoretical contribution is that the negative experiences from abuse cross over into the family domain of the partner as well as the family domain of the subordinate via the tension in the marital relationship.

…Consistent with displaced aggression theory, the tension and strain manifested in the marital relationship and relating to abusive supervision may indicate a subordinate’s need to take out the day’s frustrations on someone besides the supervisor….

Welcomed research

For readers who have experienced workplace bullying, mobbing, and abuse, this research simply may be stating the obvious, and in somewhat subdued tones to boot. Indeed, the summarized findings of these studies cannot begin to capture the heartbreaking realities of individual stories that many targets and their family members can share.

Nevertheless, we need these studies to support the personal accounts. They help to validate our claim that workplace bullying has destructive ripple effects that extend well beyond its immediate targets.

Fancy internship vs. “summer job”?

Say you’re a young college student, weighing your options for the summer. Assuming you have some choice in the matter, what’s better preparation for a successful career, a summer internship with a prominent business or non-profit group, or a summer job filling shelves and running a cash register for a local supermarket?

A professor’s answer

As a university professor, my strong advice to most students would be to take the internship. Whether they are aiming for a plum job out of college, or perhaps vying for a spot in graduate or professional school, the internship will carry more weight than 10 weeks stocking shelves at the grocery store.

Indeed, it’s probably not even a close call.

But indulge me for a minute…

When I was in college some 30 years ago, most undergraduates did not expect to do a summer internship unless, perhaps, they were enrolled in a professional program such as nursing, engineering, or social work. For political science majors like me, summers typically meant doing some type of low-wage job working in a store, a factory, or the great outdoors.

I spent a couple of my summers working for a local drug store chain as a stock clerk. During an interim year between graduating from college and starting law school, I returned to the company in the midst of a terrible recession. The work involved unloading trucks, tagging merchandise and stocking shelves, and customer assistance. While I wouldn’t call the job backbreaking, at the end of a busy shift, I knew I had earned my meager wages.

I didn’t ignore the bells & whistles that might give a boost to my law school applications. I was a department editor of the college newspaper, a senator in the student government, and a volunteer for numerous political campaigns. But I understood the difference between a paying job and extracurricular activities.

What I learned

When I got to law school, I was wholly intimidated by the array of internships, fellowships, and similar opportunities that many of my classmates already sported on their resumes. I hasten to add that they didn’t flaunt these credentials; it simply was part of what they had done.

Looking back, I wish I would’ve been more appreciative of what I learned in my less glamorous minimum wage jobs. I gained a work ethic. I learned how to follow instructions and take directives. I learned how to treat a customer with respect. And I learned what it means to start at the bottom and to earn a pat on the back for the work I did.

I’m not claiming that someone can’t learn these things in an internship. And I concede that it sounds like I’m wallowing in nostalgia for a job that — in actuality — I regarded simply as a way to save money for college. But there’s something about a genuine, humble, entry-level job that teaches us some valuable lessons for the years to come.

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Related post

Ross Perlin’s Intern Nation explores the internship phenomenon

Has tackling discrimination led to a more elitist society?

Has greater social equality fueled the creation of a more elitist society? Alexander Still, in a recent piece titled “The Paradox Of the New Elite” for the New York Times, raises this question:

IT’S a puzzle: one dispossessed group after another — blacks, women, Hispanics and gays — has been gradually accepted in the United States, granted equal rights and brought into the mainstream.

At the same time, in economic terms, the United States has gone from being a comparatively egalitarian society to one of the most unequal democracies in the world.

Many of us will assert vigorously that the U.S. has hardly reached the promised land when it comes to equal opportunity. Nevertheless, it would be hard to argue that substantial progress hasn’t been made.

Concentrated wealth and opportunity

During this time of social progress, we’ve also witnessed a tremendous concentration of wealth and opportunity through what some might call the American meritocracy. As Still explains:

But with educational attainment going increasingly to the children of the affluent and educated, we appear to be developing a self-perpetuating elite that reaps a greater and greater share of financial rewards. It is a hard-working elite, and more diverse than the old white male Anglo-Saxon establishment — but nonetheless claims a larger share of the national income than was the case 50 years ago, when blacks, Jews and women were largely shut out of powerful institutions.

So…Still raises a provocative question: Are the two trends — less discrimination and the rise of a supposed meritocracy — related or coincidental?

Class struggle, if not warfare

In a recent post, I wrote about Chief Justice Warren Burger’s 1971 judicial opinion in the case of Griggs v. Duke Power Co. (1971), where the Supreme Court struck down two job requirements — a high school diploma and passing scores on two aptitude tests — that had the effect of excluding most African American job applicants from consideration for higher paying jobs in the company. In addition to holding that the company’s hiring policy had discriminatory impact, the Court found that the company could not prove that the requirements were closely related to skills and abilities necessary for the jobs in question.

Here’s the relevant piece of Justice Burger’s opinion:

The facts of this case demonstrate the inadequacy of broad and general testing devices as well as the infirmity of using diplomas or degrees as fixed measures of capability. History is filled with examples of men and women who rendered highly effective performance without the conventional badges of accomplishment in terms of certificates, diplomas, or degrees. Diplomas and tests are useful servants, but Congress has mandated the common sense proposition that they are not to become masters of reality.

In that one paragraph, the Chief Justice brilliantly anticipated the craziness to come: High-stakes educational testing at multiple levels. The U.S. News & World Report rankings of colleges, universities, and graduate programs. Out-of-control anxieties over college admissions. Employer love affairs with graduates of elite institutions. Higher and higher settings of the credential bar to enter professions and obtain opportunities.

Higher education as an example

Don’t get me wrong: Discrimination still exists. Definitely.

But over the past decade I’ve seen these class-based patterns gaining a stronghold in my world of higher education. New (or resurgent) barriers of class and privilege are nudging aside the old ones of race, gender, and sexual orientation, especially when it comes to faculty recruitment. As our faculties are becoming somewhat more diverse in terms of “check-the-box” demographic categories, they are becoming even more homogeneous in terms of socio-economic and professional backgrounds, with heavy emphasis placed on holding higher degrees from a very small number of elite universities.

The implications for teaching and scholarship are enormous. Knowledge sharing and creation increasingly are being funneled through very narrow bands of life experiences and perspectives. It’s a problem that transcends standard-brand categories of diversity and political ideology, which may be one reason why it isn’t receiving much attention from within the academy.

Update on the Healthy Workplace Bill, December 2011

It has been a while since I posted a general update on the status of the Healthy Workplace Bill (HWB), model anti-bullying legislation I drafted that has been the basis of bills introduced across the country.

The HWB provides severely bullied employees with a legal claim for damages, creates legal incentives for employers to act preventively and responsively with regard to bullying behaviors, and protects those who have made complaints or filed suit about workplace bullying from retaliation.

Nationally

As 2011 draws to a close, versions of the Healthy Workplace Bill have been filed in the current legislative sessions of a dozen states: Illinois, Maryland, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Nevada, New Jersey, New York, Utah, Vermont, Washington, West Virginia, and Wisconsin.

To view the history of the Healthy Workplace Bill, go here, and if you would like to become active in the growing national campaign to enact the HWB, go here.

About the Healthy Workplace Bill…and why we need it

In the meantime, we continue to sharpen our public message and engage in more outreach and education:

Namie article

Last month, Dr. Gary Namie of the Workplace Bullying Institute posted this article, “Why the U.S. needs, and we are advocates for, the Healthy Workplace Bill.” Here’s a snippet of Gary’s extensive explanation:

A good, non-abusive, employer need not fear the HWB becoming law. However, if abuse is routine practice in an organization’s work environment, that employer requires prodding to stop. WBI surveys show that employers do nothing 44% of the time when bullying is reported….

It is obvious without the threat of litigation, employers can continue to ignore bullying. Plugging the gap in the law does that. More important is the use of the HWB to dangle the incentive for employers to do what they should be doing voluntarily.

HWB educational slideshow

If you prefer a more visual explanation of the HWB, Deb Falzoi of the Massachusetts Healthy Workplace Advocates has prepared this excellent slideshow.

My articles

For researchers who want to learn more about the HWB, I’ve written a number of law review articles that go into detail about workplace bullying and related topics. Go here for free, downloadable pdf files of those pieces.

News features

We continue to attract attention — mostly positive or at least evenhanded — from the media. The news feature by WCBS-TV in New York above, featuring Mike Schlicht, co-coordinator of the New York Healthy Workplace Advocates, is a good example.

Erika Collins, a partner at a major corporate law firm, recently penned a guest column for the New York Law Journal that placed the HWB in the context of international legal developments concerning workplace bullying:

Currently, there is no state or federal law to fill this gap in coverage. The first anti-bullying piece of legislation, the “Healthy Workplace Bill” (HWB), was introduced in California in 2003. Since then, 21 other states, including New York, have proposed bills based on the HWB, though none have yet been enacted.

. . . Other countries have been more proactive in combating workplace bullying. In particular, Sweden, the United Kingdom, France and Japan have introduced new legislation or have interpreted existing legislation to address bullying in the workplace.

Esque Walker, our Texas coordinator, was featured in this Dallas Voice piece that recounts her tireless efforts to find a sponsor for the bill in the Lonestar State:

She has been working diligently for the passage of the Texas Healthy Workplace Bill…. It’s hard going, as you can imagine.

So far, Dr. Walker has been unable to even get a meeting with Gov. Rick Perry. Perhaps he is too busy campaigning. More likely, if his many aides have put her name and credentials before him, he has retreated into his good-hairyness.

…But the governor is not the only impediment to getting this bill in place. So far, Dr. Walker and her associates have spoken with a great many Texas state senators and representatives. Not one has agreed to sponsor the bill.

Massachusetts

For Bay State supporters of the HWB, our bill — filed for the 2011-12 session — is pending in the Joint Committee on Labor and Workforce Development.

Please stay tuned for announcements on our advocacy efforts for early 2012! To ensure you receive updates, sign up at the Massachusetts Healthy Workplace Advocates site (here) and/or join our Facebook page (here). For details on how to become more active in our advocacy efforts, go here.

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