Municipal law expert foresees enactment of workplace bullying legislation

In a new, multi-author volume published by Aspatore, Navigating Municipal Employment Issues: Leading Lawyers on Analyzing the Latest Employment Trends, Creating Effective Strategies, and Resolving Conflicts (2011), municipal law expert John J. Cloherty III identifies workplace bullying as an emerging legal issue for state and local governments:

In the aftermath of some highly publicized suicides of Massachusetts high school students who were alleged victims of school bullying, the Commonwealth passed anti-bullying legislation and is now one of forty-three states in the country with similar legislation. . . . Given the periodic publicity concerning incidents of workplace violence and statistics documenting the frequency of workplace violence, we can foresee the legislature stepping in with laws prohibiting workplace bullying.

Protected class status

For now, however, Cloherty acknowledges that courts are likely to dismiss claims for bullying-type behaviors that are not motivated by protected class status such as race or sex and thus not covered by employment discrimination laws. In fact, he cites recent federal court decisions confirming that “mere ‘workplace bullying'” unrelated to discriminatory animus may not be legally actionable.

3 Questions for Margaret Heffernan, CEO and author of Willful Blindness

Margaret Heffernan

In Willful Blindness: Why We Ignore the Obvious at Our Peril (2011), entrepreneur, CEO, and author Margaret Heffernan examines how individuals and organizations become blind to obvious risks, sufferings, and failures. A Financial Times 2011 Business Book of the Year finalistWillful Blindness ultimately reminds us that ignoring what’s right in front of us sometimes comes at a terrible cost.

I recently asked Margaret about the public reception to her book, its lessons for employers, and her plans for 2012:

1. What is your overall reaction to reviewer and reader responses to Willful Blindness?

The response has been fascinating. Many readers feel liberated by its message, insofar as the book explains many of their experiences which, before, they found baffling. It seems to make a lot of sense of otherwise nonsensical behaviors. I’ve met a lot of whistleblowers through the book and their endorsement has been heartening.

What I think has been more challenging is that, in the many public talks I’ve given, most people seem to imagine that they, uniquely, aren’t blind. They are, if you like, blind to their own biases and to institutional obstructions that ensure that we all suffer from willful blindness some of the time. To read the book and imagine you are the exception is, I think, wrong – which is why I included a section on my own blindness. I don’t think anyone is exempt, alas.

2. What are the most valuable lessons of Willful Blindness for employers concerning their workers?

There is always far more knowledge inside an organization than employers know how to capture. That is the central lesson. If leaders understood the causes of their own blindness better, and recognized that this constitutes a significant business risk, then they have the capacity to get a great deal more information, insight and understanding from their workforce. It’s an interesting fact that investment in people delivers a far higher return than investment in technology – and yet technology is somehow more appealing.

The workforce represents a vastly under-utilized asset in most companies. When there are problems in a business, it is almost never the case that they are unknown, unknowable or invisible. Someone somewhere knows about it. The leadership challenge is to create an environment in which this information can and will find its way to the top.

3. What are your main projects and priorities for 2012?

My main priority is to find a way to become more productive since I now have so much work to do it’s hard not to panic!

I’m working on a new book. I’m finishing a new play commissioned by the BBC. I’m blogging for CBSMoneywatch, for and for various other outlets around the world. I’m teaching and speaking at conferences around the world. It’s a lot!

And I probably need to get better at saying ‘no’. But I feel quite strongly that I’m lucky to have the opportunities I have and it would be stupid not to appreciate them. I also find that much of my best material comes from people who email me because of my writing and that creates a virtuous circle where I have more to say.

I’m very struck that so many writers make it very hard to contact them. I understand why but this seems to me to create the conditions in which one is writing, essentially, in a bubble. I try very hard not to do that. I’m very committed to the idea that, when I talk to people (or write for them), I am learning too.


Go here to access Margaret Heffernan’s website. And go here to access my short review of Willful Blindness.


Starting in 2012, “3 Questions for…” is a regular feature presenting short interviews with notable individuals whose work and activities overlap with major themes of this blog.

Rats as role models?

Worthy of emulation

The next time you deal with a less-than-wonderful co-worker, think twice before you call him a “dirty rat.” You see, it turns out that rats can be pretty decent creatures.

Those empathetic rats

David Brown reports for the Washington Post on an experiment by University of Chicago researchers Peggy Mason, Inbal Ben-Ami Bartal, and Jean Decety (link here):

In a simple experiment, researchers at the University of Chicago sought to find out whether a rat would release a fellow rat from an unpleasantly restrictive cage if it could. The answer was yes.

The free rat, occasionally hearing distress calls from its compatriot, learned to open the cage and did so with greater efficiency over time. It would release the other animal even if there wasn’t the payoff of a reunion with it. Astonishingly, if given access to a small hoard of chocolate chips, the free rat would usually save at least one treat for the captive — which is a lot to expect of a rat.

The researchers came to the unavoidable conclusion that what they were seeing was empathy — and apparently selfless behavior driven by that mental state.

Resilient, too

This isn’t the first time that I’ve mentioned rats of the four-legged variety. In 2009, I wrote about a study that showed how rats experience, and later recover from, chronic stress:

…the researchers exposed rats to stressful environments, including “moderate electric shocks, being encaged with dominant rats, [and] prolonged dunks in water.”  These “chronically stressed rats lost their elastic rat cunning and instead fell back on familiar routines and rote responses, like compulsively pressing a bar for food pellets they had no intention of eating.”

…Fortunately, once removed from the stressful environment and given a bit of vacation, the rats showed signs of recovery:  “But with only four weeks’ vacation in a supportive setting free of bullies and Tasers, the formerly stressed rats looked just like the controls, able to innovate, discriminate and lay off the [food pellet] bar.”

Yes, role models!

Not that I’m eager to have them over to my place, but I guess this shows that rats can be, umm, stand-up animals. After all, empathy and resilience make for a good combo, at work or anywhere else.


Photo credit: Wikipedia

3 Questions for Dr. Gary Namie, Workplace Bullying Institute

Gary Namie, Ph.D.

This year, I’m adding a new feature to the blog, “3 Questions for…,” a regular series of brief interviews with notable individuals whose work and activities overlap with major themes of this blog.

For the first interview, I asked Dr. Gary Namie, co-founder with Dr. Ruth Namie of the Workplace Bullying Institute, for a quick rundown of WBI’s activities and what’s needed to enact the Healthy Workplace Bill, workplace anti-bullying legislation I drafted that WBI supports through its legislative campaign.

What were the most noteworthy developments for WBI during 2011?

• “Staff additions: Sean Lunsford, in-house consultant, and Daniel Christensen, the comforting voice callers to WBI first hear “
• “Publication by Wiley of the Namies’ third book, this one for employers — The Bully-Free Workplace: Stop Jerks, Weasels & Snakes from Killing Your Organization”
• “First Workplace Bullying University delivered solely to Union officers, co-taught by Greg Sorozan, NAGE national officer”
• “Matt Spencer, Ed.D., assisted with our Workplace Bullying in Schools client projects throughout the country”
• “Produced training DVDs for employers (1 for managers, 1 for staff)”
• “Produced a DVD for bullied individuals chock full of advice from the team of WBI experts”
• “Redesigned & modernized our family of 7 principal websites, thanks to technical prowess of staff”
What’s in the works for WBI in 2012?
• “Devise ways to get more help to bullied targets that reflect the unique WBI perspective”
• “Instructional webinars for individuals”
• “An online version of WB University training for professionals for those who cannot attend the live classes”
• “An expanded social media presence”
What are the main challenges to getting the Healthy Workplace Bill enacted into law?
• “Attacks by biz writers & lobbyists that misrepresent the content of the actual bill”
• “Convincing good employers that they have nothing to fear from the bill”
• “Identifying endorsing groups”
• “Growing the network of dedicated volunteer State Coordinators to blanket all states”
Expanded comments
Gary supplemented the summary above with a longer version posted to the WBI website, here.

Was an Illinois teacher’s suicide related to workplace bullying?

I have a feeling that there’s much more to this story than what the current news coverage is able to tell us, but the Chicago Tribune reports that the Thanksgiving Day suicide of Mary Thorson, a 32-year-old Ford Heights, Illinois school teacher, is being linked to workplace bullying.

Becky Schlikerman reports on a December meeting that pitted some teachers against school board members (link here):

The suicide note that Mary Thorson left centered on frustrations at the school, and her death spurred some of her co-workers to speak out at the public meeting.

Teachers described an atmosphere of fear and intimidation in the two-school district, where little things snowballed over time.

“We don’t feel like we can speak out because we have been intimidated,” teacher Rose Jimerson said at the meeting. “We have signs all over the building about anti-bullying. … Our staff gets bullied.”


Thorson’s suicide is a tragedy, no doubt, but circumstances surrounding her employment status should cause us to withhold firm judgments on what happened. Schlikerman’s article presents two contrasting views of Thorson’s on-the-job performance, with some sources saying that she was extremely popular with students and loved her job, and others saying that she faced disciplinary action for harsh treatment of a student and was distraught about possibly losing her job.

Of course, defaming a bullying target is a favorite tactic of aggressors in these situations. And it’s quite possible that a hostile working environment exists in the school, notwithstanding any demerits on Thorson’s work record. In other words, we need to stay tuned for more details.


Related stories about South Hadley, MA teacher Deb Caldieri:


Cincinnati conference to examine violence and bullying in healthcare workplaces, May 11-13

See you on May 11-13?

The University of Cincinnati is hosting the National Conference for Workplace Violence Prevention & Management in Healthcare Settings, scheduled for May 11-13, 2012, in Cincinnati.

Here’s how the organizers describe the conference:

This conference will cover the full spectrum of the workplace violence typology as it directly relates to incivility, bullying, verbal and physical aggression, threatening words or actions, sexual harassment, and physical assaults that occur in healthcare settings (e.g., hospitals, long term care, emergency departments, home health, pharmacies, clinics, and private practice offices).

This conference will provide an opportunity for national and world leadership to prevent work-related injuries by disseminating the current scientific research on healthcare workplace violence, analyzing what changes have been made to alleviate healthcare workplace violence and providing recommendations for minimizing workplace violence for healthcare providers and their patients.

See you there?

I’ve accepted an invitation to give a keynote address at the conference on Friday, May 11, during which I’ll be discussing legal issues relating to workplace bullying and violence.

In addition, the organizers are accepting abstracts for papers, poster sessions, and symposia. The due date is February 17. Go here for the link!

Chief organizers include Gordon Lee Gillespie, Ph.D., R.N. (principal investigator) and Donna M. Gates, Ed.D., R.N.  (co-investigator). Go here to learn about the rest of the conference committee.

Very important focus

I’m delighted that a full-blown, multidisciplinary conference is focusing on this topic. The healthcare workplace is important to everyone, and working conditions can be stressful and challenging. Physical violence, bullying, and other forms of aggression are common occurrences.

Over the years I’ve written a lot about bullying in healthcare. I’ve collected previous posts here:

4-part series on bullying in healthcare

Workplace bullying in healthcare I: The Joint Commission standards

Workplace bullying in healthcare II: Vanderbilt U program for doctors

Workplace bullying in healthcare III: A sampling of legal cases

Workplace bullying in healthcare IV: Nurses bullied and responding

Other related posts

Cheryl Dellasega’s When Nurses Hurt Nurses

Nurse writes about bullying by doctors, other doctors respond

Healthcare bloggers on workplace bullying

Nursing as a Calling: Aspirations and Realities

Alaska nurse blogs about workplace bullying experience

A Flu Tale of Intellectual Bullying?

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