3 Questions for Elizabeth Gingerich, business law professor and editor, Journal of Values-Based Leadership

Elizabeth Gingerich, Valparaiso University

Elizabeth Gingerich joined Valparaiso University’s College of Business Administration as a business law professor after a substantial legal career advising and representing corporate clients. In addition to her teaching responsibilities, she serves as the editor-in-chief of the College’s Journal of Values-Based Leadershipwhich promotes “ethical and moral leadership and behavior by serving as a forum for ideas and the sharing of ‘best practices.'”

I was introduced to Elizabeth in 2008, when the JVBL published my article, “Workplace Bullying and Ethical Leadership.” Since then, I’ve periodically visited the journal’s website to review current and past issues, available online without charge (latest issue here; back issues here). Elizabeth kindly agreed to be interviewed about her work and that of the JVBL:

1. Before entering academe, you had an extensive career as a business lawyer providing legal advice to corporations. How does that experience inform your teaching and work in shaping the journal’s content?

When I began teaching in 2001, I had already practiced law for nearly 20 years and thought I was done.  After a month, however, I became somewhat unsettled with my isolated status and knew I had to step back in – at least part-time.  The academic world helps in the courtroom and the continued practice of law keeps one sharp in the classroom. The tricky part is striking a healthy balance.

I personally would not want to be taught by someone who did not have real world experience.  Thus, as laws change and cases are decided that especially affect my business clients, I take that new knowledge, analyze it, and usually add it to my lectures.

The combination of learning, applying, analyzing, and finally teaching has given me a wider perspective of global business and its ethical and legal implications.  The combination of continuous learning and teaching what I am practicing also places me in a favorable position to conduct interviews of notable business leaders for the JVBL.

2. Valparaiso University embraces its Lutheran heritage. How do questions of faith inform or engage the mission of the journal?

The overall mission of the journal is to disseminate articles and case studies which demonstrate either the practice of and/or the need to adopt business strategies that go beyond the sole pursuit of the bottom line.  Principled decision-making ostensibly requires consideration of stakeholders’ needs, the implementation of socially responsible practices, and the adoption of sound environmental stewardship policies.

Many of the JVBL’s interviewees have included the influence of faith and religious training in formulating and implementing their respective business practices.  I have termed this “benevolent capitalism.”

3. Readers of this blog tend to be very interested in workplace issues. What does the term “values-based leadership” mean for employment relations?

Lack of an alienating hierarchy. Appreciation of all employees’ efforts.  Seeking advice as to the direction of the company from all workers.  Rewarding those who participate accordingly.

With respect to the interviews I have conducted for the JVBL, unionization and other forms of collective bargaining are simply not needed where this meaningful and continuous feedback and interaction firmly exist. Some of the more prominent examples include Interface Global (Atlanta), Whole Foods (Austin), Lands’ End (before it was sold to Sears), and Playpumps International (Johannesburg, S.A.).


Starting in 2012, “3 Questions” is a regular feature presenting short interviews with notable individuals whose work and activities overlap with major themes of this blog. Go here to access all interviews in the series.

Raising workers’ health insurance payments for bad lifestyle habits

One of the unfortunate by-products of our messed up health care system is how some employers are raising employee health insurance contributions for those who engage in lifestyles deemed unhealthy.

They may smoke. They may eat too much or the wrong foods. They may not participate in preventive care. As Reed Abelson reported for the New York Times last November:

More and more employers are demanding that workers who smoke, are overweight or have high cholesterol shoulder a greater share of their health care costs, a shift toward penalizing employees with unhealthy lifestyles rather than rewarding good habits.

This isn’t a screed against personal responsibility. And I understand why employers are assessing options to lasso out-of-control health insurance costs.

But what I see here is a scary slippery slope, one that leads to certain individuals bearing a heavier burden of their health care costs based on the supposed riskiness of everyday conduct.

It may sound good until you apply it evenhandedly: The person who has no problem imposing higher premiums on smokers may forget that the steaks and burgers he enjoys provide reason for raising his premiums, too. And what if vegetarian who doesn’t mind sticking it the carnivore is not getting recommended amounts of protein in her diet? Does this mean that she should pony up higher payments as well?

In addition, if we’re going to play this game, what responsibility do companies that market some of these products bear for promoting these habits — the cigarette makers, fast-food restaurants, and beer companies? They know darn well that their products will have some negative health effects.

And what about bad employers that create stressful working conditions that, in turn, cause some workers to engage in less-than-healthy habits? If we’re preaching responsibility here, shouldn’t they pay a higher share of our health care costs?

Health insurance coverage helps to protect us against the costs of being human, including our own foibles and weaknesses. America remains one of the world’s wealthiest nations, and we have the capacity to provide affordable, quality health care for all. This type of business practice, however, is takes us in the opposite, more punitive, direction.

New Boomer reality: From “shop ’til you drop” to “work ’til you drop”

A generation that spanned the “shop ’til you drop” decades of constant economic growth and burgeoning consumer debt is now looking at a tougher era of “work ’til you drop.”

John Rogers of the Associated Press (via Yahoo! News, here) examines the lot of some 78 million American Baby Boomers who have experienced “the misfortune of approaching retirement age at a time when stock market crashes diminished their 401(k) nest eggs, companies began eliminating defined benefit pensions in record numbers and previously unimagined technical advances all but eliminated entire job descriptions from travel agent to telephone operator.”

The message from job experts: Keep working if you can. For example, Rogers shares these observations from Ed Lawler of USC’s business school:

With unions no longer in a strong position to fight for benefits like pensions, with jobs disappearing or going overseas, and with Gen Xers and even younger Millennial Generation members coveting their jobs, Lawler warns this is no time for boomers to quit and allow the skills they’ve spent a lifetime building to atrophy.

“My advice is above all don’t retire,” he says. “If you like your job at all, hold onto it. Because getting back in in this era is essentially impossible.”

Lawler’s advice, while eminently sensible, raises issues. For example, workers in physically demanding jobs may find their bodies giving way even if they’re not in a position to retire. Also, the longer workers stay in the workforce beyond traditional retirement age, the fewer the opportunities will be for new entrants to the labor market.

In sum, I don’t think we have any easy answers to these ongoing challenges. The days of painless economic options, if we ever truly had them, are gone. But I do hope we face our choices before panic and desperation set in, because if we wait until that point, it will get very, very scary. While I don’t think the situation will be as bad as what we’re seeing in Greece right now, we should look there for some cautionary tales.

Related posts

Labor Day Reader 2011: Stormy weather for workers (2011)

Apocalypse tomorrow: The debt ceiling crisis and Social Security (2011)

When Boomers retire (or try to): America’s coming train wreck (2010)

Jobs, Unemployment, and the Great Recession (2010)

A plea for art as vocation and artists as leaders

Kayhan Irani

What if our society made more room for artistic expression as a form of vocation and recognized more artists as leaders? Those are among the questions raised by Kayhan Irani, a self-styled “artivist” based in New York who uses her artistic and creative gifts to advance social change.

Kayhan has been a dear friend since 2004, when I invited her to Boston to present “We’ve Come Undone,” her compelling one-woman play about the challenges confronting immigrant women in the post-9/11 era. Since then, I’ve watched her define her vocational role and win plaudits for her artistic work, including a 2010 New York Emmy for a 9-episode educational television drama for immigrant New Yorkers and co-editorship of a book about the use of storytelling to advance social change. (Go here for her interesting and impressive bio.)

Yesterday on her blog, Kayhan asked readers to consider how art (of all types) can be sustaining work and how artists can serve as societal leaders. I wanted to share some of that with you and to offer a few responses.

Art as vocation

Kayhan first takes issue with stereotypes about artists and with assumptions that artistic work should not be a sustaining form of vocation:

The messages that are broadcast in our society about artists are that we are irresponsible, stupid, drug addicts, mentally ill, have questionable morals; and that art is frivolous, a diversion, not serious work, it’s only for some people, it’s stupid, and can’t pay the bills.  In order to maintain the status quo, we need artists to remain on the fringes of society, barely visible, always teetering on the brink of poverty and irrelevance.

These messages get enforced from a very early age.  Imagine an adult asking you, with pleasure, if you are going to be a lawyer or a dancer when you grow up; what about a firefighter or a painter?  From a very young age, we are steered away from art-making as a life choice.

Artists as leaders

Kayhan concludes by urging us to consider how artistic leadership can be a force for positive social change:

And that brings me to my main point: art and creativity are the most powerful forces we have for liberation.

Art can bring people together.  We don’t even need to speak the same language.

Art can make a way out of no way.  When people are living in oppressive situations, artists can help imagine a way out.  The fight for another world has to imagine that the impossible is possible.

Artists never stop questioning.  Creativity means to use your senses to engage in a process of inquiry.

So let the artists lead us.  Let us recognize that they already do!

Spot on

Kayhan’s call for a world where artistic expression helps us to envision better communities and lives sounds pretty good to me. And it sure would be nice if it was provided by artists who are able to earn a decent living from their work.

I’m not suggesting that we live without formal structures or ditch anything that smacks of “businesslike.” After all, as a lawyer and law professor, I believe that a world without the rule of law would be a pretty scary one. (I’m not exactly enamored with the legal system we have, but that’s for other posts.) And I fully acknowledge that enterprise and technology can bring us some neat stuff, such as the computer I’m using to produce this article.

However, we have got things way, way out of balance. In particular, the financial insanity that led us to the economic meltdown should have prompted a deeper questioning of basic values and major institutions, but I fear we are squandering that opportunity as we yearn for a “recovery” that puts us in a position to do it all over again.

In the meantime, many artists who have been dependent upon outside funding and non-profit sponsorship for their work are struggling even more.

New ways

So…to Kayhan’s eloquent plea I’ll add the need for societal structures that enable artistic work and are not as subject to the boom-and-bust cycles of our casino economy. I confess that I haven’t made all the “third way” connections between this and other forms of sustainable, community-oriented initiatives and enterprises, but I’m sure others have done so. Surely we cannot repeat the mess we’re in, right? Right?

Burnout in the non-profit sector

In a thought-provoking and important piece for AlterNet, psychologist Michael Bader examines the common phenomenon of burnout in progressive organizations:

Progressive leaders, activists and organizers don’t take care of themselves very well. They get burned out and either don’t know, don’t care, or don’t know how to fix it. . . . It undermines their energy, passion and imagination, and it spreads like a virus through their workplaces and families. Almost every aspect of their lives takes a hit–health, relationships with friends and family, creativity, judgment, concentration, and mood.

Bader points to chronic understaffing, the burdens of constantly fighting defensive wars in an age of right-wing power, and a self-sacrificing “martyr culture” as contributing to burnout among progressive change agents.

Prescriptively, he draws upon lessons from organizational psychology and coaching to recommend how to address burnout, while urging that any fixes must “start with self-compassion and an ethic of self-care.”

Non-profits generally

It strikes me that Bader’s excellent commentary applies to the non-profit sector generally. I don’t necessarily equate “non-profit” with progressive political leanings, but I definitely see the connections between non-profits and dedication to cause-oriented work.

Non-profit employment attracts those who are drawn to changing society for the better. This can be a good thing: How many people get to earn a living doing something they believe in? However, it also feeds burnout tendencies that are exacerbated during difficult times. And nowadays, this is a brutal time for all but the most privileged non-profit organizations.

Bader’s call for an ethic of self-care may seem elusive to those who are fighting the good fight, but if you find yourself in this situation, take a look at his article and share it with others.


Related posts

Workplace bullying in the non-profit sector (2011)

When the bullying comes from a board member (2011)

Next on the economic hit list: Public and non-profit sectors (2009)

New podcast: Therapeutic jurisprudence and employment law

Therapeutic jurisprudence is a body of legal thought that asks how law, legal practice, and legal education can promote psychologically healthy outcomes. In other words, “TJ,” as we call it, favors a legal system that leads our heads to better places.

In a short podcast, I describe therapeutic jurisprudence and relate it to employment law. You can access it, without charge, from the podcast series page of the New Workplace Institute, here.

Also, if you want to learn more:

Law review articles

In recent years, I’ve written several law review articles that incorporate insights from TJ:

Human Dignity and American Employment Law – University of Richmond Law Review (2009)

Employment Law as If People Mattered: Bringing Therapeutic Jurisprudence into the Workplace — Florida Coastal Law Review (2010)

Therapeutic Jurisprudence and the Practice of Legal Scholarship – University of Memphis Law Review (2010)

Blog posts

TJ-related themes appear frequently in this blog. Here are three examples:

Workplace disputes and alternative dispute resolution (2011)

Bullied at work, then bullied by the legal system (2009)

The quest for healthier approaches to practicing law (2009)

Recipe for healthy employee relations: Encourage speech, nurture civility, and prohibit abuse

Okay, I’m thinking out loud here, but I’ve been pondering the lines between promoting positive organizational cultures and drawing clear distinctions on when certain abusive behaviors call for sanctions.

In the U.S., the omnipresence of at-will employment — the right to hire and fire for any reason or no reason at all — and the low density of labor union membership means that most employers enjoy wide latitude to develop and implement employee relations policies and practices.

Organizations can, if they wish, clamp down on employee speech, encourage cutthroat competition, and bully workers relentlessly. Much of this will be legal, given the weaknesses of worker protections beyond employment discrimination laws.

Of course, most of us know that such practices are a recipe for disaster, or at least guarantee an underperforming, low-morale workplace. With that in mind, let’s set out a few basic parameters for something better:

1. Encourage speech — The late Peter Drucker, management guru extraordinaire, nailed it in his book Managing for the Future (1992), where he extolled the virtues of employee input and participation in problem solving. Drucker urged that “partnership with the responsible worker is the only way” to succeed in today’s knowledge and service economy.

Worker silence is a sign that many have withdrawn emotionally from the broader enterprise and are doing what they have to do to survive. An organization that encourages a robust, honest exchange of ideas and feedback is much better off than one that sends the opposite signal.

But be forewarned: Once someone is punished for stating her opinion or offering constructive criticism, trust can easily disintegrate. This has to be a “walk the talk” commitment if it is to flourish.

2. Nurture civility — Civility, fairness, and genuine inclusion should be practiced by management rather than preached. It’s all about creating a culture based on actual, observable practice and conduct.

However, imposing company civility or speech codes is problematic. The give and take of ordinary human interactions needs to make room for occasional sharp exchanges and flaring of tempers. When conduct gets out of hand, someone should step in (see below), but an everyday dust up should not be punished. In fact, it may be the canary in the coal mine that signals a deeper problem worth addressing. Take, for example, a victim of sexual harassment who is written up for violating a civility code because she is angry about organizational indifference to her reports of mistreatment.

3. Prohibit abuse — When speech becomes abusive, intervention is necessary. Bullying, harassment, and intimidation should be prohibited. Some aggressors can be coached or counseled; others should be disciplined or terminated. Targets of their behavior should be safeguarded and protected from retaliation for reporting the mistreatment.

This is an ultimate test of organizational ethics, especially if an aggressor happens to be a senior person. Strewn around too many workplaces are a lot of lumpy rugs, with very ugly, destructive behaviors swept under them.

%d bloggers like this: