Workplace wellness and workplace bullying

When you hear the term “employee wellness,” do you also think about “workplace bullying”?

That question has been buzzing through my head since yesterday, when it was my pleasure to speak at a program on creating healthy workplaces, sponsored by the New England Work & Family Association (NEWFA) — a group of human resources and wellness program professionals committed to supporting work-life balance — and hosted by the Boston College Center for Work and Family.

A tale of two halves

The first half of the program was an interesting panel discussion about workplace wellness programs, featuring presentations by NEWFA members who have developed and managed wellness programs. We heard about a variety of useful, pro-active initiatives, including health education and coaching (e.g., nutrition, exercise, smoking cessation), stress reduction, and mindfulness training.

The second half of the program was my presentation about workplace bullying and the challenges facing HR. Although I framed my remarks within the context of promoting healthy workplaces, it was clear that my piece was about the “dark” side of work. How else to describe a phenomenon that reduces productivity and morale and triggers a long list of negative health outcomes?

Will the twain meet?

Both pieces of the program related to the same general topic, namely, the creation and sustenance of healthy workplaces that embrace both productivity and employee well-being.  However, I couldn’t help but notice how the room tensed up as my talk explored the details about workplace bullying.

As I told the group, workplace bullying is a very threatening topic to many organizations, especially when the behavior is frequent and comes from a top-down direction. After all, boss-to-subordinate bullying is the most common combination, at least in the U.S. Furthermore, bullying and mobbing behaviors tend to be fueled by organizational cultures that enable or even encourage them. In short, bullying at work often points to responsibility at the top.

Contrasts in dealing with senior management

Perhaps this explains a fundamental difference in how and why senior management is consulted by HR.

Speakers on the panel about employee wellness explained that they often didn’t have to go to top management for specific approval about every new initiative they developed. In some cases, they simply went ahead with a program that eventually would become a regular offering, with no apparent pushback from the corner office.

When I talked about incorporating workplace bullying prevention and response into HR practices and training, however, I saw knowing nods in response to my advice to assess management tolerance for such initiatives and to consult legal counsel on liability exposure.

An integrated perspective

Perhaps I’m making excuses for the pizza I enjoyed the other night, but I don’t think we can de-couple bad habits such as unhealthy eating and smoking from undue stress at work. Indeed, it strikes me as ironic that we can talk more openly about wellness programs designed to reduce stress and improve health habits, while sometimes sweeping under the rug work-related conditions — such as bullying — that create a need for them.

In short, the quest for healthy workplaces cannot ignore fundamental conditions of work. It’s why I am thankful that NEWFA and Boston College created a program that allowed us to consider the workplace in a more balanced light.

Maryland teachers sue for bullying and harassment

Teachers in Silver Spring, Maryland, are suing their principal and the school board for ongoing bullying and harassment. Unfortunately, this form of abuse toward public school teachers is far from a rare occurrence.

Kate Alexander reports for Maryland Community News Online (link here):

A group of educators at Kemp Mill Elementary School in Silver Spring have filed a lawsuit against the Montgomery County school board and Kemp Mill’s principal, claiming years of systemic harassment, and neglect by the board to do anything about it.

. . . The group claims that since coming to lead Kemp Mill in 2007, Principal Floyd Starnes has engaged in “unabated and outrageous bullying behavior directed toward the Kemp Mill teachers, as well as the administrative and custodial staff,” according to the lawsuit.

The teachers repeatedly took their concerns to Montgomery County Public Schools leadership, but according to the complaint, the Montgomery County Board of Education failed to intervene.

Hell hath no fury like a father whose daughter has been mistreated! The lead attorney, Robert Weltchek, filed the lawsuit after learning about working conditions at the school from his own daughter, Emily, who taught at Kemp Hill:

“It is fortuitous that Emily is my daughter and I’m a trial lawyer,” he said. “When I heard this story, I was sufficiently outraged, as a lawyer and a father, that nothing had been done over all these years. It seemed to me the only hope that these teachers have is litigation.”

Principal bullying of teachers

Principal bullying of teachers is a serious problem.

Education professors Joseph and Jo Blase have documented this phenomenon in their groundbreaking 2002 book, Breaking the Silence, Overcoming the Problem of Principal Mistreatment of Teachers (reviewed here).

In addition, the National Association for Prevention of Teacher Abuse (link here) is dedicated to addressing these behaviors through public education and advocacy.

Echoes of South Hadley, MA

If we need more evidence of this phenomenon, we can look to the aftermath of the 2010 suicide of South Hadley, Massachusetts high school student Phoebe Prince. One of the few teachers to support her was bullied out of her job. As I wrote last year:

After South Hadley, Massachusetts high school student Phoebe Prince took her own life following a brutal campaign of bullying by her classmates in 2010, one of her supportive teachers — Deb Caldieri — was bullied out of her job by principal Dan Smith and other school administrators.

Boston Globe columnist Kevin Cullen shares the story (link here):

Her name is Deb Caldieri, and she has been driven from the school as surely as Phoebe was hounded to the grave. Her career and her health have been ruined.

This being South Hadley High, she has suffered all this mostly because she had the temerity to question the way her superiors handled the whole mess.

She didn’t follow the party line at South Hadley High, which from the beginning was to blame Phoebe and excuse the bullies. Phoebe was the outsider, the clueless blow-in from overseas who brought all her troubles on herself. That was the party line.

Memphis in May

In May I’ll be traveling to Memphis to speak about workplace bullying to the National Organization of Lawyers for Education Associations, which is associated with the National Education Association. I’m looking forward to the discussion, and I hope it will allow us to explore strategies for dealing with bullying of public educators.

Teachers unions, we need you!

The Silver Springs and South Hadley situations are prime examples of why we need the teachers unions to support the Healthy Workplace Bill, anti-bullying legislation I authored that currently is under consideration in some 13 states. Here in the Bay State, we’ve been fortunate to have support of members of the Massachusetts Teachers Association.

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July 5, 2012 update — As you can see from the Comments, a reader kindly alerted me that the school district’s motion to dismiss the claims has been denied and that the case is slated to go to trial in May 2013. As reported by Jen Bondeson on Maryland Community News Online (link here):

Former teachers of Kemp Mill Elementary School and their supporters hugged and wiped away tears as they exited a Montgomery County courtroom Friday.

Finally, they said, someone is listening.

Minutes earlier, Montgomery County Circuit Court Judge Ronald B. Rubin denied Montgomery County Public Schools’ request to dismiss the teachers’ case against Kemp Mill Principal Floyd Starnes and the Montgomery County Board of Education.

In the lawsuit filed in March, six educators accuse Starnes and the school board of intentional infliction of emotion distress, gross negligence and negligence.

The full article goes into more detail about the allegations and legal machinations behind the case.

October 13, 2013 update — I’m tardy in reporting that this lawsuit was settled in May, with terms kept confidential. Donna St. George reported for the Washington Post:

Montgomery County officials have reached an out-of-court settlement with six former employees at Kemp Mill Elementary School who accused their one-time principal of misconduct and retaliation.

The settlement . . . puts an end to a civil lawsuit that, according to court documents, included allegations that the principal escorted unruly children into a closet-size room to calm them down and subjected staff members to unwanted touching, verbal abuse and harassment.

Both sides signed a confidentiality agreement that bars release of the terms of the settlement . . . . A joint statement from attorneys in the case said only: “This case has been settled to the satisfaction of all parties.”

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Workplace bullying 2.0: Have we reached a tipping point in U.S. public awareness?

When I started this blog in late 2008, I could’ve posted about, and linked to, virtually every news article on workplace bullying, without driving myself to exhaustion.

Not anymore. In the U.S. alone, articles about workplace bullying and related topics abound in newspapers and other periodicals, the electronic media, and all over the Internet.

When I first started to give presentations about workplace bullying to American audiences about a decade ago, I usually began with a fairly lengthy definition and explanation of workplace bullying.

Not anymore. While at times I still have to explain the topic in greater detail, many audiences comprehend the basics already. This includes professional organizations whose members hadn’t even heard of the term workplace bullying a decade ago.

Yup, it now seems like a long time ago when I first called Gary & Ruth Namie in 1998 to ask them about an initiative they had dubbed the Campaign Against Workplace Bullying.

Have we reached a tipping point?

Does this mean we’ve reached a tipping point in terms of public awareness of workplace bullying in the U.S.?

Okay, some academic hedging here: Yes and no. We’ve seen vast progress in getting this topic before the public, but there’s still a long way to go.

The answer also depends on what aspects of public awareness we’re talking about. We’re seeing a lot of general media coverage, considerable discussion in fields such as organizational psychology, but not yet as much attention in law.

During the next few months, I’m going to be writing a series of blog posts under the “workplace bullying 2.0” rubric, exploring the degree to which workplace bullying has become a mainstream topic in employment relations, psychology and mental health, the law, and related fields, as well as the extent to which the term resonates with the general public.

Supporting student loan forgiveness legislation

I was in college and law school in the 1980s when the origins of the current student loan insanity were taking root. Tuition levels had started their upward spikes, and loans increasingly supplanted grant monies as primary forms of financial aid.

It’s why I’ve been an advocate for student loan forgiveness programs since I was a law student at New York University. In fact, I was part of a student group that designed and successfully lobbied for NYU’s loan repayment assistance program for graduates in public interest law positions, one of the first such programs in the nation. A few years later, as a young Legal Aid lawyer in 1987, I penned an op-ed piece for the New York Law Journal decrying the burgeoning debt crisis for law school graduates who wanted to do public interest work.

Since then, tuition levels have continued their meteoric rise, and the student debt situation has only worsened. The smattering of university-sponsored loan forgiveness programs have proven inadequate to address the crisis. In recent years, the federal government has entered the picture with loan repayment relief programs, but far from sufficiently.

Student Loan Forgiveness Act of 2012

To address the situation, U.S. Rep. Hansen Clark of Michigan recently introduced the Student Loan Forgiveness Act of 2012, which limits student loan repayment amounts to 10 percent of discretionary income, caps student loan interest rates at 3.4 percent, and allows for forgiveness of student loans for graduates in public service positions.

Its immediate chances of passage are fair-to-middlin’ at best, but it’s definitely a rallying point for students and other advocates.

Americans for Democratic Action resolution

Pursuant to this opportunity, in my role as chair of Americans for Democratic Action, a Washington D.C.-based public policy advocacy group, I submitted to the board of directors this resolution in support of federal loan forgiveness legislation. We approved the resolution at our board meeting today:

————————————————————————————————————————————————————————-

Resolution on Student Loan and Debt Relief Legislation

Submitted by David Yamada, Chair, ADA National Executive Committee

March 2012

Whereas:

1. Rising student loan debt, student loan payment default rates, and unemployment rates for college, graduate school, and professional school degree holders have created a crisis facing young people.  For example, according to recent reports by the Project on Student Loan Debt (http://projectonstudentdebt.org/):

  • “Two-thirds of college seniors graduated with loans in 2010, and they carried an average of $25,250 in debt. They also faced the highest unemployment rate for young college graduates in recent history at 9.1%.”
  • “New data released by the U.S. Department of Education shows a sharp increase in the rate at which student loan borrowers are defaulting. The official ‘two-year cohort default rates’ show that 8.8 percent of student loan borrowers who entered repayment in 2009 had defaulted by the end of 2010, up from 7 percent for those entering repayment in 2008.”

2. Reducing student loan debt potentially frees up hundreds of billions of dollars that can be directed into our economy in more productive and constructive ways, including consumer goods, housing purchases, retirement savings, and charitable giving.

3. Access to higher education and bolstering America’s families have been longstanding policy priorities for ADA, including its Working Families Win project.

4. The Occupy protests have highlighted deepening public concern over student indebtedness and the individual and family burdens of paying for higher education.

5. Proposed legislation in the form of the Student Loan Forgiveness Act of 2012 (Rep. Hansen Clarke, D-Michigan, lead sponsor) limits student loan repayment amounts to 10 percent of discretionary income, caps student loan interest rates at 3.4 percent, and allows for forgiveness of student loans for graduates in public service positions.

Be It Resolved:

Americans for Democratic Action strongly endorses legislative initiatives such as the Student Loan Forgiveness Act of 2012 that cap student loan interest rates, minimize student loan repayments, and forgive student loan debt.

HR in the contemporary workplace

Yup, I’m pretty tough on human resources offices. No doubt this orientation is grounded in the shared stories of so many workplace bullying targets who report being abandoned or set up by HR. Rare is the bullying account that expresses appreciation for HR’s intervention.

However, I fully concede that HR often is in a difficult place, caught in the cross fires of organizational politics. It’s why I’ve posed the question of whether an ethical HR officer can survive in a lousy workplace.

It’s also the case that ethical, pro-active HR practices typically fall under the radar screens. Why? Because if HR is doing its job in a good workplace, then we’re highly unlikely to hear about it!

In any event, here are past posts that emphasize HR situations and actions when things aren’t going so great:

1. “Workplace bullying is bad for business” (2012) — Linking to a Worcester Business Journal op-ed I authored that discusses HR’s role in dealing with workplace bullying situations.

2. Are HR professionals bullied at work? (2011) — Unfortunately, independently-minded HR officers are potential bullying targets, too.

3. Quiet cover-ups (2011) — When HR is complicit in covering up bad behavior.

4. The “exit parade” as a worker termination protocol (2011) — All that’s missing is the firing squad (pun intended).

5. Can an ethical HR officer survive at a bad company? (2010) — A very challenging question.

6. SHRM opposes workplace bullying legislation (2010) — Disappointing. Very disappointing.

7. Don’t assume that HR is your buddy (2010) — HR plays a vital role in the workplace, but workers should not mistakenly regard HR as their ally.

8. HR as grim reaper (2009) — Being the terminator can come with costs.

9. “HR was useless” (2009) — One of this blog’s most popular posts, placing a common worker complaint against the purposes & loyalties of HR.

Generationally speaking: Assessing the Millennials (and tomorrow’s workplace)

A common assumption has been that members of the Millennial Generation (“Gen Y”) — comprised of those born in the early-to-mid 1980s and beyond — are more socially and environmentally conscious and less interested in material success than their Generation X predecessors.

Not so fast, say growing numbers of commentators and studies:

More “me” than “we”?

Joanna Chau reports for the Chronicle of Higher Education on a study by university researchers Jean M. Twenge (San Diego State), Elise C. Freeman (San Diego State), and W. Keith Campbell (Georgia) on characteristics of the millennial generation:

Millennials, the generation of young Americans born after 1982, may not be the caring, socially conscious environmentalists some have portrayed them to be, according to a study described in the new issue of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.

The study, which compares the traits of young people in high school and entering college today with those of baby boomers and Gen X’ers at the same age from 1966 to 2009, shows an increasing trend of valuing money, image, and fame more than inherent principles like self-acceptance, affiliation, and community. “The results generally support the ‘Generation Me’ view of generational differences rather than the ‘Generation We,'” the study’s authors write in a report published today….

It’s not all negative, however. The individualistic streak identified in the survey data points to “more tolerance, equality, and less prejudice.” In other words, many of the Millennials take in greater stride some of the diversity issues that have divided earlier generations.

Moral and spiritual orientations

In the current issue of The Cresset, a public affairs & humanities journal, there’s a thoughtful and disturbing essay by Valparaiso University political science professor James Paul Olds, “Talking with Emerging Adults,” examining the moral and spiritual makeup of today’s college students. Among other things, he summarizes survey and interview results contained in Souls in Transition (Oxford University Press, 2009) by Notre Dame sociologist Christian Smith with Patricia Snell, finding that:

…most emerging adults were uninterested or even incapable of discussing or thinking about moral issues. They simply lacked the vocabulary for those conversations and, when you live in a world where “…anything truly objectively shared or common or real seems impossible to access,” there is not much motivation to develop one.

Olds opines that:

…many emerging adults find it difficult to connect with stable communities, or find reliable sources of structure and authority in their lives. This lack of rootedness in the physical and social worlds effects how they perceive the moral universe. When so little in life seems stable, emerging adults have little to fall back on except their own subjective experiences. Everything is personal, and they believe that whatever you think is right must be right.

Workplace implications

These assessments of the Millennials carry significant implications for the workplace. As leadership consultant Ray Williams observes in a Psychology Today blog:

There are 85 million baby boomers and 50 million Generation X’ers in the U.S. For baby boomers, it’s the juggling act between job and family. For Generation X (1965-1980), it means moving in and out of the workforce to accommodate kids and outside interests. Now there’s 76 million members of Generation Y (1981-1999) or Millennials as they’re called, are coming into the workforce. A yawning generation gap among American workers–particularly in their ideas of work-life balance– has arrived.

Williams gathers various studies and assessments indicating that Millennials at work are tech-savvy, more expecting of support and accommodation, less likely to stick with jobs they dislike, willing to work hard but very desirous of work-life balance, and seekers of growth opportunities and new experiences.

Organizational psychology professor Ron Riggio of Clarement McKenna College, another Psychology Today blogger (and one of my favorites), offers these observations about the work and career expectations of the Millennials as a group:

  • “They are Technologically Savvy.”
  • “They Play Well With Others.”
  • “They Want the World (and They Want it Now).”
  • “They Want Recognition and to Be Taken Seriously.”
  • “They Want Employee-Centered and ‘Fun’ Workplaces.”

I’ll leave it to readers to decide whether these assessments spell a high engagement or a high maintenance workforce!

A more troubling consideration, in any event, is the question of moral grounding raised by Professor Olds in his Cresset essay. Against the well-publicized backdrop of scandals in the corporate, political, and non-profit sectors, will the next generation of leaders do any better at advancing ethical standards than their predecessors?

Stay tuned.


Meltdown Follies continue at Goldman Sachs

In a New York Times op-ed piece that has gone viral, departing Goldman Sachs partner Greg Smith issued an ethical broadside against his now former employer, reinforcing some of the worst public impressions of the high-flying financial sector:

TODAY is my last day at Goldman Sachs. After almost 12 years at the firm . . . I believe I have worked here long enough to understand the trajectory of its culture, its people and its identity. And I can honestly say that the environment now is as toxic and destructive as I have ever seen it.

To put the problem in the simplest terms, the interests of the client continue to be sidelined in the way the firm operates and thinks about making money. . . . The firm has veered so far from the place I joined right out of college that I can no longer in good conscience say that I identify with what it stands for.

According to Smith, many clients are referred to derisively, and their financial well-being can take a low priority:

It makes me ill how callously people talk about ripping their clients off. Over the last 12 months I have seen five different managing directors refer to their own clients as “muppets,” sometimes over internal e-mail.

Smith calls upon Goldman to jettison the “morally bankrupt people, no matter how much money they make for the firm,” and to reset the firm’s organizational culture.

Predictable response I

The Times reports that “Goldman Sachs took issue with the opinion piece, defending the investment bank’s practices and its treatment of clients”:

“We disagree with the views expressed, which we don’t think reflect the way we run our business,” said a spokesperson for Goldman Sachs. “In our view, we will only be successful if our clients are successful. This fundamental truth lies at the heart of how we conduct ourselves.”

Predictable response II

Christine Harper reports for Bloomberg that the stock market reacted immediately to the op-ed piece:

Goldman Sachs Group Inc. (GS) saw $2.15 billion of its market value wiped out after an employee assailed Chief Executive Officer Lloyd C. Blankfein’s management and the firm’s treatment of clients, sparking debate across Wall Street.

The shares dropped 3.4 percent in New York trading yesterday, the third-biggest decline in the 81-company Standard & Poor’s 500 Financials Index, after London-based Greg Smith made the accusations in a New York Times op-ed piece.

(Now, before we stick a fork in Goldman, let’s remember that a 3.4 percent stock decline isn’t exactly the end of the world. Let’s see how things are going at the end of the month.)

Not so predictable response

It appears that Smith was one of the good guys within the firm. For example, Business Insider reports that a former Goldman intern and analyst, Aveneesh Singh Saluja, vouches for Smith:

“I worked for GS both as an intern in 06 and as a full time analyst from July 07 to March 09. …I hold him in very high regard – he took care of us junior guys, gave us great pieces of advice, and in general came across as one of the more personable, friendly, and genuine guys on the floor.”

Saluja isn’t the only former colleague publicly vouching for Smith’s character. It’s good to see that Smith isn’t being tossed under the bus by everyone who worked with him.

When will we ever learn?

Wow, shades of 2008. Smith’s op-ed suggests that one of the world’s biggest investment houses has learned very little from the meltdown of the financial services industry. In the meantime, powerful business interests continue to lobby Congress and federal enforcement agencies, claiming the financial sector doesn’t need to be strongly regulated. (I beg to differ…)

Marshall Auerback puts this in a broader context for AlterNet:

Greg Smith’s mea culpa about Goldman should not come as a surprise to anybody who has a remote connection with the financial services industry. But to suggest that the allegations made by Mr. Smith are unique to Goldman’s culture is ludicrous. They are symptomatic of a much broader problem embedded in Wall Street culture as a whole. Goldman’s major sin was being more astute at exploiting this system than most of its competitors.

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