Legal and policy challenges facing public school teachers: A brief report from Memphis

Last week it was my privilege to join members of the National Organization of Lawyers for Education Associations (NOLEA) for their annual conference, held in Memphis, Tennessee.

NOLEA is associated with the National Education Association. NOLEA-affiliated lawyers work for teachers’ unions and for law firms that represent teachers in collective bargaining. Their annual conference is an opportunity to share legal and legislative updates relating to K-12 teachers, especially in the employment context.

Teachers targeted

I say that being at the conference was a “privilege” rather than a “pleasure” because, as much as I enjoyed spending time with these dedicated attorneys, I became ever more aware of ongoing efforts to diminish the rights and freedoms of public educators.

Bashing public school teachers and their unions is “in” these days, and the legal environment in which NOLEA-affiliated attorneys work is no exception. Hot issues include downsizing, threats to tenure and civil liberties, and pay reductions. Thus, the lawyers have their work cut out for them, which was clear by the serious atmosphere that pervaded the conference.

Bullying of teachers

In that context, my presentation on workplace bullying was timely, as many teachers are being targeted by principals, superintendents, and school boards.

Here are three cases that I mentioned, drawn from previous blog posts:

1.         Deb Caldieri, South Hadley, MA

After the 2010 suicide of teenager Phoebe Prince following a course of bullying by schoolmates, one of her supportive teachers, Deb Caldieri, was driven out of her job by school administrators. (Read more here.)

2.         Joan Kaltreider, et al., Montgomery County, MD

This year, six current and former teachers from the Kemp Hill Elementary School filed suit against their principal and school board, claiming repeated bullying and harassment. (Read more here. Read the 76-page civil complaint here.)

3.         Mary Thorson, Ford Heights, IL

The 2011 suicide of Mary Thorson, a 32-year-old teacher, is being linked to workplace bullying and to what her colleagues describe as an atmosphere of fear and intimidation facing teachers in the school district. (Read more here.)

Thank you

I’d like to thank specially NEA General Counsel Alice O’Brien and NEA attorneys Michael Simpson and Jason Walta for their invitation and warm welcome.

The conference marked Michael’s farewell to the organization, and he offered poignant remarks reminiscing on a career spent in service of education lawyers, teachers, and kids. It also gave me an opportunity to catch up with Jason, once a Northeastern University law student here in Boston, and now a public interest lawyer pursuing good works.

The impacts of good and bad leadership on employee health

A bit of web surfing turned up a very useful 2011 blog post examining links between leadership qualities and employee health.

Richard Williams, Wallace Higgins, and Harvey Greenberg — consultants with Nehoiden Partners and writing for’s Northeast Human Resources Association blog — start by building a pitch for leadership development programs:

Your boss should come with a warning label: May be hazardous to your health. Research once again has confirmed what we’ve always suspected – your boss can cause you stress, induce depression and anxiety or even trigger the onset of serious illness. It is not just bad managers who can negatively affect employee health, but it is also the lackadaisical and mediocre who can put employees on the sick list.

While the cost to employees is their health, welfare and sometimes their income, the cost to workplaces is lost productivity, turnover, training, disability payments and staggering health insurance premiums. Moreover, a whole new field of litigation is opening – lawsuits against “bad” bosses and the organizations that negligently allow them to supervise.

But hope is not lost. A careful review of the research on leadership behavior and employee health yields some important surprises about leadership development and its potential impact on employee health and performance. There appears to be a clear relationship between leader behaviors and employee health, which is a pre-requisite for good performance. Furthermore, those behaviors are specific enough to be part of an effective leadership development program.

Summarizing studies

The authors do an excellent job of summarizing research findings on leadership and employee health. Here’s a snippet:

  • Eleven studies found that positive leader behaviors were associated with lower levels of anxiety and depression while the lack of positive leadership behaviors was associated with higher levels of anxiety and depression. Kuoppala’s meta-analysis of the research on employee health and leadership behaviors concluded that employees with good leadership were 40% more likely to be in the highest category of psychological well-being, including lower levels of anxiety and depression.
  • Eight studies on burnout – physical or emotional exhaustion as the result of prolonged stress – found that positive leader behaviors led to lower levels of burnout.
  • Six studies on stress had mixed results. Four studies found a relationship between leader behaviors and stress; two did not. Taken altogether however these studies strongly indicate that positive leader behaviors can reduce stress while the lack of these behaviors creates an environment that increases stress.

The full blog article includes a link to citations of studies referenced within. If this topic is of interest, it’s definitely worth a click-and-print.

What the 1990s taught us about abusive work environments

Many journalists who interview me about workplace bullying ask if the recessionary economy has contributed to the frequency and severity of bullying behaviors. I point them to various studies and commentaries linking the current meltdown and bad work environments, but I also tell them about research that emerged from the recessionary years of the 1990s.

Deja vu, all over again

You see, we’ve been here before. As social psychologist Harvey Hornstein, author of Brutal Bosses and Their Prey (1996), told Fortune magazine in 1996, “(n)early half the cases of abusive bosses that I’ve uncovered can be attributed to the Nineties work environment.”

This environment, according to Hornstein, “ignited explosions of brutality both from innate bullies who thrive on their mistreatment of others and form overburdened bosses who might never have behaved that work in less stressful times.” Hornstein observed that many companies in the 90s adopted a downsizing mentality and carved away layers of workers, leaving the survivors to “produce more with fewer resources.”

Also, in a study published in 1998, organizational behavior experts Robert Baron and Joel Neuman found that popular cost-cutting measures such as downsizing and layoffs, and organizational changes such as corporate restructuring, are “significantly related to expressions of hostility and obstructionism” in the workplace.

So what’s new?

Unfortunately, this recession is much deeper and more enduring than what we saw in the early 1990s. Sure, some people are getting jobs, but the unemployment rate remains high and job mobility has become more limited.

It means that when targets of bullying, sexual harassment, and other forms of mistreatment either “voluntarily” leave or are pushed out of their jobs, their options may be constrained. No doubt many workers are toughing out very hostile, dysfunctional workplaces for that very reason. We need to tackle pro-actively those workplaces that enable bullying, but we also need a stronger job market to give targets the options they need to move on.


The 1990s information was drawn from my law review article, David C. Yamada, “The Phenomenon of ‘Workplace Bullying’ and the Need for Status-Blind Hostile Work Environment Protection,” Georgetown Law Journal (2000), a free download here.

The academic workplace: A baker’s dozen posts to ponder

Academic institutions can be, umm, interesting places to earn a living. And given that I’ve been working in higher education for some 20 years now, it shouldn’t be surprising that aspects of employment relations in colleges and universities come up fairly often in this blog, especially topics such as bullying.

I’ve collected a baker’s dozen of posts that are particularly relevant to the academic workplace. Not all were written with higher education specifically in mind, but all apply.  Here they are:

1. Meetings upon meetings: The administrative mindset in academe (2012)

2. Workplace bullying and the ombudsman (2012)

3. Illuminating bullying, mobbing, and conformity in academe (2012)

4. What is academic tenure? (2011)

5. “Strategic planning”: All too often, a time-sucking bridge to nowhere (2011)

6. Keashly and Neuman on bullying in academe (2011)

7. How well does your organization respond to employee feedback and criticism? (2011)

8. Study on incivility toward graduate students reports effects similar to workplace bullying (2011)

9. The culture of academic work: On conformity, bullying and the disappearance of academic jobs (2011)

10. Rework on Rock Stars: Academe, are you listening? (2010)

11. Workplace violence in higher education settings (2009)

12. Is your workplace psychologically and ethically healthy? (2009)

13. Workplace bullying and mobbing in academe: The hell of heaven? (2009)

Trickle-down abuse: Workplace bullying, depression, and kids

We know that severe workplace bullying can trigger or exacerbate clinical depression in its targets. But that’s not all: In making our case for taking this form of abuse seriously, we also need to acknowledge how children become the secondary victims of bullying-induced depression.

Parental depression and kids

Writing recently for the New York Times, Dr. Perri Klass observes that “a parent’s depression, it turns out, can be linked to all kinds of problems, even in the lives of older children.” She continues:

Depression damages the interactions between parents and children, and disrupts family routines and rituals. Children with a depressed parent are themselves more likely to manifest symptoms of depression, research shows, along with other psychiatric problems and behavior issues. They are more likely to make visits to the emergency room and more likely to be injured.

. . . Depression may become part of a vicious cycle in these families: An overwhelmed and depressed parent is less able to follow a complex medical regimen, and a child ends up in the emergency room or the hospital, creating more pressure and more stress for the family.

Workplace bullying>depression>women>kids

Bullying-induced depression can impact parental care provided by mothers and fathers alike. But I suggest that there’s a disparate impact on women. Let’s connect the dots:

1. Depression is one of the most common effects of workplace bullying.

2. According to studies conducted by the Workplace Bullying Institute, women are more likely to be bullying targets than men, at least in the U.S.

3. Women, married or single/separated, are more likely to be primary caregivers to their children.

In other words, the evidence suggests that we’ve got a cohort of bullied, depressed moms out there, and the pain of their experience at work is being passed on to their kids at home.

Single moms singled out?

Also, I’m going to re-float my thesis that single mothers are disproportionately targeted:

. . . (W)hile conceding that my impressions are anecdotal, I have found that, in my countless unsolicited exchanges with targets seeking legal referrals, unmarried women in their 30s or older, many of whom are single parents, appear to be disproportionately on the receiving end of some of the worst forms of bullying at work.

It makes sense, sadly.  Let’s start with the observation that truly abusive bullies often have a knack for sniffing out vulnerable individuals.  Then we look at potential targets: Demographically speaking, is there any group more vulnerable than single women raising kids?  They already are juggling work and caregiving, their schedules seem timed down to the minute, and not infrequently they are struggling financially — especially if there is no father in the picture.

Bottom line

Targets suffer, their kids suffer, society suffers. We all pay for workplace bullying, but some pay a much higher price.


More information

In her column, Dr. Klass cites a 2009 report, Depression in Parents, Parenting, and Children, by the Institute of Medicine and the National Research Council. A summary can be accessed here.

Some Graduation Day-type reading

For those of us in the education field, this is Commencement season, and with it brings the usual blizzard of graduation speeches — a few truly excellent, most okay, and a sprinkling of the genuinely dreadful.

I’m not about to offer the online version of one of these speeches, but instead, I want to share four books for graduates and non-graduates alike that contain a lot of wisdom, guidance, and food for thought.

(Official disclaimer: In the classic teacher fashion, I must disclose that I am hardly 100 percent successful at achieving these goals and objectives for myself. Many of the points raised by these authors remain aspirational!)

Here goes, in alphabetical order:

1. Karen Armstrong, Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life (2010) — A noted writer on religious affairs, Armstrong offers a mix of faith, philosophy, and self-help in her own 12-step program designed to make the world a more compassionate place:

  • “Learn About Compassion”
  • “Look at Your Own World”
  • “Compassion for Yourself”
  • “Empathy”
  • “Mindfulness”
  • “Action”
  • “How Little We Know”
  • “How Should We Speak to One Another?”
  • “Concern for Everybody”
  • “Knowledge”
  • “Recognition”
  • “Love Your Enemies”

2. Charles D. Hayes, The Rapture of Maturity: A Legacy of Lifelong Learning (2004) — Hayes is one of my favorite writers. I described him in a prior post as “a retired, largely self-educated writer and practical philosopher whose books and essays on finding meaning in life remain hidden classics.”  Here’s the opening to his Preface:

When thoughts of our own mortality begin to crop up with increasing frequency, it’s time to pause and contemplate our legacy. We’re reminded to ask ourselves what of value we intend to leave for posterity. After the tangibles of the estate are settled, what will our successors remember about us? Is there something we can do now that will generate a lasting, positive effect in the lives of our descendants?

Some of the best inspirational and self-help books are written by folks a generation (or two) ahead of us who graciously share their life lessons with their successors. Hayes writes especially for those in the “September” of their lives, but there’s no reason why everyone else cannot benefit from his wisdom.

3. Dan Millman, The Four Purposes of Life: Finding Meaning and Direction in a Changing World (2011) — A neat little book that truly reflects its title. Here are Millman’s four purposes:

  • “Learning Life’s Lessons”
  • “Finding Your Career and Calling”
  • “Discovering Your Life Path”
  • “Attending to this Arising Moment”

Millman concludes with an introduction to his life-path number system that overcame my considerable initial skepticism. I’ve found it to be quite uncanny. How it works, I have no idea.

4. Parker J. Palmer, LetYour Life Speak: Listening for the Voice of Vocation (2000) — This slim volume is a treasure. Here’s a short passage (p. 9):

What a long time it can take to become the person one has always been! How often in the process we mask ourselves in faces that are not our own. How much dissolving and shaking of ego must we endure before we discover our deep identity — the true self within every human being that is the seed of authentic vocation.

Okay, so perhaps Shakespeare said it more succinctly (“to thine own self be true”), but Palmer does a darn good job of inviting us to seek our calling.

Why we need psychologically healthy workplaces in the healthcare sector

It’s Saturday night and you’ve been in a car accident. Someone who had too much to drink swerved into your lane and caused a bad collision. You are in severe pain and fear that you’ve suffered serious injuries.

The paramedics arrive at the scene and whisk you to the nearest emergency room. Once there, you find yourself being cared for by a doctor and nurse who absorb information about your condition from the paramedics. As they check your vital signs, you pass out….

30 minutes earlier

For the sake of your own already sky-high stress levels, thank goodness you didn’t know that 30 minutes before your arrival, this doctor had been yelling mercilessly at the young nurse for a small mistake, right in front of her colleagues. The nurse was so rattled and embarrassed that she didn’t handle skillfully an emotionally out-of-control patient, who became angry at her and spat on her uniform just minutes before the paramedics wheeled you in.

It’s better you don’t know that your life is in the hands of a doctor with a short temper and a novice nurse who now is very skittish around him.

Violence, bullying, and incivility in healthcare

Folks who work in emergency rooms and psychiatric wards will tell you that physical violence at the hands of patients (and sometimes their family members or friends) can be a significant risk of the job. Healthcare workers can be hit, pushed, kicked, spat upon, and otherwise assaulted (physically and verbally) by the very people they’re trying to help.

In addition, bullying and incivility are common forms of mistreatment in the healthcare workplace. Nurses and nurses’ aides seem to get it the worst, but others are targets as well. The problem is so serious that in 2008, the Joint Commission, an independent, non-profit organization that accredits health care organizations and programs, issued a standard on intimidating and disruptive behaviors at work, citing concerns about patient care. (See blog series about bullying in healthcare, starting here.)

An imperfect storm

Earlier this week, I blogged about the National Conference for Workplace Violence Prevention & Management in Healthcare Settings, hosted last weekend by the University of Cincinnati College of Nursing. We heard a lot about physical violence committed by patients and about bullying & incivility dished out by co-workers.

What happens, however, when the two mix? Let’s say an emergency room treats potentially violent patients on a regular basis and also happens to be a place where employees treat each other so poorly that everyone is on edge? How do the concurrent risks of violence and bullying interact, to the point where workers are routinely stressed out and thus more prone to mistakes?

Let’s zero in on healthcare

This scenario underscores my belief that healthcare is a singularly important sector for studying and responding to disruptive behaviors of all types. The stakes could not be higher: They relate to workers and patients alike. A psychologically healthy healthcare workplace provides everyone with greater peace of mind, ranging from the workers to those of us who seek their help.

Accessible entrepreneurship: Chris Guillebeau’s “The $100 Startup”

Here’s what I like the most about Chris Guillebeau’s The $100 Startup (Crown Business, 2012): The title.

That’s not a swipe; it’s meant as real praise. We need books reminding us that you don’t need a million bucks to start a new business.

And fortunately there’s more . . .


In The $100 Startup, Guillebeau assembles 50 case studies of individuals who have started businesses from scratch, often after suffering a setback such as a layoff or encountering major frustrations with their careers.

To me it’s the most inviting kind of how-to book, mixing stories with concrete guidance. The stories entice you to imagine possibilities, and the advice helps to put you on the right path.

If you’re serious about starting your own business, The $100 Startup is not the only resource you’ll want to consult — others will provide necessary advice on bureaucratic, tax, and legal details — but it likely will be one you return to for inspiration, ideas, and examples.

The home brewed entrepreneur

I’ve been a fan of Guillebeau’s approach to entrepreneurship and micro-business creation, especially in the midst of an economy that is producing few jobs and giving life to even fewer dreams. And given that I’m very attentive to business opportunities for people who may left abusive or dysfunctional workplaces, the start-up option is a definite possibility for those who have been beaten down by standard-brand employers.

Guillebeau’s first book — The Art of Non-Conformity (2010) — and accompanying blog have garnered attention as resources for those who want to free themselves from the rat race and the frustrations of working for others.

Now, with The $100 Startup, he delivers an easy and engaging read for those who want to create a business befitting a more independent lifestyle.


Book website, here.

U of Cincinnati conference examines workplace violence, bullying, and incivility in healthcare

I just returned from the superb National Conference for Workplace Violence Prevention & Management in Healthcare Settings, hosted by the University of Cincinnati College of Nursing. This was one of those rare conferences where every speech, panel discussion, and poster session offered something informative and thought-provoking.

For the conference website, go here. Podcasts of conference programs will be posted during the summer.

Keynote address

An invitation to be one of the keynote speakers led to my being a part of the conference. Titled “Responding to Workplace Bullying in Healthcare: Ten Propositions,” here were my main points:

1.            The healthcare sector is an ideal locus for developing best practices to address workplace bullying, mobbing, and incivility.

2.            Somehow, someway, the case for taking workplace bullying seriously has to be made to the most powerful stakeholders, especially management.

3.            Medical schools need to inculcate students in the importance of developing and exercising social intelligence in the healthcare workplace.

4.            Nursing schools need to teach students about bullying behaviors and the need for personal resilience.

5.            Nurses’ unions are uniquely situated to raise concerns about workplace bullying.

6.            Physicians and nurses should not be promoted to management positions without training in management skills.

7.            Individuals who treat co-workers abusively should be counseled, disciplined, and – if necessary – dismissed.

8.            The enactment of legal protections against severe, targeted bullying at work could enhance, not hinder, the management and HR functions of the healthcare workplace.

9.            Internal codes of conduct in healthcare institutions should (1) promote responsible speech, (2) nurture civility, and (3) prohibit abuse.

10.          Research must inform practice, which — in turn — must inform research.

Many thanks

I won’t even attempt to provide a sampling of the good stuff we heard, though I will be discussing various presentations and poster displays in future blog posts. For now, I simply want to extend my gratitude to members of the conference committee, especially professors Gordon Lee Gillespie and Donna Gates and coordinator Katy Roberto Marston, for their extraordinary efforts and hospitality:

Gordon Lee Gillespie, PhD, RN, UC College of Nursing; principal investigator
Donna M. Gates, EdD, RN, FAAN, UC College of Nursing; co-investigator
Bonnie Fisher
, PhD, UC College of Education, Criminal Justice, and Human Services
William K. Fant
, PharmD, University of Cincinnati College of Pharmacy
Barbara Forney
, Program Manager, University of Cincinnati College of Continuing Medical Education
Michelle Caruso
, PharmD, BCPS, Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center
Terry Kowalenko
, MD, FACEP, University of Michigan Emergency Medicine
Alison C. McLeish
, PhD; UC Department of Psychology
Dianne Ditmer
, PhD, RN, FACFE, Kettering Medical Network
Christine Luca
, MSN, RN, University of Cincinnati College of Nursing
Katy Roberto Marston
, Conference Coordinator, University of Cincinnati
Carolyn Smith
, PhD(c), RN, Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center
Ahlam Al-Natour
, PhD(c), RN, University of Cincinnati College of Nursing
Peggy Berry
, MSN, RN, University of Cincinnati College of Nursing

Consulting firm urges employers to require workers to report bullying behaviors

There are a lot of folks serving up advice on how to deal with workplace bullying these days. Some appear to know what they’re talking about, and others cause me to think, uh oh, this doesn’t sound right.

Last week, a consulting company sent me their blog column examining what employers should do about workplace bullying (link here). In it, they urge companies to require workers to report bullying activities and imply that discipline would be appropriate for those who do not:

  • “Require reporting – a professional workplace is everyone’s responsibility. Require reporting at all levels, and deal with failures to report appropriately.”

The bulk of the blog post echoes information and advice that many of us have been offering for years, but the “must-report” recommendation raises significant concerns:

  • Won’t such a policy promote reports and complaints of the mildest of slights or uncivil behaviors?
  • There are strategic reasons why a bullying target or bystander witness may wait to report abusive behavior, such as engaging in a job search or completing an initial probationary period of employment. A “must report” policy presumably puts them in violation if they do not act promptly.
  • What does it mean “deal with failures to report appropriately?” Does this mean a fearful bullying target could face discipline or discharge for not reporting the abuse?

A “must-report” policy may sound good on the surface, but upon closer scrutiny it clearly is an idea rife with unwanted consequences.

Here’s another one

The suggestion of a must-report policy is the most concerning, but here’s another one that strikes me as problematic:

  • “Create a culture of trust and accountability. Allow for anonymous reporting, if necessary, and immediately act on complaints filed.”

I’m not sure how anonymous reporting creates a culture of trust and accountability, but in any event, many an HR director or ombuds will tell you that it’s awfully hard to do a fair and thorough investigation based on such reports — especially for a targeted form of mistreatment such as workplace bullying.

And when combined with the must-report policy, anonymous reporting can stoke an organizational culture of suspicion and paranoia.

When hype trumps substance

A subsequent e-mail advisory from the same firm invited me to sign up for an upcoming webinar on workplace bullying & violence for HR folks, led by an attorney. Here’s how they pitched it:

Settlements in bullying cases have been in excess of 1 Million dollars for each instance of bullying and the negative impact on the reputation of the organization can be significant and long term. HR professionals and front line supervisors often do not have the information necessary to curtail bullying and violence before damaging, or disastrous, results occur.

Wow, if only, I can hear bullying targets saying to themselves. A tiny handful of lawsuits for bullying-type behaviors have led to large settlements or verdicts for targets, most of which involved at least some element of discrimination — thus implicating civil rights laws.

In truth, however, successful claims for severe bullying behaviors are few and far between, at least in the U.S. It’s why I’ve written the Healthy Workplace Bill and why citizen advocates across the country are asking legislators to enact it.

In addition, when I speak to employer groups about workplace bullying, I try to be honest by acknowledging that this form of mistreatment often falls outside of the reaches of current employment protections.  Employers should not ignore the liability risks associated with workplace bullying, but frankly their exposure is low-to-moderate compared to other employment claims.

Advising employers on a complex topic

We should encourage pro-active organizational responses to workplace bullying and strive to identify best practices that help to prevent bullying, safeguard bullying targets, and provide for fair, thorough investigations of complaints. Although well-meaning, it’s questionable whether the advice provided by this firm will achieve these objectives.

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