Collegiate reflections: Working on the campus newspaper

Today’s Torch

Today, many people look at the skyrocketing costs of college and rightly question its worth. The difficult entry-level job market for new graduates and the growth of online learning options are among the factors causing some to doubt the usefulness of the “college experience,” at least when matched against its burgeoning expense.

This does beg the question: What makes the college experience a worthwhile one?

As I see it, extracurricular activities that develop professional and social skills, nurture creativity, and build a sense of community are the most significant value-added benefits of the residential collegiate experience. My appreciation for such activities has been informed considerably by my own experiences as a department editor and reporter for my college newspaper many years ago.

The Torch

Now home to the VU police department, we spent many hours in this building working on The Torch.

The Torch is the weekly student newspaper of Valparaiso University, a Lutheran-affiliated school with a liberal arts bent in northwest Indiana, where I earned my bachelor’s degree in 1981. As a young person I had longed to work on a school newspaper, and those wishes became a reality during my final two years of college.

I pored myself into work for The Torch. I wrote dozens of articles and columns, mostly on academic affairs topics within the university. I also assigned stories to reporters in my department and edited their work.

The Torch also became the social and intellectual community that I previously didn’t have at Valparaiso. A former colleague once wrote that The Torch became our own college of sorts, where we wrote and edited our articles and debated about academic and campus life and issues of the day.

Our little newspaper was not free of sophomoric writings (some penned by yours truly), and at times we took ourselves too seriously. But it did feature some excellent reporting (including in-depth investigative pieces) and a body of insightful commentary about collegiate life and academic institutions. (I’m not imagining things through a rose-colored lens. This post was spurred by my rediscovery of a bound volume of The Torch from those years; the quality is evident.)

Real stuff

The Torch was the most important extracurricular experience of my college career. The topics of my articles and columns were limited largely to campus issues, but even this was heady business for me. There was something powerful and scary about writing pieces for publication with my byline appended. This sense of influencing the campus dialogue was enhanced by the fact that many VU students, faculty, and administrators read The Torch and paid attention to it.

Some of the articles I wrote demanded close attention to detail and accuracy. For example, I wrote an investigative piece in which I was able to elicit admissions from campus administrators that a popular political science professor had been denied tenure on grounds beyond the official criteria for tenure evaluation. I also did a series of articles following the aftermath of a student-to-student slaying that had racial overtones at our predominantly white campus.

A valuable experience

By my observations as a professor, it appears that internships and part-time jobs (the latter often due to financial necessity) are supplanting meaningful student activities in the competition for students’ time and attention. However, even looking at this from a purely vocational standpoint, working on the college paper called for intensive writing and editing work and the shared management of a publication with weekly deadlines. It required the development and application of sound judgment. In short, it presented challenges that one rarely gets in internships or part-time student employment.

Indeed, it pains me that when I peruse a student’s resume, major extracurricular activities look somewhat quaint or marginal compared to internships that carry more heft in the job market. Perhaps I should accept this as an inevitable change, but my experience causes me to wish otherwise.

***

Note: With Commencement season coming to a close at colleges and universities across the nation, I beg my readers’ indulgence as I use a short series of posts over the next week to reflect upon my own collegiate experience and its immediate aftermath to address topics pertinent to this blog.

Other posts in this short series

 
 

Corporate interests attack Healthy Workplace Bill in Massachusetts

Powerful, well-funded corporate and business interests are contacting Massachusetts state legislators and generating letter-writing campaigns to voice their opposition to the anti-bullying Healthy Workplace Bill (filed as House No. 2310 in the 2011-12 session).

In some ways, this is a good sign. It means that the HWB is being taken seriously.

Nevertheless, as author of the underlying language of the HWB, I’ve examined their claims and found them wanting. Here are my responses:

1. Claim: Existing harassment law is sufficient to protect bullying targets.

Reality: This is untrue.  Harassment law protects only those individuals who can prove that the mistreatment is due to their protected class membership, such as sex, race, or age.

The HWB protects all employees from abusive mistreatment on an equal opportunity basis, filling a huge gap in the law.

2. Claim: Existing tort (personal injury) law is sufficient to protect bullying targets.

Reality: This is untrue.  In Massachusetts, the Supreme Judicial Court has held that under exclusivity provision of the state’s workers’ compensation law, workers may not sue their employers for intentional infliction of emotional distress (IIED) and many other tort actions.  Even if this bar was removed, my extensive analysis of IIED claims brought against employers in other states shows that most targets of standard-brand, severe workplace bullying are unable to recover (or even to get to trial).

3. Claim: The Healthy Workplace Bill will open floodgates of litigation.

Reality: Of course there will be lawsuits under the HWB; it would not be doing its job if workers did not bring claims under it.  However, after an initial surge of litigation, the number of claims will moderate considerably once lawyers, their clients, and the courts recognize the high threshold for recovery (including intent to cause distress and resulting physical and/or psychological harm).

The HWB has three primary goals: (1) preventing bullying; (2) encouraging prompt and fair employer responses to reports of bullying; and (3) providing compensation to targets of severe, health-harming bullying. Good employers can minimize their liability and, in the process, have a healthier, more loyal, more productive workforce as a result.

4. Claim: The Healthy Workplace Bill will hurt small businesses.

Reality: Small businesses also suffer devastating productivity and morale losses when bullying occurs. In fact, with fewer people on the payroll, small businesses experiencing workplace bullying have less flexibility than larger ones to move around employees and make personnel changes. The HWB will incentivize preventive efforts for these businesses.

5. Claim: We should give employers a chance to address bullying voluntarily first.

Reality: Workplace bullying is not new to the American workplace, even if the label is relatively recent.  Employers have had decades to address the psychological abuse of employees, and all too often they ignore the complaints or side with the aggressors.  Now it is clear that the law should enter the picture to encourage them to stop this form of interpersonal abuse.

6. Claim: The Healthy Workplace Bill takes away the ability of employers to manage their workforce.

Reality: This is untrue.  The HWB enters the picture only when the bullying behaviors have become severe and harmful. It provides legal incentives for employers to sharply minimize their liability exposure by acting preventively and responsively toward bullying, and it reserves the right of employers to conduct evaluations and provide feedback and direction to their employees.

***

For more information:

Blog post: The Healthy Workplace Bill: What’s it all about?

For the new blog of the Massachusetts Healthy Workplace Advocates, go here.

Workplace bullying 2.0: From understanding to action

Not long ago, if we sought to comprehend common bullying behaviors at work, their frequency, and the harm they cause, we’d look to our friends in Europe, Canada, and Australia for published research studies.

Today, work from our international colleagues continues to enrich our understanding, but U.S. researchers have stepped up to produce a growing body of work on bullying, mobbing, and incivility in the American workplace. And if my travels to different conferences featuring poster presentations by graduate students in the midst of dissertations and theses are any indication, there’s a lot more good stuff in the pipeline.

From understanding to action

We must continue to examine the prevalence and effects of workplace bullying. This type of research must be ongoing, and eventually it should provide us with the ability to compare the frequency and variety of bullying behaviors over time.

However, we’re also at a point where we must emphasize evidence-based action by facilitating prevention, intervention, and response. Indeed, a centerpiece of the “workplace bullying 2.0” theme is that we’ve got the evidence to make our case for tackling this problem at all levels, including organizational change, public education, law reform, and mental health counseling.

Of course, work of this nature is underway as I write, but more is needed. We’re much closer to having a finely-tuned set of best practices and policies (public and private) to deal with workplace bullying than we were a decade ago. With the right blend of research, practice, public education, and advocacy, we can reach that desired objective.

***

This is one of 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 American employment relations. Psychology and mental health, the law, human resources and organizational management, and labor studies are among the fields I’ll be examining.

Boomers vs. Millennials: More early shots in the generational war

Are the older boomers or the younger millennials facing a tougher time in today’s melted-down workplace?

Matthew Philips, in a piece for Business Week (link here), sees both sides of the argument, noting that “in terms of who has it worse, old or young workers, it’s worth measuring the differences between the two age groups to see which is more in need of help.” He assesses the situation this way:

Older

A recent report by the Government Accountability Office comes down on the side of easing the plight of older workers, more than 50 percent of whom have actively sought a job for more than half a year.

. . . In a recent OpEd for the New York Times, Dean Baker of the Center for Economic Policy Research and Kevin Hassett of the American Enterprise Institute point out just how devastating unemployment can be for older workers, leading to significantly higher rates of death and illness. Also, once they lose a job, older workers have a much harder time getting back into the workforce.

Younger

Yet there’s evidence that the real jobs crisis is taking place a generation or two down the food chain. Unemployment rates for young Americans are significantly higher. . . . Not only are young people coming out of college with an increasingly heavy burden of student loan debt; they’re coming into a job market where they’re less likely to earn enough money to pay that off in a reasonable time.

That has far-reaching consequences. Today’s young workers are likely to have lower earning . . . potential over their careers, and their inability to pay off their student debt will keep them from buying homes and cars and a whole lot of other stuff that helps juice the economy.

Commencement season

Around the country, newly-minted graduates are taking their bows at Commencement ceremonies and entering the workforce. As an educator, I am ever aware of the difficult job market they confront. Joseph Kahn, writing for the Boston Globe (link here), captured the challenges faced by many:

Those not drowning financially are often treading water at best, according to surveys like the one released last month by WSL/Strategic Retail, a consulting firm that tracks shopping and retail trends.

Millennials now represent “the highest percentage of Americans lacking enough money to meet their basic needs,” outdistancing Gen X-ers and baby boomers in that dubious regard, according to the survey.

Burdened by $1 trillion in college debt, millennials seek the lowest price on most of their purchased items (80 percent say), shop for lower-priced brands whenever possible (60 percent), and do much of their bargain hunting online (57 percent), the WSL survey found.

. . . Facing them is “a perfect storm of a weak job market and the fact that those who do have jobs have seen minimal pay increases,” says WSL president Candace Corlett. Unlike previous generations, she adds, young adults are starting out their professional lives by piecing together part-time and temp jobs, or freelancing for low pay. Full-time jobs with benefits? Not many.

Two years ago, I wrote a piece for Perspectives on Work (link here) titled “The Looming 21st Century Generation Gap: Economic Challenges Facing Younger Workers.” I wouldn’t change a word of the opening paragraph:

Younger adults preparing to enter today’s workforce face a confluence of economic challenges unknown to many of their predecessors. These include rising student loan debt, barriers and higher thresholds to entry-level jobs, reduced wages and benefits, and heavier responsibilities for funding their own retirements and those of preceding generations. Many of these concerns were in play before the recession, but the economic meltdown has intensified all of them. Although the exact mix of these factors remains speculative, potentially we face a long period of generational strife that will play out in our workplaces, boardrooms, and legislatures.

Peers

Nevertheless, as a tail-end Baby Boomer, I fully comprehend the challenges and fears of a generation that has weathered the Great Recession during a time when our earning capacities are supposed to be at their peaks.

Many workers in their 40s and beyond have paid a heavy price during these past five years. At some employers, layoffs have targeted more experienced (and expensive) employees. And the older one gets, the more difficult it becomes to obtain a comparable position. Wages and salaries have flatlined, and pay cuts and freezes have become the norm.

In addition, quiet but devastating forms of age discrimination confront many workers who attempt to rebound from a layoff or to switch careers. The federal Age Discrimination in Employment Act prohibits age discrimination against individuals 40 and over, but proving such claims is extremely difficult.

The economic consequences of the meltdown on older workers are significant, especially in terms of retirement savings and planning. But the oft-neglected psychological impacts have exacted a heavy toll as well, ranging from the stress caused by uncertainty about job security to outright despair, desperation, and depression over a job loss.

Are we all in this together?

Call it a wash.

In any event, I foresee a lot of generational strife in the years to come. Boomers, concerned about economic security during their later years and (in some cases, at least) fueled by expectations of maintaining certain standards of living, will exercise their clout in boardrooms and legislatures. Millennials, many of whom are burdened by enormous student debt as they sail straight into a bad job market, will not want to pay extra levies to fund the retirements of generations preceding them.

I firmly believe that this scenario will get worse, perhaps substantially so, before it possibly gets better. The latter will require a fundamental revisiting of how we live, spend, and consume.

***

Graphic courtesy of Free Clip Art Now.

One-way feedback: In-house employee surveys and the illusion of open decision making

A recent conversation at a conference confirmed my suspicions: More organizations are using online, “anonymous” surveys to get feedback from their employees. This practice appears to be especially common during strategic planning or organizational assessment stages.

Typically, an employee will get an e-mail in her inbox, inviting her to complete an online survey, often using programs such as SurveyMonkey. Topics vary widely, but usually they cover some aspect(s) of employment relations or management decision making.

Multiple choice, yes-no, agree-disagree questions will predominate, sometimes exclusively, thus sharply limiting the range of feedback.

The catch (or, catches)

So the employee may be thinking, great, they want my opinion! I’m fortunate to be working at a place that welcomes what I have to say!

But hold on. Frequently these surveys are done with an underlying agenda, usually one that seeks validation for an already favored course of action. (A telltale sign is when obvious choices or answers are not provided as response options, or when the survey is framed to exclude entire points of view.)

Call me a cynic, but here’s the usual situation:

1. The raw survey data are not shared with those who participated. Instead, a sanitized summary may be prepared and released.

2. If the survey results favor the desired outcome, they likely will be trumpeted to the high heavens.

3. If the results are ambiguous, you may not hear anything more, or those in charge will say the feedback was inconclusive and requires more thought.

4. If the results run squarely counter to the desired outcome, it’s possible that you’ll never hear another word about the survey, or reasons will be generated to disregard it (e.g., “it’s just a snapshot,” “too few respondents,” “we really shouldn’t be swayed against our better judgment”).

If organizations want genuine exchanges about planning, actions, and evaluations, they should consider making these survey results completely available, edited only for information that is defamatory or confidential — or at least guarantee that the individual tallies will be released regardless of how they come out.

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