Movie blog lists nine worst big screen employers

Looking for a few summer DVD movie diversions with workplace themes? Earlier this year, the movie blog TDYLF (The Droid You’re Looking For) selected the nine worst employers as depicted on the big screen. Here’s the full post with explanations (worth a click and read), and here’s the list:

1. The Quick Stop, Clerks (1994)

2. The Death Star, The Star Wars trilogy

3. The iron mines, North Country (2005)

4. The Weyland-Yutani Corporation, Alien (1979)

5. Initech, Office Space (1999)

6. Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory, Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory (1971)

7. Mordor, The Lord of the Rings trilogy

8. Shenanigan’s restaurant, Waiting… (2005)

9. Dr. Seward’s Lunatic Asylum, Dracula: Dead and Loving It (1995)

My confession

Yikes, I haven’t seen roughly half of these movies! That includes North Country, which earned strong reviews for its depiction of an early sexual harassment case. And, yes, Office Space, a cult favorite. Add to that Willy Wonka, which a friend described as her favorite movie!

Hmm, is it possible that I know enough about real-life dysfunctional workplaces that I don’t seek out fictional versions for entertainment?

Of course, you might quarrel with the list and have a few of your own to add — comment away! In the meantime, I’d best rev up my DVD player. I’ve got homework to do!

Do “almost psychopaths” help to explain the prevalence of workplace bullying and abuse?

Is it possible that a category of individuals who can be called “almost psychopaths” are responsible for a lot of the most severe bullying and abuse in the workplace?

Ronald Schouten (M.D./J.D.), a Harvard Medical School psychiatrist, and James Silver (J.D.), an attorney specializing in criminal law, have co-authored a fascinating new book, Almost a Psychopath: Do I (or Does Someone I Know) Have a Problem with Manipulation and Lack of Empathy? (2012). It’s part of the Harvard Medical School’s “The Almost Effect” series, which explores the gray areas between normal health and severe, clinically-diagnosed medical conditions.

The authors describe psychopathy as a “major abnormality” marked by a lack of empathy and behaviors that are “inappropriately deceitful, aggressive, and indifferent to the rights or feelings of others.” These behaviors are “the norm, not the exception.”

Schouten and Silver have dealt with genuine psychopaths in their professional practices, but there’s another type of individual they encounter more often, the almost psychopath, which they describe this way:

Nevertheless, we much more frequently find ourselves dealing with people who don’t meet the current technical definition of a psychopath, but who have more than the usual amount of difficulty following rules, fulfilling obligations, or understanding how to treat others.

. . . Whether because of the nature of their behavior . . . or because they violate social or legal norms so frequently, these people live their lives somewhere between the boundaries of commonplace “not-so-bad” behavior and psychopathy.

Their benchmark for making these assessments is the well-known psychopathy checklist developed by Dr. Robert Hare.

The almost psychopath at work

While the true psychopath may have trouble functioning in regular society, the almost psychopath often can navigate life successfully, including — perhaps especially in — the workplace. Appropriately, the authors devote a full chapter to “Working with an Almost Psychopath.”

The chapter opens with the story of “Greta,” a smart, talented, attractive woman whose skill for manipulating others becomes evident during childhood. Once she enters the work world, she demonstrates an easy knack for lying and deceit, cultivating the right supporters, stealing credit for others’ successes, and treating subordinates poorly.

Greta, the authors posit, is an almost psychopath, and their portrayal of her will resonate with many readers of this blog. (Interestingly, they dwell quite a bit on female psychopathy.) They also discuss workplace bullying, citing studies by the Workplace Bullying Institute in support of their observation of its widespread prevalence.

Alas, they offer no easy solutions. Their suggestions include directly approaching the almost psychopath, a strategy that has backfired on many individuals. More realistically, they conclude that leaving a job may be the most viable option for dealing with an almost psychopath — an ending that we’ve seen often with many cases of bullying at work.

Does this explain things?

Many people experiencing severe workplace bullying are treated dismissively when they claim that they are being targeted by a psychopath. After all, doubters ask, isn’t that status reserved for serial killers and other “maniacs”?

For the sake of argument, let’s concede the possibility that many workplace aggressors do not fit the clinical criteria for full-blown psychopathy.

However, if this is the case, then Schouten and Silver have given us a fitting explanation for the chilling, manipulative individuals who somehow don’t meet the checklist definition of a psychopath but who subject their co-workers to horrible mistreatment. Welcome to the world of the almost psychopath.

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Schouten and Silver also co-host the “Almost a Psychopath” blog for Psychology Today, here.

Dr. Schouten talks about subclinical psychopathy in a short YouTube video here.

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The Penn State sexual abuse scandal: When iconic institutions fail us

If there was any doubt before, the damning findings of an independent investigation led by former FBI director Louis Freeh have pretty much erased them: High-ranking officials and football coaches at Pennsylvania State University failed to take adequate action that likely would have stopped assistant football coach and now-convicted child rapist Jerry Sandusky from using university facilities to lure and sexually abuse young boys.

And on Monday, the NCAA lowered the boom on Penn State’s football program, imposing a $60 million fine, a 4-year ban on postseason play, and a 4-year reduction in football scholarships, as well as erasing from the record books all the wins under head coach Joe Paterno dating back to the time the university was first made aware of the abuse in 1998.

Cynics and idealists

Those of us who are cynical toward institutions and who question the culture of big-time college football might well be feeling a bit smug right now. We can only wonder if the Penn State students who cried during the NCAA’s announcement of sanctions shed any tears for the victims of Sandusky’s abuse. And we can only shake our heads as Penn State football supporters express their objections to the removal of the Joe Paterno statue in front of the football stadium.

And yet…I get it, and not only because I happen to be a football fan. Deep down, most of us want to believe in great institutions, people, and causes that connect us to something larger than our individual lives. It can be devastating when those revered entities are shown to be something much less than what we imagined. (Even we cynics are mostly disappointed idealists, right?)

With Penn State, it was all about believing that a major college football program could win with integrity. Joe Paterno was the glue holding it all together. And for a long time, it was a mythology that appeared to hold up against the light of reality. It took this one horrible secret to crumble the foundation.

I witnessed a much more crushing example of this dynamic when Boston became the epicenter of the priest child rape scandal in the Catholic Church. The defensive reactions of many Church leaders and parishioners were very similar to those of Penn State’s devoted believers.

It comes down to this

No, I’m not equating football and God, though it seems that some Americans build their fall weekends around both!

Rather, I’m saying that the goodness of our iconic institutions boils down to ethical leadership, in secular and non-secular settings alike. It places a huge responsibility on the shoulders of leaders to be sound stewards of the entities they have been entrusted to guide and direct. And it places a similar obligation on other institutional stakeholders to insist upon accountability and integrity, and not just to bask in the reflected glow.

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Related post

Penn State’s football program and university leadership: Signs of ethical collapse? (November 2011)

July 25, 2012 addendum

Kristin Rawls, a former Penn State graduate student and instructor, suggests in this Huffington Post blog piece that an overall culture of “abuse, corruption, and silence” permeates the university. Her account is a powerful one, detailing instances of racial harassment, sexual harassment and abuse, and institutional indifference. (Hat tip to Lisa Smith.)

Once more, with feeling: Advocating for avocations

“Avocation” is not a term that we often use in everyday conversation. Indeed, when’s the last time anyone asked you, “hey, what’s your avocation?”

An avocation falls somewhere between a job and a hobby. It’s an activity that may produce some modest income, and perhaps show promise of turning into a full-time job, but which ultimately we are drawn to because it is very satisfying on a personal level. Avocations may be among the keys to individual fulfillment during tough times when jobs that deliver both a decent income and psychic rewards are in short supply.

My posts on avocations have not exactly been the most sought-after on this blog! When I write about workplace bullying, or conflicts at work generally, readership stats spike up. Posts about avocations attract much less attention. Nevertheless, I believe that for many people in search of an outlet that provides an immersive, meaningful, and sustained activity, creating it in the form of an avocation is an accessible, attractive option.

Here are three posts to provide inspiration:

1. Our avocations and hobbies: The third pillar of work-life balance? (2012)

2. Will our avocations save us? (2010)

3. Embracing creative dreams at midlife (2010)

Bullied bus monitor Karen Klein looks forward to retirement, helping her family, and paying it forward

When 68-year-old school bus monitor Karen Klein was savagely bullied and taunted by a group of teenage boys last month, the YouTube video of that event went viral. (See earlier blog post, with link to the video, here.) A good Samaritan set up an online fund in hopes of raising $5,000 to give the upstate New Yorker a vacation from her work situation; to date, it has raised over $680,000.

In a followup story for Yahoo News, Jason Sickles reports that the money will allow Klein, who earned $15,000 a year as a bus monitor and has experienced some serious hardships in her life (including the suicide of a son), to retire. She’ll also use the money to help family members who have been dealing with disability and unemployment.

Paying it forward

But this is not only the story of 31,000 people making donations to a fund for someone who before was unknown to most of them. It’s also the story of a woman who has experienced some real hardships in her life (including the suicide of a son) wanting to give back. As Sickles further reports:

In retirement, she said she hopes to get involved in causes to prevent bullying and suicide. She’d also like to help special-needs children.

“I’m not a great speaker … but I would like to try to do something,” Klein said. “Kids write to me and tell me that they’ve been bullied. The kids that get bullied … I hate it.”

In addition, an Associated Press piece (here, via Washington Post) reports that Max Sidorov, the 25-year-old who started the online fund for Klein, has been inspired to do more around the scourge of bullying:

Sidorov said he will soon launch a new drive with a goal of $7 million to combat bullying with counseling, a television series and a nonprofit social media website.

The meaning of the public response

I’m not prepared to call this a “feel good” story, if only because that YouTube video remains such a painful thing to watch. But the public response, suggests the founder of the online fundraising site that collected the donations, shows that people are “fed up with bullies.”

If that’s the case, then it means we’re at a tipping point in our attitudes toward the kind of abuse directed at Karen Klein. We can draw some hope from the aftermath of her ordeal.

When survival is at stake, we need grounded leaders

I recently completed a term as board chair of a non-profit organization, a volunteer position. The two-year term was not what I hoped it would be. Instead of concentrating on important public policy issues of the day, my work centered mainly on difficult financial and personnel matters facing the organization itself.

Some nine months ago, I wrote a blog post about the challenges of leadership in hard times:

When we hire, appoint, or elect new leaders for our businesses, organizations and our government, we naturally are drawn to those who present an uplifting, optimistic vision for the future.

. . . But reality can be hard on those expectations. When we face difficult times, as we do now, the leaders we need today may be less about lofty hopes and upward movement, and more about survival, sustainability, and keeping a steady hand at the helm in rough seas.

My experience was hardly unique. But it did give me a new appreciation for my own words! The economic meltdown has hit the non-profit sector with a vengeance. Within many of these organizations, much attention and energy are devoted simply to ensuring that the entity survives.

We tend to valorize leaders who were able to advance great visions and move their organizations, companies, and governmental bodies forward in dramatic, memorable ways. That’s all well and good.

But I confess that my own experience has taught me also to look closely at leaders who guide their organizations through difficult times with integrity and wisdom.

The best of these leaders arrive at tough decisions fairly and then stand behind them. They take responsibility for measures that may be painful. They don’t seek glory, but rather carry a sense of duty. And their actions are guided by qualities of vision that may have to be temporarily sacrificed during their tenure.

These qualities are rare. (I certainly don’t claim that I displayed all of them during my term as a board chair.) But I submit we are going to need a lot more of these leaders in the years to come. More than ever, we should avoid selecting the preening peacocks, flaming narcissists, and pageant contestants in favor of grounded, mature leaders with the right commitment.

Healthy vs. dysfunctional organizations

With some 800+ articles posted to this blog since late 2008, I’ve been periodically collecting pieces on related topics for your reading pleasure. Here are eight posts from 2011 and 2010 that address various aspects of organizational behavior:

1. What workplace bullying teaches us about the integrity of American employers (2011) — An employer’s response to psychological abuse of its workers says a lot about its core ethics.

2. Confidential settlements in employment cases: Poof, as if nothing happened (2011) — Gag clauses in settlements of employment cases often shield the worst employers from closer scrutiny.

3. How lousy organizations treat institutional history (2011) — Not all organizations treat their past alike.

4. “Strategic planning”: All too often, a time-sucking bridge to nowhere (2011) — In bad organizations, a drawn-out strategic planning process helps to justify and promote more dysfunction.

5. When bad employers retain thuggish employment lawyers (2011) — The worst employers often hire the least-wonderful employment attorneys.

6. How well does your organization respond to employee feedback and criticism? (2011) — The question says it all.

7. Do organizations suppress our empathy? (2010) — On organizational “heart quality.”

8. Is your workplace psychologically and ethically healthy? (2010) — A great list of questions that yield insights into the culture of your workplace.

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