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.


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.


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.

Non-profits: If need you a committee to obsess over your mission statement, you may not have a real mission

It happens all the time in the non-profit sector: Some type of strategic planning or self-study committee is appointed, and its first task is to draft (or re-draft) the organization’s mission statement.

For the next couple of months, committee members laboriously exchange drafts of proposed mission statements, adding this line, taking out another, haggling over what might be implied or inferred, fearing that one constituency or purpose is overemphasized while another is ignored, and so forth.

All of this time and effort typically leads to a banal paragraph that will be forgotten once approved, and deservedly so.

Purpose-driven organizations

If your organization has a genuine sense of shared purpose, any well-placed stakeholder should be able knock out a solid mission statement in less than an hour and then quickly gain consensus approval from the others. They would regard the mission statement as a no-brainer, a necessity whose content is more or less self-evident.

Floundering organizations

Many not-so-directed non-profits believe that if they can just nail down the mission statement, the rest will follow. Some even delude themselves into thinking that others actually judge organizational performance by what’s in the mission statement, when in reality the mission statement — at best — is merely a framing device for building expectations.

One might claim, the process of drafting our mission statement will help us to figure out who and what we are. To that I would reply, if that’s the case, then it’s likely that the resulting document either (1) will be so safe and vague as to say nothing; or (2) will try to set out a bolder course, without getting buy-in from the rest of the organization. 

Mission, where are you?

To sum up: If you’re on a committee charged with drafting a mission statement, and your group is in its sixth week of exchanging drafts, this alone should tell you volumes about the state of your organization.

The problem with the $75,000 sweet spot

In an opinion piece in last Sunday’s New York Times (link here), psychology professor Elizabeth Dunn (University of British Columbia) and business administration professor Michael Norton (Harvard) tackle the question of how much money we need to be happy and suggest that once we’re at a certain income level, we’ll likely get more satisfaction out of giving than receiving.


The authors are quick to acknowledge that “there is a measurable connection between income and happiness” and that “people with a comfortable living standard are happier than people living in poverty.” But they go on to suggest that “additional income doesn’t buy us any additional happiness on a typical day once we reach that comfortable standard,” which in the U.S. “seems to fall somewhere around $75,000”:

Using Gallup data collected from almost half a million Americans, researchers at Princeton found that higher household incomes were associated with better moods on a daily basis — but the beneficial effects of money tapered off entirely after the $75,000 mark.

If you have it, share it

Dunn & Norton summon this survey data to make a deeper point. Instead of falling for the all-too-common American practice of overindulging when our coffers fill up, why not underindulge and find better ways of using our money, like giving back to the community and to those in need? They even cite studies showing that we may get more pleasure by sharing than by keeping it all for ourselves.

They close their piece by suggesting:

But rather than focusing on how much we’ve got in our bowl, we should think more carefully about what we do with what we’ve got — which might mean indulging less, and may even mean giving others the opportunity to indulge instead.

I’m glad that Dunn & Norton are telling us to be generous, for our own sake and — more importantly — for the sake of others. At a time when the official unemployment rate is holding steady at just over 8 percent, and the “real” unemployment rate (including the seriously underemployed and discouraged job seekers who are no longer counted) is roughly double that, those reminders cannot come too often.

Uh, wait a minute

But before we get carried away, let’s break from the financial profile of the average Times reader and look at the bigger picture:

According to the most recent U.S. census data, individual yearly earnings from 2006-2010 (in 2010 dollars) averaged a little over $27,000. And household earnings averaged barely under $52,000.

In other words, most folks aren’t earning anywhere near $75,000. In fact, according to this handy calculator, that income level is at the 88th percentile of American earners, circa 2010. If we’re talking total household income (the measure of the study cited by Dunn & Norton), it would be at the 68th percentile. Even taking into account geographic cost of living differences, there simply aren’t a lot of people making 75Gs or more.

Where does this leave us?

If a $75,000 household income is indeed the magic number for feeling relatively comfortable, then something’s badly amiss when some 68 percent of the population may not enjoy that level of tranquility or satisfaction. We must address the larger economic, social, and political concerns that have brought us to this precarious place, such as the issues discussed in the recent AlterNet interview with Nobel Prize-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz that I excerpted earlier this week.

And finally, at an individual level, if you’re fortunate to have some discretionary income — however you choose to define it — think about how you can use some of it toward the greater good and to help those in need. You have a chance to make a difference in the lives of others.


[Note: This is a corrected version of the article originally posted and distributed to subscribers. I mistakenly published a version that did not properly reference the average individual and household income data.]

Nobel Prize winning economist Joseph Stiglitz warns of gated communities, deep insecurities, and political extremism

In an interview with AlterNet’s Lynn Parramore (link here), Joseph E. Stiglitz — Nobel Prize winning economist and author of the newly published The Price of Inequality: How Today’s Divided Society Endangers Our Future (2012) — urges that massive economic inequality in America threatens the nation’s very core.

It’s a lengthy, substantive interview, well worth a full read. Here are some highlights:

Deepening inequality since 1980

Stiglitz notes that although comparative figures to other eras are not available, data going back to 1980 clearly show the widening wealth gaps between the wealthiest Americans and everyone else:

But we do have data sets that go back more than 30 years and what is clear is that the share of the top 1 percent has almost tripled since 1980. So, this kind of inequality at the top has unambiguously gotten much, much, much worse. We also have data on the extent to which there’s been a hollowing out of the middle class. The data that recently came out from the Fed indicated that we’ve wiped out 20 years of increases and wealth for the middle American.

The nightmare scenario

And more of the same will lead us to a very bad place:

But if we go down the route that we’re going, we’re going to a world where people live in gated communities. We already have by far the largest fraction of our population locked up in prison. We will have an increasingly insecure society. Americans will be facing insecurity, of economic insecurity, healthcare insecurity, a sense of physical insecurity. We will be worrying politically about the role of extremism. Extremism on the right, extremism on the left.

On capitalism

Stiglitz isn’t ranting against capitalism. Rather, he’s looking at who has benefited from massive inequalities, and at what costs:

Well, capitalism does have a lot of strengths, including producing things that are very innovative. But what drives capitalism is the profit motive. You can profit not only by making good things, but also by exploiting people, by exploiting the environment, by doing things that are not so good. . . . And if you look at the people at the top, what is so striking is that the people who’ve made the most important creative contributions are not there.

Younger voices

Student responses to his book talks have been telling:

I guess the thing that was most moving in a number of the talks that I’ve given is the large number of young people that have come to the microphone and asked questions where you can sense their sense of despair, their sense of frustration at being saddled by student loans, their sense of job prospects being not very good.

. . .And these were, you know, intelligent kids, who obviously played by the rules, done everything right, worked hard at school. But they were hitting the kind of frustration that you shouldn’t be getting from young people. To me, that was really heart-rending. And it came from not just one kid. Not in just one talk.

Paths toward change

Will the American people start to get it and demand a fairer economic system and appropriate regulation? Stiglitz sees two paths toward understanding and eventual responses:

In my book, I described this very comprehensive economic agenda. . . . What I try to put forward are two hypotheses of how that might happen. In one of them, what I call the “1 percent” will finally realize that it’s in their enlightened self interest, rightly understood, to care about the rest of society. . . . And the other one is that the 99 percent realize that they’ve been sold a bill of goods. And they realize that some of these ideas that we’ve been talking about — trickle-down economics that destroy the interests of the poor, the middle class — are just wrong.

So what’s new?

To anyone paying close attention to economic trends over the years and the impact of the Great Recession, much of what Stiglitz is saying is hardly news. And yet, it’s important when leading thinkers validate what people are seeing and experiencing in their day-to-day lives.

This helps to remind us that many of the economic challenges that folks are dealing with are not due to their own failings, but rather are elements of systemic forces that threaten our individual and collective well-being.


AlterNet has become the leading online source for news and commentary from a progressive angle, bringing together original content (such as the Stiglitz interview) and materials published elsewhere. You can read more about AlterNet’s mission, content, and readership here.

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