Professional schools as incubators for workplace bullying

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It has long been my belief that the seeds of workplace bullying are planted in professional schools that prepare people to enter occupations such as law and medicine.

You start with ambitious young people who (1) are used to being heralded as academic stars; (2) do not have a lot of life experience; (3) disproportionally come from privileged backgrounds; and (4) tend to be driven, Type A achievers. You then put them in high-pressured, competitive educational environments that emphasize technical knowledge and skills and a lot of analytical thinking. These degree programs don’t place a lot of emphasis on interpersonal skills and the development of emotional intelligence.

You then unleash them into the world of work. Uh oh.

Med schools

In a 2012 New York Times blog piece that attracted over 1,000 comments (link here), Dr. Pauline Chen wrote about a resident doctor who terrified the medical students with his explosive behavior:

Powerfully built and with the face of a boxer, he cast a bone-chilling shadow wherever he went in the hospital.

At least that is what my medical school classmates and I thought whenever we passed by a certain resident, or doctor-in-training, just a few years older than we were.

With the wisdom of hindsight, I now see that the young man was a brilliant and promising young doctor who took his patients’ conditions to heart but who also possessed a temper so explosive that medical students dreaded working with him. He had called various classmates “stupid” and “useless” and could erupt with little warning in the middle of hospital halls. Like frightened little mice, we endured the treatment as an inevitable part of medical training, fearful that doing otherwise could result in a career-destroying evaluation or grade.

Chen went on to discuss studies documenting high levels of abuse directed at medical students, as well as efforts that have been undertaken by some medical schools to change their educational environments — often with disappointing results.

In a 2019 Boston Globe feature (link here), Dr. Amitha Kalaichandran focused on the bullying of new doctors doing their residencies:

THERE’S NO QUESTION that bullying is endemic in medical education. One study revealed that about half of residents and fellows in the U.S. reported being bullied, most often by their attending physicians. Canadian researchers found that 78 percent of residents surveyed reported being bullied and harassed in their training, often by attendings or program directors.

. . . Search “bullying in residency” and you’ll get thousands of hits, from heart-wrenching blog posts to short opinion articles to forums on sites like Reddit or Quora where residents anonymously share their experiences and advise targets. There are tales of discriminatory remarks. There are performance reviews in which attending physicians detail fabricated incidents that the residents can’t refute.

Law schools

Lest I be accused of tossing bricks from my glass house, let me quickly acknowledge that law schools are no better at educating their students to be socially intelligent practitioners. Even in the face of pressures being exerted by accreditors and leaders of the Bar to do a better job of preparing students for actual practice, law schools overwhelmingly emphasize the study of judicial decisions, statutes, and regulations.

To the extent that lawyering skills become a part of the law school curriculum through simulation courses, clinical programs, and externships, much of the focus remains on advocacy as the most valuable interpersonal skill. Client counseling and everyday interpersonal communications are considered “soft” skills, and they typically do not get a lot of attention.

Consequently, a lot of lawyers who possess the intelligence to earn a law degree and pass a bar exam come up short on interpersonal skills. It shouldn’t surprise anyone that the legal profession is home to a lot of workplace bullying. Too many lawyers are wired to act aggressively in any interpersonal situation, including dealing with colleagues and clients. Some cross the line and are downright abusive.

Survey results illustrate the breadth of the problem. A 2018 International Bar Association survey about bullying and sexual harassment in the legal profession (link here) concluded:

The legal profession has a problem. In 2018, the International Bar Association (IBA) and market research company Acritas conducted the largest-ever global survey on bullying and sexual harassment in the profession. Nearly 7,000 individuals from 135 countries responded to the survey, from across the spectrum of legal workplaces: law firms, in-house, barristers’ chambers, government and the judiciary. The results provide empirical confirmation that bullying and sexual harassment are rife in the legal profession. Approximately one in two female respondents and one in three male respondents had been bullied in connection with their employment.  

Start early

The cues for what constitutes appropriate behavior often are communicated initially in these professional schools. Doctors and lawyers in training may have no idea how to conduct themselves as practitioners. Some may have initially been influenced by a lot of unfortunate “role models” on television. Soon they are shaped by their real-life teachers and mentors. If we want to prevent workplace bullying, then the training schools for these professions are the first and perhaps best places to start. In terms of introducing future professionals to best practices and ideal ways of interacting with colleagues and those who need their services, this critical onboarding period can communicate what is expected of them.


This post was revised in September 2019.

Hat tip to Dr. Loraleigh Keashly (Wayne State U.) for the New York Times article.

Positive qualities of my best bosses

I’ve been giving some thought to the personal qualities of the many bosses I’ve worked for, going back to high school and extending to the present day. A handful stand out as being especially good, and I’ve come to realize that they shared a lot of positive characteristics. Here goes:

1. They all were very hard workers. They didn’t preach a work ethic; they exemplified it.

2. Interestingly, not one was charismatic or dazzling in terms of personality. And yet, they inspired others and led effectively in their own ways.

3. They were very smart and good at what they did, whether it was managing a retail store staff, writing a complex legal brief, or designing a new curriculum.

4. They earned respect quietly, expressed appreciation when it was merited, and brought out your best. A word of praise could make my day, because I knew it was sincere and meaningful.

5. They gave you room to be yourself, quirks and all, instead of insisting that you emulate them.

6. They didn’t bully or mistreat people. Instead, they treated everyone with respect and dignity.

7. There was no task beneath them. No princes or princesses. They’d jump in and do the same work you were doing if it needed to get done.

8. They arrived at difficult decisions fairly and without hidden agendas.

9. They were trustworthy. Their words counted for something.

I’m not suggesting that these should be the universal factors for what makes a great boss. We all have our preferences, and people may have honest differences over what’s important.

Nevertheless, I think this is a pretty good list, and I’m betting that many readers will nod their heads in agreement.


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Great leadership rarely appears overnight

Following the devastating Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in December, 1941, the battered U.S. Pacific Fleet was put under the command of Admiral Chester W. Nimitz, a Naval Academy graduate and career officer in his mid-50s. It would prove to be the right move. Nimitz was a smart, confident, and disciplined leader, and he played a historically important role in winning back the Pacific during World War II.

The stories of Nimitz and other top admirals who led America’s Pacific fleet during the war are brilliantly told in a new book, Walter R. Borneman’s The Admirals (2012). William Halsey, William Leahy, and Ernest King join Nimitz as the five-star admirals featured in the book.

Early career setback

I find myself most drawn to Nimitz, as he stands as the central figure in the Pacific command. Interestingly, his naval career came very close to ending barely after it began. As a young ensign, he allowed his first command, the destroyer U.S.S. Decatur, to run aground, a cardinal sin for any ship’s captain. A court martial found him guilty of neglect of duty, and he was issued a reprimand.

Maximizing opportunities

As penance, Nimitz was relegated to submarine duty, one of the less desirable assignments in the early 1900s for an ambitious young officer. Borneman notes, however, that rather than mope about, Nimitz learned everything he could from those postings and made valuable recommendations to improve the effectiveness of the submarine service. He would continue to shake off the taint of that early reprimand and serve in numerous shipboard and land-based assignments with distinction.

The oft-unseen seeds of great leadership

In many historical accounts of the Pacific naval war, these men are presented to us as fully-formed leaders. The Admirals, however, begins with their early lives and careers, and it is chock full of accounts that show us how many of their critical successes during the war can be traced back to their pre-war education, training, and experiences. When they had to step up, they were ready.

Lessons for our day

In today’s society, we worship and celebrate youth, and this extends to those we anoint as leaders. All too often, in every sector of society, we elevate people to senior leadership positions before they are ready, and not infrequently we pay a price for their inexperience.

As corrective guidance, The Admirals is not only an excellent work of history, but also a set of lessons on the value of tested, experienced leadership.


Related posts

The Let-Me-Impress-You Club (2011)

Wisdom, experience, and leadership (2011)


Nimitz portrait: Wikipedia

Hat tip to Brian McCrane, Capt. (ret.), U.S. Navy, for recommending The Admirals.

The Healthy Workplace Bill in Massachusetts: A progress report

The just-concluded 2011-12 session of the Massachusetts legislature encompassed significant progress in moving the anti-bullying Healthy Workplace Bill (MA House No. 2310) toward eventual enactment into law. Although we still have plenty of work to do, there were many positive developments during this session.

Six signs

Here are what I consider to be the highlights:

1. Third reading — Most importantly, the HWB made it to a stage known as “third reading” in the Massachusetts House of Representatives. This means it jumped successfully through two committees and was poised for a floor vote of all the representatives. This was an excellent showing for a bill in its first full session. Less than a quarter of filed bills reach this stage. 

2. Political leadership — Buoyed by the leadership of our lead sponsors, Rep. Ellen Story and Sen. Katherine Clark, we had a dozen legislators signing on as sponsors. Many of them testified at the public hearing on the bill last year, which attracted statewide media coverage.

3. Advocates — Our grassroots advocacy group grew to some 3,000 members, many of whom made calls and visits and sent e-mails to their legislators urging adoption of the HWB. This group is becoming a known quantity in the State House.

4. Labor support — In addition to the critically important, steadfast assistance of SEIU/NAGE leadership, staff, and members, we attracted additional support from organized labor, especially the Massachusetts Teachers Association.

5. Targets’ voices — More and more targets of workplace bullying are sharing their stories publicly, an easy-to-miss sign that this issue is no longer a silent epidemic, but rather a recognized form of abuse. These voices lend critical support to the HWB advocacy efforts, as personal accounts are the most powerful form of persuasion with our elected officials.

6. Opposition — We began to attract visible opposition in the form of an editorial in the Boston Herald and an organized letter-writing campaign claiming the HWB is bad for business. The silver lining here, and it’s a big one, is that we’re being taken seriously. Workplace bullying legislation is no longer a novelty.

What’s next?

Quite simply, we’re not letting up. In fact, we’re motivated to build on our success. The momentum is coming not only from within our advocacy group, but also from elected representatives who want to see the Healthy Workplace Bill become law.

We’ll be holding planning meetings this summer and early fall, and then redoubling our advocacy and public education work in preparation for the next session.

Advocacy in state legislative settings requires steadfast commitment and patience. It is rare for bills representing significant, new public policy ideas to sail through the legislature. Usually it takes several sessions to reach the point of being taken seriously. I’d say we’re now slightly ahead of that pace in terms of receptivity toward the Healthy Workplace Bill in Massachusetts.


To become part of the Healthy Workplace Bill advocacy effort in Massachusetts, go to our website (here), visit our blog (here), and join our Facebook page (here).

Those from elsewhere who wish to become HWB advocates in their home states can go here for more information.

Go here for my 2010 law review article explaining the basic provisions of the HWB and the history of efforts to enact workplace bullying legislation in the U.S.

10 of the most emotionally admirable workers on TV

Okay, time for a little balance: After Monday’s post summarizing TDYLF‘s worst big-screen employers ever, I thought I’d weigh in with my listing of 10 of the most emotionally admirable workers on the small screen.  Here they are:

Tami Taylor, school counselor and principal, Friday Night Lights — It’s highway robbery that Connie Britton didn’t win an Emmy for her portrayal of Tami Taylor in one of the best TV dramas ever. Originally positioned as wife to high school football coach Eric Taylor (played wonderfully by Kyle Chandler), Tami becomes the moral core of the show, exhibiting role model-quality emotional intelligence at work, home, and in the community. Also deserving: Coach Taylor (Chandler).

Jean Luc Picard, starship captain, Star Trek: The Next Generation — Picard, played by Patrick Stewart, is cool under fire, a man of action and intellect, and as kindhearted as a Captain of the U.S.S. Enterprise can afford to be. He’s an excellent leader who maximizes and appreciates the talents of the crew serving with him.

Jane Tennison, police detective and superintendent, Prime Suspect — Yup, Tennison is a mess. She drinks too much and her personal life is in shambles. But she’s managed to retain her dignity while fighting her way up the ladder in this mean, male-dominated world of law enforcement. She is, above all, extraordinarily determined and resilient. Helen Mirren is brilliant in this role.

John Bates, valet, Downton Abbey —  Mr. Bates brings some mysterious personal baggage and an injury that affects his ability to walk (for which he is bullied by other staff) to his work as valet to Lord of the Manor. Hat’s off to Brendan Coyle for giving his character an intensely private sense of dignity. Also deserving: Mrs. Hughes, housekeeper (Phyllis Logan).

Colleen McMurphy, nurse, China Beach — In her defining breakout role, Dana Delany portrays a young nurse serving in an American medical unit during the heart of the Vietnam War. McMurphy is the heart and soul of a deservedly Emmy-winning drama, demonstrating courage, sensitivity, and empathy amidst suffering and death. It’s a shame that China Beach is not yet out on DVD.

Cedric Daniels, police commander, The Wire — Chief Daniels, played by Lance Reddick, must juggle a group of frequently rogue officers, the racial politics of Baltimore, a cutthroat and corrupt government bureaucracy, and a secret or two about his own past. He’s the calm in the storm of this remarkable television series.

Andy Taylor, town sheriff, The Andy Griffith Show — While playing straight man to his lovably bumbling deputy Barney Fife (the brilliant Don Knotts), sheriff Andy Taylor continually mixes a homespun brand of human understanding and kindness. Watch a few episodes on cable or Netflix. You’ll yearn for more folks like Sheriff Taylor in today’s society.

C.J. Cregg, presidential press secretary and chief of staff, The West Wing — Allison Janney created one of the strongest characters among this excellent ensemble cast. Tough and kind, steely and vulnerable, idealistic yet politically savvy — and always very, very smart.  Also deserving: Leo McGarry, presidential chief of staff (John Spencer); and Congressman and presidential candidate Matt Santos (Jimmy Smits).

Peggy Olson, advertising copywriter, Mad Men — She started as a secretary and moved up to a copywriter position at a New York ad agency. What’s next for this mousy but ambitious, outer borough striver — played expertly by Elizabeth Moss — who doesn’t yet understand what her mid-1960s struggles will mean to other women? Also deserving: Joan Harris, office administrator (Christina Hendricks).

Frank Furillo, police commander, Hill Street Blues — Daniel J. Travanti gave a deliberative, quietly on the edge persona to Captain Furillo, in this pioneering TV drama of the 1980s that reset the bar very high for cop shows to come. Alas, only the first two seasons are available on DVD.


I confess! I like cop shows, as long-time readers of this blog may have picked up. They typically are set in dysfunctional work environments, beset by politics, corruption, personal rivalries, and overheated emotions. Great stuff.

Most of the female characters are trying to succeed in a male dominated world, and their emotional intelligence often is exhibited in how they navigate that environment.

By contrast, many of the male characters on this list are relatively comfortable in their leadership roles.

It’s a pretty white group, isn’t it? I’ll punt on whether that says more about my viewing habits or the casting practices of television producers.

There’s only one comedy on the list, The Andy Griffith Show. Is it that sitcoms and emotionally intelligent characters don’t necessarily mix?

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