Fighting flight attendants: Not nearly as funny as it may seem

During the past week, we’ve been treated to two news stories about flight attendants getting into arguments that required their respective flights to head back to the gate.

One argument came on an American Eagle flight that was ready for take off. Ben Mutzabaugh, writing for USA Today‘s travel section, explains how it got started:

Passengers on a New York-to-Washington American Eagle flight were delayed for more than four hours Wednesday after the airline’s attendants got into an argument with each other, according to NBC Washington.

Witnesses tell NBC the spat seemed to begin when one attendant was on her phone. That’s when the flight’s other attendant made this announcement: “Everyone needs to put their phones away, and electronics and so on, including the flight attendant.”

On Wednesday, two attendants on a United Airlines flight got into it soon after take off, necessitating that the plane return to the airport. Mutzabaugh reports again:

A fight between two attendants forced a Chicago-bound United Airlines flight to return to Raleigh/Durham shortly after takeoff this morning, according to The News & Observer of Raleigh.

“Our law enforcement team was notified by the tower that the captain had requested law enforcement to meet the aircraft,” Mindy Hamlin, RDU spokeswoman, tells the News & Observer. “The aircraft had gotten about 50 miles out when he reported a possible assault on the aircraft.”

Flying the stressed-out skies

Fighting flight attendants. It sounds like the stuff of a late-night talk show monologue, doesn’t it?

But before we start making fun, let’s at least acknowledge that since 9/11, working in the passenger aviation industry has become an increasingly stressful job — especially for rank-and-file cabin crews. Layoffs and furloughs have been frequent. A job once associated with glamour and seeing the world has changed dramatically.

Flight attendants now are expected to be the front line eyes and ears against possible terrorism. They must work packed flights of passengers who are surly about going through the TSA security gauntlet and then stuffed onto planes with a beverage and pretzels to tide them over.

In addition to lousier working conditions, their compensation and benefits have been in a free fall. Their unions have been pressed to make major concessions, and airline pension funds have gone bankrupt. These cutbacks and pension fund implosions have occurred despite healthy bonuses given to high-level executives at many major airlines.

I don’t know anything about the individual flight attendants involved in these arguments. And regardless of the stressors they’re facing, the safety risks involved in these behaviors likely justify disciplinary measures.

That said, instead of joking about “cat fights in the air,” we should consider the strong possibility that stressful working conditions and sharp cuts in compensation are fueling tensions between these workers and making it more likely that similar incidents will occur.

Working notes: Workplace bullying research from WBI and free articles from yours truly

For scholars, evidence-based practitioners, and others seeking research and analysis on workplace bullying, here’s some useful stuff:

Workplace Bullying Institute

If you haven’t accessed this page from the Workplace Bullying Institute website, you should click and have a look around. You’ll find links to:

My articles

On the same WBI page, you’ll also find a link to my scholarly articles on workplace bullying, employment law, and employee relations.

Among these publications, the following are the most relevant to those researching the legal implications of bullying at work:

Workplace bullying and the law

The Phenomenon of ‘Workplace Bullying’ and the Need for Status-Blind Hostile Work Environment Protection – Georgetown Law Journal, 2000 (first American law review article to explore, in depth, the legal implications of workplace bullying, concluding with a recommendation for the contours of what would become the Healthy Workplace Bill).

Crafting a Legislative Response to Workplace Bullying – Employee Rights and Employment Policy Journal, 2004 (contains and explains the original version of the Healthy Workplace Bill).

Workplace Bullying and American Employment Law: A Ten-Year Progress Report and Assessment – Comparative Labor Law & Policy Journal, 2010 (examines the emerging movement to enact workplace bullying protections and discusses a more current version of the Healthy Workplace Bill).

Workplace bullying generally

Workplace Bullying and Ethical Leadership – Journal of Values-Based Leadership, 2008 (a more general piece on workplace bullying).

Employee dignity generally

Human Dignity and American Employment Law – University of Richmond Law Review, 2009 (setting forth a framework for examining American employment law and policy through the lens of human dignity).

Employment Law as If People Mattered: Bringing Therapeutic Jurisprudence into the WorkplaceFlorida Coastal Law Review, 2010 (examining how therapeutic jurisprudence can enhance our understanding of the study and practice of employment law).

Unions: Put workplace bullying and abusive supervision on the bargaining table

Dr. Gary Namie reports on his Workplace Bullying Institute blog that in the settlement agreement of the recent Chicago teachers strike, the Chicago Teachers Union “inserted an anti-bullying clause that prohibits abusive and demeaning conduct by principals.”

Terrific! I’ve written about this many times here: We need unions to bargain over workplace bullying and abusive supervision, especially during difficult economic times when bullying behaviors are likely to be on the increase.

It’s a shame that this piece of the Chicago strike settlement isn’t getting more attention, but it’s telling that the teachers union felt strongly enough to bargain for it.

I’ve drafted suggested contract language covering abusive supervision, adapted from the Healthy Workplace Bill, the model anti-bullying statute I authored. Over the years I’ve shared versions of it with unions, and I’m told it has been a useful starting place for their negotiations. I’m happy to share it with other labor activists who provide a union e-mail address and identifying information. Please contact me at


Related posts

Labor Day role model: SEIU/NAGE tackles workplace bullying in Massachusetts

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

Are some workplaces “bullying clusters”?

Are bullying and related behaviors concentrated within a smaller number of toxic workplaces?

You’re probably familiar with the unfortunate term “cancer cluster,” which refers to a neighborhood or some other defined geographic area whose inhabitants develop cancer at a much higher rate than the general population. It’s usually associated with the possible concentration of carcinogens in the defined area, such as industrial chemicals or pollutants.

The concept of a cancer cluster has led me think about whether we can designate specific workplaces as “bullying clusters.” If we can, is there value in doing so?

Research limitations

Currently, researchers face inevitable limitations on studying specific employers with regard to workplace bullying prevalence and severity. Not surprisingly, employers are reluctant to open themselves up to research studies that may go public, especially findings that might directly compare them to other organizations.

It means that most prevalence studies at our disposal cannot identify whether individual employers are hosts to a disproportionate amount of workplace bullying and similar behaviors. This also inhibits us from drawing conclusions about whether workers in specific occupations are more or less likely to experience workplace bullying.

The “bullying cluster”

So here’s the hypothesis:

Bullying behaviors are not evenly distributed among all employers. Rather, bullying behaviors are disproportionately concentrated in a smaller number of toxic workplaces.

Hence, the bullying cluster.

More questions emerge: For example, what is that disproportionate share? For example, might the old chestnut, the “20/80 rule,” apply here? Could, say, 20 percent of our workplaces host 80 percent of the bullying?

Also, might this be at least a partial explanation of why, in multiple surveys, a fairly large share of respondents report that they’ve never even witnessed workplace bullying? (If you spend most of your work life in functional workplaces, it’s less likely you’ll be exposed to bullying.)

Furthermore, how does this hypothesis relate to other forms of workplace mistreatment? (On this point, I think back to the research of Joel Neuman and Robert Baron, who found positive correlations between all forms of workplace aggression, including bullying.)

Hopefully an enterprising professor or Ph.D. student in organizational psychology is working on these questions, or maybe there’s a terrific study out there that I missed. (If the latter, please send it to me and I’ll amend this post.)

As someone who has been studying workplace bullying for over a decade — albeit not as an empirical researcher — the bullying cluster concept seems self-evident to me. We’re well aware that workplace bullying is not an isolated dynamic. Leadership and workplace culture have a lot to do with it. Organizational consultants are regularly called in to deal with toxic workplaces, and not surprisingly they often find a lot of bullying behaviors within them. And it appears that certain occupational groups — health care, law, and education, to name a few — are associated with high levels of workplace bullying.


If the bullying cluster hypothesis is valid, then both further research and action-oriented responses are impacted. For example:

1. It sharpens our examination of the relationship between workplace culture and bullying behaviors, especially concerning the role of organizational leadership.

2. In assessing and designing interventions for toxic workplaces, bullying would be more seamlessly (if that term applies in such situations) incorporated into any set of responses.

3. When workplace bullying legislation becomes a reality, it’s more likely that eventual claims would emerge from toxic workplaces. Workplaces with fair and ethical employee practices would largely avoid bullying-related lawsuits.

Will workplace bullying become increasingly covert and indirect?

Decades ago, Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 declared that discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, sex, or national origin is an unlawful employment practice. Before the enactment of Title VII, discriminatory employment practices were largely open and transparent. Because it was legal to exclude or classify workers and job applicants based on these categories, there was no need to hide it. Anti-discrimination law changed all that.

Overt workplace discrimination has declined considerably in the U.S. Both anti-discrimination laws and changing social attitudes have had a positive impact in that regard. However, many of those engaging in workplace discrimination have become more savvy about it, using less obvious practices that are harder to challenge, while refraining from uttering statements of bias that once were more common. In such circumstances, getting an employer to take a discrimination complaint seriously can be a more daunting task. The same goes for proving a discrimination claim filed with an agency or court of law.

What does this mean for workplace bullying?

Taking these trends into account, I’d like to offer a reluctant hypothesis: As workplace bullying continues to enter the mainstream of American employee relations, and as advocates for the workplace anti-bullying movement enjoy greater successes in public education, employer awareness, and law reform, bullying behaviors at work will become increasingly covert and indirect.

In other words, those who are inclined to engage in bullying will be aware of more enlightened public attitudes against such mistreatment. In time, they also will face greater liability exposure as the legal system responds more effectively. For some, these developments may discourage them from bullying. Others, however, will become more devious and more ingenious about how they mistreat their co-workers. These covert and indirect forms of bullying are harder to unpack than more transparent forms of work abuse.

The good news is that all of the positive developments concerning workplace bullying eventually should help to decrease the prevalence of bullying behaviors. The bad news is that those who bully others will be more likely to do so in ways that are difficult to sort out and address.

Working Notes: 401(k) blues, challenging unpaid internships, and Shape magazine on workplace bullying

I use this Working Notes feature to flag items worthy of attention. Here are pieces on 401(k) plans and the retirement funding crisis, unpaid internships, and workplace bullying (especially as relevant to younger women).

1. Steven Greenhouse on 401(k) plans — Here’s more evidence of the crisis in retirement funding, in the form of a thorough look at the inadequacy of 401(k) plans as retirement funding vehicles, courtesy of labor reporter Steven Greenhouse of the New York Times. It begins:

JOHN GREENE worked for 30 years at an Oscar Mayer plant in Madison, Wis., deboning hams and loading boxes of hot dogs. His 401(k) plan grew to $60,000, and soon after retiring he began withdrawing $3,600 a year from it, money that allowed him and his wife to take what he called a wondrous two-week trip to Scotland, his ancestral homeland.

But when the financial markets plunged four years ago, his 401(k) dropped to less than $18,000.

2. Plaintiff Eric Glatt on unpaid internships — Eric Glatt, lead plaintiff in a class-action lawsuit against Fox Searchlight Pictures for unpaid wages to interns working on the production of “Black Swan,” explains why he and others were not paid for their labor in this blog post for Other Words:

Because I, like scores of other workers on that film, was a relative newcomer to the industry. And being a newcomer to the film industry often means doing unpaid work, an illegal arrangement camouflaged behind the term “internship” — a term the movie industry embraces for its promise of alchemy, magically removing costs from budgets to the delight of producers and shareholders.

Eric is now pursuing his law degree at Georgetown University Law Center. I wrote up a blog post about an enjoyable brunch meeting we held in New York last December with writer Ross Perlin (author of Intern Nation) and journalist Tiffany Ap.

3. Jeannette Moninger for Shape magazine on workplace bullying — The September issue of Shape magazine includes a lengthy, informative feature on workplace bullying by Jeannette Moninger. Jeannette is a health writer who convinced the editors of Shape to devote quite a bit of space to this topic. Hat’s off to both for bringing this information to a demographic (younger women) often targeted by workplace bullying. (It’s also the first and likely only time that I’ll be quoted in Shape!). Here’s the lede:

When Stacie started as an account manager at an architectural firm two years ago, she couldn’t believe her luck. In a tough market, she’d landed her dream job at age 31, complete with a great salary, friendly coworkers, sleek high-tech offices, and a corporate gym membership. There was just one problem: Her boss was a nightmare.

October 19 program on workplace bullying: Who are the aggressors, and what can we do about them?

For those in the Boston area, I’m delighted to announce “Workplace Bullying: Who are the Aggressors, and What Can We Do About Them?,” a program on Friday, October 19, 2012, from 9:30 a.m. to 12:00 noon, at Suffolk University Law School, 120 Tremont Street, Room 295, in downtown Boston.

The New Workplace Institute at Suffolk University Law School is the sponsor. Here’s the terrific lineup of speakers:

Featured Speaker

Dr. Ronald Schouten

  • Director, Law & Psychiatry Service, Massachusetts General Hospital
  • Associate Professor of Psychiatry, Harvard Medical School
  • Co-author, Almost a Psychopath: Do I (or Does Someone I Know) Have a Problem with Manipulation and Lack of Empathy?

Distinguished Panel

Ericka Gray, Mediator and Founder, DisputEd

Paula Parnagian, Organizational Consultant and President, World View Services, Inc.

Gregory Sorozan, Union President, SEIU/NAGE Local 282

David Wilson, Employment Lawyer and Partner, Hirsch Roberts Weinstein LLP


David Yamada, Professor of Law and Director, New Workplace Institute, Suffolk University Law School


Advance registration is strongly suggested; spaces are limited.

We originally planned to charge $20 for those not affiliated with Suffolk University, but decided to make the event free of charge. Advance registration is still strongly suggested.

A light breakfast will be available starting at 9:00 a.m.

We’ll be raffling off three copies of Dr. Schouten’s book as part of the program!


Questions? Contact Patricia McLaughlin at

This program is held in conjunction with Freedom from Workplace Bullies Week and supported with funds donated by the law firm of Foley & Lardner.


For more about Ronald Schouten’s Almost a Psychopath, see my recent blog post, here.

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