Recapping Freedom from Workplace Bullies Week, Part 2: Reporting from Boston

Dr. Ronald Schouten, featured speaker, at the podium. I’m listening attentively on the right. (Photo: Deb Falzoi)

Here in Boston, the focal point of Freedom from Workplace Bullies Week 2012 was a terrific, well-attended program at Suffolk University Law School, “Workplace Bullying: Who are the Aggressors, and What Can We Do About Them?,” on Friday, October 19.

The program featured Dr. Ronald Schouten, author of Almost a Psychopath and director of the Law and Psychiatry Service at Massachusetts General Hospital, followed by a distinguished panel including mediator Ericka Gray, organizational consultant Paula Parnagian, union president Greg Sorozan, and employment attorney David Wilson.

Kimberly Webster’s summary

Kim Webster, a legal intern with the New Workplace Institute and a Northeastern University law student, prepared this summary of the program.  (Thank you, Kim!)

Featured Speaker

Ronald Schouten, M.D., J.D., Massachusetts General Hospital & Harvard Medical School

On average, one person in a hundred meets the clinical definition for psychopathy.  However, Dr. Ronald Schouten, lead author of Almost a Psychopath: Do I (or Does Someone I Know) Have a Problem with Manipulation and Lack of Empathy? (2012) suggested that maybe we should be more concerned about the 10 to 15 percent of the population that almost meets the definition.

Schouten noted that most disorders are defined by sets of standardized criteria. For psychopathy, a 20-item scale is commonly used, measuring traits such as glibness or superficial charm, a grandiose sense of self-worth, pathological lying, manipulative behavior, lack of remorse or guilt, a shallow affect, and a lack of empathy.

The “almost psychopath” falls short of meeting the criteria for psychopathy, but nevertheless may exhibit many of the most disturbing traits and behaviors. In the workplace, a good number of almost psychopaths engage in bullying. They often escape detection and removal as they charm their superiors and exploit and abuse their peers and subordinates.

Almost psychopaths often are fueled by workplace cultures that enable bullying behaviors. Schouten emphasized that this cultural component is often passed down within an organization. It’s possible that interventions could reduce some of these problematic traits in order to improve relationships in the workplace.

Schouten conceded that there may be other explanations for bullying behaviors besides a psychopathic aggressor or a toxic work environment. For example, many people aren’t on their best behavior when dealing with temporary life stressors. Others have may be dealing with different psychiatric disorders or injuries.

Given his findings on “almost” psychopathy, Dr. Schouten concluded that the problem of workplace bullying should be attacked on multiple levels. First, management should stop discounting complaints as personality conflicts and address their organization’s culture. Although it’s helpful for people to be competitive in the workplace to a certain degree, there needs to be pressure in the other direction when a person’s bullying behavior threatens the success of a workplace. In addition, there needs to be a better understanding of the potential liability situations.

Panel Discussion

L to R: Greg Sorozan, Ericka Gray, Dave Wilson, and Paula Parnagian, with me scurrying about behind them. (Photo: Deb Falzoi)

Ericka Gray, Mediator and Founder, DisputEd

Ericka Gray’s growing awareness of workplace bullying caused her to change her approach to workplace dispute resolution. She observed that she’s often called in to fix a bullying-related problem when the damage already has been done. Employers don’t do much unless they think a legal problem has developed. Often they don’t want to get involved because they don’t know what to do.

This tendency caused Gray to stop accepting mediation cases without a preliminary screening or assessment. She noted that this screening often uncovers other bullying problems, or reveals that individuals designated as problems by HR are actually targets of bullies, not aggressors.

Once Gray conducts her assessment, she makes her recommendations to the client. They often include coaching, educational interventions, and transfers. She recommends mediation less frequently than before because it is more useful in the earlier stages of a bullying situation. When the bullying is prolonged, often the best solution for the company is to discharge the employee(s) causing the problem. This practice can also help with prevention: She emphasized that “bullying can’t exist where it isn’t tolerated.”

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

Parnagian posited that in a variety of settings – workplaces, schools, families – bullying behaviors can be stopped or even prevented if people in a position to manage the situation simply use their power to take corrective action. Like Gray, Parnagian lamented how often she has been brought in to address a bullying situation, only to find that most of the damage already has been done and that replacing the manager often is the only recourse. If caught earlier, however, there are measures she can recommend (such as coaching) that can turn the bullying situation around.

Parnagian also noted that human resource professionals and other management employees often don’t understand just how much damage a bullying situation can create. She frequently demonstrates to her clients the other costs of ignoring the problem, which in some cases can push an organization to bankruptcy.

In addition, Parnagian said that it’s necessary to educate an organization on the difference between workplace bullying and occasional bad behavior. An organization must be very assertive about setting clear limits on what constitutes acceptable behavior, but it also must understand that good people can have a bad day.

Gregory Sorozan, Union President, SEIU/NAGE Local 282

Greg Sorozan has been advocating for changes in collective bargaining and in the law as president of a large public employee union. He played a major role in negotiating a “mutual respect” provision that covers bullying behaviors in his union’s current contract. He noted that simply raising workplace bullying in union contract negotiations was an important first step toward opening a dialogue.

Although employers initially worried that including the article in the new contract would open an overwhelming “Pandora’s Box” of workplace discontent, implementation of the provision has proven successful. It has improved recognition of bullying situations, which helps to prevent it and allows it to be addressed at earlier stages when it does emerge. The provision also has given union members a sense of “safety in numbers” regarding the issue.

Along these lines, Sorozan observed that putting the Healthy Workplace Bill on the legislative table has increased recognition of and dialogue about workplace bullying. He expressed optimism that the bill will be enacted into law during Massachusetts’ next legislative session. His union has devoted resources toward that end.

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

Wilson shared a story about advising a business client that had employed a bullying worker for many years. She was excellent at “managing up” and gained influence because of it. Eventually the company decided that the worker needed to be discharged, but because of her bullying behaviors, they needed to handle the matter carefully.

Wilson helped to make the case for discharging the employee by pointing out that the turnover rate in her division was four times the average. The cost of this attrition persuaded the company that firing her would be an act of “addition by subtraction.” Wilson worked with company executives to create a plan for progressive discipline and possible separation. Eventually the company was able to discharge the employee without incident.

Overall, Wilson emphasized the importance of appealing to employers in terms of both their bottom line and their morality. Each human resource professional needs to see himself as a “gatekeeper of fairness” rather than a “yes man” who won’t stand up to management. Wilson added that getting the Healthy Workplace Bill enacted will be an uphill battle. He cited management attorneys’ concerns that the bill is too broad and will create a “slippery slope” of judicial policing of workplace behavior.

News Coverage

Christine Lee, State House Bureau correspondent for Channel 22 News, covered the event:

Massachusetts is a national leader when it comes to anti-bullying in our schools, but advocates say our work isn’t done, and the state needs to address bullying in the workplace.

According to the Workplace Bullying Institute, nearly one third of workers will be victims of bullying in their careers. During an anti-bullying talk at Suffolk University Law School, advocates said it can appear in obvious and not so obvious ways.

Although the program was not about the Healthy Workplace Bill specifically, her segment examined the legislation and its prospects for passage. For the link, including the 2-minute televised news segment, go here.

8 responses

  1. Great stuff David. Wonderful to see some recognition of the sometimes counterintuitive dynamics that go on with bullying where aggressors end up painting victims as the problem and too often get away with it. It’s good to see people with a real understanding of where these conflicts come from, how they play out and the role actual pathologies can play coming together to try to spread more justice.

  2. David, thanks again for organizing such a terrific, informative event!

    I just want to re-iterate that there is a lot organizations can do if they catch the bullying or problematic behavior early enough. Good management skills really matter, and, if applied early enough, can make all the difference.

    Left unaddressed too long, the problematic employee often/usually has to leave.

  3. I have recently become a victim of workplace bullying. I am in danger of losing my job with the USPS after 28 years of dedicated service because of one boss who has been bullying me relentlessly for the last month. I finally, in utter frustration, threw some mail up in the air and she is claiming that it was threatening. I just left a meeting with a postal inspector and my union rep. The inspector threw me out of his office, claiming I lied to him. We NEED legislation against these bullies. Too late, I looked up workplace bullying, and there should have been a picture of my supervisor next to the description. I’ve just called my legislator to ask him to support workplace bullying legislation. Regardless of my personal outcome, I want to get actively involved in combatting this insidious injustice. The USPS is one of the worst, if not THE worst, offenders in supporting workplace bullies.

    • That’s how they do it. Bully a person to the point of frustration and then, when the target expresses any sign of frustration, focus on that response and use it to further discredit the target. That lets management off the hook and the bully succeeds.

      • You know, I’m kicking myself now. I knew this. I’ve been working in this toxic environment for 28 years. Most of management has improved remarkably, But there are still a few holdout tyrants. Even bosses that used to be my most contentious clothes have learned to appreciate my efforts. I went above and beyond on this job in hopes of keeping her off my back, But she always find something to nitpick and always did it in a caustic, demeaning manner. She referred to my craft as idiots more than once And implied that I was a slow learner. I wish I knew about these websites sooner.

      • This statement is so important. One pattern I’ve noticed so often is that abusers push until even the healthiest person would react and then the completely understandable and even appropriate reaction is used as justification for the abuse. They reverse cause and effect to make the victim appear to be the abuser – or at least in the wrong. This twisting of ethics stems from what, in ponerology, has been called “paramoralism.”

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