On creating organizational culture: What if your boss simply doesn’t care?


We talk about good leaders who create healthy organizational cultures — you know, the kinds of places where people want to work. We talk about bad leaders who create hostile and toxic organizational cultures, the kinds of places where bullying and abuse thrive.

But what about bosses who don’t think much at all about the quality of work life within their organizations? What if notions such as supportive work environments, fair compensation structures, and organizational justice don’t cross their radar screens? For that matter, what if they’re not into creating bad work environments, either? What if all that matters to them are profits/revenues, avoiding liability, pleasing their boards & superiors, and getting ahead?

In other words, what if they simply don’t care?

A common practice

I suggest this is quite common — especially in occupational settings where people are hired into leadership positions based, at least in part, on performance factors that have little to do with their ability to manage an organization.

In my twin realms of higher education and law, this happens all the time. In higher ed, people may be promoted to administrative leadership positions because they’ve been successful professors, or maybe they’re just good at impressing people in interviews. In law, people may be promoted to management positions in law firms, public agencies, and non-profits because they’ve been good litigators.

Oftentimes, the skills that made them good at their previous jobs aren’t the right match for their new management responsibilities.

The consequences

Regardless of how they got there, bosses who practice benign neglect when it comes to organizational culture create a giant void for others to fill.

If, for example, their immediate underlings are attentive to nurturing a psychologically healthy workplace, then everyday working conditions may be pretty decent for the rank-and-file.

By contrast, if those underlings are clueless about managing a workplace effectively, then a lot of people may suffer. And if a manipulative, bullying type of individual seizes power within that void, then a good number of people will suffer.


This post was revised in July 2019.

Temple law school conference examines bullying across the lifespan

(l to r) Prof. Kerri Stone, Prof. Susan Harthill, yours truly

Workplace bullying panelists: (l to r) Prof. Kerri Stone, Prof. Susan Harthill, and DY

I was fortunate to participate over the weekend in “Bullying: Redefining Boundaries, Responsibility, and Harm,” an excellent conference sponsored by the Temple Political & Civil Rights Law Review at Temple University’s Beasley School of Law in Philadelphia.

To the best of my knowledge, this is the first American conference devoted to examining the legal implications of bullying behaviors across the lifespan.

From children to seniors

The conference brought together academics, practitioners, and advocates from across the country who have been addressing the legal and policy aspects of bullying in different social and institutional settings.

The program took a chronological approach, starting with bullying among school kids, moving on to higher education settings, then to the workplace, and finally to seniors. The final panel examined best practices across that span. It was a great decision to organize the day that way.

The proceedings also featured a keynote address by Emily Bazelon, author of Sticks and Stones (2013), which examines the culture of bullying among teens in the Internet and social media age. Bazelon’s book has generated considerable media interest, and her address filled the room.

For a full list of speakers and their bios, go here.

Workplace bullying panel

Pictured above are panelists for the workplace bullying panel, Prof. Kerri Stone (Florida International University College of Law), Prof. Susan Harthill (Florida Coastal School of Law), and yours truly. Our panel was ably moderated by Shannon Minter of the National Center for Lesbian Rights.

  • I opened the panel by discussing the concept of workplace bullying generally, then quickly summarized existing legal protections for targets before examining the anti-bullying Healthy Workplace Bill and responses to it.
  • Prof. Harthill discussed her work on applying the Occupational Safety and Health Act to bullying situations and summarized the growing list of legal responses to workplace bullying in other nations.
  • Prof. Stone discussed her work on the gender implications of workplace bullying and then examined how the National Labor Relations Board’s decisions on social media might affect employers’ ability to address bullying.

Susan and Kerri have made important contributions to the body of legal scholarship on workplace bullying, and I have great respect for their work. It was very nice that the three of us finally could be on a panel together.

More to come

Podcasts, PowerPoint slides, and other materials from the conference will be made freely available to the public via the conference website. (I will post an update on this blog.) In addition, the Temple Political & Civil Rights Law Review will publish proceedings and essays emerging from the conference in a volume scheduled to appear over the summer. I will be contributing a piece on the emergence of the legal movement against workplace bullying.

Many thanks

Our Temple hosts put together a superb program and topped it off with a ton of hospitality. The conference attracted over 140 registrants, including a lot of Temple law students.

I’d especially like to thank Prof. Nancy Knauer, conference organizer, and law student Naveed Hassan, symposium editor for the journal, for their work on this conference. Their devotion to making this a worthwhile experience for everyone resulted in a memorable exchange of information and ideas.


4/2/13 update: I’ve posted a draft of my law review essay, “Emerging American Legal Responses to Workplace Bullying,” to my Social Science Research Network page. It can be downloaded without charge, here.

Recycling: Meaningful books about career and life planning


This week, something seems to be drawing me to write about authors and books! So I’ve gone back into the blog archives to dig out some posts that discuss titles that I have found inspirational over the years:

1. Seth Godin, Tribes

Entrepreneur and author Seth Godin is one of my favorites. In this 2008 book Tribes, he describes how people are coming together around common interests, projects, and values in ways that transcend traditional organizational and geographic boundaries. In this 2010 blog post, I explain how “Godin identifies three things that organizations and individuals do: React, respond, and initiate.” Reacting and responding are easy, but initiating is “what leaders do.”

2. Steven Levy, Hackers and Barbara Sher, Wishcraft

A book about the early days of the computer revolution and a pioneering self-help guide led me to the path I’ve been pursuing since 1991. In a 2011 blog post, I talk about these two books and their influence on me. Here’s a snippet:

Twenty years ago, I found myself yearning to do something different with my work life. I had been practicing as a public interest lawyer since graduating from law school, and although I liked certain aspects of the work, I didn’t see myself as being a litigation attorney for the rest of my career.

…It was around that time that I encountered two books that encouraged me to think more expansively about my career. One was Steven Levy’s Hackers: Heroes of the Computer Revolution (1984; now in a 25th anniversary 2010 edition).

…I also got hold of a self-help book, Barbara Sher’s Wishcraft: How to Get What You Really Want (1979; now in a 30th anniversary 2009 edition). Wishcraft helps readers identify their strengths and interests and overcome resistances to change, a terrific mix of inspirational and practical advice.

3. David W. Galenson, Old Masters and Young Geniuses

In his book Old Masters and Young Geniuses: The Two Life Cycles of Artistic Creativity (2006), economics professor David W. Galenson writes about “sprinters” who make their signature contributions earlier in the lives and “marathoners” whose breakthroughs may classify them as late bloomers.

In this 2009 blog post, I wrote how Galenson’s ideas helped to inspire me as I approached age 50.

Donna Hicks: Demand dignity, earn respect


According to Dr. Donna Hicks, dignity is a quality we all possess by virtue of being human, while respect is something that we must earn.

Hicks is the author of the excellent Dignity: The Essential Role It Plays in Resolving Conflict (2011), a book I’ve recommend before on this blog. On Tuesday, I had the pleasure of attending her luncheon talk at Boston’s Union Club, where she shared some of her core ideas about dignity.

Her distinction between dignity and respect was one of many thought-provoking observations during her talk. She explained that everyone should expect, nay, demand, to be treated with dignity. As for respect, that esteem must be earned by our conduct.

She added that we should endeavor to treat with dignity even those we do not necessarily respect, while conceding that this is easier said than done.

“Dignity violations” at work

Hicks, a researcher at the Weatherhead Center for International Affairs at Harvard, comes from a professional background of international conflict resolution. However, she now readily applies her dignity framework to all settings, including the workplace.

In that context, she referred to “dignity violations” that occur commonly within workplaces. She cited neuroscience research using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to show that dignity violations and physical wounds cause similar harmful impacts. Accordingly, when consulting with organizations and their leaders, she urges them to listen to employees and to take their concerns seriously.

Seven years of hard thinking

Dignity is a slim volume of some 220 pages. Nevertheless, Hicks shared with us that it took her seven years to think through the concept of dignity to the point where she could finish the book. Those qualities of contemplation showed in her talk. And during the lively Q&A, she engaged the questions and comments, rather than responding with pre-packaged answers.

It goes to show: When wrestling with something as complicated as dignity, a slap-dash approach is not recommended.


To learn more, take a look at Dr. Hicks’s new Declare Dignity website.


Thank you to Ellen Pinkos Cobb for her invitation to attend the luncheon. Ellen is an attorney, consultant, and author of Bullying, Violence, Harassment, Discrimination and Stress: Emerging Workplace Health and Safety Issues, a global compilation and summary of laws concerning workplace aggression, now updated (2012) and available on Amazon.com. It’s a terrific resource.


A few years ago, I examined some of the legal issues related to dignity at work in “Human Dignity and American Employment Law,” University of Richmond Law Review (2009), freely downloadable here. I wish that Dr. Hicks’s book would’ve been available when I was writing this piece, and it would’ve benefited greatly from incorporating her perspectives.

I’ll be addressing some of the dignity-related aspects of the anti-bullying Healthy Workplace Bill I authored in a future blog post.

Mary Pipher on Writing to Change the World


I encounter a lot of good people who are trying to make the world a better place through their writing. They may be writing books, articles, short stories, blog posts, Facebook entries, reports, creative works, or a host of other possibilities.

For all in this broad category, Mary Pipher’s Writing to Change the World (2006) is instructive and inspirational.

Pipher is a bestselling author and therapist. Her book reflects upon the uses of writing to make a positive difference. Here are a few snippets from the introduction:

Writing to connect is “change writing,” which, like good therapy, creates the conditions that allow people to be transformed. (p. 6)


When you take pen to paper with the goal of making a difference, you join a community of people for whom words and issues matter. . . . As a writer, your life goal may involve a worthy cause I cannot even imagine. Whatever it is, you are fortunate. (p. 10)


The title of this book . . . may sound grandiose, but I truly believe that positive changes come from decent people acting properly. (p. 13)

We need healthier stories

Pipher laments our unhealthy popular culture that feeds on tawdry details and appeals to superficial values. Instead, she would like us to focus on tales of meaningful work and lives.

“Healthy cultures pass on healthy stories from generation to generation,” she notes, adding that “We need stories that teach us to be patient, to share, and to put things into perspective.” (pp. 11-12)

Many forms

Pipher devotes chapters to various writing forms, including letters, speeches, personal essays, blogs, and music & poetry.

In other words, if you’re not a bestselling novelist or prize-winning journalist, not to worry. It’s about effecting good changes in small and large ways through the written word.

If the title draws you, welcome to a thoughtful and pleasurable read.

Is “being too inclusive” really such a common mistake for bosses?

In a piece for Forbes, Kate Harrison identifies what she sees as common mistakes that “turn good people into bad bosses,” and first on her list is “Being too inclusive.” She explains:

I grew up in an ultra-liberal, huggy, “everyone wins” environment, and so my default position is to seek lots of advice and build consensus when facing a difficult decision. . . . However, the desire to get everyone to agree can backfire when there are significant differences of opinion, strength of character, ability to express themselves, and orneryness in a group. Instead of moving forward efficiently, consensus building can actually derail a team, engender resentments, and lead to stagnation.

Yeah, I’ve been there

Harrison’s bio line describes her as an eco-friendly writer and entrepreneur who has built a business around helping people to plan “green friendly” weddings. She’s obviously traveled in some of these crunchy granola circles, and I can sympathize.

I agree that consensus building approaches can go too far. There are times when a leader has to make a decision, and there are times when it’s time to call for a vote — instead of going around the room for more endless yammering that only prolongs the misery.

But here’s the bigger problem

Nevertheless, I submit that being too exclusive is a much more common mistake for so many people in leadership positions.

Sometimes bosses start that way, coming in with an agenda based on biased impressions or inaccurate information. They’ve already pre-programmed themselves to disregard certain points of view about how to best run the organization.

Others start out being somewhat more inclusive, but then they circle the wagons and stop listening to voices that offer different viewpoints or perspectives. For some this occurs almost unconsciously; inside, they still think of themselves as “inclusive” leaders.

And the more inexperienced and insecure the boss, the more likely this is to happen.

It’s about balance

Being an organizational leader is difficult work, whether it’s in a small department or a large institution. Achieving the right balance between inclusivity and exclusivity is one of the toughest challenges of all. Maintaining an ongoing awareness of that tension is the best that most of us can do.

Swag bag message to NY Fashion Week attendees: “Pay Your Interns”

Who says labor activists can’t deliver a message with a stylish wink? At last week’s New York Fashion Week, members of Intern Labor Rights — an outgrowth of the Occupy Wall Street Arts & Labor group — distributed colorful swag bags to attendees. Tyler McCall, blogging for Fashionista, got one:

Frankly, I was expecting lame pantyhose or maybe chapstick or something when I opened the box. Instead, there was a pin that read “Pay Your Interns” and some folded up literature about why unpaid internships are wrong and how you can get involved in the movement.

Here’s what she found inside:

“The Devil Pays Nada”

The fashion industry, you see, is notorious for using unpaid interns (among other exploited workers) on an international scale. And Fashion Week is a great event for reaching a global audience. Here’s what Intern Labor Rights had to say in announcing their swag bag promotion:

We invite your attention and critical eye to the widespread use of illegally unpaid workers in the fashion industry. This rampant wage theft, international in scope, is now being met with an international response:

In anticipation of our one-year anniversary, Intern Labor Rights is lovingly preparing hundreds of Intern Swag Bags to be given out at Fashion Week events over the February 8–10, 2013, weekend. To get your hands on an Intern Swag Bag, or to help us distribute, email us at intern.labor.rights@gmail.com and find out where we’ll be during the weekend. To track our progress follow #devilpaysnada and #payinterns on Twitter, or find us on Facebook.

There’s still plenty of room for old-fashioned, hard-nosed labor advocacy. But sometimes a light touch can be very effective, and this idea did the job quite nicely.

Want to learn more?

Intern Labor Rights has compiled an excellent list of resources on unpaid internships.

The list includes my 2002 Connecticut Law Review article, “The Employment Law Rights of Student Interns,” freely downloadable here. And here’s a post I wrote last year on the emerging intern rights movement.

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