Lower case and heartfelt: When targets of workplace bullying share their stories online

The next time you read a general piece about workplace bullying that attracts a lot of comments, take a look at how people describe their experiences of being bullied at work.

More often than not, you’ll read through dozens of personal stories mixing details of what happened with expressions of pain, despair, and anger. Most commenters recount their own experiences with workplace bullying; others share stories of close family members enduring it.

Rarely, however, are these comments loaded with ALL CAPS rants or snarky putdowns. No, such remarks tend to come from folks who ridicule the very notion that we should take workplace bullying seriously.

I first noticed this in 2008, when Tara Parker-Pope, health writer for the New York Times, wrote a column about workplace bullying that garnered wide attention. It attracted hundreds of online comments (unfortunately, they are no longer on the website), including story after story posted by bullying targets and their family members. I would use terms such as poignant, heartfelt, compelling, and authentic to describe the largest share of them.

I’ll defer to my friends in clinical psychology and mental health counseling to assess the emotional states reflected by such online comments. For me, however, they reinforce the destructive, targeted nature of workplace bullying and why it’s so important for us to address it.

Waiting for Nemo

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Bloggers and Facebookers across America can thank The Weather Channel for naming severe winter storms, thereby saving us from writing “blizzard in New England and the Northeast” over and again. (I’ve read that the National Weather Service is less than happy about a commercial entity getting into the storm-naming business.)

In any event, the world of work already has been profoundly affected by Nemo, even though the current snowfall here in Boston amounts to heavy flurries. (Not to worry, it will get much worse; there’s virtually no chance that this is a false alarm.) Even last night, the streets of downtown Boston were oddly empty, as if folks were trying to get a 24-hour head start on the storm.

This morning, the city is in shutdown mode, with schools, universities, and public offices closed for the day and into the weekend, and many businesses doing the same as well. Most of our public transportation system will be off the rails and road by mid-afternoon.

For many of us whose work involves pen, paper, and keyboard, Nemo means work-at-home days, so long as the power stays on. Nevertheless, there is a distracting buzz about this storm, not unlike the mega-hours of excited, televised chatter preceding the Super Bowl. Given that I have a lot of stuff to do, I’ll try to use this time productively and not get overly caught up in the hype.

For public safety and utility workers, Nemo will be prime time. Fair or not, we tend to judge their performance during these events; on other occasions, we typically take them for granted.

Unfortunately, a good number of people are going to lose a day or two of hourly wages, for “snow day” means “no pay.” The same goes for businesses that count on walk-in customer traffic everyday. A restaurant that closes for a couple of days due to weather isn’t going to make up lost sales.

Of course, if you’re an airline customer service rep right now, you might wish that you, too, were told not to show up for work. Never a cushy job during normal times, it would easily make my top ten list of “most stressful jobs during inclement weather” list.

If you’re in Nemo’s path, please keep safe and warm!

Healthy Workplace Bill is gaining momentum in Massachusetts

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In the new 2013-14 session of the Massachusetts legislature, the Healthy Workplace Bill (currently House Docket No. 517; awaiting assignment of a bill number) is roaring out of the blocks, with two lead sponsors and 37 co-sponsors signed on as supporters.

The Healthy Workplace Bill is legislation I authored that provides a legal claim for targets of severe workplace bullying and creates liability-reducing incentives for employers to act preventively and responsively toward bullying at work.

Here’s the list of sponsors, courtesy of Deb Falzoi (Massachusetts Healthy Workplace Advocates) and House staff. The lead sponsors are Representative Ellen Story and Senator Katherine Clark, followed by co-sponsors in alphabetical order:

Representative Ellen Story (lead sponsor, D-Amherst)
Senator Katherine Clark (lead sponsor, D-Melrose)
Rep. Denise Andrews (D-Orange)
Rep. Brian Ashe (D-Longmeadow)
Rep. Ruth Balser (D-Newton)
Rep. Paul Brodeur (D-Melrose)
Rep. Christine Canavan (D-Brockton)
Rep. Gailanne Cariddi (D-North Adams)
Sen. Sonia Chang-Diaz (D-Boston)
Rep. Cheryl Coakley-Rivera (D-Springfield)
Rep. Diana DiZoglio (D-Methuen)
Sen. James Eldridge (D-Acton)
Sen. Jennifer Flanagan (D-Leominster)
Rep. John Fresolo (D-Worcester)
Rep. Danielle Gregoire (D-Marlborough)
Rep. Patricia Haddad (D-Somerset)
Rep. Jonathan Hecht (D-Watertown)
Rep. Carlos Henriquez (D-Dorchester)
Rep. Russell Holmes (D-Boston)
Rep. Kevin Honan (D-Brighton)
Rep. Lou Kafka (D-Stoughton)
Sen. John Keenan (D-Quincy)
Rep. Kay Khan (D-Newton)
Rep. Peter Kocot (D-Northampton)
Sen. Michael Knapik (R-Westfield)
Rep. John Lawn (D-Watertown)
Rep. John Mahoney (D-Worcester)
Rep. Brian Mannal (D-Barnstable)
Sen. Thomas McGee (D-Lynn)
Rep. Paul McMurtry (D-Dedham)
Rep. James O’Day (D-West Boylston)
Rep. Denise Provost (D-Somerville)
Rep. John Scibak (D-South Hadley)
Rep. Carl Sciortino, Jr. (D-Medford)
Rep. Frank Smizik (D-Brookline)
Rep. Theodore Speliotis (D-Danvers)
Rep. Benjamin Swan (D-Springfield)
Rep. Aaron Vega (D-Holyoke)
Sen. James Welch (D-West Springfield)

1 to 13 to 39

This is the third Massachusetts legislative session in which the HWB has been filed.

2009-10 session — The first time was a “late file,” meaning it was filed much later in the session and had little chance of moving forward. Our sole sponsor was Senator and Assistant Majority Leader Joan Menard. Another legislator, Representative Ellen Story, sponsored a bill that called for a statewide study of workplace bullying and required larger employers to adopt policies concerning workplace bullying.

2011-12 session — The second time saw major steps forward. With the retirement of Sen. Menard, Rep. Story and Senator Katherine Clark stepped up as lead sponsors, joined by 11 others. The HWB jumped successfully through two committee hoops in the House and made it to a stage known as “third reading,” meaning it was ready for a full vote by the House.

2013-14 session — Now we have our two lead sponsors in Rep. Story and Sen. Clark, joined by 37 others. I call that progress, a genuine sign that we’re moving toward enacting this legislation.

Thank you!

Thank you to our elected officials, especially our lead sponsors, for their courageous leadership on behalf of cutting-edge legislation that will help people who have been severely mistreated at work and encourage employers to take workplace bullying seriously.

Thank you to all the advocates who have been e-mailing, calling, visiting, and otherwise supporting the eventual enactment of the Healthy Workplace Bill.

***

To learn more about Massachusetts advocacy efforts on behalf of the Healthy Workplace Bill, go here.

To learn more about campaigns in other states to enact the HWB, go here.

Working in the fast food industry: We need to change our perceptions

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I didn’t grow up in a particularly wealthy area, but Northwest Indiana back in the day was home to steel mills that promised a decent paycheck to many a family. Most of the region’s cities and towns straddled the line between “working class” and “middle class.” For many young people, the future included possibilities such as working in the mills, going to a local college, or raising a family.

If you’re like me, you grew up thinking that working behind the counter at McDonald’s or Burger King was a classic entry-level job. It was not unusual to walk into a fast food place and to see one of your high school classmates taking orders or working the french fry baskets.

And if you had that job or something like it (mine was working as supermarket bagger), you might joke about making the minimum wage but mainly took it in stride. After all, you assumed that better opportunities would come your way.

Take another look

But hold on a minute. In truth, the vast majority of our low-wage workforce — including most who work in the fast food industry — are adults, and they’re not working behind that counter to pay for weekend movies or nights out with friends.

Fast Food Forward is a labor advocacy campaign on behalf of fast food workers in New York City, and their info graphic above shares the main points:

  • “Contrary to common belief, teens represent less than 12% of the low-wage work force.”
  • “Over 60% of low-wage workers are 25-64 years old…, many with families to support.”

And take a close look behind the counter

Okay, so maybe your dietary habits have evolved beyond Big Macs and Whoppers. But if you do find yourself ordering at any fast food restaurant, take a look at who is working there. At many of these places, you’ll find a good number of workers who are well past their teen years. It’s their main job (or one of them), and not infrequently they’re trying to support a family on it.

Just as there are wage-related reasons why we can walk into a big-box store and buy a DVD player for $40, the low prices of fast food items are partially enabled by the small paychecks of the people preparing and selling what customers consume.

Unions, yes!

I shake my head at people who scoff at the idea of fast food employees and other low-wage workers trying to unionize. These critics regard such organizing as an act of entitlement . . . Hey, I worked for the minimum wage before going to business school/marrying a doctor/winning Lotto . . . Why can’t they?

But let’s understand reality: Many people are trying to support themselves and their families in these jobs. And the Barons of the Low-Wage Workforce aren’t giving it up voluntarily. It will take workers organizing on their own behalf to push them beyond McWage-level paychecks. Here’s wishing it happens.

The School of Life on finding fulfilling work

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Here’s a thought-provoking question that writer and lecturer Roman Krznaric poses at the end of the first chapter of his very good little paperback book, How to Find Fulfilling Work (2012):

What is your current work doing to you as a person — to your mind, character and relationships?

I’ve heard and offered less compelling variations of questions like this one — How’s work going? What’s good and bad about your occupation? Is your job meeting your needs? — but nothing so neatly framed.

School of Life series

How to Find Fulfilling Work is one in a series of short books on practical philosophy sponsored by The School of Life, a London-based entity that offers “a variety of programmes and services concerned with how to live wisely and well.” The book series is entering the U.S., and this title will be available soon.

The School of Life sounds like a fascinating initiative. Reading its description makes me wish we had something similar here in Boston:

The School of Life is a place to step back and think intelligently about these and other concerns. You will not be cornered by any dogma, but directed towards a variety of ideas – from philosophy to literature, psychology to the visual arts – that tickle, exercise and expand your mind. You’ll meet other curious, sociable and open-minded people in an atmosphere of exploration and enjoyment.

The quest for fulfilling work

Krznaric mixes ground-level philosophy, vocational guidance, and inspiration into this quick read. Here are the chapter titles:

The Age of Fulfillment

A Short History of Career Confusion

Giving Meaning to Work

Act First, Reflect Later

The Longing for Freedom

How to Grow a Vocation

The book concludes with helpful recommendations of books, movies, and other resources to help people in their quests for work that suits them.

But first: Basic needs and obligations

If you’re weighing your career and vocational options, especially with an eye toward pursuing more meaningful work, this book is worth your time.

But I also know that some readers are not in a position to be selective. They need decent paying work, period, and with bills mounting they’ll be grateful for whatever comes their way. Indeed, anyone who is free enough to consider options for making work a fulfilling activity in itself is very fortunate.

So, if you need to pay for food, shelter, and clothing, the type of work you’re doing may matter a whole lot less than getting a sufficient paycheck. And if your obligations include kids and/or other dependents, you may not be in a position to “go for the gusto.”

In fact, one of the few quarrels I have with Krznaric is his suggestion that financial fears can be softened by having a backup fund of three months worth of expenses in case the “dream job” falls apart. In the first place, saving up that kind of money is difficult in tough times. And secondly, a three-month emergency fund isn’t all that comforting anyway for someone who must care for others as well.

Onward

Still…my hope is that we will evolve into a society where decent pay and good work come together more often than not. Books like How to Find Fulfilling Work point us in the right direction. So, let’s put these options for individual initiative and change out there, and gravitate toward them when we can.

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