If you can write, you’ll never go hungry (NOT)

One of my favorite books about non-traditional higher education is This Way Out: A Guide to Alternatives to Traditional College Education in the United States, Europe and the Third World (1972), by John Coyne and Tom Hebert. Though obviously dated, it contains marvelous advice on self-education, as well as providing a snapshot look at innovative new degree programs of the day.

Throughout the chapters on independent learning, they urge the importance of developing writing skills. For example:

If you can write English clearly, you’ll never go hungry.


You have to write, so write well. To write well, write a great deal. At least 1,000 words a week; go for 2,000. Four to ten pages. If you do that as a student, you’ll never have to go hungry later. We may even say that again.

Coyne and Hebert anticipated the evolving information age and knew that the ability to write a good sentence or two would be crucial to succeeding in it. As the service sector replaced the manufacturing sector as a primary source of jobs, and as the burgeoning flow of information created opportunities for work, job candidates with good writing skills would be much sought after by employers.

40 years later

Well…they were right about the information age, but they didn’t anticipate that as it went digital, the premium put on good writing may not translate into a decent, living wage for the writers.

In an op-ed piece for the New York Times titled “Slaves of the Internet, Unite!,” writer Tim Kreider opens by sharing how many times he is “invited” to supply content for free, then adding:

People who would consider it a bizarre breach of conduct to expect anyone to give them a haircut or a can of soda at no cost will ask you, with a straight face and a clear conscience, whether you wouldn’t be willing to write an essay or draw an illustration for them for nothing. They often start by telling you how much they admire your work, although not enough, evidently, to pay one cent for it. “Unfortunately we don’t have the budget to offer compensation to our contributors…” is how the pertinent line usually starts. But just as often, they simply omit any mention of payment.


Especially with drops in subscriptions and advertising support for print journalism, it’s up to those of us who care about the news to support the newspapers and other periodicals we enjoy reading.

The Internet has made freeloaders of most of us. We click to articles that others spent hours researching, writing, and editing, and we expect to access the material for free. When we hit a paywall, we become indignant. (What’s a paywall? It means you click to an article and find out you cannot access it without a subscription, or perhaps paying a small fee.)

I access a lot of free content, but I also subscribe to more newspapers and magazines than I could possibly read cover-to-cover. I see it as investment in the kind of writing and journalism that we need in our society. Good reporting is a bulwark of an open, accountable society, and sometimes we have to put some money behind it.


Related posts

So you want to be a writer? (2010)

“I’ll write for free!” (2010)

E-Writing for Free: Is Journalism Becoming Volunteer Work? (2009)

HR, workplace bullying, and the abandoned target

Team Of Three Orange People Holding Hands And Standing On Blue Puzzle Pieces, With One Man Reaching Out To Connect Another To Their Group Clipart Illustration Graphic

(Image courtesy of clipart-library.com)

It’s a recurring story, but sadly worth sharing: A worker who is enduring severe bullying at work confides in a human resources professional and spells out in detail everything that is going on. The HR person seems to be truly listening, nodding at the right times, and exuding concern and empathy when tears flow. At the end of the meeting, the HR person promises to get back to the employee, perhaps with a report or a follow up plan of action.

A few days or weeks later, the HR person responds with a meeting or memo in which the bullied employee is told that they’ve found no inappropriate behavior. The response may include any number of lies or distortions. In some cases, the tables will have turned, and it will be the targeted worker who is feeling scrutinized.

Earlier this week, I heard from someone with a story largely along the lines described above. For various reasons, I trust the individual who provided it. This person even had some legal issues worth raising, which sadly isn’t the case in many bullying situations.

For me this was the latest example of a bullying target who was looking for a lifeline, but instead was tossed under the bus, with HR supporting their demise.

The role of HR

Unfortunately, HR is often complicit in some of the worst workplace bullying situations. As I wrote in one of this blog’s most popular articles:

In good and bad workplaces alike, HR answers to top management, not to individual employees.  Too many well-meaning team players have learned that lesson painfully, thinking that a seemingly empathetic HR manager is a sort of confidante or counselor. There are plenty of good, supportive HR people out there, but ultimately their job is to support the employer’s hiring and personnel practices and interests.

Mixing and matching

To tease out this point, here’s one way to look at things when it comes to bullying at work and HR:

1. Good workplace + good HR

Obviously this is the gold standard. First off, workplace bullying is much less likely to occur in good organizations. Secondly, if allegations of bullying do arise, then they are much more likely to get prompt attention by a fair-minded HR office.

2. Good workplace + bad HR

With this combination, bullying is still less likely to occur. However, if it does happen, HR may impede or frustrate a proper and just response.

3. Bad workplace + good HR

We know that lousy organizations are petri dishes for bullying. It’s not good for the target or HR. In fact, it’s possible that HR may be bullied if it supports the target. Conscientious HR practitioners often face terrible ethical dilemmas when they are expected to do some of the dirty work of bad management.

4. Bad workplace + bad HR

Unfortunately, this scenario carries little hope for a positive internal resolution. It’s not exactly a daring hypothesis to say that this combination represents the lion’s share of distressing stories we hear about a worker being ignored or retaliated against after reporting bullying behaviors to HR. Here is where HR is most likely to be complicit in the mistreatment.

Successful HR interventions

As I wrote in another entry, I cannot “cite a ‘poster case’ example of HR decisively and effectively coming to the rescue of a severely bullied worker.” However, I said that they must exist, adding that “successful interventions are more likely to be handled quietly, so these accounts may not become more well known.” Indeed, I wish we knew more about these ethical success stories.

In sum: HR answers to top management, not to individual workers. When it comes to dealing with workplace bullying, mobbing, and harassment, that may be a good or bad thing, depending upon the ethical values of the organization. These are among the challenging realities of workplace bullying, HR, and organizations, but they must be grasped in order to understand the dynamics of modern work abuse.


Related post

Workplace bullying and mobbing: Resources for HR (2017)


This post was revised in July 2019.

Condé Nast shutters its internship program in the face of minimum wage lawsuits

Condé Nast, publisher of high-end magazines such as VogueVanity Fair, and GQ, has shuttered its well-known internship program in the face of lawsuits alleging it is in violation of minimum wage laws. Current interns have been paid stipends that average out to about a dollar an hour. Apparently the company decided it was better to stop hiring interns than to pay them the princely minimum wage.

Interview with ProPublica

As part of ProPublica’s investigative project on the intern economyCasey McDermott did a wide-ranging interview with me about the intern economy. From that interview, here are my specific points about the Condé Nast development:

What is your initial reaction to the news that Condé Nast will halt its internship program?

I was disappointed but not surprised. Disappointed because a company like Condé Nast, which publishes high-end, big-budget magazines, certainly can afford to pay its interns the minimum wage. It also strikes me as being very shortsighted. They have an opportunity to evaluate promising candidates for future employment and to help train the next generation of writers and creative people, while gaining the benefit of their work. It could’ve been a win-win, but they opted for the lose-lose.

This move is often cited as one potential drawback to calling for an end to unpaid internships — do you think it will trigger other companies who are facing pressure for internship compensation practices to do the same?

I think it’s a toss-up in terms of what will happen next. Some companies may end their internship programs; others will realize that paying at least the minimum wage is a mutually beneficial move.

Do you think this might affect the pending lawsuit against this company, or those against other companies?

While I can’t get into the heads of judges and speculate on how current events affect their legal analysis, the questions of compensation as set out by the Department of Labor and the courts seem pretty clear cut as to the key factors to be considered. The Condé Nast decision shouldn’t affect judicial and administrative rulings if the standards are properly applied. However, it’s possible that federal and state labor departments will be under increasing pressure from corporate interests to ease off on any enforcement efforts concerning unpaid internships. This may become a more political issue as the intern rights movement gains steam.

Overall, do you anticipate any reduction in internships as a result of increased scrutiny of intern wages and treatment?

I think we’re in a period of potential restructuring of what we’ve been calling the intern economy. Similar to what we’re seeing with health care, there will be some disruption and uncertainty as all this shakes out. It may mean a reduction in the net number of internships offered, but that reduction affects everyone equally in terms of supply.  In addition, given the NACE studies showing that unpaid internships may carry less clout in the entry-level job market, it’s far from clear that an overall reduction in unpaid opportunities will have a negative effect on individual employment prospects.

A “cruel and terrible mistress”?

Condé Nast’s decision is getting a lot of media play, and it has caused at least one writer to dig into the culture of its internship program . Alexander Abad-Santos, blogging for The Atlantic, gives us the scoop on interning for Condé Nast:

The death of the Condé Nast internship program is a lot like being at a funeral for the meanest, most popular girl at school. We’re now at the point where everyone is remembering what an awesome time they had at their internship and forgetting what a cruel and terrible mistress Condé Nast was. It’s not unlike hearing someone talk fondly about being hazed….

Abad-Santos quotes former Conde Nast interns waxing nostalgic about their intern experiences in Cara Buckley’s New York Times piece about the closing of the internship program and then responds:

These people reminiscing fondly about working for free and about a company that didn’t want them to pay them minimum wage. Obviously, having a set of parents willing to pay to have their kids live in New York City makes the memories a little more fond (the former interns who The Times spoke to say that living in New York City without parental aid is impossible). There’s something not right here.

The culture of Condé Nast, Abad-Santos reminds us, was the inspiration for one of the all-time bad boss books and movies, “The Devil Wears Prada.” (For fun, don’t forget to take his “Who Said It, Sorority Sister or Condé Nast Intern?” quiz!)

Stay tuned

As I’ve told reporters about the developing challenges to unpaid internships, stay tuned, there’s more to come. The legal and employee relations issues raised by the intern economy are now sharpening at the point of application and practice, and we’re still in the early stages of having these questions resolved.


More about the Condé Nast decision

Here are other pieces in which I was quoted about Condé Nast’s decision:

Wall Street Journal (Lauren Weber)

Fortune (Claire Zillman)

ABA Journal (Debra Cassens Weiss)

Law review article

I’ve authored a forthcoming law review article (“The Legal and Social Movement Against Unpaid Internships,” Northeastern University Law Journal), which analyzes recent legal and policy developments and the emergence of the intern rights movement.

The myth of the “dream job”

“It’s my dream job.”

How many times have we heard variations of this phrase? It usually pops up when someone is interviewing for a job that sounds like a wonderful, perfect fit, or after they just accepted the offer.

If you follow up with them a few years later, it’s likely that reality has set in. It may have turned out to be a very good job, a decent job, a tolerable job, or an absolute horror show. But if they’re still sticking to the “dream job” line, they’re either (1) truly fortunate; (2) fibbing a bit to keep up appearances; or (3) deluding themselves.

Reality check

The idea of a dream job reflects high, often pie-in-the-sky expectations that may ignore the realities of organizations, human behavior, and economics. Indeed, the very concept of a career or a vocation that blends a good salary or wage with a chance to do inherently rewarding work is very much a product of a first world, late 20th century, upwardly mobile culture. A century ago, I doubt that many people were thinking in such a manner.

In the meantime, there are bills to be paid and mouths to be fed. These are not trifling matters. In fact, basic survival is what most of the world confronts on a daily basis.

Furthermore, even a good paying job may be short on psychic income. There are plenty of people who are toiling away mainly for the money, sometimes sacrificing their own desires in order to pay a mortgage or to send the kids through school.

Realistic hopes

Dream jobs may be few and far between, but I’m not suggesting that we give up on finding great meaning and a decent paycheck in our work. When it comes to pursuing our life’s purposes and passions, I’m still a romantic.

I think it boils down to expectations and aspirations grounded in reality. The world of work may disappoint us at times. But we can strive to create better opportunities for ourselves and to take full advantage of those presented to us.


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Freedom From Workplace Bullies Week 2013


Freedom From Workplace Bullies Week is an annual observance championed by the Workplace Bullying Institute to mark the importance of preventing and stopping workplace bullying.

As part of this week, I’ve collected ten of the most popular pieces about workplace bullying posted during the past year:

Gaslighting as a workplace bullying tactic (December 2012)

A mediator writes about workplace bullying and mediation (January 2013)

From bullying, to mobbing, to ouster: The story of Ann Curry (April 2013)

When workplace bullies claim victim status: Avoiding the judo flip (May 2013)

“Splitting” as a workplace bullying tactic (May 2013)

Bullying of volunteers (May 2013)

What makes someone a potential workplace bullying target? (June 2013)

Prestigious honorary society president may be a bullying boss (June 2013)

Workplace bullying: Recognition, response, recovery, renewal (July 2013)

Why targets of workplace bullying need our help: A rallying cry from the heart (September 2013)

“Compassionate management” sounds great, but can it sweat the tough stuff?

Last month, business writer Bronwyn Fryer blogged for the Harvard Business Review about the welcomed trend toward “compassionate management,” at least as measured by a growing number of conferences, panel discussions, lectures, and social media sites devoted to the topic. Here’s a snippet:

A growing number of business conferences are focusing in on the topic of compassion at work. There’s the International Working Group on Compassionate Organizations. There’s the Changing Culture in the Workplace Conference. Then there’s Wisdom 2.0, dedicated to “exploring living with greater awareness, wisdom and compassion in the modern age.” The speakers are no slouches: eBay founder Pierre Omidyar, Bill Ford (yes, that Bill Ford), Karen May (VP of Talent at Google), and Linked In CEO Jeff Weiner top the bill. At TED, Karen Armstrong’s talk about reviving the Golden Rule won the TED prize in 2009 and has given rise to a Charter for Compassion signed by nearly 100,000 people.

It’s a very good piece, chock full of links to learn more, and well worth reading in its entirety.


Hopeful signs notwithstanding, we know that compassionate management is far from the norm, as Fryer acknowledges.

Indeed, the overall emotional state of the American workplace shows a crying need for enlightened management practices. A recent Gallup Poll indicated that 70 percent of American workers “have ‘checked out’ at work or are ‘actively disengaged,’” as Ricardo Lopez reported recently for the Los Angeles Times. These high percentages of emotional disengagement have been pretty consistent since 2000.

Furthermore, readers of this blog know very well that workplace bullying is one of the most common forms of interpersonal abuse. When presented with reports of bullying at work, employers often dismiss the complaints or make the situation worse for the targeted worker. In fact, this occurs 62 percent of the time, according to a 2007 Workplace Bullying Institute national survey conducted with Zogby International pollsters.

Among the challenges…

As I wrote in my 2008 article, “Workplace Bullying and Ethical Leadership” (Journal of Values-Based Leadership), a real test of an organizational leader is what she does when presented with a valid report about workplace bullying that implicates a top executive or, better yet, that person’s friend. Will the situation be handled fairly and honestly, or will it be swept under the rug? All of the organization’s proclaimed devotion to ethics and social responsibility go out the window if the latter occurs.

The same can be said of compassionate management generally. It’s one thing to say all the right things; it’s a lot harder to do them, especially when the circumstances are inconvenient or uncomfortable.

In addition, compassionate management must encompass genuine inclusion. This means giving workers a real voice (and backing it up with protections against retaliation for exercising it) and striving to work cooperatively with unions in organized workplaces. It’s not about creating a facade of feel-good “niceness” that dodges difficult and thorny challenges.

And don’t forget the Golden Rule…

Fryer recognized the tension between cynicism and optimism that many of us balance when it comes to dealing with our workplaces, and she suggested that the Golden Rule is a good starting place for guiding our behaviors:

It’s just a hunch, but I suspect most of us are experiencing cynicism fatigue. The overwhelmingly bad news springing from the news media leaves most people with two options: either they become cynics who drown themselves in their own pleasures, or they try to make a difference. Most of the smart people I know are little a bit of both, but they fight their cynical side. They try to work on something of worth at work and in the world. There is no better way to start doing this than to practice the golden rule on an hourly basis.

I’ve written about the Golden Rule at work before. Like compassionate management, it’s easier preached than practiced, but it’s a worthy aspiration.


Related post

Is your workplace psychologically and ethically healthy? (2010)

Writing and implementing a workplace anti-bullying policy: A new WBI DVD set for employers


The Workplace Bullying Institute has released a new DVD set, “Writing Workplace Bullying Policy and Procedures,” for employers who want intensive guidance and instruction on incorporating bullying prevention and response into their employee relations practices.

The DVD set features Dr. Gary Namie, plus a cameo appearance by yours truly explaining some of the legal implications and offering suggestions on how employers can work with their attorneys in finalizing their policies and procedures. Here’s a piece of the description from the WBI website:

This DVD is the substitute for in-person group facilitation by Dr. Namie. Instructions are provided that allow the designated Policy Writing Group to create the most comprehensive set of policy provisions, informal solutions, and formal enforcement procedures possible. Dr. Namie delivers the step-by-step instructions that will result in a new policy and set of procedures in a single day.

. . . It is suggested that writing be collaborative. The Policy Writing Group explores the organization’s values and expectations regarding abusive conduct at work. No boilerplate works. Policies are not one-size-fits-all. Only those who work at your organization understand the idiosyncrasies of their unique workplace culture. Our process results in a policy specific to your organization with all of the accompanying ethical and logistical questions answered.

The instructions are accompanied by sample terms and provisions.

There are two pricing options: $299 for the DVD set; and $399 for the DVD set plus a one-hour phone or Skype consultation with Gary Namie to review the draft created by the employer. In other words, this is no “plug and play” policy, to be simply pasted into an employee handbook. The DVD set costs money, and it requires work and thought by the employer to follow through. It is for employers who are willing to sweat the details to build a healthy and productive workplace.

When it comes to addressing workplace bullying, there are no panaceas or quick fixes. Employers, unions, mental health professionals, the legal system, and other stakeholders all have to get on board. Teaching organizations how to deal with bullying preventively and responsively is a big piece of the puzzle. This training DVD is a useful step in the right direction.


Go here for the full description and ordering information.

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