Workplace bullying, unions, and connectivity

In my last post, I reported on the University of Massachusetts Amherst’s very successful symposium on workplace bullying last Friday, which attracted over 500 staff, faculty, and administrators. The event marked the public launch of a multi-year initiative to address workplace bullying on campus.

It appears that four factors contributed to the unexpectedly large turnout: First, a very effective and committed cross-campus Committee on Workplace Climate and Bullying has been working on this issue for three years, and the pieces finally came together for them to do something significant. Second, the symposium, and the initiative generally, have had the strong support of a new Chancellor, whose office encouraged people to attend.

Third, the various UMass unions reached out to their members, urging them to participate. On a campus where most of the workforce is unionized, this organizing and outreach made a huge difference. Many of the organizing committee members are active in their unions, and their connections helped to spread the word.

Unions can do a lot to address workplace bullying, but they are not necessarily a panacea. Over the years, I’ve heard from many people who felt abandoned by their unions when pressing complaints about bullying behaviors. Furthermore, when union members are accused of bullying others, unions are legally obliged to represent their interests. In situations where both the purported target and alleged aggressor are union members, this can be a sticky situation. And let’s acknowledge that the culture within some unions can be very, well, bullying.

Nevertheless, unions can be among the lead players in stopping and preventing workplace bullying. At UMass, a campus of some 7,000 employees with a deeply embedded hierarchical structure, an active union presence provides invaluable networks for workers to communicate across, and occasionally even transcend, occupational categories. This was evident last Friday.

Indeed, as the UMass auditorium swelled with people participating in the symposium, one union leader remarked to me that he had never before been at an event — other than a UMass basketball game — where so many staff, faculty, and administrators were together in the same room.

Finally, a critically important, overarching fourth factor contributed to success: The committee, union members, and UMass leadership worked together to develop and promote this event. I would not be so naive as to call these collaborative efforts the norm at UMass or any other place of work, but this instance gave me real hope that last Friday’s symposium was the start of a very meaningful, impact-making initiative within the university.


Related post

The role of unions and collective bargaining in combating workplace bullying (2009)

UMass Amherst launches campus-wide workplace anti-bullying initiative


Yesterday the University of Massachusetts Amherst, the flagship entity of a major public university system, publicly launched a workplace anti-bullying initiative with a campus symposium that attracted over 500 UMass employees. This remarkable turnout, which included staff, faculty, and administrators, was over triple the number of RSVPs for the event.

This very successful kickoff was the result of some three years of dedicated, steadfast, often very challenging work by a cross-campus Committee on Workplace Climate and Bullying and the strong support of a new Chancellor, Kumble Subbaswamy, who offered welcoming remarks at the symposium.

I had the privilege of presenting the keynote address, and one of the lasting memories I’ll have is that of standing at the podium and seeing the large auditorium fill with people, with some having to stand even after dozens of extra chairs were brought in to accommodate the overflow.

Other speakers, facilitators, and moderators included committee chair and associate chancellor Susan Pearson, committee members Derek Doughty, Kathy Rhines, Joe Connolly, and Randy Phillis, Representative Ellen Story (lead sponsor of the Healthy Workplace Bill in Massachusetts), District Attorney David Sullivan, and workplace trainer and consultant Fran Sepler.

Support from the top

Last spring, Scott Merzbach of the Amherst Bulletin reported on Chancellor Subbaswamy’s support for this initiative:

Saying he wants the University of Massachusetts to do better, Chancellor Kumble Subbaswamy has launched a campaign to address workplace bullying.

In a memo sent to faculty and staff this month, Subbaswamy wrote that the university will be taking steps to deal with the bullying at UMass that came to light in a survey released in September.

“While the numbers were consistent with those found at workplaces of all types throughout the country, this is clearly an area in which UMass Amherst aspires to be something much better than average,” Subbaswamy wrote.

In addition to numbers, the survey also featured anonymous comments.

Subbaswamy’s memo cites these “poignant comments” as a reason to move toward eliminating bullying from campus.

The full report on the survey, prepared by Elizabeth Williams and Yedalis Ruiz of the School of Education, can be downloaded here.

Just the start, but an encouraging one

The symposium is just the start for the UMass initiative, and committee members are well aware of the challenges before them in this multi-year effort to stop bullying and to change the campus culture. Among the next steps will be a series of trainings, as well as the development of a campus workplace bullying policy. They also will conduct extended outreach to individual departments.

The committee members have genuine reason to be encouraged. True, the large turnout reflected the seriousness of this problem on campus, but it also demonstrated that many are willing to give this initiative a chance to succeed. Such levels of cross-campus interest and top leadership buy-in are rare. Public acknowledgement of a major problem is a hard thing for many organizations, but UMass did so in a very meaningful way yesterday. It was definitely an inclusive step in the right direction, and UMass has an opportunity to serve as a positive example and model for other schools in the years to come.


I’d like to offer special thanks to the committee members who worked most extensively with me to help develop the keynote address and to host my visit: Derek Doughty, Amy Brodigan, and Joe Connolly.

The symposium was buoyed by active support of many union leaders at UMass Amherst, a public employer that is heavily unionized. I’ll have more thoughts on that in my next post.

Dialogues about dignity, Part III: Claiming and using power to do good

Presenting about workplace bullying at HumanDHS workshop (Photo: Anna Strout)

Presenting about workplace bullying at 2013 HumanDHS workshop, at right (Photo: Anna Strout)

How can those who want to advance human dignity claim and use power toward that good end?

I spent two days last week participating in the annual workshop of the Human Dignity and Humiliation Studies (HumanDHS) Network, held at Teachers College of Columbia University in New York. The workshop is a global, transdisciplinary gathering of educators, practitioners, and activists devoted to advancing dignity and ending humiliation in our society.

At the end of the workshop, we stood in a circle, and each person shared a closing thought. When it was my turn to speak, I noted that the term “power” was not invoked often during our two days together, and I suggested that we need to summon our personal and collective power to address the societal challenges highlighted so eloquently by the participants.

I’d like to elaborate on my remarks here.

I submit that those of us who have witnessed excesses of power may be wary or downright fearful of it, and with good reason. All too often, power is exercised by those who use it to hurt others. Consequently, many of us have come to associate power with abuse.

To illustrate, I think this apprehension is why some progressives are uncomfortable with the labor movement. Organized labor is about building collective power and exercising it. On occasion it can misuse that power. So, yes, there are trade-offs when even the most valuable social movements and institutions demonstrate their imperfections. However, without a strong labor movement, the prospects of everyday workers are quite perilous. It’s no coincidence that here in the U.S., we’ve witnessed the simultaneous decline of union membership levels and rise of massive wealth inequalities over the past three decades.

My larger point is that such ambivalence can cause us to cede our own power to make positive change. Perhaps some feel comfortable with the term “empowered,” which is more likely to be invoked at gatherings of social activists. But I think we need to face down the beast. We need to build our individual and collective power, exercise it effectively and judiciously, and keep it in check when we are tempted to use it excessively.

I realize that my comments may sound more like a self-help rap than a call for a better world, but I have long believed that artificial dichotomies between individual change and social change cause us to overlook their interrelatedness. Power can be heady stuff, like holding a live wire. Those committed to advancing human dignity should carefully but decisively embrace it and use it.

Bullying lawyer suspended from practice for two years

Okay, so this may not exactly shock anyone, but I think it’s worthy of note: The Florida Supreme Court has suspended an attorney for two years in response to his repeatedly confrontational, disrespectful, and bullying conduct toward another lawyer in a litigation matter.

Deborah Cassens Weiss reported for the ABA Journal:

The Florida Supreme court has suspended a lawyer for two years for rude conduct and recommended that the case be studied “as a glaring example of unprofessional behavior.”

The court rejected a referee’s recommended sanction for Jeffrey Alan Norkin as too lenient, saying a two-year suspension is appropriate given Norkin’s “appalling and unprofessional behavior.”

The main object of Norkin’s ire was a 71-year-old attorney named Gary Brooks, who was suffering from Parkinson’s Disease and kidney cancer at the time and has since passed away. The Court noted that Brooks had a “lengthy and unblemished” legal career.

This portion of the Court’s lengthy opinion, quoted here by Weiss, gives you some idea of how bad Norkin’s behavior was toward Brooks and others:

“Competent, zealous representation is required when working on a case for a client. There are proper types of behavior and methods to utilize when aggressively representing a client. Screaming at judges and opposing counsel, and personally attacking opposing counsel by disparaging him and attempting to humiliate him, are not among the types of acceptable conduct but are entirely unacceptable. One can be professional and aggressive without being obnoxious. Attorneys should focus on the substance of their cases, treating judges and opposing counsel with civility, rather than trying to prevail by being insolent toward judges and purposefully offensive toward opposing counsel.”

In my judgment, Norkin’s behavior went way beyond “rude,” the term used by Weiss to describe it. For a copy of the full Florida opinion, go here.

Concerns about bullying and incivility exhibited by lawyers have been raised repeatedly in bar association journals. Anecdotally, at least, the legal profession ranks high in the frequency of reports and complaints about bullying, both within law firms and between opposing counsel.

Not included in Weiss’s article was another piece of the Court’s opinion: It approved the referee’s recommendation that Norkin “undergo a mental health evaluation and participate in any recommended counseling.” I don’t know anything about Norkin beyond what I’ve read in the article and opinion, but this makes sense. Perhaps counseling will lead him to address the sources of his behavior and allow him to someday return to practice in a better state of mind, to the benefit of all concerned.

Dialogues about dignity, Part II: Mainstreaming the message

Day 1 participants (Photo: Anna Strout)

Day 1 participants (Photo: Anna Strout)

How do we make human dignity a primary, framing concept for how we look at society and ways to better it?

As I reported in my last post, I spent two days last week participating in the annual workshop of the Human Dignity and Humiliation Studies (HumanDHS) Network, held at Teachers College of Columbia University in New York. The workshop is a global, transdisciplinary gathering of educators, practitioners, and activists devoted to advancing dignity and ending humiliation in our society. I’ve been a part of HumanDHS for some five years now, including serving on its global advisory board.

At the workshop, one of our small group discussions centered on the question of how to carry the dignity message beyond the choir. In other words, how can we reach others who might be receptive?

Politically speaking, there remains strong, powerful pushback against anything that might be construed as a dignity agenda for public policy, especially when it comes to economics, wealth inequality, human rights, and the environment. As I wrote in a 2009 law review article, “Human Dignity and American Employment Law,” any “dignitarian” view of the workplace must confront a dominant “markets and management” framework that presumes the superiority of the market economy and unbridled management control.

With the benefit of extended reflection, here are some of my thoughts on the realities of breaking through those hedgerows:

  • Limited access — Access to mainstream media is limited. The markets & management, command & control mentality drives the media as well, making it less likely that alternative perspectives will get regular airings.
  • Nuance and detail — The supposed virtues of the free market and top–down control make for easy, uncomplicated messaging. Arguing the virtues of dignity as a framing societal concept requires a respect for nuance and detail.
  • Translating our work — Academicians, in particular, can be woefully bad at communicating their work and ideas to the outside, general public. Furthermore, they often find little support for this role in academe, where notions of the independent, public intellectual have largely given way to exploited part-time instructors, narrowly specialized scholars and, on occasion, celebrity professors.
  • Bridging gaps — Those of us who value the application of research, analysis, and creative thinking to societal problems continually must work on bridging the gaps between scholarship and public education & advocacy.
  • Getting specific — In more concrete terms, platforms such as blogs, Twitter, Facebook, and independent publishing can provide alternative ways to advance a dignitarian message. Having that presence will also, at least on occasion, attract attention from mainstream media outlets as certain topics expand in the public eye.
  • Resilience and empathy — We have to be willing to take our lumps. In a more public forum, it’s likely that a dignitarian message will attract Internet trolls and others whose purpose is to ridicule and denigrate. But if we stay cocooned, we’re not making the world a safer and better place. Resilience and empathy must go hand-in-hand.

There’s a lot more to be done on this question, and it is very, very relevant to the central challenge of transforming our workplaces. I will continue to explore it in future posts.


Some related posts

Intellectual activism and social change (November 2013) — Collecting some of my writings on intellectual activism.

Dignity work (December 2012) — An extended report on last year’s HumanDHS workshop, with some thoughts on advancing a dignitarian message.

American elders: Human dignity and an aging population (December 2012) — The paper I presented at the 2012 HumanDHS workshop.

Work and human dignity from The Hedgehog Review (November 2012) — Work and human dignity: Shall the twain meet?


Dialogues about dignity, Part I: Meeting in Manhattan

Evelin Lindner, HumanDHS founder, and Linda Hartling, HumanDHS director (photo: Anna Strout)

Evelin Lindner, HumanDHS founder, and Linda Hartling, HumanDHS director (photo: Anna Strout)

In what has become a welcomed rite of December, I just spent two days participating in the annual workshop of the Human Dignity and Humiliation Studies (HumanDHS) Network, held at Teachers College of Columbia University in New York. The workshop is a global, transdisciplinary gathering of educators, practitioners, and activists devoted to advancing dignity and ending humiliation in our society.

The founding president of HumanDHS is Evelin Lindner, a physician, psychologist, and self-styled global citizen whose life mission is rooted in the displacement of her family during the ravages of the First and Second World Wars. In her remarks to the group, Evelin talked about the need to “embrace the world as our university.” She urged that in the face of powerful political and economic forces that operate to advance the interests of the most privileged, we must “build a new culture of global cohesion, global friendship.”

For me, one of the highlights of the gathering is psychologist Michael Britton‘s annual address, in which he weaves together individual and societal dynamics that either impede or promote the creation of a more decent world. Michael observed that after a century marked by major wars, severe financial crises, and significant inequalities, we are presented with a traumatized world containing an “immense surround of pain and dysfunction.”

The opportunity and challenge before us, he noted, is that we’re “groping toward a kind of world that none of us has experienced,” adding that we must create “learning environments where people sense the emerging future worth working for.”

The array of topics discussed at the workshop runs a global gamut, from conflict in the Middle East, to human rights and incarceration, to — yes — even workplace bullying. Indeed, the theme of bullying came up on several occasions during the gathering, in addition to my short talk on bullying at work. And, in fact, the director of HumanDHS is Linda Hartling, a psychologist and leading authority on relational-cultural theory whose assessment of workplace cultures is one of the most valuable framing concepts I’ve encountered toward understanding organizational life.

If you’d like to get a deeper sense of the rich variety of people and topics present at this conference, please see the extended agenda, here.

I’m going to devote another post or two to this workshop and to the work of HumanDHS, so stay tuned.


As an elaboration of some of the themes in his Friday talk, Michael Britton suggested the documentary film “I Am” (2010), the story of how Hollywood producer Tom Shadyac redirected his life after a severe accident. It’s an entertaining and absorbing film that asks what is wrong with the world and how can we make it better. You can view it here. (In one of those wonderful moments of pure synchronicity, last night one of my dearest friends e-mailed me to say that she watched the film earlier in the day and highly recommended it. I watched it and agree with the kudos!)

Deb Caldieri, supporter of school bullying victim Phoebe Prince, faces severe challenges today

Deb Caldieri is the former South Hadley, Massachusetts teacher who dared to criticize her school’s response to the bullying behaviors that preceded the 2010 suicide of teenager Phoebe Prince, and then bravely testified before the Massachusetts legislative committee in support of the anti-bullying Healthy Workplace Bill. Sadly, outrageously, today she appears to be paying a heavy price for doing the right thing. Jobless and suffering from multiple sclerosis, she is struggling, as her update — posted to this blog last week and reprinted below — clearly indicates.

If you’re unfamiliar with the full story, read on.

Events of 2011

In 2011, Deb’s situation was championed by Boston Globe columnist Kevin Cullen, who first broke the story of how Caldieri was being bullied by South Hadley school administrators, and then wrote a follow-up piece:

The persecution and humiliation of Deb Caldieri, the teacher who responded to the suicide of Phoebe Prince with a compassion so utterly lacking elsewhere in South Hadley High School, is complete. She was fired last week.

Gus Sayer, the school district’s superintendent, sent a letter to Caldieri – who went on unpaid medical leave in December because of her multiple sclerosis – saying he couldn’t wait around any longer to see whether the symptoms would subside enough for her to return to work. Those symptoms got worse after Caldieri was punished for speaking out about Phoebe Prince’s treatment at the high school.

Cullen went on to describe the supposed efforts that Sayer made to contact Caldieri to discuss her situation. The full column explains how this played out, as Cullen did an excellent job of interviewing Sayer in an effort to get to the heart of the matter.

Deb received her final termination notice from the South Hadley school system in 2011, just weeks after testifying in support of the Healthy Workplace Bill before a Massachusetts legislative committee. Her testimony attracted statewide media coverage, and it is unlikely that this escaped the attention of the South Hadley school administrators. The timing of her termination — the final step of a long process of pushing her out of a job and career — struck me as being much too close to be a coincidence.

Recent update

I hadn’t heard any news about how Deb was doing until the day before Thanksgiving, when she left a comment on this blog:

I  would like to thank those individuals that wrote in  with their support, those that perhaps  sent a  much  appreciated check early on, and, of course, Professor Yamada, and Greg Sorozan, who originally invited me to speak on behalf of the “Anti-Bulling” Healthy Workplace Bill. I do hope that there is someone still out there who will stumble upon my email and know in their heart and soul how much gratitude I felt to all of just reading your comments today, November 27, 2013.  You see, Phoebe would have turned nineteen on the twenty-fourth. She and my youngest son shared  a birthday. Four years ago is when the sparkle left my little “Vita’s” (her Latin name) because of a tragic event that the law kept hidden… In addition to losing my :”VIta,” I’ve lost my career, income, independence, the use of my legs; my seizures can’t seem to be controlled due to the constant stress, my children (also a single mom) are traumatized; I need physical, occupational, and psychological therapy, and the only money I get from the state is 326.00 in food stamps per/month. So, I choose the days I will eat something..

The final straw is that I am still waiting for a hearing for my “Accidental Disability,” which now has been pushed to the end of February.

p.s. That account was closed at Peoples. Thank you again for your kindhearted donations.

As you can see, she’s going through a very rough stretch right now. I’ve reached out to Deb and offered to help pass the hat on her behalf. If she’s okay with that, then I’ll provide details on this blog. She certainly deserves our support.

%d bloggers like this: