New Hampshire veto of workplace bullying bill highlights need for Healthy Workplace Bill approach

New Hampshire Governor Maggie Hassan has vetoed legislation (House Bill 591) that would have provided protections against workplace bullying for state employees. In a veto message explaining the reasons for her decision, Gov. Hassan outlined her concerns about the legislation’s overly broad coverage, suggesting that if it became law, relatively minor interpersonal slights and everyday workplace interactions could easily be labeled as illegal employment practices.

Most significantly, Gov. Hassan criticized the bill’s definition of “abusive conduct” (i.e., workplace bullying):

Among its most onerous provisions, this legislation defines “abusive conduct” in a broad and unworkable manner based on an individual employee’s subjective perception, not on an unbiased objective standard. While I know it was not the intent of its sponsors, this bill, as written, may make the most routine workplace interactions – and the human give-and-take they entail – potential causes of action.

I share many of the Governor’s core concerns. At first glance the New Hampshire bill contains a lot of language similar to the Healthy Workplace Bill (HWB), model anti-bullying legislation I drafted that has served as a template for workplace anti-bullying bills filed across the country. However, the NH bill is substantially different in its structure, substantive provisions, and operation from the HWB in ways that could create a torrent of unnecessary litigation.

Gov. Hassan’s main concern highlights a key distinction between the vetoed New Hampshire bill and the full Healthy Workplace Bill: Under the HWB, in order to establish a legally actionable “abusive work environment,” the employee must show that the “reasonable person” would perceive it to be abusive. In other words, the “unbiased objective standard” (in Gov. Hassan’s words) missing from the New Hampshire bill is a core piece of the Healthy Workplace Bill.

The definition of an “abusive work environment” in the template version of the Healthy Workplace Bill draws heavily from the U.S. Supreme Court’s definition of hostile work environment for sexual harassment under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The HWB has been crafted to be compatible with other workplace protections and to incentivize preventive and responsive employer behaviors toward workplace bullying.

I know there is disappointment and disagreement over this matter in the state capital. While I firmly believe that the HWB approach is the better legislative option, I also tip my hat to the Granite State for now being among the leaders in weighing how to protect workers from this form of interpersonal abuse.


For the latest version of the Healthy Workplace Bill and an explanation of its key provisions, as well as discussion and analysis of other legal and policy developments concerning workplace bullying, see my 2013 article, “Emerging American Legal Responses to Workplace Bullying,” in the Temple Political & Civil Rights Law Review (link to pdf here).

The “demonizing” tag: When is it accurate and when is it bogus?

If you pay attention to public dialogue these days, you’ll hear variations of the term “demonize” invoked frequently. I’m being demonized. You’re demonizing me. They’re going to demonize them for saying that.

Certainly demonizing behavior occurs. Here are a few common forms:

  • Irrational, angry responses to a reasonably stated opinion, replete with unsupported and nasty accusations, innuendo, and “speculation” about someone’s motivations;
  • Virulent, mob-like online attacks in response to someone’s behavior; and,
  • Blithe invocations of Hitler (or some other horrible tyrant) in response to behaviors, statements, or opinions.

At times, however, cries of “I’m being demonized” are exaggerated. They may be (mis)used as a routine tool to put others on the defensive. They may come from someone who is oversensitive to criticism. On other occasions, they may be utilized by the “provocative victim” who deliberately says something confrontational, controversial, or even outrageous, and then claims victimhood status when sharp but appropriate criticisms are issued in response.

And then there are claims of demonization that aren’t that easy to sort out, requiring a nuanced attention to detail concerning the nature of the exchange and the history between the involved parties.

The ability to understand distinctions between legitimate and not-so-legitimate claims of demonization is an important tool toward parsing the complexities of public and private discourse. In the realm of employee relations, variations of “demonize” are more likely to be invoked during overheated dialogue and emotionally laden exchanges. The demonizing tag can ratchet up bad feelings, shut down conversation, or shelve discussions over the merits of an issue while parties debate whether the label is fair.

This is not to say that we should remove the term from our vocabulary. After all, it can be an accurate description of what’s going on, as certain cable TV news stations demonstrate every night. And if someone is truly being demonized, then calling it for what is can be an appropriate defense mechanism. However, we also should be wary of its potential overuse and attentive to its role in derailing attempts at dialogue.


Related post

Does the Healthy Workplace Bill “demonize” workplace aggressors? (2013)

How about more tribes and less tribalism?

In his 2008 book Tribes: We Need You to Lead Us, author and entrepreneur Seth Godin popularized the idea of informal tribes in society, consisting of “a group of people connected to one another, connected to a leader, and connected to an idea.” A shared interest and a mode of communication are necessary to enable a tribe, and thanks to the power of the Internet, both are made especially easy.

Modern-day tribes can bring people together over shared interests, organize for positive change, and create networks that cut across distances. With the right leaders at the helm, they can do wonderful things.

However, tribes also can generate insularity and hostility toward outsiders. Tom Jacobs, writing for Pacific Standard magazine, observes that “tribalism — accompanied by active hatred for perceived outsiders — [is] emerging as a driving force everywhere from Middle Eastern battlefields to the halls of Congress.”

So it follows, do tribe members necessarily engage in tribalism? Well, it depends, suggests Jacobs. He cites research indicating that those who believe in the tribe’s purpose, but who also possess a strong ethical code that accords to all people a degree of “moral regard,” are less likely to behave in tribalistic ways.

These lines of research may hold much insight into how our society has become so fractured in terms of politics, ideology, and social mores. They also shed light on employee relations, both within and between common groupings, such as executives, mid-level management, staff, and labor. And when we toss into the mix a healthy understanding of the role of leadership in shaping organizational behavior (and individual conduct within), then a lot of light bulbs may start to flip on.

In addition, this discussion returns us to notions of human dignity. In a world where conflict, difference, and disagreement are inevitable, and where people will naturally bond into tribes based on common interests and beliefs, how can we create a society that provides everyone with a baseline of dignity?

Recycling: Five years of July

Each month I’m reaching into the archives to highlight a piece from that month of each past year. Especially for those of you who missed them the first time around, I hope they provide interesting and useful reading. For each piece I’m including a short excerpt; you may click on the title for the full article.

July 2013: Triple jeopardy: Workplace bullying at midlife — “Although ‘middle aged’ is a term that few in their 40s and 50s are eager to embrace, this phase of life typically is marked by high levels of personal and occupational achievement and productivity. The specter of workplace bullying during the ongoing economic crisis, however, tells a very different story.”

July 2012: Memo to self: “I’m swamped” may be a self-imposed condition — “We continue to ratchet up expectations for occupational and professional success. We worship the mantra of ‘work hard, play hard.’ If you don’t keep doing more, you’ll fall behind and never catch up — or perhaps miss out on that ‘big opportunity,’ even if it’s something you don’t necessarily want.”

July 2011: How well does your organization respond to employee criticism and feedback? — “In reality, organizational leaders who have the confidence to solicit and listen to worker feedback generally also are likely to have the integrity to treat allegations of wrongful behavior fairly and responsively. Poor leaders, however, are more likely to fall short on both measures.”

July 2010: Graduating into a recession — “Comparisons between the current recession and that of the early 1980s are frequent, but this one is worse.  In terms of severity, the Great Recession lies somewhere between the 80s recession and the Great Depression of the 1930s. We appear to be looking at structural changes in the labor markets, with the term “jobless recovery” frequently invoked to suggest a sluggish comeback for the stock market with little or no corresponding improvement in the employment situation.”

July 2009: Workplace bullying as a public health concern — “Transnational bodies such as the World Health Organization and International Labour Organisation have recognized the costs of workplace bullying to workers and employers, and the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health has hosted roundtable discussions of experts on workplace bullying, linking it to workplace violence.  Hopefully these are signs that we are closer to classifying the widespread and destructive effect of workplace bullying as a legitimate public health concern.”

Boston Globe editorial sees impact of workplace bullying, hedges on Healthy Workplace Bill

This is one where you could say the glass is half full: A Sunday Boston Globe editorial recognizes the serious impact of workplace bullying on individuals and organizations, but sits on the fence as to whether the Healthy Workplace Bill — which provides targets of severe workplace bullying with a claim for damages and creates liability-reducing incentives for employers to take bullying at work seriously — should be enacted into law.

It’s a lengthy editorial covering a lot of familiar ground on the pros and cons of enacting the Healthy Workplace Bill, so I’m not going to excerpt portions here. Rather, I encourage you to read the full editorial and to add a comment or write a letter to the editor. In addition, let me summarize a few points from my perspective:

  • The primary reason why employers are incorporating concerns about workplace bullying into their employee relations practices is the real possibility of the Healthy Workplace Bill becoming law. Without the threat of liability, in the near future or currently, many employers will handle allegations of bullying by ignoring them or siding with the aggressors.
  • Current harassment and discrimination laws do not provide adequate protections. They apply only when the mistreatment is motivated by protected class status such as sex, race, disability, and age.
  • The substance of the Healthy Workplace Bill draws heavily from the Supreme Court’s definition of hostile work environment for sexual harassment and from tort (personal injury) theories concerning severe emotional distress. Thus, it is situated comfortably in familiar American legal doctrine.

I mentioned that the glass is half full concerning the Globe editorial. A decade ago, the prospects of a major newspaper editorial board weighing in on the Healthy Workplace Bill were slim to none. We’ve come a long way toward mainstreaming workplace bullying as an employee relations priority, and we’re continuing to make progress on creating legal protections for American workers.


“Reinventing” higher education: The troubling standard-brand approach

In an era of rising tuition and a very challenging entry-level job market for graduates, buzzwords such as reinvention and change are all the rage on college and university campuses right now. Job training, “assessments” (often via modes that mimic standardized testing), online learning, and calls for “let’s run it more like a business” are very dominant pieces of this reinvention mantra.

The discussion has crossed into the popular press. For example, recently The Economist weighed in with a cover piece on the need for “creative destruction” in higher education, suggesting that “(a) cost crisis, changing labour markets and new technology will turn an old institution on its head.” Earlier this spring, the Boston Globe, serving a region with one of the nation’s heaviest concentrations of colleges and universities, published a package of opinion articles (“The New U.“) covering similar ground.

To be sure, higher ed has been tempest tossed by the latest effects of the global economic crisis. In 2009, I wrote that the public and non-profit sectors would be next on the post-meltdown “hit list.” Historically, colleges and universities have been among the most resilient of institutions, but now they, too, are caught in the ongoing sweep, and some of the injuries are self-inflicted. As I posited earlier this year:

Suffice it to say that American higher education, as a general proposition, is embracing the values of the New Gilded Age. A growing number of American colleges and universities are degenerating into career training centers, touting unpaid internships while charging sky-high tuition, neglecting the liberal arts, and loading up on well-paid administrators and exploited adjunct faculty while shedding full-time professors.

I’m all for career preparation and assessment of student learning being part of a virtually any program of higher learning. I also recognize the usefulness of online education, especially for those unable to attend a brick-and mortar school. It’s just that this particular push in higher ed is largely about creating worker bees for white collar assembly lines, rather than growing thoughtful, caring, and smart individuals who succeed in their vocations, enjoy fulfilling personal lives, and contribute to their families and communities.

Two-tier model

Especially at the bachelor’s degree level, we’re rapidly moving toward an even more stratified two-tier model of higher education reflecting significant social class divisions.

One approach is the full-time, residential “college experience” for those who have family resources or scholarship funding, or who are willing to take on large amounts of student debt. Dorm living, exposure to the liberal arts, immersion in student activities, and maybe even study abroad are typical parts of this experience.

Not too long ago, this was the upwardly mobile middle-class ideal. The costs of pursuing a college education were much more within the reach of America’s middle class, and even a modest family contribution toward tuition and living expenses could go a long way.

The other approach is a part-time one, with plenty of vocationally oriented classes sandwiched in between jobs that may have little connection to one’s career goals. The classes are provided at a commuter campus or delivered online. Student life is limited; many students live at home, and few have the time or flexibility to engage in the kind of enriching extracurricular activities that are a part of a residential college experience.

Students who complete college in this way deserve all the credit in the world. Their juggling acts are often much more challenging than those of peers at residential colleges. But their experiences are unlikely to be as full and immersed as those who spend four years on a college campus. It also may lead to a degree that is less valued by many employers, however unfairly.

Both routes to a college education are familiar, but now their distinguishing qualities are becoming more hardened. We must continue to offer flexible options for earning degrees, while simultaneously attempting to soften class distinctions that now are being baked into the system. This is a tough balancing act, and I don’t pretend it is easy.

Academic labor

From an academic labor perspective, “reinvention” is about attacking tenure, blaming professors for this crisis, and replacing full-time faculty appointments with low paid part-time positions. Senior full-time professors are being pushed out; new candidates for teaching jobs are competing for handfuls of tenure-track openings. Especially outside of the elite universities, it’s a terrible academic labor market for junior and senior faculty alike.

In the meantime, many universities are adding layers of well compensated administrators, buoyed by pricey consultants who help them figure out how to do their jobs. The massive growth of the administrative class in higher ed has shifted the balance of power in colleges, added multiple levels of micro-management, and generally sucked a lot of life out of the academic enterprise. Much of this is at the behest of board members who want universities to resemble the same authoritarian, top-down structures they direct in their paying jobs.

Change or start anew?

While surely many colleges and universities need fixing, the “solutions” commonly being touted will not inure to the benefit of higher learning or society in general. The question is, can they be fixed in the right ways, or will we have to create new institutions to offer real alternatives? I’ll share more thoughts on this in future posts.


Related posts

As U.S. universities embrace the New Gilded Age, what institutions will help us to grow a better society? (2014)

College daze: Ideals and realities (2013)

Collegiate reflections: Studying the liberal arts (2012)

What is academic tenure? (2011)

Hard looks at joblessness, retirement funding, and Generation Jones

Many members of “Generation Jones,” that span of late Boomers and early Gen Xers who are in their middle years, face tough times right now. This cohort has been hit especially hard by the ongoing economic crisis, with many losing jobs in mid-career and finding it difficult to obtain new employment and to save for retirement.

Decades ago, many Gen Jonesers confronted a rough economy while launching their work lives. During the late 70s and early 80s, the economy was in severe recession, inflation ran very high, and employers were cutting back or eliminating pension plans. Academic studies indicate that graduating into a recessionary economy can impair earning power for years. So this group has been unlucky in terms of both entry-level and mid-life labor markets.

I concede my bias on this topic. I’m a member of Generation Jones, and these realities are hitting many among my age group. As the following pieces indicate, we’ve got a lot of work to do in order to rebuild both opportunity and a safety net. Here goes:

Huffington Post: Why Worrying About Retirement Is Actually A Luxury

Ann Brenoff, blogging for the Huffington Post, says that she’s bombarded by advertising appeals from retirement planners, but the real problem is that most people lack sufficient funds to invest for retirement, period:

My inbox is bombarded daily with pitches from retirement planners who claim to hold the secret to my “dream retirement.”

…Here’s the problem I have with them: They ignore the elephant in the room, which is, it’s too late for most boomers to join their party. Spending less and saving more — if even possible — won’t close the gap between what we have and what we will likely need.

…What I don’t understand is why everyone isn’t talking about the crazy awfulness that awaits us — and by us I mean the vast majority of people who are woefully unprepared for retirement.

New York Times: Retirement May Be Even More Expensive Than You Think

How much money do we need to save for retirement? Paul B. Brown, writing for the New York Times, discusses a new book by finance professor and investment expert Richard C. Marston, Investing for a Lifetime:

Although Fidelity Investments garnered a lot of attention two years ago when it declared that you would need eight times your current salary to “meet basic income needs in retirement,” Mr. Marston disagrees. “Despite the fact that it is very difficult to save eight times income, the goal the company proposed seemed too low to me,” he says.

If you thought eight times current income was daunting, Mr. Marston’s default position will stun you. He says it can easily come to 15 times what you are earning now.

Okay, so Prof. Marston recommends saving fifteen times one’s current income?! Only the tiniest percentage of U.S. workers have retirement portfolios on track for that. The gap between the realities facing most Americans and the numbers being recommended by personal finance experts is bonkers, simply mind blowing.

Next Avenue: Reflections From The “Over” Generation

Kevin Kusinitz is a 58-year-old writer who has been unemployed for nearly two years. In this piece for Next Avenue, he reflects upon being part of an age group being passed over for jobs but too young (and broke) to retire:

Like a lot of people around my age, I really didn’t pay close attention to the unemployment situation until I was in the thick of it myself. It was only then that I started reading the heartbreaking stories of perfectly good workers in their 50s who, like me, were shown the door by middle managers all apparently sharing the title: Executive Vice President of Keeping My Own Job by Any Means Necessary.

After decades as a right-of-center kind of guy, I was shocked to wake up one day thinking, “Oh my God, now I know what Michael Moore has been talking about all this time.”

…I’m no sociologist but I predict if this trend keeps up (and, frankly, why shouldn’t it?), the next decade is going to see a spike in older people moving in with their adult children, becoming homeless or even committing suicide because they will have no other options.

Harper’s: The End of Retirement (subscription necessary)

Jessica Bruder, writing for Harper‘s, explores the subculture of older American workers who have lost steadier jobs and who now roam the country in vans and camping vehicles in search of extended part-time work such as seasonal tourist sites and warehouse gigs. You’ll have to get a copy of the August issue or subscribe to access the online edition, but here’s the lede from her story:

On Thanksgiving Day of 2010, Linda May sat alone in a trailer in New River, Arizona. At sixty, the silver-haired grandmother lacked electricity and running water. She couldn’t find work. Her unemployment benefits had run out, and her daughter’s family, with whom she had lived for many years while holding a series of low-wage jobs, had recently downsized to a smaller apartment. There wasn’t enough room to move back in with them.

“I’m going to drink all the booze. I’m going to turn on the propane. I’m going to pass out and that’ll be it,” she told herself. “And if I wake up, I’m going to light a cigarette and blow us all to hell.”

Her two small dogs were staring at her. May hesitated — could she really envision blowing them up as well? That wasn’t an option. So instead she accepted an invitation to a friend’s house for Thanksgiving dinner.

Associated Press: Where have all the missing American workers gone?

Tom Raum, writing for the Associated Press, examines the flattened “workforce-participation rate”, i.e., the total number of employed + job seekers, and reports that many of the long-term unemployed are simply dropping out of the labor market after efforts to obtain jobs have been repeatedly unsuccessful:

But perhaps the most significant factor is unemployed workers “who just drop out of the job market after one, two or three years of looking for work and not being successful,” said Carl Van Horn, a professor of public policy at Rutgers University who studies workplace dynamics and employment trends.

Recent surveys suggest more and more long-time unemployed workers are abandoning the search for another job and leaving the nation’s workforce.

“And they are disproportionately older workers,” Van Horn said. “We have a large number of older (unemployed) workers who are not old enough to retire, yet they are facing discrimination in the workplace and have found it nearly impossible to get another job.”

YES! magazine: Why Social Security’s Not Going Broke: A Nonhysterical Look at a System That’s Working

Is the Social Security system about to go under? You might believe so if you listen to hard right pundits who demonize anything to do with a government safety net, but in reality Social Security is doing much better than many private and public pension and savings plans. This article in YES! magazine offers a more sensible look at the situation. In an excellent set of infographics, managing editor Doug Pibel explains that the Social Security Trust Fund has sufficient funds to pay out expected benefits for the next two decades and that relatively manageable tax fixes can ensure its longer term viability:

Social Security will never “go broke.” As long as people are working, Social Security will have money. . . . There is now $2.8 trillion in the Social Security Trust Fund, which will fully cover expenses for about the next two decades. To make it work after that is pretty painless — we just have to decide who pays. Cutting Off Emergency Unemployment Benefits Hasn’t Pushed People Back to Work

So far, Congress has refused to extend unemployment benefits for the long-term jobless, a policy choice that disproportionately affects older individuals who have been experiencing severe difficulties re-entering the workforce. In a piece for, Ben Casselman explains that arguments against such an extension aren’t panning out:

The case against extending unemployment benefits essentially boils down to two arguments. First, the economy has improved, so the unemployed should no longer need extra time to find a new job. Second, extended benefits could lead job seekers either to not search as hard or to become choosier about the kind of job they will accept, ultimately delaying their return to the workforce.

But the evidence doesn’t support either of those arguments. The economy has indeed improved, but not for the long-term unemployed, whose odds of finding a job are barely higher today than when the recession ended nearly five years ago. And the end of extended benefits hasn’t spurred the unemployed back to work; if anything, it has pushed them out of the labor force altogether.

AlterNet: The Terrible News Economists Are Trying to Hide About American Jobs

The so-called economic recovery isn’t that for millions of Americans. Long-time populist political commentator Jim Hightower takes issue with, among other things, the positive spin being applied to new jobs created since the worst of the meltdown:

So, it’s interesting that the recent news of job market “improvement” doesn’t mention that of the 10 occupation categories projecting the greatest growth in the next eight years, only one pays a middle-class wage. Four pay barely above poverty level and five pay beneath it, including fast-food workers, retail sales staff, health aids and janitors. The job expected to have the highest number of openings is “personal care aide” — taking care of aging baby boomers in their houses or in nursing homes. The median salary of an aid is under $20,000. They enjoy no benefits, and about 40 percent of them must rely on food stamps and Medicaid to make ends meet, plus many are in the “shadow economy,” vulnerable to being cheated on the already miserly wages.

WBUR: Amid, Long-Term Unemployment “Crisis,” MIT Project Lifts Jobs Seekers

MIT’s Institute for Career Transitions conducted a pilot project to coach and advise the long-term unemployed, with hopeful results. In order to measure the potential benefits of providing this assistance, the three-month project included a group who received help and a control group who did not. WBUR’s Benjamin Swasey reports:

Long-term unemployment — which, according to [MIT professor and Institute director Ofer] Sharone, disproportionately affects older workers — is at 2.3 percent of the nation’s workforce, a historically high level. More than 38 percent of America’s unemployed job seekers have been out of work six months or more.

. . . “We have a ton of studies showing that once you hit the six-month [jobless] point, by so many indicators it becomes a real crisis,” he says. “It’s a financial crisis. It’s an emotional crisis. And then when you get to this scale of numbers, it’s a social crisis. We’re losing out on a whole cohort of workers.”

. . .Of the group that got support, 30 percent obtained a full-time job or contract work of at least four months. That compares to just 18 percent from the group that received no aid.

“It clearly shows that the job market is very, very tough, even for someone in an ideal situation,” as “most people did not get jobs,” Sharone says. “On the other hand, I think we can say that there’s a meaningful difference to getting support.”

Boston GlobeHow will historians view us? (registration may be necessary)

How do the challenges specially facing this age group connect to other social and economic policy issues? Here’s one article that helps us to grasp the bigger picture: In an op-ed piece for the Boston Globe, writer Neal Gabler predicts how historians of the future will regard the current American era, and his assessment is not a positive one. Here are a few snippets:

Historians will wonder…how the gains of social and economic equality that were a century in the making were reversed, and, above all, how the country actually became less democratic, often with the acquiescence of many ordinary Americans.

The first thing historians are likely to fasten on is the historic economic inequality in America today.

…They will look at the nation’s…reluctance to embrace health reform that would provide insurance to those who cannot otherwise afford it, its willingness to cut benefits, like food stamps, that primarily help the young and the elderly, its grudging extension of unemployment benefits to people afflicted by the economic downturn.

…I suspect that historians will view this as a terribly bleak period — another Gilded Age but worse.

…And they will wonder: Why there was so little resistance?

What to do???

If any of these articles offered clear-cut, comprehensive solutions to the crisis, I would be highlighting them. Unfortunately it appears that we’re flying without radar here. Furthermore, as Neal Gabler’s Boston Globe piece suggests, I don’t think the American public is sufficiently aware of the systemic nature of this crisis to be able to connect the dots in ways that lead to political consensus. Right now, employment and retirement remain individual challenges rather than shared priorities, reflecting the social and political ethos in which Gen Joners have spent their adult lives.

I do think that reorienting our views on community and society is an important, necessary start toward addressing the situation. Last week I wrote about competing visions of the future, one being a “technological, top-down, service society,” the other being a world of “useful work, peace, self-fulfillment, and appropriate technology leading to harmony with the environment.” We need this latter view to take hold if we are to reverse the rampant individualism and selfishness that soon may resemble passengers on a sinking ship fighting over too few spaces on the lifeboats (with a small few already having reserved seats). Either our better natures will rise to the occasion, or history will judge us harshly, and deservedly so.


Related posts

I’ve been writing about the burgeoning retirement funding crisis since the first year of this blog. Go here to start scrolling through those articles. In addition, here are three pieces especially relevant to this post:

The three-pronged political attack on the very notion of retirement (except for a few) (2013) — “In America, the very notion of a relatively safe and secure retirement is under relentless attack…. This is not by accident. Only when you connect the dots do you see a unifying force, and it’s very, very political. We haven’t been comprehending how the pieces come together….”

My Labor Day 2013 wish: Good, stable, bully-free jobs for Generation Jones (2013) — An extended commentary, echoing many themes raised here, covering topics such as age discrimination, workplace bullying, and mental health impacts relevant to Gen Jonesers, as well as potential public policy responses.

Suicide and the Great Recession: Will we heed the tragic warnings? (2013) — “In this era of the Great Recession, suicide has become a leading cause of death in America, especially among the middle-aged, and it is to our shame as a society that this reality is not an ongoing, dominant focus of our attention.”

Blog subscriptions

Did you know that you can subscribe to either or both of my WordPress blogs for free? That’s right, every time I publish a post, it’ll land in your inbox. Sign up by going to “Follow this blog” at the top right of Minding the Workplace and/or my personal blog, Musings of a Gen Joneser, and enter your e-mail address.

Positive psychology and workplace bullying


What is the relationship between the growing field of positive psychology and the challenging realm of workplace bullying?

Dr. Martin Seligman (University of Pennsylvania) spearheaded the development of the field of positive psychology as a way of focusing the discipline on positive human development. Many graduates of the U Penn master’s program in positive psychology are contributors to the Positive Psychology News Daily (PPND), a website and blog that serves as a useful information source and portal to the world of positive psychology.

Shannon Polly, a facilitator, coach, and U Penn program graduate, recently wrote up an excellent PPND summary of a “Work and Well Being” program in May, sponsored by the American Psychological Association’s Center for Organizational Excellence. I was among the presenters, giving a talk and Q&A session on workplace bullying.

In framing potential organizational and legal interventions in employee relations, Polly invokes categories articulated by Dr. James O. Pawelski:

  • “red cape interventions . . . stop bad things”
  • “blue cape interventions . . . grow good things”

She goes on to characterize efforts to address workplace bullying as needed “red cape” interventions:

Law professor David Yamada described the need for red cape interventions in addressing workplace bullying. “Allegations of workplace bullying are very threatening to organizations. Bullying targets often feel abandoned by organizational leadership, HR, and their co-workers.”

…Currently there are no laws in the United States that prevent workplace bullying unless it intersects with a protected class based on race, gender, age, and so on. Yamada has been working for over a decade researching the topic and pushing legislative efforts to support those affected by bullying in the workplace. A great red cape intervention.

Because of positive psychology’s association with the study and advancement of happiness, I sometimes have felt disconnected from it when centering on the so-called dark sides of work. Workplace bullying, after all, is inextricably associated with interpersonal abuse, as well as with inadequate and sometimes unethical organizational responses.

Polly aptly demonstrates, however, that effective interventions concerning workplace bullying can be placed comfortably in a positive psychology paradigm. In doing so, she helps to build a stronger link between advancing worker well-being and addressing forms of workplace mistreatment. This is essential toward understanding the roles of different systems and stakeholders in creating healthier workplaces that embrace employee dignity.


Update: I worked with the APA’s Center for Organizational Excellence to create a webpage of resources on workplace bullying. Go here to access it.

Note: I’ve added PPND to the Minding the Workplace blogroll. I look forward to keeping up with it and discovering further connections.

Competing visions of the “good life”

These days I find myself thinking about a lot of “big picture” subjects, like the future of society. (Yup, that’s pretty big picture stuff.) I  am deeply concerned about how the coming decades will unfold in terms of economic and environmental sustainability, and I believe that we will have to reassess our relationships with technology, the planet, our workplaces, and each other.

Among those who anticipated this state of affairs many years ago was John Ohliger (1926-2004), an iconoclastic, pioneering adult educator, civic activist, and public intellectual whose work I have mentioned before on this blog. John also was my good friend, and his voluminous writings, many of which were self-published through his independent center, Basic Choices, Inc., have had a strong influence on my thinking.

In essays from the early 1980s, John foresaw the dilemmas over material goods that a modern, “first world” society would face. He drew from the work of other leading adult educators to articulate two competing visions of the future for society. One vision was that of a “technological, top-down, service society” that defined “the ‘good life’ as affluence and leisure with high-tech big technology solving problems which lead to mastery of the environment.” The other vision saw the “good life” as embracing “useful work, peace, self-fulfillment, and appropriate technology leading to harmony with the environment.”

John expounded upon on how that latter vision could unfold:

My picture is of a future where we live more relaxed and more modest lives with an abundance of unmeasurable and infinitely available non-material (or better, trans-material) resources. All the travail and pressure we’re going through right now may be paving the way for that future. This future could be one where we will have a choice of “goodies”; not ones requiring scarce energy, minerals, or dollars; or ones permitting some people to get rich while others go hungry, but choices that we create with our own hearts and heads and hands among people we know and care for.

It’s fair to say that supporters of the “technological, top-down, service society” to which John referred have had their way of things, at least during the past three decades. Against this backdrop, advancing a healthier vision for society is a challenging task, but that shouldn’t dissuade us from pursuing it. In an unpublished autobiographical essay written later in his life, John suggested that a combination of spirituality, personal growth, and social action could be at the core of this transformation. I’d say he was right on target about that.


For more about John Ohliger’s unique public intellectual role, see my book chapter, David Yamada, “The Adult Educator as Public Intellectual,” in Andre P. Grace, Tonette S. Rocco, and Assocs., Challenging the Professionalization of Adult Education: John Ohliger and Contradictions in Modern Practice (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2009)

Can neuroscience give us an accurate lie detector for employment disputes?

What if we had the use of a reliable, scientifically trustworthy lie detector test for determining who is telling the truth in employment disputes and litigation?

It’s possible that the field of neuroscience someday will provide a test for doing so.

The fMRI test

Clay Rawlings and Rob Bencini, writing in the current issue of The Futurist magazine published by the World Future Society, explore potential applications of functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) tests for the purpose of detecting lies in legal proceedings:

Functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI)—a technique for measuring and mapping brain activity—allows psychologists to observe the brain as it functions in real time. Two companies, No Lie MRI Inc. and Cephos Corporation, claim that they can use fMRI to determine conclusively whether or not an individual is telling the truth.

…This methodology should be foolproof: You either have a real memory, or you do not. If your answer is based in fantasy rather than memory, it is almost certainly a lie.

…At some point, this technology may replace random groups of 12 jurors as the “finders of fact.” We will know with certainty whether someone is telling the truth.

…If technology can tell us with scientific certainty whether a person is telling the truth, why not place a scanner above the witness stand? As witnesses testify, the court will be able to see in real time whether or not the testimony is true.

Applying the fMRI to employment disputes

I’ve written about how the tools of neuroscience can be used to measure post-traumatic stress disorder. For targets of workplace bullying and harassment, someday this test might be utilized to prove damages due to abusive conduct.

Perhaps the fMRI could play a similarly useful role in assessing truth telling in employment disputes, including those that have led to litigation.

Imagine a test that sorts truth from fiction when allegations of bullying, sexual harassment, and other forms of worker misconduct arise. For targets of these behaviors who have had the exasperating, painful experience of being ignored or regarded dismissively, this could be a way of getting to the heart of the matter.

Caution (lots of it)

But let’s not get carried away. Even putting aside expenses, we’re a long way from proclaiming the fMRI test as being sufficiently foolproof for routine use.

We have an excellent example of why caution is advisable: The most commonly recognized electronic “lie detector test” is the polygraph machine, which has a long history of usage in law enforcement settings. Furthermore, until the late 1980s, it was a popular pre-employment screening mechanism for prospective employees.

However, polygraph evidence has never been admissible in criminal proceedings, due to ongoing concerns about its reliability. Furthermore, after the Congressional Office of Technology Assessment raised severe doubts about the polygraph’s reliability as employee screening tool, Congress banned this use through the Employee Polygraph Protection Act of 1988.

Therefore, we should regard the fMRI, or any other scientific test, with reasonable skepticism. Can it detect the lies of a psychopath? Will it falsely identify honest statements as being untrue? These are among the questions that must be answered.

For targets of workplace abuse, a genuine lie detector test may seem like a panacea. We’re not there yet, but perhaps someday scientific technology will deliver a solution.


Related posts

Brain science and the workplace: Neuroscience and neuroplasticity (2011)

In recovering from adversity, past adversity can fuel our resilience (2011)

Do organizations suppress our empathy? (2010)

Understanding the bullied brain (2010)

Bully Rats, Tasers, and Stress (2009)

Why concentrated power at work is bad (2009)

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