What if our society was built around advancing human dignity and well-being?

Let’s pretend, for even a few minutes, that we could build our society around the advancement of human dignity and well-being.

What would our educational, social, economic, and governance institutions look like? How would we balance opportunity, individual responsibility, societal safety nets, and shared obligations? How would we address health care and public health issues? How would our laws and legal systems operate? How would we define our relationships with the planet and other species that inhabit it? How would we operate our workplaces?

Most importantly, how would each of us choose to conduct our own lives?

For many reasons, I think we’re at a juncture where we need to be steadfast and unapologetic about making human dignity and well-being the defining priorities for our society. The ensuing discussion may take us in many different directions, and we won’t always be in agreement about what approaches to take, but at least we’d get the framing concept right.


Related posts

Dignity instead: The “markets and management” framework for U.S. workplace law should go (2014) — “Within such a “dignitarian” framework, there is plenty of room for market-based competition, entrepreneurship, individual responsibility, and sound management prerogative. Furthermore, the call for dignity in the workplace is not a rallying cry for state ownership, runaway taxation, or regulatory micromanagement of the workplace. Rather, it is about promoting the complementary goals of healthy, productive, and socially responsible workplaces within a mix of robust private, public, and non-profit sectors.”

Visioning law and legal systems through a psychologically healthy lens (2014) — “One of my periodic “battery rechargers” is the opportunity to reconnect in person with a network of law professors, lawyers, judges, and students associated with a school of legal thought called therapeutic jurisprudence (“TJ”), which examines law, legal procedures, and the legal profession from the standpoint of psychological health.”

Dialogues about dignity (2013), Parts I (Meeting in Manhattan), II (Mainstreaming the message), and III (Claiming and using power to do good) — “The founding president of [the Human Dignity and Humiliation Studies Network] 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.”

“Total Worker Health” vs. “Wellness” vs. “Well-Being”: Framing worker health issues (2013) —  “By the end of the conference, further informed by other discussions and panels, I had became a convert. Indeed, I realized that well-being, within the context of workplace health and safety, is a very good fit with broader questions about human dignity and employment law that I’ve been raising for several years.”


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How headlines mislead: The $4.7 million “workplace bullying case”

Yesterday I received multiple e-mails alerting me to a jury verdict awarding some $4.7 million to an employee in a “workplace bullying case.” In fact, this is the headline that blared from a legal compliance site:

Federal Jury Awards $4.7 Million in Workplace Bullying Case

The accompanying summary by Marjorie Richter says more about the case. Here’s the lede:

An employee of a Brooklyn, New York clothing store was awarded $4.7 million by a federal jury after being repeatedly bullied by a co-worker and ultimately physically attacked. The award was for assault, emotional distress, negligence in the employer’s hiring of the bully and punitive damages.

According to the complaint, the plaintiff, a Yemen-born stock clerk, was bullied by a security guard at the store, who repeatedly called the plaintiff “bin Laden” and used other religious, racial and ethnic slurs throughout the plaintiff’s employment at the store. The security guard also made threatening physical gestures.

She goes on to describe the need for workplace bullying prevention and training, and she links registration information for the site’s online course.

In reality…

The article/sales pitch may give the misleading impression that bullied workers can easily generate winning claims for emotional distress, negligent hiring, and similar causes of action.

In reality, this lawsuit illustrates the huge gap between discriminatory harassment and standard brand workplace bullying.

Although the legal compliance site frames this as a “workplace bullying” case before making a pitch for its training and compliance programs, the underlying claims are grounded in harassment on the basis of protected class status, in this case possibly national origin, religion, and race. If bullying is motivated by discriminatory animus, it may be the basis of a claim for damages under the federal Civil Rights Act and state equivalents. Furthermore, while most tort claims for Intentional Infliction of Emotional Distress in workplace bullying-related situations are dismissed before trial, the ones that survive are typically related to situations involving discriminatory behavior.

However, if the bullying cannot be linked to categories protected by employment discrimination laws, the target often has few, if any, viable legal protections.

In other words, the $4.7 million “workplace bullying case” only highlights the need for workplace anti-bullying laws. The push to enact the Healthy Workplace Bill must continue.


For a detailed summary of the core legal points made in this post, see my law review article, The Phenomenon of “Workplace Bullying” and the Need for Status-Blind Hostile Work Environment Protection (Georgetown Law Journal, 2000), the first in-depth examination of the American legal and policy implications of workplace bullying.

Positive thinking in a terrible job situation

It’s one thing to make the best of a bad workplace, but it’s quite another to engage in a sort of forced mode of positive thinking as a response to a terrible job situation. In a piece published on AlterNet, Alexander Kjerulf examines “5 Ways Positive Thinking Makes You Miserable at Work”:

1. “Faking emotions at work is stressful”

2. “Positive thinking makes things even worse for people who are unhappy at work”

3. “Negative emotions are a natural part of work”

4. “Positive thinking can contribute to quelling dissent and ignoring problems in the workplace”

5. “Trying to force yourself to be positive, makes you unhappy”

He offers extended explanations for each of these points. I recommend the full article to anyone who wants to understand more of the nuances between relentlessly negative and relentlessly positive attitudes at work.

While endorsing the idea that people can change their “mood and outlook through conscious effort,” Kjerulf takes on the notion “that you can always change your thinking in any situation, and that external circumstances don’t matter,” adding that “telling someone in a really rough life situation that they should think more positively is incredibly condescending and a terrible way to trivialize their pain.” He also does a nice job of distinguishing positive thinking from the field of positive psychology, the latter of which he generally endorses.

Related posts

If this general topic interests you, then these two earlier blog posts may be worth a look:

Dealing with a bad workplace: Getting to tolerance (2014) — “What do I mean by ‘getting to tolerance’? It means being able to deal with the undesirable aspects of your workplace without them constantly taking you down a notch, or at least bouncing back after a bad day there. It means being able to do your job well, perhaps even with some enthusiasm and satisfaction, despite the negative aspects of your work environment. It means not taking the bad parts of work home with you every day. It also means being able to develop and weigh future options in a constructive and hopeful way.”

Beyond happiness: Founder of positive psychology movement expands his vision (2011) — “Perhaps the most articulate critic of the ‘happiness movement’ in America has been Barbara Ehrenreich, political and social critic extraordinaire, who took happy talk to task in her 2009 book, Bright-Sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America. In a sub-chapter titled ‘Managing Despair,’ Ehrenreich excoriates corporate use of motivational speakers and team-building exercises to “inspire” workers in the midst of layoffs and pay & benefit cuts….”

Workplace bullying and the “weak” target

Some who doubt the severity and prevalence of workplace bullying suggest that those who report being treated abusively at work are somehow “weak” or “oversensitive” and thus are prone to exaggerate their situations. Oftentimes, these sentiments are buttressed by an unspoken belief that self-proclaimed targets of bullying simply lack the requisite toughness to deal with the ups and downs of the workplace. In other words, those who can’t handle it should either toughen up or go away.

It’s a faulty belief system that we need to keep responding to and rebutting.

Context…and more

First, let’s understand that bullying is often contextual; it is shaped by expectations and norms. Some vocations are rougher around the edges than others, and anyone entering a new field should be aware of that.

But let’s also acknowledge that bullying is about abuse. Forget “rough and tumble” or “competition.” Workplace bullying involves intentional mistreatment. It’s typically repeated behavior, and it has a malicious edge, regardless of whether the bully role is played by a single aggressor or a full-blown mob.

Breaking points

Targets of workplace bullying run the gamut. They may be strong, average, or marginal performers. They may be team players or critics, insiders or outsiders. Women are targeted more than men, but not by an overwhelming proportion.

In terms of emotional makeup, even people we would characterize as tough and resilient can be targeted and pay a heavy price in terms of health and well being. Military personnel, police officers, and football players are among those who may suffer from workplace bullying. Weak?  Hardly. They have survived the harsh rigors of basic training, the police academy, and pre-season training camps, respectively.

It’s true…

Some people are more emotionally vulnerable than others. Maybe they were treated abusively in a family or social situation, or perhaps they had a traumatic experience that has weakened their resilience. In such cases, it is possible that they may be more perceptive to how they’re being treated, or perhaps more likely to experience stress reactions in the face of bullying behaviors.

Nevertheless, does this justify treating them abusively? One of the more disturbing and common characteristics of our culture is a dismissiveness or even contempt toward those we deem weak or vulnerable — even though virtually any of us could find ourselves in such a position. When we inhabit that state of mind, we are sapped of our empathy. And for some, perceiving another’s vulnerability may be the “green light” to go after them. This is especially the case when individuals with psychopathic tendencies pursue their prey.

Legally speaking

So when should the law step in to say enough is enough?

On this question, we can learn a lot from the history of sexual harassment law. To illustrate: It’s possible that someone may take deep offense to a mildly obnoxious sexual joke, perhaps even to the point where it makes her uncomfortable. However, most of us would agree that such an occurrence shouldn’t be the basis of a hostile work environment claim for sexual harassment. The U.S. Supreme Court has agreed, interpreting our Civil Rights Act through the eyes of the “reasonable person” when examining sexual harassment lawsuits. That said, the Court also has made clear that when the harassment reaches the point of being abusive and disruptive of one’s ability to work, a violation should be found.

Similarly, the anti-bullying Healthy Workplace Bill uses the “reasonable person” standard to determine what constitutes an abusive work environment. In drafting the HWB, I realized that using a baseline, objective standard was necessary in terms of setting a legal threshold.

Resilience training?

As Dr. Ruth Namie of the Workplace Bullying Institute has aptly noted, workplace bullying shatters our assumptions about how people expect to be treated at work. We expect that in return for a good day’s work, we’ll be treated fairly. When the experience of work becomes abusive, those expectations crumble.

Perhaps it is a sad reflection of the contemporary workplace to suggest that schooling and preparation for a vocation or profession should include a dose of resilience training, but it may make sense. Becoming aware of what may await us, and receiving some coping tools in the event it occurs, may help to reduce the emotional blow of being severely bullied. It may even help someone address a bullying-type situation pro-actively, before it becomes acute and disabling.

Dignity at work

But if we’re going to do resilience training, let’s also encourage and train people to treat each other with dignity and to stand up for others whose dignity is being violated. And while we’re at it, let’s do our best to hire and support leaders who are committed to affirming individual dignity as a core piece of every organization’s mission.


Related posts

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

Reporting on Orlando: Until we create more humane workplaces, do we need coping and resilience skills for all? (2011)

Workplace bullying in the military (2011)

Why severe workplace bullying can be so traumatic (2009)

Personal reinvention: Take a look at “50 over 50”

Definitely worth clicking around

Definitely worth clicking around

This week, the Huffington Post has been running a terrific five-day series, “50 over 50,” profiling 50 individuals who significantly changed their lives after reaching age 50 and beyond. In partnership with the TODAY Show, they’re looking at how people have reinvented themselves later in their lives, often after experiencing major challenges. Here’s a piece of Shelley Emling’s introduction to the feature:

We recently asked readers to submit nominations of people who’ve reinvented themselves for the better after age 50 as part of an initiative launched with the TODAY show called “50 Over 50.” We were overwhelmed with submissions. We heard stories of people who’d changed their lives after losing a partner, getting divorced, or suffering financial hardship or a health concern. We heard from many people who nominated themselves — something they said they never would have done before turning 50.

There’s a lot about work here. Many of the profiled individuals created new entities, shifted careers, or otherwise changed their work lives.

Here are links to the five main stories posted this week:

The Risk Takers — 10 people who took risks after 50

Career Reinvention — 10 people who reinvented their careers after 50

Following Your Passion — 10 people who followed their passions after 50

Health and Wellness — 10 people who pursued health and wellness after 50

Giving Back — 10 people who gave back to their communities after 50

Yup, this is especially for those who are on the north side of 50. If you’re in your 60s and beyond, you’ll find plenty of folks profiled in those age ranges. But even if you’re younger than 50, take a look. As I’ve learned over and again, a key to gaining wisdom is to learn lessons from those who have walked paths ahead of you.

And for the many readers who have found this blog because of bad work experiences, you’ll find some instructive inspiration here from people who have overcome difficult losses and career setbacks.

Federal workers: If you blow the whistle, will you get new “office space”?

If you’re a federal employee who wants a new office, engaging in a bit of whistleblowing may be one way to get it. Unfortunately, it probably won’t be the corner window office on the top floor.

David Fahrenthold, reporting for the Washington Post, describes a common form of retaliation toward whistleblowers in the federal government, leading with the story of Paula Pedene, an administrator with the Phoenix office of the Veteran’s Administration:

Pedene, 56, is the former chief spokeswoman for this VA hospital. Now, she is living in a bureaucrat’s urban legend. After complaining to higher-ups about mismanagement at this hospital, she has been reassigned — indefinitely — to a desk in the basement.

In the Phoenix case, investigators are still trying to determine whether Pedene was punished because of her earlier complaints. If she is, that would make her part of a long, ugly tradition in the federal bureaucracy — workers sent to a cubicle in exile.

In the past, whistleblowers have had their desks moved to break rooms, broom closets and basements. It’s a clever punishment, good-government activists say, that exploits a gray area in the law.

The whole thing can look minor on paper. They moved your office. So what? But the change is designed to afflict the striving soul of a federal worker, with a mix of isolation, idle time and lost prestige.

The last point is worth comprehending. It looks minor on paper. It gives Uncle Sam plausible deniability, an out to claim that being relocated to the basement is simply a routine change in office real estate.

Fahrenthold does a nice job of putting Pedene’s situation in the broader context of how whistleblowers are treated in the federal government, so his full article is worth your while if the subject interests you.

Tip of the iceberg

The bottom line remains: Whistleblowers often pay a price for exercising their consciences, sometimes a big one.

We know that retaliation for whistleblowing can get worse, much worse, than being moved to the dungeon. Various forms of bullying, harassment, and intimidation, as well as wrongful discipline and discharge, often enter the picture. Although a lot of our focus on whistleblower retaliation tends to be on the public sector, it also occurs frequently in the private and non-profit sectors.

Legal protections may exist for a given situation, but establishing the causal link between the whistleblowing activity and alleged acts of retaliation can pose a challenge. Furthermore, if the retaliation appears to be mild in severity, it may not be legally sufficient to prevail on a claim.

If you search terms such as “report on whistleblowing,” you’ll also see that whistleblower retaliation is a widespread, global phenomenon, even in nations where employment & labor laws are generally more favorable to workers. In essence, it’s part of the ongoing tale of how some people in power respond when they called on their wrongful behavior.


Those who are in potential whistleblowing situations should seek out legal guidance. They may wish to check these sites for information, advice, and legal referrals:

Government Accountability Project

National Employment Lawyers Association

National Whistleblowers Center


Hat tip to Susan Thomas on the Washington Post article.

The quest to enact Healthy Workplace legislation, Part I: Subtle progress in Massachusetts

The 2013-14 Massachusetts state legislative session ended last week, and the anti-bullying Healthy Workplace Bill (HWB) made it to “second reading,” meaning it was approved through various committees and was poised to be brought up to the House of Representatives for a full floor vote. As the session approached its end, the HWB was still under discussion among House leaders, no small achievement given the thousands of bills introduced each session.

Those of us who support the HWB were hoping for more from this session, perhaps even making it all the way through to the Governor’s desk. Nevertheless, we are well primed for the next legislative session, and here’s why:

1. Legislative sponsors — The HWB has attracted increasing support in the MA state legislature. We went from one legislative sponsor in the 2009-10 session, to 13 in the 2011-12 session, to 39 in the just-concluded 2013-14 session. Our lead sponsor, Rep. Ellen Story, remains deeply committed to this legislation. A bill once regarded as a novelty is now receiving serious attention.

2. Grassroots support — Our grassroots advocacy group is flexing its muscles. We are hearing from legislators and their staffs that calls, e-mails, and visits from HWB advocates are making a difference.

3. Organizational support — From the beginning, the National Association of Government Employees (NAGE) has been a source of significant support and “inside the building” expertise. During this last session, we also picked up more endorsements and active support from other labor unions and worker advocacy groups.

4. Media attention — The HWB is getting attention from the media. During the closing weeks of the session, workplace bullying and the HWB were subjects of a lengthy lead editorial in the Sunday Boston Globe, and an extensive feature in the Globe‘s Lifestyle section. During the course of the session, WGBH’s “Greater Boston” program and WBUR’s “Radio Boston” program devoted major segments to workplace bullying and the legislation.

5. Vocal opposition — The Associated Industries of Massachusetts — a powerful corporate lobbying presence — and a small group of ultra-conservative state legislators opposed the HWB. You know you’re making progress when the opposition comes out of hiding.

6. Our turn next? — A welcomed hike in the state’s minimum wage law and the long-needed addition of occupational safety & health protections for many of the state’s public workers were among the pro-worker bills that successfully made it through this session. In the meantime, the HWB created much more of a buzz this time around, as the idea of enacting protections against workplace bullying has become mainstreamed.

Legislative advocacy, especially for pro-worker bills that are considered cutting-edge policy proposals, often requires patient and steadfast commitment. Such is the case for the Healthy Workplace Bill. That said, our prospects for the next legislative session are looking very good, and I strongly believe that we can make this happen.

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