Work in progress: A quick look ahead to 2015

I'm not a big holiday decorator -- here's is this year's "tree"

OK, so I’m not a big holiday decorator

Thank you…

…for your continued readership! I look forward to a seventh year of writing blog posts and publishing your comments. For better and for worse, the world of work gives us plenty to talk about. And so it will be in 2015.

When I started this blog in December 2008, I didn’t fully appreciate how it could become such an engaging way to share information, ideas, and opinions. But now, with 1,000+ subscribers, some 580,000+ page views, and several thousand posted comments, I’m grateful that Minding the Workplace can contribute to our conversation on work, workers, and workplaces.

We’ve still got a lot of work to do in order to create and grow workplaces that embrace worker dignity. Here’s to a New Year of progress on those fronts.

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Forward on the Healthy Workplace Bill

With the 2015-16 state legislative sessions approaching, our advocates are preparing to resubmit and support the Healthy Workplace Bill in states across the nation. With two states, California and Tennessee, enacting workplace bullying legislation this year (albeit in very watered-down form), and other cities and municipalities approving workplace anti-bullying ordinances for public workers that draw language from our legislation, we’re steadily moving toward the day when more workers will have legal protections against this form of mistreatment. It is proving to be a hard slog at times, with opposition arising as our efforts gain support, but we continue to make progress.

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New side gig

During 2015, I’ll be launching a part-time “side gig” initiative that offers coaching, consulting, and programming on workplace bullying, career transitions, and fostering dignity at work, as well as assorted publications covering the same. I’ll also be developing more free content and referral information for those in search of guidance and resources. I’m excited about putting some structure around activities that I’ve provided informally for many years. I’ll be rolling this out gradually, as time and energy permit. These services and materials will be offered on a separate website, with details to come!

At the same time, I’ll be keeping my day (and often evening) job as a law professor, and as a scholar and advocate I’ll remain steadfastly committed to advancing worker dignity. And as I indicated above, I’ll be adding lots of posts to this blog during the year to come and beyond!

In addition to rethinking abundance, let’s spread it around a little better

Economist Arthur C. Brooks, president of the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank, suggests in an op-ed piece for the New York Times that we embrace abundance without excessive attachment to material things:

In other words, if we are lucky enough to achieve abundance, we should be thankful for it and work to share the means to create it with others around the world. The real trick is the second part of the formula: avoiding attachment.

In Tibetan, the word “attachment” is translated as “do chag,” which literally means “sticky desire.” It signifies a desperate grasping at something, motivated by fear of separation from the object. One can find such attachment in many dysfunctional corners of life, from jealous relationships to paranoia about reputation and professional standing.

In the realm of material things, attachment results in envy and avarice. Getting beyond these snares is critical to life satisfaction.

I think it’s great advice for people who are blessed with sufficient disposable income to have spending options. As I wrote here back in 2012, research suggests that the correlation between happiness and income levels tends to peak at somewhere around $75,000, subject to obvious variables such as cost of living differentials. Furthermore, studies indicate that giving to others can increase our personal happiness and that money spent on creating memorable experiences rather than on accumulating more stuff tends to be more satisfying. (Brooks acknowledges the latter point in his article.)

Abundance for some

However, at least here in the U.S., we’re living in an age of a widening wealth gap, with that $75,000 mark looking like an illusion to a majority of its citizens. Millions are living paycheck-to-paycheck, and still more are doing worse than that.

Don Lee reports for the Los Angeles Times on a new Pew Research Center study showing that the “wealth gap between middle- and upper-income households has widened to the highest level on record.” He continues:

…(T)he typical wealth of the nation’s upper-income households last year was nearly seven times that of middle-class ones. By Pew’s calculations, that is the biggest gap in the 30 years that the Fed has been collecting statistics from its Survey of Consumer Finances.

“The latest data reinforces the larger story of America’s middle-class household wealth stagnation over the past three decades,” Pew said. “The Great Recession destroyed a significant amount of middle-income and lower-income families’ wealth, and the economic ‘recovery’ has yet to be felt for them.”

An economic system that provides selective abundance

Brooks engages in some rhetorical sleight-of-hand when he says that “we should be thankful for [abundance] and work to share the means to create it with others around the world.” In other words, he’s not suggesting that we share big chunks of our own abundance with others. Rather, if you read the rest of his article, you’ll pick up an implicit defense of a market-based economic system that supposedly can provide others with abundance as well.

There’s a problem with that, of course. The economic system that has produced so much inequity over the past three decades isn’t exactly creating an abundance of opportunity these days. Steady jobs with good pay and benefits are in increasingly short supply. Around the world, the same corporate entities that took millions of those jobs out of the U.S. are now putting their manufacturing plants in countries where they can pay workers a fraction of what their American predecessors once earned.

Toward something better

If you’ve read this blog for any stretch of time, you know that I’m not going to call for a socialist utopia to replace the big, bad capitalist system. I’m way past the point of pitching any rigid economic ideology as the answer to our wealth gap. But I’ll happily repeat my belief that a robust private sector must be complemented by strong public and non-profit sectors, as well as an ethic of giving that asks more of the most fortunate. On balance we need a healthier mix of economic opportunities, regulatory safeguards for the public good, and a social safety net.

In his New York Times piece, Brooks writes that his inspiration for rethinking abundance was a travel encounter in India with “a penniless Hindu swami,” a “son of Indian petroleum engineers” in America who had traded in his MBA and the fast track for a more contemplative, austere life. That certainly provides grist for a curious narrative (well-paid think tank executive takes life lesson from ex-pat living in self-imposed poverty), but the deeper truth is that austerity and detachment from material goods are much easier to opt for voluntarily than finding yourself with no other choice.

Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court: Cyber-harassment is not protected free speech

In a decision affirming the convictions for criminal harassment of William and Gail Johnson, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court (SJC) ruled that cyber-harassment is not protected free speech under the First Amendment.

Laurel Sweet, reporting for the Boston Herald, summarized the underlying facts of the case:

The case in question involved Andover real estate developers William and Gail Johnson, who were convicted of criminal harassment in 2011 for arranging to have information posted online about neighbors they’d been embroiled in a feud with over land that falsely claimed the victims — married business executives — had property they wanted to sell or give away. The postings included ads on Craigslist advertising golf carts on their yard, free for the taking, as well as the victims’ address and phone number, and an ad seeking to unload their fictitious dead son’s Harley Davidson motorcycle for $300, according to court documents.

…William “Bill” Johnson was additionally convicted of filing a false child-abuse report [against one of the targets].

In Commonwealth v. William P. Johnson, the Court held that “a pattern of harassing conduct that includes both communications made directly to the targets of the harassment and false communications made to third parties through Internet postings solely for the purpose of encouraging those parties also to engage in harassing conduct toward the targets” was not constitutionally protected speech.

Implications for bullying and the workplace

It’s important to clarify that this ruling does not create an independent legal claim — criminal or civil — for online harassment or bullying. Rather, it holds, in essence, that the application of the state’s criminal harassment statute to online harassment does not violate the free speech clause of the U.S. Constitution.

Nevertheless, Laurel Sweet’s lede paragraph may resonate with readers of this blog when she refers to “Internet ‘cyberharassment’ and lies posted online for the purpose of encouraging others to join in the bullying” as a way of capturing the essential facts of the case.

Indeed, the SJC’s decision recognizes that intentional, malicious harassment is a form of wrongful conduct, not “free speech.” In doing so, the ruling implicitly undermines claims that anti-bullying laws are all about political correctness and clamping down on freedom of expression.

On being a change agent: The role of “Edgewalker”

edgewalkers

In her 2006 book, Edgewalkers: People and Organizations That Take Risks, Build Bridges, and Break New Ground, author Judi Neal writes that the “Edgewalker is someone who walks between the worlds,” an individual who builds bridges, works at the boundaries and soft edges, and operates in a visionary way. Neal draws heavily from diverse cultural and spiritual traditions in defining this role.

I discovered this book a few months ago, and I find that the concept of Edgewalker describes many of the change agents I find myself drawn to in my own work. A multitude of the folks who are at the heart of several communities near and dear to me — including the Therapeutic Jurisprudence network, Human Dignity and Humiliation Studies network, and workplace anti-bullying movement — would fit comfortably into the Edgewalker framework.

I also realize that I have been unconsciously trying to define an Edgewalker-like identity for myself. The term “silo” is now one of the most overused in organizational life, but it captures the kind of insularity that inhibits creativity and frustrates the search for solutions. An Edgewalker strikes me as being a silo buster, and I like that. Whether it involves transcending professional and academic disciplines, melding the roles of scholar and practitioner, or integrating different strands of traditional and non-traditional higher and adult education, I find that this role resonates with me.

Neal also recognizes that the Edgewalker role can be a lonely one at times. After all, if so many people are crowded into more traditionally defined groups, then being an Edgewalker can mean walking alone, or at least it may feel that way. The solution, I’m finding, is to seek out and connect with other Edgewalker-type people. What can be more exciting than to foster communities of bridge-building visionaries?

 

Recycling: Five years of December

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.

December 2013: 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. . . . 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.

December 2012: American elders: Human dignity and an aging population — At some point soon, America is going to have to come to grips with the massive psychological and economic implications of its aging population. It won’t be easy. . . . These challenges will have significant implications for the world of work. They will impact the demographics of the workplace and employee benefit programs. They also will create an expanding sector of the labor market devoted to elder care and health care. If we’re capable of philosophically redefining a crisis as an opportunity, then perhaps this is the best we can hope for. I believe these coming decades will be a test not only of our policy and economic ingenuity, but also of our hearts.

December 2011: Workplace bullying and families of targets — Workplace bullying often creates victims in addition to the target of the abuse. In particular, close family members often pay a price as well, as personal relationships are severely tested and sometimes fractured. Many bullying targets, and those who have interviewed, counseled, and coached them, have known this for a long time. Now, emerging research is helping to build the evidence-based case. Here are two helpful pieces . . . .

December 2010: “Ruthlessness, callousness and arrogance don’t belong here” — Do you like the quote that headlines this blog post? Isn’t it an important statement for a workplace with a heart? Uh oh. Too bad it came from Enron’s code of ethics. Alas, great policies do not always translate into great leadership.

December 2009: Workplace bullying in health care IV: Nurses bullied and responding — “After you read this post, go to Google and type in these two words as a search request: nurses bullying. If you had a dollar for every hit, you could retire right now and live very, very comfortably. When it comes to workplace bullying in the healthcare workplace, nurses get the worst of it. They are bullied by doctors. They are bullied by fellow nurses. And when patients act out, they’re more likely to take it out on a nurse than someone else, at times using physical violence.”

Selective praise as a form of workplace marginalization

Have you ever worked in an organization where some people receive lavish praise from higher ups for the most modest of achievements, while others do remarkable things but receive, at best, an obligatory nod from the folks in charge?

This happens a lot in highly factionalized workplaces, especially when a core group enjoys considerable power and tends to marginalize those not in their circle. It’s a way of affirming who and what “counts” in the eyes of the Powers That Be. When favoritism and clique membership are baked into an organization’s culture, those on the outside will be reminded of their place when their good work is greeted by silence or a grudging acknowledgment.

Furthermore, especially in fields or professions where many assessments are subjective, it’s easy to make up reasons why some work is worthy of recognition and other work is not. Smart, manipulative individuals in leadership positions can raise such rationalizations to an art form.

In many cases, the outsiders may not be in danger of losing their jobs, but they will have to derive more of their work satisfaction from within, rather than wait for kudos that are unlikely to come their way. This hardly ranks among the greatest of workplace injustices, but it’s a needless way of lowering overall employee morale. It also can plant the seeds for more serious worker mistreatment if things start to turn sour within the organization.

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After 700 harassing robocalls from Bank of America, couple wins $1 million judgment

(Graphic courtesy of Publicdomainvectors.org)

(Graphic courtesy of Publicdomainvectors.org)

From Good Morning America, here’s a story about a couple who won a $1 million judgment against Bank of America for subjecting them to some 700 threatening robo-calls over a period of four years, in response to late mortgage payments:

Bank of America is being forced to hand over more than $1 million to a Florida couple after the bank flooded them with hundreds of loan collection calls for years – the latest example of alleged behavior that has cost the bank tens of millions.

In a complaint filed in July, attorneys for Nelson and Joyce Coniglio said that the couple had been on the receiving end of “patterns of outrageous, abusive and harassing conduct” by a subsidiary of Bank of America that included 700 calls in four years, after the bank said the couple fell behind on mortgage loan payments in 2009. The Coniglios also received “threatening collection letters asserting false and misleading information,” the complaint said.

The couple sent multiple letters from legal representation asking the bank to stop, but the calls — sometimes up to five a day — continued. The complaint describes automated calls leaving repeated pre-recorded messages.

Incredibly, a Bank of America vice president told ABC that the calls were meant to “help them avoid foreclosure,” adding that BoA “has helped 2 million homeowners avoid foreclosure.” This claim alone gets a special chutzpah award! Bank of America’s own former employees have submitted written testimony stating the company rewarded workers who put homeowners into foreclosure, as this 2013 piece from ProPublica explains. In addition, as reported in the full GMA article, harassment of this nature from Bank of America and its affiliates is hardly unique.

Surely there are more humane and ethical ways of doing business. In BoA’s case, the same corporate arrogance that helped to fuel the economic meltdown in the first place continues, backed by hollow and disingenuous attempts to explain these practices.

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