“Askhole” behavior in non-profits: An insightful and entertaining Vu

In a marvelously insightful and entertaining piece published on his Nonprofit With Balls blog, executive director Vu Le calls out non-profit leaders and organizations who are constantly asking their employees and other stakeholders for feedback and ideas, only to reject or ignore their suggestions over and again. He uses the term “askhole” to capture this behavior, and many who have experienced work life in this sector will find themselves chuckling in agreement.

Le begins by illustrating askhole behavior in an everyday social context. It’s hilarious:

Basically, you know that one friend who keeps coming crying to you about something, asks you for advice, and so you hit pause on Netflix, listen to them attentively, empathize, and give them reasonable suggestions, and then later you find out that they completely ignored you or did the opposite of what you recommended? That’s an askhole. Or someone who keeps asking for advice until they get an answer they agree with. That’s also an askhole.

Although Le is especially critical of the askhole dynamic confronting communities of color, it may apply in virtually any non-profit context. In essence, askhole behavior in the non-profit world promotes false hopes and leads to jaded attitudes, especially when it occurs repeatedly. In a line that jumped out at me, Le says, “We’ve been giving the same answers for, like, forever.”

Le does not merely curse the darkness. In his article, he offers good advice on how non-profits can avoid askhole behavior, such as “before launching some listening forum, check around to see what work has already been done,” and “if you insist on doing a listening process, get your org or foundation mentally ready and committed to trust the community’s feedback and act on it.”

So here’s the question for you non-profit dwellers: How many town meetings, “open door policies,” online surveys (helloooo, Survey Monkey!), strategic planning discussions, and coffee hours have you been invited to by senior administrators and perhaps board members? Of these, how many times have your concerns or suggestions been seriously considered, much less acted upon in an inclusive way?

Your answers will go a long way toward determining whether you have a healthy or dysfunctional organizational culture. They also will correlate strongly to the overall morale of rank-and-file stakeholders within your organization.


Hat tip to Kayhan Irani for the Vu Le article!

Related posts

Myths and realities about working in the non-profit sector (2014)

One-way feedback: In-house employee surveys and the illusion of open decision making (2012)

“Strategic planning”: All too often, a time-sucking bridge to nowhere (2011)

U.S. legislative developments concerning workplace bullying (2013-15)

I just posted to my Social Science Research Network (SSRN) page a draft of a forthcoming law review essay, “Workplace Bullying and the Law: U.S. Legislative Developments 2013-15,” slated to appear later this year in the Employee Rights and Employment Policy Journal, published by the Chicago-Kent College of Law. This short piece is a follow-up to a panel presentation I gave in January at the Annual Meeting of the Association of American Law Schools.

Here’s the abstract:

In 2014, California and Tennessee enacted statutes covering workplace bullying, making them the first American states to codify laws addressing this form of interpersonal mistreatment at work. These two statutes led a procession of recent legal and policy initiatives concerning workplace bullying in the United States, which also included a vetoed state bill and continued advocacy at the state levels for enactment of comprehensive workplace anti-bullying legislation. This essay, a follow-up to my panel presentation at the 2015 Annual Meeting of the Association of American Law Schools, will discuss significant legislative developments concerning workplace bullying at the state levels, covering 2013 through early 2015. It is the latest in my series of periodic law review commentaries about workplace bullying and American employment law.

The essay focuses on four states: It summarizes and analyzes the new California and Tennessee laws. It discusses the merits of a gubernatorial veto of workplace bullying legislation in New Hampshire. Finally, it examines the fortunes of the Healthy Workplace Bill in Massachusetts. This is by no means a comprehensive summary of legislative activity during the past three years, but rather takes a snapshot look at some of the most significant recent developments.

You may download pdfs of this piece and my other law review commentaries without charge from my SSRN page.

Academic conferences: When small is beautiful

I am becoming a big fan of smaller scale academic gatherings that allow time and space for dialogue and fellowship. Toward that end, I’ve just posted to my Social Science Research Network page a short essay, “Academic Conferences: When Small is Beautiful” (Suffolk University Law Review Online, 2015), which may be downloaded without charge. The essay grew out of a 2014 symposium on therapeutic jurisprudence (TJ) that I hosted at Suffolk University Law School. Here’s the abstract:

This essay makes a case for organizing and hosting smaller academic conferences, workshops, and symposia that promote genuine dialogue and move at a slower, more contemplative pace. Although the main purpose of an academic gathering is not to create and experience a “feel good” event, smaller scale programs may better facilitate spirited, respectful dialogue, intellectual exchange, and an ethic of fellowship that nurtures connections and friendships. In addition, in offering post-program publication opportunities, we may consider packages of shorter essays as less burdensome alternatives to full-length symposium issues of journals. This essay grew out of the author’s hosting of, and participation in, a small conference on therapeutic jurisprudence at Suffolk University Law School in 2014.

Therapeutic jurisprudence symposium

The piece also serves as an introduction to five essays authored by presenters at the 2014 symposium, which may be downloaded here. In brief, here are the authors and their topics:

  • Prof. Mark Glover, University of Wyoming College of Law (TJ and estate planning)
  • Prof. Michael Jones, Arizona Summit Law School (Teaching TJ)
  • Prof. Shelley Kierstead, Osgoode Hall Law School, York University (TJ and legal writing)
  • Prof. Michael Perlin, New York Law School (TJ law teaching & scholarship vis a vis mental health & criminal law)
  • Prof. David Wexler, University of Puerto Rico School of Law (mainstreaming TJ in criminal & juvenile justice law)

Academic culture and practice

For those interested in reading more of my thoughts on academic culture and practice, especially in legal scholarship, here are two pieces I’ve authored, which can be accessed by clicking the titles:

If It Matters, Write About It: Using Legal Scholarship to Effect Social Change (Bearing Witness: A Journal on Law and Social Responsibility, 2013) — From my abstract: “This essay centers on the concept of ‘intellectual activism,’ discussing how legal scholarship can be used as the foundation for social change work. It recounts and reflects upon the author’s ongoing work in advancing issues such as workplace bullying and the rights of student interns. It concludes with advice on how to be effective in an intellectual activist mode.”

Therapeutic Jurisprudence and the Practice of Legal Scholarship (University of Memphis Law Review, 2010) — From my abstract: “The culture of legal scholarship has become preoccupied with article placement, citations, and download numbers, thus obscuring a deeper appreciation for the contributions of scholarly work. This article proposes that therapeutic jurisprudence (“TJ”), a theoretical framework that examines the therapeutic and anti-therapeutic properties of the law and legal practice, provides us with tools for understanding and changing that culture.”


Related posts

Workshopping human dignity (2014)

Inspiration in Amsterdam (2013)

Why conferences? (2013)

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Recycling: Five years of February

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

February 2014: “I want to help stop workplace bullying” — “Periodically I get e-mails and voice mails from people who would like to get involved in addressing bullying at work. More often than not, they have experienced or witnessed workplace bullying firsthand, and now they’d like to do something on a broader scale to prevent bullying and help others who have been targeted. Here are my thoughts on this topic . . .”

February 2013: On creating organizational culture: What if your boss simply doesn’t care? — “We talk about good leaders who strive to create healthy organizational cultures, the places where people want to work. We talk about bad leaders who crack the whip, bully, and treat others as expendable parts. But what about bosses who don’t think much at all about the quality of work life within their organizations? What if notions such as supportive work environments, fair compensation structures, and organizational justice don’t cross their radar screens? What if all that matters to them are profits/revenues, avoiding liability, pleasing their boards & superiors, and getting ahead?”

February 2012: Recipe for healthy employee relations: Encourage speech, nurture civility, and prohibit abuse — “Organizations can, if they wish, clamp down on employee speech, encourage cutthroat competition, and bully workers relentlessly. Much of this will be legal, given the weaknesses of worker protections beyond employment discrimination laws. Of course, most of us know that such practices are a recipe for disaster, or at least guarantee an underperforming, low-morale workplace. With that in mind, let’s set out a few basic parameters for something better . . .”

February 2011: School bullying and workplace bullying: More alike than different? — “Beyond our families, our first encounters with others in a structured setting come via school. Is it not surprising that bullying behaviors modeled and validated in school settings reappear and evolve devolve in the workplace? More stuff to ponder here.”

February 2010: The University of Alabama-Huntsville shootings and the academic workplace — “I usually hesitate to use this blog to provide instantaneous analyses of developing news stories, but already it is clear that Friday’s terrible shootings at the University of Alabama-Huntsville will carry broader implications for academic workplaces. Three professors were killed, and two other professors and one staff member were injured during an incident that took place at a faculty meeting. In custody is Amy Bishop, an assistant professor in UAH’s biology department. Earlier that day, Bishop learned she had lost an appeal of her tenure denial. As soon as that piece of information was reported, the story behind this tragedy started to sharpen quickly.”

Using the empty rhetoric of change to justify or impose change

With apologies to Bob Dylan, the times are always a-changin’. But if you buy into the rhetoric of certain practitioners of management-speak, then you’d think that the impetus for change occurs at those magic moments when they happen to be in charge.

Under such conditions, an assumed need to change becomes the catch-all justification for virtually any change. We have to change, so let’s change this! And if you oppose the change I want, well, then, you must be AGAINST CHANGE!!!!!

Or perhaps a given challenge or problem is used to justify a specific action. Times are tough, so we have to close this department! We’re in a competitive environment, so we have to cut your pay (while raising ours)! So stop opposing change!!!

Of course, it’s a logical fallacy that any given set of circumstances necessarily justifies a specific response or action, but organizations get away with it all the time, and a lot of people go along for the ride. After all, on the whole, we are much better at identifying or creating problems than we are at projecting the efficacy of proposed solutions. Unfortunately, the perceived pressure to change, whether self or externally generated, can lead to a lot of bad and hurtful decisions.

Okay, I realize these points may sound somewhat abstract to people accustomed to saner work environments. But I’m guessing that if you’ve been in an organizational setting where a lot of lousy decisions are made in the name of change, then you know what I’m talking about.

Could we someday “erase” the memories of workplace bullying?

In “Erasing bad memories,” a piece for the February 2015 issue of the American Psychological Association’s Monitor, Stacy Lu examines leading edge research on future possibilities for treating memories of traumatic experiences that fuel post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and related conditions:

When we think back on our lives, we generally try to dwell on good times and come to terms with bad. But for those who suffer from anxiety disorders, including post-traumatic stress disorder and phobias, just one intractable and unwelcome memory can influence a lifetime of perceptions, emotions and behavior, despite therapists’ best efforts.

But thanks to better imaging technology, neuroscientists and psychologists are able to explore the neural mechanisms by which memories are made and stored. And their research has uncovered several physiological interventions — including electrical currents and well-timed pharmacology — that appear to help destabilize fearful memories, a finding that could lead to more effective, targeted psychotherapy in the future.

While practitioners today rely solely on patient reports, “in years to come, neuroscience will inform clinical practice,” says Stefan Hofmann, PhD, who directs the Psychotherapy and Emotion Research Laboratory at Boston University. “We will use both biological and neurological measures to give us clues as to treatment.”

It’s an informative, scientifically detailed article on how fearful memories are formed, how they may be changed or eradicated, and how lifestyle factors relate to softening their impact.

Workplace bullying and PTSD

Many targets of severe workplace bullying report or show symptoms consistent with PTSD (go here for Mayo Clinic description), and that link has been observed and accepted by workplace bullying researchers for some time. Anecdotally speaking, post-event trauma constitutes one of the foremost challenges in helping workplace bullying targets to fully reclaim their lives and re-enter the labor market.

Developments and breakthroughs in PTSD research and treatment are thus especially important to these individuals and their families, and the work discussed by Stacy Lu raises both possibilities and concerns. All things being equal, presumably many, if not most, people suffering from PTSD would willingly undergo treatment to erase the memory of the traumatic experience that prompted their symptoms, assuming that the symptoms would disappear with the memories. But some of the potential treatments mentioned by Lu, “including electrical currents and well-timed pharmacology,” go beyond the less physically invasive counseling modes, especially if we presume that any drug capable of causing someone to erase a specific memory is made of awfully powerful stuff.

In addition, there are other important considerations associated with any attempt to “erase” a memory. For example, some aptly note the role of bad or difficult memories in building our wisdom and resilience. Others raise more philosophical questions about the role of memory in defining our lives and collective humanity. That said, I’d suggest that for many sufferers of PTSD, these would be trifling concerns, and understandably so.

In other words, we’re dealing with significant but potentially risky treatments here. However, the high stakes involved — i.e., restoring a sense of peace and security to those suffering from the effects of psychological trauma — justify continued, responsible research, accompanied by hopes that we can find more effective ways to help people dealing with these terrible conditions.

Bad Tweets, the Internet, and mobbing behavior

Illustration accompanying Jon Ronson's "How One Stupid Tweet Blew Up Justine Sacco's Life," NY Times Magazine

Photo of illustration by Andrew B. Myers and Sonia Rentsch accompanying Jon Ronson’s NY Times Magazine article (Photo: DY)

Let’s say you have a Twitter account, and one day, in a flash of supposed brilliance, you think of something clever but offensive and edgy. Your brain’s screening process falls prey to your quick wit, and you decide to Tweet it. Even though you don’t have many followers, somehow your Tweet goes viral. Before you know it, thousands of people you’ve never met are calling you the worst human being on the planet and demanding that you lose your job (or worse).

Justine Sacco and others

If you doubt how easily this can happen, take a look at Jon Ronson’s excellent piece in the New York Times Magazine, “How One Stupid Tweet Blew Up Justine Sacco’s Life.” In 2013, Sacco was a 30-year-old New York communications executive on her way to visiting family in South Africa when she issued a series of Tweets about her travel experience. Here is the Tweet that became her downfall:

Going to Africa. Hope I don’t get AIDS. Just kidding. I’m white!

By the time she landed in South Africa, it had gone viral, with the Internet lighting up with cries of indignation and racism. As a result of the outcry, Sacco would soon lose her job, and her reputation would be in tatters.

Ronson goes into some detail about Sacco’s experience, sharing parts of several interviews with her. In addition, he provides stories of other individuals who said or allegedly said something that caused offense and rippled at hyper speed through the online world, ultimately imposing a heavy price in terms of careers and reputations.

Mobbing behaviors

In most cases, the virulent anger fueling the responses directed toward offending Tweet authors far outweighs the purported sin. The stories that Ronson shares in his article are excellent examples.

It struck me as eminently fitting that Ronson’s piece is accompanied by the illustration above, showing birds ganging up on one of their own. During the 1980s, the late Swedish psychologist Heinz Leymann used the term “mobbing” to describe the kinds of abusive, hostile behaviors that were being directed at employees by their co-workers. Leymann’s theories were informed by the mobbing behaviors of birds! (Leymann was a pioneer practitioner and theorist in addressing workplace bullying, mobbing, and abuse. You can learn more about his work here.) While the situations Ronson describes are not solely work-related, the mobbing dynamics resonate strongly with Leymann’s work.

The hazards of Tweeting

Of course, virtually any offensive or provocative online utterance these days has some potential to go haywire. As for Twitter specifically, while it is a tremendously useful tool for informational networking, when used as a horn for drawing attention to one’s self or opinions, there’s an instant premium put on sharp, witty, and/or clever turns of the phrase. It’s an easy recipe for getting into trouble with a reckless or thoughtless statement or joke. Misguided Tweets have become one of the leading sources of public apologies, not only for celebrities and famous people, but also in the case of Justine Sacco and others like her, for everyday folks as well.

Over the years, many people have suggested to me that I start a Twitter account in order to promote the work I’m doing. My standard reply is that when it comes to social media, blogging and Facebook are just about all I have time for right now. But if I’m being totally honest, I must confess that another reason why I stay off of Twitter is that I don’t trust myself to avoid saying something really, really stupid with it. I fully understand how easy it is to Tweet first, think later.

Online floggings

I’m not defending the publication of insensitive, offensive, or hurtful jokes and statements. Nor am I suggesting that those who engage in abusive behaviors should be excused for their actions. But stories of public mobbings in response to relatively minor offending words constitute more evidence that the Internet, and our public discourse in general, have turned into free-for-alls that implicitly permit people to pummel, pillory, and threaten others for their perceived mistakes. These are not the characteristics of a healthy, compassionate society.


Legal briefing

You may wonder after reading this and Ronson’s article how someone can be so quickly terminated for behavior unrelated or perhaps only tangentially related to work. In America, at least, the rule of at-will employment is the norm, whereby an employer can fire someone for any reason or no reason at all. This rule is grounded in a legal structure called “master and servant” relations, and you can guess who is the master and who is the servant. For more on this, see my 2013 blog post, “Master and servant”: The roots of American employment law.

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When a promotion leads to a body snatching

(Photo of Wikipedia page for "Invasion of the Body Snatchers")

(Photo of Wikipedia page for “Invasion of the Body Snatchers”)

Does a promotion simply bring out certain innate qualities in people, or does it change them? It’s likely a combination of both. But no matter what your position on this question, I’m guessing that you’ve seen how individual behavior can change with a promotion, especially one accompanied by more power. When those changes are for the better, we all benefit. But when they are for the worse, a lot of people may pay a price.

The 1956 production of “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” is a great sci-fi movie of the era. Kevin McCarthy and the lovely Dana Wynter co-star in this suspenseful tale of Earth being invaded by alien spores that grow into pods, which eventually morph into zombie-like replacements of people in a small California town.

I’ve invoked the “body snatchers” metaphor often when witnessing individuals who, once promoted to positions of greater power, turn into something scarier than ever before.

Some get caught up with their new-found institutional power and exercise it to excess. A few use it abusively.

Others, now seeing an opportunity to climb up the greasy pole, appear to lose whatever sense of independence they possessed prior to their promotion, choosing to use their power to turn the brownnosing of superiors into an art form.

Power is, umm, powerful stuff. It is most wisely vested only in those who will be good stewards of it.

How to become an instant, overnight Hollywood success story (NOT)


If you’re a fan of NBC’s hit comedy series The Office (2005-2013), then you’re no doubt familiar with Pam Beesley, the adorable, quiet, but wise and observant receptionist of the bumbling, dysfunctional Dunder-Mufflin paper company. Jenna Fischer played Pam, and The Office was her big break. She was a series regular along with Steve Carell, Rainn Wilson, John Krasinski, and other members of a superb ensemble cast.

A couple of years ago, I stumbled upon an advice piece that Fischer wrote for Actors Info Booth, a career site for aspiring performers. It struck me as being one of the best career advice articles I’ve ever read, a rare blend of humility, encouragement, and honesty, written by someone who hadn’t forgotten what it is like to struggle toward success. I thought about sharing it with readers then, but I didn’t know quite what to do with it. Well, I went back and re-read it the other day, and I realized that it needs no framing as a piece that will benefit and encourage just about anyone who is trying to make it in a given profession or vocation. Here are a few excerpts:

Here is how I got “discovered”. I had been living in LA for about 2 years. A friend wrote a TV script and wanted to do a live stage version as a way of attracting TV producers. He asked me to play a small role. It meant lots of rehearsal for very little stage time and no pay.

…A month later, I was doing a very strange play – a musical adaptation of the movie Nosferatu – at a small theater in Los Angeles. …One night an agent came to see the play and left his card at the box office asking to meet me. He became my first agent.

Now, that sounds easy right? Well, that was all after 2 years of working as a temp, doing every acting gig I could find – usually for no pay, borrowing money to buy a new engine for my car and wearing a pair of shoes with a hole in them because I couldn’t afford anything else.

…Every year I did a little more than the year before. My first 5 years I probably earned between $100 – $2,000 a year from acting. Year 6 brought me some of my biggest success and I only made $8,000 from acting. But, I put a lot more money into my career than that.

…It will be hard to explain your first milestones to friends and family back home. They are waiting to see you on TV or on the big screen. It is hard to explain how a 2nd callback for a job you didn’t land was the highlight of your month and a very valid reason to celebrate.

…This Spring marked my 12 year anniversary in Los Angeles. I didn’t land the part of Pam on The Office until year 8. I’m hardly an overnight success.

Fischer adds that Carell, Wilson, and others of The Office cast also were not instant sensations. I wonder if those struggles contributed to their ability to deliver dead-on comedy reflecting the absurdities of all too many work environments.

In any event, I think many of you will enjoy Ms. Fischer’s full advice article.


How does “mainstream indifference” undermine compassion and dignity at work?

In The Rapture of Maturity: A Legacy of Lifelong Learning (2004), home-brewed philosopher Charles D. Hayes (and one of my favorite authors) writes about how “mainstream indifference” fuels a lack of compassion and kindness in our society:

Mainstream indifference is a form of ignorance born of inattention and apathy. Depending solely upon appearances, it is fed by pettiness and a gravitation toward whatever seems easiest. . . . Mainstream indifference is devoid of compassion; it’s a hostile. authoritative, and testosterone-laden environment where the weak are ridiculed and the poor are held in contempt regardless of the circumstances of their plight.

Hayes concludes that “indifference is a spiritless sidestepping of responsibility and a serious impediment to achieving authenticity.”

Applying Hayes’s words to the world of work, they resonate. Whether we’re talking about workplace bullying, long-term unemployment, severe income inequality, dysfunctional and stressful work environments, or a host of other challenges, indifference to the lives and work experiences of others has a lot to do with it. That’s the way things are. It’s not my problem. S/he can get another job. I’m just following orders. People tend to get what they deserve. If I just do my job and keep my mouth shut, I’ll be safe.

We have to pick our battles, as I’ve said before. But mainstream indifference, by way of opting out almost completely, is at the far end of the other side of the spectrum.

So how can we go from indifference to compassion, empathy, and dignity at work? How can we create workplaces where community and inclusion are more than empty management buzzwords? For me it starts with good leadership, but there’s more to it than that. I’ll continue to tackle these questions, and I hope you will, too.

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