Beyond graduation: On becoming a lifelong learner

A degree or diploma can open doors to new vistas and opportunities, and this month of graduation ceremonies serves as a meaningful reminder of that. In addition, it’s vitally important to remember that learning can and should be a lifelong process. Fostering and nurturing a love of lifelong learning can pay dividends for the rest of one’s days.

That’s why a neat little piece by career management consultant Bruce Harpham, “10 Things Only People Who Can’t Stop Learning Would Understand,” is a timely read. Here are some of the highlights:

  • “They expand their library of books regularly.”
  • “They enjoy deeply exploring their interests and hobbies.”
  • “They use what they learn to improve their lives.”
  • “They know how to pursue lifelong learning on a budget.”
  • “They know how to use journals and reflection to learn from their mistakes and errors.”

It’s an excellent article, well worth your quick read.


In addition, two guides to lifelong learning by one of my favorite authors, Ronald Gross, are also worth picking up: The first is Peak Learning (1999), which incorporates advice and insights in Ron’s friendly, encouraging writing voice. The second is Socrates’ Way: Seven Keys to Using Your Mind to the Utmost (2002), which draws on the life and lessons of the Greek philosopher to teach us how to enrich our lives and enhance our thinking.

In terms of references to computer technology, both books are slightly dated, but the content remains extremely useful and inspiring. Ron is a leading adult educator who popularized the term lifelong learning in the 1970s. For anyone looking to create a program of self-generated learning for personal enrichment and career growth, these books are great resources.

The workplace pontificator

Most of us have experienced it, and some of us have engaged in it: Pontificating at work. You know, the practice of eating up valuable meeting time by yammering away incessantly as a way of showing off supposed knowledge or insight, establishing alleged expertise, and/or marking one’s territory.

On the scale of undesirable workplace “interactions” (word placed in quotes because it’s not really an interactive experience), being in the room with a workplace pontificator is more annoying or exasperating than hostile or abusive. Thus it thankfully falls short of bullying or other forms of workplace mistreatment.

If you’ve been in a given organization long enough, then you can actually start to estimate the numbers of hours wasted and never recovered due to being held verbally captive by workplace pontificators. In academe, my bailiwick, those numbers may start to look scary. My guess is that professions grounded in verbal facility are especially susceptible to these behaviors. 

What drives the pontificator?

Well, when I’ve engaged in pontificating (hopefully a rarer event over time!), it usually has been as a mask for my insecurity, fueling an attempt to puff up myself to the unfortunate listeners. By contrast, others feeling unsure about themselves may hide their lights under a bushel and opt not to share what might’ve been great insights. (Funny, isn’t it, how the same uncertainties about ourselves can result in different behaviors!)

Of course, some pontificators are fueled by entitlement, not insecurity. They believe they know it all, regardless of the truth of that assumption. Alas, their social intelligence is too underdeveloped to cue them to stop. It’s like flipping on a switch that cannot be turned off, absent a forceful intervention or death.

What can be done about the workplace pontificator?

The individual chairing the meeting can set rules or intervene in ways that try to cut down on long-winded remarks. (If the pontificator is the meeting chair, then it’s time to take hallucinogens.) A group can also set express expectations of participation, sending a message that extended speeches will be frowned upon.

An individual’s ability to keep a pontificator in check often depends on his or her standing within the organization. Generally, a subordinate usually isn’t in a position to send that message, but someone in a higher position may be able to do so.

At times it may be possible to leave the meeting, purely as a sanity-preserving survival response. It helps to be known as a busy person, so the reason for your sudden exit doesn’t appear too obvious. Others will envy you.

I could go on and on about this topic, but that would be pontificating. I hope that I’ve at least hit the big points.

Looking ahead to Freedom From Workplace Bullies Week 2015


The Workplace Bullying Institute recently sent out a reminder that October 18-24, 2015, will be the annual Freedom From Workplace Bullies Week. I thought that this would be good opportunity for all of us to start thinking about how we might use that time to engage in public education about workplace bullying.

Here in Boston, I’m sure we’ll do something to mark the occasion. In 2012, we had a great program featuring Dr. Ronald Schouten, author of Almost a Psychopath and director of the Law and Psychiatry Service at Massachusetts General Hospital, followed by a distinguished panel including mediator Ericka Gray, organizational consultant Paula Parnagian, union president Greg Sorozan, and employment attorney David Wilson.

I’m not sure what we’ll do this year, but I’d definitely like to foster a good conversation among people who are working to address workplace bullying in their corner of the world.

And, dear readers, Freedom Week also should serve as your invitation to organize and host some type of event. It doesn’t have to be a major conference or program; it can be a gathering of a handful of people who care about this topic and want to do something about it.

Workplace mistreatment: The importance of cross-situational empathy

Comprehending one form of workplace mistreatment, abuse, or trauma ideally should make us more empathetic toward those going through different, but similar experiences.

However, this is not always so. Over the years, on occasion I have observed the unfortunate tendency of some people who have experienced serious workplace mistreatment to be dismissive of the difficult experiences of others, even when those situations bear similarities to their own. For example:

  • Targets of workplace bullying who are dismissive of people alleging discrimination on the basis of race, sex, or some other group;
  • Those who are deeply concerned about discrimination in society but are dismissive of claims of workplace bullying, assuming that it’s not as bad; and,
  • Professionals who rail against the unfair or wrongful treatment that disrupted their career tracks, but who disregard the sufferings of underpaid and mistreated low-wage workers here and abroad; and,
  • Targets of workplace mobbing (group bullying) who put down targets of more one-to-one workplace bullying, as if mobbing by definition is worse.

I’m not suggesting that all forms of workplace mistreatment are alike and that we should regard them equally. Far from it. They may vary greatly in severity and longevity.

But they all involve various levels of distress, fear, anger, want, pain, and injustice, sometimes with long-term impacts.

Of course, drawing lines on our empathy may also be a defensive mechanism, a guard against “empathy exhaustion,” a more lay version of what clinicians might call compassion fatigue for those involved in medical and caregiving work. Indeed, with all the suffering in the world, can we really pour our hearts out to all of it without eventually burning out? Perhaps not, at least for us mere mortals.

But as I wrote some time ago, we need to connect the dots between various forms of trauma and mistreatment in order to comprehend how power is used and abused in our society. Sometimes it will lead us to understanding common sources and systems. That horribly bullied mid-level manager in a local manufacturing plant and that sexually harassed staff assistant working at the company’s corporate headquarters? The roots of their mistreatment may have a lot more in common than first meets the eye.

Only when we understand these commonalities can we build a broad-based movement that affirms the importance of dignity at work for all.


Great video on empathy — and under 3 minutes!

I’m changing the subject slightly, but as long as we’re talking about empathy, here’s a great little animated video on the subject by Dr. Brené Brown, author of Daring Greatly: How the Courage to be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent and Lead (2013):

Mental Health Blog Day 2015


The American Psychological Association has dubbed May 20 as Mental Health Blog Day “to educate the public about mental health, decrease stigma about mental illness, and discuss strategies for making lasting lifestyle and behavior changes that promote overall health and wellness.” In response, I thought I’d collect a handful of articles from the past year that may resonate with this overall theme.

Mainstreaming psychological well-being in the law: TJ’s challenge (April 2015) — “What if our laws and legal systems focused on creating psychologically healthy outcomes for parties involved in legal matters and for society as a whole? What if considerations of economics (leaning right) and rights (leaning left) in creating law and policy were screened through the lens of psychological well-being of people affected by those laws and policies?”

Free course: The Science of Happiness (March 2015) — “Last fall I took a free online course, ‘The Science of Happiness,’ facilitated and taught by leading authorities on positive psychology. I thought it would be enlightening and useful not only for work, but also for my life in general. I was not disappointed. It was an excellent course, well-conceived and clearly organized, with plenty of compelling content. I can recommend it enthusiastically to my readers.”

Targets of workplace bullying: Pursuing healthy, immersive activities away from the job (January 2015) — “For some, delving into a positive, engaging, and immersive activity may serve as a healthy alternative to ruminating over a terrible work situation. This may be in the form of a hobby, a personal project, an avocation, volunteer work, or creating a side business. Shelley Lane did just that as she stepped back in time with her study abroad journals in the midst of her experience with workplace bullying.”

On being a change agent: The role of “Edgewalker” (December 2014) — “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 am powerless” (Probably not, but let’s talk about it) (November 2014) — “Over the past couple of months, I’ve taken note of essays and blog posts where individuals have shared a sense of powerlessness to change things for the better. The saddest of these are proclamations: “I am powerless to (fill in the blank)….” They come from good people who care about making the world a better place, yet have reached a place of deep exasperation, frustration, or hopelessness. Some are venting, others are mourning. Some, having gotten it off their chest, will jump back into the fray, while others seem poised move on or withdraw.”

The courage of Monica Lewinsky (October 2014) — “For some 16 years, Monica Lewinsky has been paying a dear price for youthful mistakes that she happened to make with the President of the United States. Her affair with President Bill Clinton while serving as a White House intern became public in 1998, and it almost toppled Clinton’s Presidency. . . . In “Shame and Survival,” a piece that she authored for the June issue of Vanity Fair, Lewinsky, now 41, writes for the first time about what the ensuing years have been like. She describes the cruelties, ridicule, and humiliation, frankly but without excessive self-pity. . . . Lewinsky writes about her experiences with heart, insight, and thoughtful restraint.”

Competing visions of the “good life” (July 2014) — “John Ohliger (1926-2004) [was] an iconoclastic, pioneering adult educator, civic activist, and public intellectual whose work I have mentioned before on this blog. . . . 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.’”

As graduation season approaches, some words of advice to students (and others) (May 2014) — “As a law professor at Suffolk University Law School, I’ve been serving as the founding faculty advisor to a new student-edited law journal, Bearing Witness: A Journal on Law and Social Responsibility. . . . When the editors of Bearing Witness invited faculty to contribute short pieces of advice for the second issue, I wasn’t sure what to offer. But then I started thinking about life in general, and suddenly the words came easier. Do not assume that I’ve done all these things right; rather, some of these points represent lessons learned. Here goes . . . .”


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U.S. Education Department survey: School bullying on the decline

Last week, the U.S. Department of Education announced survey results showing that school bullying is on the decline. Here’s a snippet of an Associated Press piece (via the Boston Globe):

The Education Department announced survey results Friday that found 22 percent of students age 12 to 18 said they were bullied in 2013. The figure, down 6 percentage points from 2011, is the lowest level since the National Center for Education Statistics began surveying students in 2005.

Could it be that a combination of public education, legal and policy responses, and greater attention by educational stakeholders is making a difference?

Research support

Buttressing these efforts is a growing body of research. For example, the American Psychological Association’s membership journal, American Psychologist, is devoting an issue to a collection of articles examining 40 years of research on school bullying:

A special issue of American Psychologist® provides a comprehensive review of over 40 years of research on bullying among school age youth, documenting the current understanding of the complexity of the issue and suggesting directions for future research.

. . . The special issue consists of an introductory overview . . . by [Shelley Hymel and Susan Swearer], co-directors of the Bullying Research Network, and five articles on various research areas of bullying including the long-term effects of bullying into adulthood, reasons children bully others, the effects of anti-bullying laws and ways of translating research into anti-bullying practice.

Implications for adult and workplace bullying

I dearly hope that this is firm trend. We know that bullying of school-age children can have lasting effects going well into adulthood. Furthermore, kids who become aggressors will sometimes continue those behaviors in family and workplace settings as they grow older.

In terms of looking at school anti-bullying efforts as a whole, perhaps we’re seeing the cumulative effect of many different initiatives. This would make sense. Bullying is not a purely individual phenomenon, and it requires multiple, intersecting, interacting responses to reduce its frequency.

Moreover, those of us in the workplace anti-bullying movement can draw lessons from measures to prevent and respond to bullying in other social contexts. School and workplace bullying have similarities and differences, but ultimately we’re talking about variations on a theme.

Slowly but surely, workplace bullying laws are becoming a reality in the U.S.


Not too long ago, any reference to workplace bullying laws in the U.S. was purely aspirational. During the past three years, however, several states and municipalities have enacted workplace bullying laws that, while falling short of providing comprehensive protection to targets of these behaviors, signal America’s growing commitment to using the legal system to prevent and respond to abusive work environments.

Since 2003, some 30 American states and territories have considered some form of workplace bullying legislation, a variation of the Healthy Workplace Bill, model anti-bullying legislation I have drafted that provides targets of severe workplace bullying with a legal claim for damages and creates liability-reducing incentives for employers to act preventively and responsively toward bullying behaviors at work.

As the full versions of the Healthy Workplace Bill continue to gain support in state legislatures, several jurisdictions have enacted some form of workplace bullying legislation. Here is a brief summary:

Fulton County, Georgia (2012)

In 2012, the Commissioners of Fulton County, Georgia, adopted a workplace anti-bullying policy that covers county employees. Under the policy, suspension and termination are possible sanctions for those who engage in severe bullying behaviors.

The Fulton County measure prohibits abusive conduct such as repeated derogatory insults and epithets; conduct of a threatening or intimidating nature; and the deliberate sabotage of someone’s work.

Tennessee (2014)

In 2014, Tennessee enacted a statute directing a state commission to develop a model workplace anti-bullying policy for potential adoption by state, country, and local governmental entities. The new law does not create a legal cause of action for bullied workers. Rather, adoption of the state’s model policy or one that comports with its essential features will insulate a public entity from liability:

 …(I)f an employer adopts the model policy . . . or adopts a policy that conforms to the requirements set out in [the statute}, then the employer shall be immune from suit for any employee’s abusive conduct that results in negligent or intentional infliction of mental anguish. Nothing in this section shall be construed to limit the personal liability of an employee for any abusive conduct in the workplace.

Obviously this is far from ideal. The specific language of the immunity provision potentially transforms the Tennessee statute into an employer safeguard measure rather than an employee protection law. The model policy has been developed, drawing heavily upon language of the Healthy Workplace Bill, but so far Tennessee officials have balked at adopting and implementing it.

California (2014)

California’s employment discrimination statute requires “(a)n employer having 50 or more employees” to “provide at least two hours of classroom or other effective interactive training and education regarding sexual harassment to all supervisory employees in California within six months of their assumption of a supervisory position.” Now, thanks to the 2014 amendment, covered employers must include “prevention of abusive conduct” in these training and education programs. “Abusive conduct” is defined as:

…conduct of an employer or employee in the workplace, with malice, that a reasonable person would find hostile, offensive, and unrelated to an employer’s legitimate business interests. Abusive conduct may include repeated infliction of verbal abuse, such as the use of derogatory remarks, insults, and epithets, verbal or physical conduct that a reasonable person would find threatening, intimidating, or humiliating, or the gratuitous sabotage or undermining of a person’s work performance. A single act shall not constitute abusive conduct, unless especially severe and egregious.

The definition is a verbatim adoption of that contained in an earlier template version of the Healthy Workplace Bill. Furthermore, California’s requirements for sexual harassment training and education are fairly specific, but it is unclear from the language of the amendment whether training and education concerning workplace bullying will have to be as thorough as that for sexual harassment. Nevertheless, this will surely give rise to the development and marketing of education and training programs.

The California amendment does not create an independent legal claim for abusive conduct, which makes references to legally actionable conduct covered in the state’s discrimination law inapplicable to bullying situations unrelated to protected class status. However, this amendment at least raises the possibility of bullying-related wrongful discharge claims grounded in contract theory, and it certainly has caught the attention of California’s employment lawyers.

Utah (2015)

Earlier this year, Utah enacted a law requiring state agencies to train state supervisors and employees about how to prevent abusive conduct. This training, to be provided biannually, must include the definition of abusive conduct, its ramifications, resources available, and the employer’s grievance process. In addition, professional development training will also cover ethical conduct and leadership practices based on principles of integrity. The law covers only state workers and does not create a legal claim for bullying-related conduct.


  1. Workplace bullying legislation will be increasingly significant to employee relations stakeholders in the U.S.
  1. The current trend of legislative activity strongly favors public sector interventions.
  1. Laws such as California’s, which implicate private sector employers, are likely to have wider ripple effects on employee relations stakeholders, including lawyers, consultants, and trainers.
  1. The enacted state laws are very limited in scope. They heavily favor anti-bullying policies and training, while resisting the creation of new legal claims for damages for workplace bullying. This is not sufficient to encourage employers to take workplace bullying seriously.
  1. The definition of abusive work environments (a/k/a workplace bullying) as set out in the template Healthy Workplace Bill is very evident in recently enacted laws.

As I’ve written here before, legislative advocacy requires ongoing patience and determination; it is a not a game for those who expect quick, effective responses to even the most significant of problems. Nevertheless, this shows we’re making progress. American state legislatures in so-called red and blue states alike are demonstrating a willingness to seriously consider and even enact workplace bullying laws.


This blog post is adapted from my presentation, “The Impact of New Workplace Bullying Laws on American Employee Relations Stakeholders,” at last week’s Work, Stress, and Health conference, co-sponsored by the American Psychological Association, National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, and Society for Occupational Health Psychology.

Those who would like to read more in-depth commentaries about workplace bullying and the law may freely download my law review article on this and related topics from my Social Science Research Network page.

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