The Tweeting, tyrannical workplace bully


In gauging bullying behaviors, perhaps some slack should be extended to the rough and tumble world of electioneering. After all, politics is a blood sport, right?

That said, the use of malicious, relentless, abusive behavior to humiliate and destroy targets is inexcusable, even on the campaign trail.

Which brings me to Donald Trump, whose version of political campaigning not only embraces bullying on such a scale, but also employs eliminationist, scapegoating rhetoric designed to stir up mobs. It is a playbook seemingly copied from 1930s Europe, with help from 21st century technology. It is scary and we should be scared. He embraces the bully role and, for now at least, he is getting away with it. In fact, some people are flocking to him and his virulent narcissism because of it.

Alexander Burns and Maggie Haberman, in a recent piece for the New York Times, describe what happened to Republican political strategist Cheri Jacobus when she had the temerity to criticize Trump’s debating skills:

…Mr. Trump took to Twitter, repeatedly branding Ms. Jacobus as a disappointed job seeker who had begged to work for his campaign and had been rejected. “We said no and she went hostile,” he wrote. “A real dummy!” Mr. Trump’s campaign manager told the same story on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe.”

Mr. Trump’s Twitter followers, who number about six million, piled on. For days, they replied to his posts with demeaning, often sexually charged insults aimed at Ms. Jacobus, including several with altered, vulgar photographs of her face.

Such behaviors, Burns and Haberman observe, are common for Trump:

With his enormous online platform, Mr. Trump has badgered and humiliated those who have dared to cross him during the presidential race. He has latched onto their vulnerabilities, mocking their physical characteristics, personality quirks and, sometimes, their professional setbacks. He has made statements, like his claims about Ms. Jacobus, that have later been exposed as false or deceptive — only after they have ricocheted across the Internet.

Increasingly, it appears, many Republican Party operatives are too frightened of Trump to oppose him or to criticize his methods. (South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham is a notable exception.) And some, like New Jersey Governor, fellow bully, and recent Trump endorser Chris Christie, agree with his platform and his tactics.

Mr. Trump loves to toss verbal grenades at others from the podium, but his favorite bully pulpit appears to be Twitter. While Twitter certainly has its positive qualities, it has become prime territory for launching virtual attacks on others, with vicious exchanges that make old fashioned Facebook flame wars seem mild by comparison. Trump uses Twitter to engage in what I call puppet master bullying, using outlandish, outrageous statements to stir up his base. He knows full well that they will carry his message forward, often by descending upon his target — however virtually — and creating what must feel like a mob attack on the receiving end.

In my several decades of following American politics, campaigns, and elections, I have never seen anything quite like this. The echoes of the jackboots are getting louder. Hopefully the American public will have the sense to say no to his Presidential ambitions. The stakes are too dire to let him have his way.


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The sociopathic employee handbook


I once had an opportunity to review provisions of an employee handbook from a large, mostly non-union employer in the non-profit sector. Like many employee handbooks, there were sections devoted to employee rights, obligations, and performance expectations. On the surface, this handbook seemed to provide a good number of safeguards for workers to prevent unfair treatment and evaluations.

But then I read the document more closely, and a chill ran up my spine.

This handbook was a cleverly, nay, ingeniously worded document that exposed workers to severe remedial measures, substantial discipline, or even termination for relatively minor inadequacies and transgressions. The handbook contained a lot of cool, calm, bureaucratic-sounding language, mixed in with deftly worded provisions that would allow the employer to make mountains of molehills and to quietly knife people in the back — figuratively speaking, of course.

Heh, among my reactions was that this handbook read like the handiwork of a sociopathic lawyer! 

The legal significance of employee handbooks

During recent decades, many state supreme courts have ruled that handbook provisions can be contractually binding upon employers and employees alike. At first, these judicial pronouncements were deemed victories for workers, allowing them to claim that assurances in employee handbooks could be relied upon as contractually enforceable agreements.

In some cases, it could mean that employers would be held to handbook language containing, explicitly or implicitly, employment protections or benefit promises. Given that most workers are hired on an at-will basis — meaning they can be terminated for any reason that doesn’t violate existing employment laws — these court rulings offered promise of greater job safeguards.

But since this rash of court rulings (many in the 1970s and 1980s), employers, via their human resources officers and lawyers, have gotten wise about writing employee handbooks. You see, unlike union collective bargaining agreements that are actually negotiated, the content of employee handbooks for workers who don’t have union bargaining rights is determined solely by management.  For better or worse, employee handbooks heavily weighted toward management prerogative are pretty much the norm these days. Typically, new hires get the end product of that internal process when the human resources office introduces them to the handbook during orientation.


So back to the sociopathic employee handbook.

It’s one thing to have an employee handbook that sets out, in stark terms, an autocratic, punitive work environment. However, even worse are those handbooks that have a distant appearance of fairness, while actually being loaded with details that can be used to roughhouse rank-and-file employees in twisted, gaslighting-type ways. The handbook that inspired this post falls in this latter category.

For what it’s worth, I think there is a special place in a certain hot spot for those who write and impose such documents on workers. It is, to be sure, a twisted abuse of power.


This post was revised in July 2019.

Instead of lies, spin, and deception, how about authenticity, integrity, and dignity?

You read a memo from the CEO, feeding you a line about how there’s “no money” for raises this year, though you know darn well that your company posted high earnings and paid big bonuses to folks at the top. You watch a political debate featuring candidates trying to score easy points with alarmist rhetoric and boldfaced lies. You get a pamphlet with your new credit card that cloaks in tiny, dense print how one late payment can jack up your interest rate and that any disputes with the company must be arbitrated in a different state. You listen to an attorney for a convicted, corrupt public official or executive claiming that his client is a victim of a miscarriage of justice.

We are so constantly bombarded with messages containing lies, spin, and deception that we’ve become numbed to the reality. Sometimes it seems that all we can do is shake our heads in dismay or disgust.

Okay, I’m sounding a little bit like Howard Beale in “Network” (1976), when he famously yelled “I’m as mad as hell and I’m not going to take this anymore!” But seriously, this isn’t about a simple rant. Most rants lead to temporary relief, at best, as I can attest from experience. Rather, we need to do things in a different way, and I submit that authenticity, integrity, and dignity should be our guideposts. Our institutions, communities, and politics are in bad need of these qualities, and it’s going to take a lot of effort, smarts, and determination to turn the tide.

Of course, retreat — literally or figuratively — is an option. However, while taking breaks from the seeming madness can be a healthy thing, permanently removing ourselves from the fray only guarantees that things will get worse. So, let’s step away as necessary, and then get back into the game.

The world is getting better, so let’s keep making it so


In a neat little feature for Vox, Dylan Matthews summons a variety of graphics and charts indicating that, over time, certain critical measures of quality of life around the world are getting better, not worse. For example:

  • “Extreme poverty has fallen”
  • “Child labor is on the decline”
  • “More people have access to malaria bednets”
  • “Violent crime in the US is going down”
  • “More people are going to school for longer”
  • “Access to the internet is increasing”

Okay, so maybe it’s the classic glass-is-half-full perspective, and the more curmudgeonly among us may frown and shake our heads. (Hey, I feel that way virtually every time I leave a faculty meeting….)

But perhaps this isn’t about a clash between the World as Great Place versus the World Sucks & Then We Die scenarios: Most of this progress did not occur accidentally. These social and economic improvements are largely the result of smart, dedicated initiative, innovation, enterprise, and policy, topped with generous dollops of care and humanity.

In other words, it means that those who are trying to make a difference potentially can do so, sometimes even dramatically.

So if you are engaged in some effort, big or small, to make the world a better place, and that work fuels your passion for life, keep going, be a change agent. And if you never meet many of those who are benefiting from your good works, be grateful, for it means that your efforts have caused ripple effects that are transcending your time and place.

Viktor Frankl on finding meaning in the face of great adversity

The good folks at Open Culture have given us a video interview and an essay featuring Viktor Frankl, a concentration camp survivor, psychologist, and author of the bestselling Man’s Search for Meaning. Here’s a snippet:

Among all of the psychologists, philosophers, and religious figures who have wrestled with these universal truths about the human condition, perhaps none has been put to the test quite like neurologist and psychotherapist Viktor Frankl, who survived Auschwitz, but lost his mother, father, brother, and first wife to the camps. . . . After his camp was liberated in 1945, Frankl published an extraordinary book about his experiences: Man’s Search for Meaning, “a strangely hopeful book,” writes Matthew Scully at First Things, “still a staple on the self-help shelves” though it is “inescapably a book about death.” . . .

Frankl’s thesis echoes those of many sages, from Buddhists to Stoics to his 20th century Existentialist contemporaries: “Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.” Not only did he find hope and meaning in the midst of terrible suffering, but after his unimaginable loss, he “remarried, wrote another twenty-five books, founded a school of psychotherapy, built an institute bearing his name in Vienna,” and generally lived a long, happy life. How? . . .

The interview with Frankl runs a little under a half hour and emphasizes his ideas about finding meaning in the face of extraordinarily difficult times.

Many readers of this blog are dealing with their own significant challenges, often through the experience of work. And while even the most horrific work experiences cannot be equated with genocide, I have observed here that bullying and mobbing behaviors on the job can reflect, in virulence if not in scale, the eliminationist instincts that also drive mass killings.

Accordingly, for those who have been so targeted at work, it may be helpful to become familiar with the work of a man who managed to recover from exposure to horrible atrocities and to rebuild his life. I hesitate to characterize Dr. Frankl’s work as “must read,” because anything smacking of advice, guidance, or inspiration toward a road to recovery is intensely personal as to its individual resonance. Nevertheless, I think that many will find it beneficial.


Work-life balance in academe? Meh…

Samuel Morse imagines the university as paradise (1835-36).

Samuel Morse imagines the university as paradise (1835-36)

I chuckled a bit while reading this Chronicle of Higher Education piece on work-life balance by English professor Scott Warnock (Drexel U.). At his university’s orientation program for new faculty, he staffed a table where new colleagues could talk to him about work-life balance. Alas, there were no takers. Reflecting on his lonely experience, he acknowledged that work-life balance is simply not a popular topic for academicians, sometimes at a cost:

Unlike many professions, academic life is indeed a life. It’s a calling, an essential part of you. You’ll live it for much of your waking (and, sometimes, sleeping) hours. That’s the good and bad of it. It’s not drudgery and meaninglessness. But it can eat you up. And academics are often not the kind of people who would admit that.

A university teaching career can be a wonderful blessing for anyone who enjoys the core professorial activities of teaching, scholarship, and service. This is especially so if one is fortunate to secure a tenure-track position and earn the brass ring of tenure.

However, today’s academic workplace can be a stressed out and challenging environment. As I wrote two years ago, mental health is one of the most neglected concerns in the academic workplace. In its worst manifestations, higher education can be a petri dish for horrific bullying and mobbing behaviors.

I am fortunate to be doing the work I do, but I’ve also witnessed and experienced the nasty sides of the academic workplace. On the question of work-life balance, I can attest that Prof. Warnock’s observations are wise and insightful. An academic career is truly a way of life in addition to a vocation, and that reality can bring its share of ups and downs. For me, there have been more of the former than the latter, and for that I am very grateful.


I’ve shared Samuel Morse’s allegorical landscape here before. Morse was an inventor (yes, Morse Code) and artist who taught at New York University during its earliest years. In this painting, he used NYU’s original Gothic-style building on Washington Square — alas, since torn down and replaced by a much more pedestrian structure — to represent the idea of the university as paradise. Even in my most cynical moments as an academician, I find this landscape enormously appealing.

Workplace bullying: Faces of change


Massachusetts workplace anti-bullying advocate Torii Bottomley is leading an artistic project designed to introduce the faces of workplace bullying targets to a broader public. Called “Face Workplace Bullying,” it portrays 14 individuals who have experienced workplace bullying during their work lives.

Massachusetts Healthy Workplace Advocates calls this “A new way to bring attention to workplace bullying” and provides details about how others can contact Torii and get involved.

In a quiet but significant way, these photographs represent a transition: Courageous people who have transformed from being targets of workplace bullying to becoming advocates for change. As I wrote several years ago in connection with the Healthy Workplace Bill:

Especially for targets of this abuse, the decision to become an advocate for law reform often requires courage and fortitude. Meaningful social change is often effected by those who have experienced injustice and mistreatment. In this sense, the decision to go from “victim” to advocate can be an empowering one, a personal statement that one will harness a terrible experience to help others.


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