“Mass exploitation hidden in plain sight”: Idaho-bound to discuss unpaid internships

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Tomorrow I’m off to Boise, Idaho to participate in a conference — “Equality in Employment” — sponsored by the Idaho Law Review. On Friday I’ll be discussing the legal and policy implications of unpaid internships as part of a panel on exploitative labor practices.

The title of my talk and a forthcoming essay to appear in the Idaho Law Review is “‘Mass Exploitation Hidden in Plain Sight’: Unpaid Internships and the Culture of Uncompensated Work.” The first part of the title is a quote taken from a passage in Ross Perlin’s Intern Nation (rev. ed. 2012), with Ross’s blessing.

Here’s the abstract for my talk:

Although gaining internship experience has become a largely expected rite of passage for those seeking entry into many professions and vocations, until recently the legal implications of unpaid internships had remained something of a sleeping giant. In recent years, however, growing attention has been directed to this subject through litigation, legislative advocacy, social activism, and media coverage. My remarks, drawing on previous and current scholarship, will summarize the emergence of the so-called intern economy, examine the two primary legal issues relating to unpaid internships, and discuss several significant, broader policy themes concerning the intersection of internships, education, and the nature of paid employment.

It’s a lot to cover in 25 minutes, but I’ve become pretty good at focusing on the highlights! In addition, I’m looking forward to a stimulating day of presentations and discussions with learned colleagues and students at the University of Idaho College of Law.

Slow retaliation: When workplace payback is subtle, nuanced, and drawn out

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We tend to think of workplace retaliation as being immediate, dramatic, and obvious: An employee files a sexual harassment complaint against her boss and is savagely bullied in response. A worker complains of unsafe working conditions and has his hours reduced. A group of workers engage in a union organizing campaign and are terminated. And so on.

But there’s another, insidious form of retaliation sometimes visited upon those who raise legal and ethical concerns at work. 

This type of retaliation lacks the sudden oomph that easily trips the legal wires of anti-retaliation provisions and whistleblower laws. Rather, it may come in milder doses, such as smaller raises, fewer opportunities for advancement, petty criticisms and slights, and selective marginalization that stops short of complete exclusion. It is subtle, nuanced, and drawn out over time, sometimes morphing into a seemingly organic or cultural practice of treating a dissenter as the Permanent Other.

Less obvious and immediate, and cloaked in the subjective standards of the modern workplace, slow retaliation provides the perpetrators with a veneer of deniability. Even if the target has her suspicions, the tracks have been covered.

Slow retaliation typically occurs in insular, insecure, dysfunctional institutions, and it is often directed at someone whose strong performance would make sharp, full frontal retaliation all too transparent. Of course, if the target of such low-level payback ever commits a transgression or falls short in any way that opens the door for serious discipline or discharge, then the guns will come out blazing with righteous fury: Now we’ve got him in our sights. Fire away.

Legal claims for retaliation are easiest to win when the retaliatory behaviors are significant and come soon after filing a complaint or reporting a concern. By contrast, slow retaliation can be next to impossible to prove, requiring the complainant to piece together a collection of behaviors, often at the hands of different actors, in an attempt to show an orchestrated pattern in response to the triggering act. Short statutes of limitations may complicate matters as well.

The “good” news is that slow retaliation — at least in the lesser form described here — can be tolerable, falling short of behaviors that severely undermine psyches, careers, and livelihoods. This is hardly an ideal state of affairs, but in a world that often requires trade-offs in work situations, at least the target has some degree of self-negotiated choice.

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On being a globally oriented citizen

In my more self-deluded moments, I like to think of myself as being something of a “global citizen.” After all, I do some international travel, engage in work that has some transnational relevance, donate to global charities, and gratefully have friends in and from many different countries. Hey, I even subscribe to the Guardian Weekly and the Economist!

In reality, however, I’m yet another professor whose travel experiences, work, and network of friends have international dimensions. I’m just as likely to check on the fortunes of my fantasy baseball teams as I am to click to news stories of key developments in other parts of the world.

By contrast, I know a good number of people whom I count as genuine global citizens. Whether they travel around the world or not, they have a genuine international orientation that gives them a broader perspective on this planet we inhabit. Some, like my friends and colleagues connected with the Human Dignity and Humiliation Studies network, devote significant energies toward furthering peace, social justice, and humanitarian initiatives around the world.

How can we become more globally oriented citizens? This question has been crossing my mind frequently during the past year, especially in the wake of terrorist attacks around the world. Many of us should embrace a broader worldview, thus contributing to a more informed citizenry as a result. Sure, we can attend to our own little corners of the planet, but let’s also look at the world beyond our immediate surroundings.

This could be as simple as paying closer attention to news developments from around the world. It may mean bringing a more inclusive spirit to our lives, one that celebrates variety and diversity and naturally builds bonds with people from other cultures. At its most challenging levels, it can involve trying to understand and address the seemingly intractable differences that are causing so much strife today. For as President Kennedy said in his compelling 1963 speech on the urgent need to curb the nuclear arms race:

And if we cannot end now our differences, at least we can help make the world safe for diversity. For in the final analysis, our most basic common link is that we all inhabit this small planet. We all breathe the same air. We all cherish our children’s futures. And we are all mortal.

Amazon as creepy Big Brother

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After all the negative attention it received last year from a New York Times exposé of its work practices, you’d think that Amazon would strive to improve working conditions for its employees. Alas, if Josh Eidelson’s recent piece for Bloomberg Businessweek about Amazon’s treatment of its warehouse workers is any indication, apparently this is not the case:

In an effort to discourage stealing, Amazon has put up flatscreen TVs that display examples of alleged on-the-job theft, say 11 of the company’s current and former warehouse workers and antitheft staff. The alleged offenders aren’t identified by name. Each is represented by a black silhouette stamped with the word “terminated” and accompanied by details such as when they stole, what they stole, how much it was worth, and how they got caught—changing an outbound package’s address, for example, or stuffing merchandise in their socks. Some of the silhouettes are marked “arrested.”

Theft is a persistent concern for Amazon, with warehouses full of small but valuable items and a workforce with high turnover and low pay. Workers interviewed for this story say the range of thefts posted on the screens is as varied as the company’s sprawling catalog: DVDs, an iPad, jewelry, a lighter, makeup, a microwave, phone cases, Pop Rocks, video games. Several recall a post about an employee fired for stealing a co-worker’s lunch.

The plight of Amazon’s warehouse workers has long been an ongoing focus for labor advocates and anyone else interested in dignity at work. But this kind of thuggish, Big Brother behavior takes things to an Orwellian level.

Of course, there are more effective and humane management practices that serve as alternatives to Amazon’s. Costco is a prime example of a more positive approach. It offers some of the highest wages and best benefit packages in the retail sector, which, in turn, have contributed to low rates of employee theft and turnover.

Amazon has been a pioneering retailer in many ways, and I have done a lot of business with them. However, in response to their working conditions, I’ve cut down my ordering from them considerably and expressed my concerns via customer service. I don’t think that innovation and poor treatment of workers must go hand in hand. Amazon values its customers and shareholders, but it often regards its workers as disposable commodities.

It’s really not rocket science, is it? If you treat your workers with dignity, you’ll be rewarded in kind and contribute to the greater good. It sure beats shame and intimidation as standard operating procedures. Amazon, you can do better.

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Related posts

Six points on the New York Times investigative piece on Amazon’s work practices (2015)

Why I cancelled my Amazon Prime account (2014)

Servant leadership in the contemporary workplace

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Imagine a world where most leaders see their roles as serving their constituencies, imbued with a sense of the broader good, rather than simply adding bullet points to their resumes in preparation for the next climb up the greasy pole. Imagine professional cultures where ambition and the desire to advance in our careers are balanced with values of care and responsibility.

How can we grow leaders who hold themselves to these higher standards?

Massachusetts educator and organizational consultant Steven Lawrence is an emerging voice on the virtues of servant leadership, a topic that deserves much greater attention. In an essay posted to his Ground Experience site, Steve introduces servant leadership by citing the seminal work of the late Robert K. Greenleaf, founder of the Center for Applied Ethics:

Greenleaf spent more than 40 years after early retirement researching management, leadership, education, and organizational culture. Over time, he came to the conclusion that the institutions in this country -both public and private- are suffering from a “crisis in leadership.”

…Greenleaf introduces a vision of leadership in which leaders see themselves as servants first and leaders second. Leadership is viewed as an instrument of serving the greater good, not as an end itself, and the search for and acquisition of power or influence is always subsumed into the overarching desire to be of service.

Servant Leaders are fundamentally about people and define the stakeholders in their sphere of influence quite broadly, including colleagues, subordinates, and boards of directors/trustees, clients and even the world at large. They place the needs of their people as primary and will not sacrifice the needs of the organization they lead in the service of furthering their own careers.

My connection with Steve has been through our common interest in preventing and stopping workplace bullying. He discussed servant leadership in this context at the Workplace Bullying Workshop that I hosted last fall in Boston. Suffice it to say, the presence of more servant leaders in our workplaces would sharply reduce the prevalence of bullying and other forms of interpersonal mistreatment on the job.

I find the concept of servant leadership to be enormously appealing and life affirming, especially amidst professional cultures where raw ambition, private agendas, and naked ideology too often prevail. As a denizen of the academic workplace, I have witnessed and experienced the destruction wrought by self-serving administrators and board members. Looking at academe from a distance, one might visualize it as an idyllic work setting, fostered by leaders who share a love of learning, research, and ideas. All too often, this is not the case. In fact, servant leadership is increasingly rare in higher education.

So herein lies the rub: For more servant leadership, you need the presence of — yup — more servant leaders. To me this means that the philosophy and practice of servant leadership should be part of the training and orientation of future and present leaders. This doesn’t require us to cast aside our career goals and aspirations. Rather, we should treat opportunities to lead as privileges that enable us to make a difference, guided by a spirit of service.

“Friendly Fascism”: The terrifying clairvoyance of Bertram Gross

Some three and a half decades ago, social science professor and former senior public official Bertram Gross authored a remarkably prescient book about politics and society in the U.S.: Friendly Fascism: The New Face of Power in America. First published in 1980, with a revised edition issued in 1982, Friendly Fascism eerily anticipated the descent of America into a state of plutocracy — an increasingly authoritarian society run by the wealthy and powerful for their own benefit.

A defining fork in the road

In the preface to his 1982 edition, Gross identified two conflicting trends in American society:

The first is a slow and powerful drift toward greater concentration of power and wealth in a repressive Big Business-Big Government partnership. . . . The phrase “friendly fascism” helps distinguish this possible future from the patently vicious corporatism of classic fascism in the past of Germany, Italy and Japan.

…The other is a slower and less powerful tendency for individuals and groups to seek greater participation in decisions affecting themselves and others. . . . It is embodied in larger values of community, sharing, cooperation, service to others and basic morality as contrasted with crass materialism and dog-eat-dog competition.

Gross went on to identify a group of people who were consolidating power in America:

I see at present members of the Establishment or people on its fringes who, in the name of Americanism, betray the interests of most Americans by fomenting militarism, applauding rat-race individualism, protecting undeserved privilege, or stirring up nationalistic and ethnic hatreds.

Not-so-friendly fascism?

Unfortunately, it appears that the second societal vision identified by Gross — one of community, sharing, cooperation, service, and morality — has been overcome by massive concentrations of power and wealth.

We have no clearer evidence of this than the real possibility that Donald Trump will be the Republican Party standard bearer in the fall election. At the time Gross penned his book, Trump was a young, arrogant, and obnoxious (e.g., here and here) New York businessman primarily interested in money and self-promotion. However, I doubt that even Gross could’ve guessed that the Trump of today would be an exemplar of “fomenting militarism, applauding rat-race individualism, protecting undeserved privilege, or stirring up nationalistic and ethnic hatreds.”

Indeed, we are now at a point where “friendly” fascism is being supplanted by a much more aggressive, violent brand, reminiscent of Europe in the 1930s. Folks, this is not politics as usual. If Trump wins the GOP nomination and goes on to win the Presidency, then America will have chosen a dangerous, hateful path. Recently The Economist, long a voice of solid conservatism, put it well in expressing its alarm over the possibility of a Trump Presidency:

That is an appalling prospect. The things Mr Trump has said in this campaign make him unworthy of leading one of the world’s great political parties, let alone America. One way to judge politicians is by whether they appeal to our better natures: Mr Trump has prospered by inciting hatred and violence. He is so unpredictable that the thought of him anywhere near high office is terrifying. He must be stopped.

Republican policy analyst Peter Wehner has called out Trump on his constant appeals to political violence:

It is stunning to contemplate, particularly for those of us who are lifelong Republicans, but we now live in a time when the organizing principle that runs through the campaign of the Republican Party’s likely nominee isn’t adherence to a political philosophy — Mr. Trump has no discernible political philosophy — but an encouragement to political violence.

Even if Trump is stopped short of the White House, the ripple effects of his brand of thuggish, bullying rhetoric and behavior will have seeped into our communities, schools, workplaces, and civic life. Those of us committed to a more decent, kindhearted, and inclusive nation have our work cut out for us. After all, as Bertram Gross pointed out many years ago, we didn’t get to this terrible place overnight.

From hoop jumping to legacy work and places in between

(image courtesy of http://worldartsme.com)

(image courtesy of http://worldartsme.com)

Last week I invoked the writings of philosopher Charles Hayes to consider how the ripple effects of our good works can positively impact the world, perhaps in ways we will never know. I’d like to return to questions of how we can make a difference during our lives — in whatever sphere(s) we deem important — by putting on a spectrum the notion of hoop jumping on one end and the concept of legacy work on the other. Please allow me to engage in some Sunday meandering….

First, some definitions may be in order here. By “hoop jumping” I refer to schooling, credentialing, networking, and gaining initial experience. These steps take us to where we’d like to be; they position us. (This is why it is rare for a post-graduate first job to be a true “dream job.”)

By “legacy work” I mean our core contributions and accomplishments, the stuff we’d like to be remembered for in the longer run and by people we care about. In the realm of vocation, it may involve creative or intellectual work, achievement in business, service to others, building something, activism and social change work, or some type of innovation or invention.

Some people jump through their requisite hoops early, completing the heart of their formal learning at a relatively young age, promptly engaging in the necessary networking and positioning, and embarking on a long-term career that brings them much satisfaction. Certainly there may be setbacks and diversions along the way, but they start building their body of legacy work fairly early in life.

For many others, however, that process will include stops and starts, ups and downs, and recasting that often requires jumping through new hoops. A career is rarely completely linear, moving irresistibly upward until we reach some pinnacle and then retire. Furthermore, opportunities to do meaningful work, especially that which may fall into the legacy category, do not necessarily build toward some big crescendo close to the end. Whether they are handed to us or we create them, we rarely have full control over timing and sequencing!

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I realize that I have been talking mainly in the context of careers here. Nevertheless, as I’ve suggested before, one’s legacy work need not be vocational in nature. It can include parenting, caregiving, an engaging avocation, a deeply meaningful hobby, or charitable work. For some, a “day job” may pay the bills, but an unrelated project or endeavor brings the deeper meaning.

Over the years, I have witnessed these scenarios many times. With some people, the discovery of legacy work has actually been a re-discovery, marking a return to interests and passions they put on the shelf in years past.

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Let me also acknowledge the sense of great economic and social privilege implicit in what I’m writing about. Those of us who are in a position to devote a good chunk of our waking hours to endeavors that provide satisfaction, meaning, accomplishment, and even joy are very fortunate. Countless millions of people around the world do not have that luxury; they are living in survival mode.

I hesitate to characterize such blessings as constituting a finger wagging obligation to make the most of them and to contribute something good to the world. That said, we live in a world in serious need of more joy, creativity, humanity, and compassion. Who wants to look back at a life only to see a lot of wonderful opportunities squandered and wasted?

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Looking at the tortoise and the hare folktale, I personally identify more with the tortoise, at least when it comes to this general subject. In fact, I look with admiration at those folks who have figured things out much earlier than I did. I started this blog in 2008, over twenty years into my career as a lawyer and law professor. I now understand that it took me that long to forge a sufficiently wise, authentic, and mature worldview to start writing for a more public audience on the topics that frequent these pages.

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