Can America recover its dignity and find common ground after this presidential election?

A month from now, this horrible American presidential campaign will be concluded and the results should be known. Most of you aren’t surprised to know that I’ll be voting for the Democratic nominee, in large part because I dearly hope that the Republican nominee does not become our President-elect. Even if we manage to avoid that almost unthinkable result, however, I will not be cheering.

I wrote in the spring:

As this angry, vulgar, and often heartless American presidential campaign trudges toward its November 8 Election Day, I can’t help but wonder how we will start to pick up the pieces the day after.

This blog is mainly about work, workers, and workplaces. But the broader political climate certainly relates to jobs, the labor market, and employee relations, and that climate is quite dismal. Both the tone and substance of this campaign have been largely absent any sense of dignity, kindness, and empathy, and the interests of everyday workers and their families have been largely marginalized in the so-called debate.

To me this campaign represents the culmination of multiple breakdowns in our civic culture that started to brew during the latter part of the 20th century and have reached a fever pitch in the 21st. We have become unhinged and terribly polarized. We have lost our heart quality and compassion. We have lost our ability to communicate and to listen across partisan lines. A national election has become a dispiriting game show.

I carry these sentiments in light of exchanges with folks of different social, economic, and political stripes, including friends who may be voting in different ways from me on Election Day. The standard response is dismay, weariness, disgust, and/or alarm over this campaign season. However, will that understanding lead us to a better place, fueled by a commitment to jointly addressing the challenges that face us? I think it may depend on whether we can learn any lessons from this national embarrassment of the 2016 race for the White House.

Workplace bullying vs. “political correctness”

(Image courtesy of Clipart Panda)

(Image courtesy of Clipart Panda)

The other day I had an exchange with a fellow law professor who expressed great skepticism about the need for legal protections against severe workplace bullying, adding that he equated the topic with what he perceives to be an excess of political correctness in our civic dialogue. It became clear as our exchange went on that nothing I could say would sway him.

Based on his remarks to me, I think he also was coming from a place of exasperation toward current, hotly contested debates on college campuses on the need for “trigger warnings” and “safe spaces,” terms explained by Sophie Downes in the New York Times:

A trigger warning is pretty simple: It consists of a professor’s saying in class, “The reading for this week includes a graphic description of sexual assault,” or a note on a syllabus that reads, “This course deals with sensitive material that may be difficult for some students.”

A safe space is an area on campus where students — especially but not limited to those who have endured trauma or feel marginalized — can feel comfortable talking about their experiences. This might be the Office of Multicultural Student Affairs or it could be Hillel House, but in essence, it’s a place for support and community.

For what it’s worth, I’d rather have the values of respect, empathy, and intellectual rigor trying to co-exist among themselves than have either strict rules on freedom of expression or an embrace of free speech that serves as a pretext for hurtful verbal attacks on others. (The Golden Rule is a good start for me.)

But I’m not here to dive too deeply into that debate. Rather, I’m here to repeat a clarification:

Workplace bullying is not about political correctness, trigger warnings, oversensitive people, regulating speech, or mandating manners. Rather, it is about targeted, typically repeated, health-harming verbal and non-verbal abuse, often perpetrated to undermine someone’s job performance or even drive them out of the workplace.

And all too often, when targets of workplace bullying approach lawyers to see whether the legal system offers any relief from the torment, they are told sorry, as bad as this is, there are no obvious legal protections to help you.

The academic debates over political correctness and related topics are important, but we’re not even in that territory when it comes to genuine workplace bullying. Not even close.

On page one of the local paper…

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The Northwest Indiana Times reports that a “recent survey of Northwest Indiana public employees found complaints of bullying, sexual harassment and drinking in the public workplace.” Bill Dolan’s front page article in the paper’s Friday edition highlighted the results of  a survey of some “1,500 local government employees in Lake, Porter and LaPorte counties” of the Hoosier State.

I grew up with the Times as a kid living in Hammond, Indiana. As I wrote in my last post, I’m now spending a few weeks at Valparaiso University in northwest Indiana, my undergraduate alma mater, as a Visiting Scholar in Residence at VU’s School of Law. Imagine my surprise when I opened the local paper over breakfast at the roadside hotel I’m staying at to see a headline mentioning bullying at work.

As someone who has been in research, public education, and advocacy work concerning workplace bullying since the late 1990s, I am always looking for signs that bullying at work has become mainstreamed as an identifiable, nameable, employee relations concern. This is evidence of that occurring. Fifteen years ago, I doubt that a front page sub-headline of the local northwest Indiana paper would’ve included such a reference.

Indeed, during my trip here, I’ve talked to several college and high school classmates who have experienced bullying behaviors at work, sometimes seriously so. During these discussions, I no longer have to go into a lengthy “Bullying 101” intro before they start telling me their stories. Putting labels on human behavior can be tricky and sometimes contentious business, but it can help to validate experiences and create a framework for understanding them.

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