Westhues: Major clues signaling social elimination & mobbing at work

For anyone who wants to learn about the nitty-gritty dynamics of workplace mobbing, especially in academic institutions, sociologist Kenneth Westhues’s (U. Waterloo, Canada) invaluable, thought-provoking body of work is worthy of close study. One of Ken’s most important books is among his earliest, The Envy of Excellence (2004), a thorough case study of the mobbing and eventual dismissal of University of Toronto professor Herbert Richardson, a respected theologian and scholar. Clocking in at over 350 pages, with a 130 pp. appendix of responsive essays by other scholars, it is a bizarre, fascinating, and disturbing tale, and Ken uses it to theorize about and comment upon mobbing processes overall.

Among other things, Ken sets out basic clues for when “social elimination” is likely to occur where a targeted worker has given others a supposed reason to push them out. The first and primary clue is “the eliminators’ focus on the targeted person, rather than on the allegedly offensive act,” manifesting in “personally derisive and humiliating statements” about the target. At this juncture, “the eliminative impulse has been unleashed.”

Westhues adds ten additional clues suggesting that the eliminative process is underway:

  • “A popular, high-achieving target.”
  • “Lack of due process.”
  • “Odd timing.”
  • “Resistance to external review.”
  • “Secrecy.”
  • “Unanimity.” (on the part of the eliminators)
  • “Fuzzy charges.”
  • “Prior marginalization.”
  • “Impassioned rhetoric.”
  • “Back-biting.”

I bet that a lot of folks who have experienced or observed severe mobbing or bullying at work would nod their heads in agreement on many of these factors.

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Note: Those wishing to obtain a copy of Westhues’s book may be able to find comparatively inexpensive pre-formal publication paperback copies under the title Administrative Mobbing at the University of Toronto.

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How bad organizations create outsiders

For many years I’ve used the term institutional construction of outsider status to describe how bad organizations turn internal critics into outsiders, even if they remain on the payroll. The critics are generally competent — perhaps even excellent — at their jobs, but to the dismay of their employers, they will say what’s on their minds, offer suggestions for improvement, and when necessary raise ethical or legal concerns.

For whatever reasons (legal, practical, etc.), the respective organizations do not rid themselves of these individuals, at least not immediately. However, at best the organizations sort of tolerate them, while finding ways to subtly and not-so-subtly marginalize them. Such responses may fall short of outright ostracism, hostility, or retaliation, but suffice it to say that targets of such marginalization will never be in the inner circle and will never be seriously considered for certain types of promotions. They may also begin to feel isolated, as the organization’s responses (or non-responses) to their criticisms can send cues to co-workers to stay away from them. The targets may well perceive what’s happening, but they often find that it’s not easy to challenge practices, behaviors, and decisions that are cloaked in foggy subjectivity. At times, targets will internalize their perceived isolation and further withdraw from certain types of organizational engagement.

I see this a lot in academic institutions, where protections of tenure and academic freedom are designed in part to safeguard faculty speech, thus making it harder to discipline or terminate professors for expressing themselves on matters related to institutional governance and scholarly work. Lacking the right to simply get rid of a critical tenured faculty member who is performing satisfactorily, the schools will find ways to tolerate and marginalize the individual. Of course, tenured professors should never assume that they are bulletproof from wrongful retaliation for their exercise of free speech, even though tenure does add a strong layer of protection.

Unions and collective bargaining agreements (CBA) can also provide employees with greater free speech protections than those enjoyed by the average American worker. The typical CBA stipulates that a covered employee may be terminated only for just cause, which is usually defined as failure to perform competently, material misconduct, or financial necessity. Labor laws also afford these workers with the right to engage in concerted activities for mutual aid or protection.

As welcomed as these protections may be for workers fortunate to have them, they can only do so much. As I suggested above, no one is truly bulletproof in today’s workplace. If one is employed at a not-so-great organization and decides to become a critic, at the very least they can expect to be marginalized and to face an opaque ceiling when it comes to advancement.

On racism and bias: Research confirms that Rodgers & Hammerstein got it right

In the aftermath of the Charlottesville, Virginia, white supremacist rally, the Washington Post‘s William Wan and Sarah Kaplan set out to learn about the science behind racism and bias. Here’s an answer from one social psychologist they interviewed:

“In some ways, it’s super simple. People learn to be whatever their society and culture teaches them. We often assume that it takes parents actively teaching their kids, for them to be racist. The truth is that unless parents actively teach kids not to be racists, they will be,” said Jennifer Richeson, a Yale University social psychologist. “This is not the product of some deep-seated, evil heart that is cultivated. It comes from the environment, the air all around us.”

And here’s more from another psychology prof:

“An us-them mentality is unfortunately a really basic part of our biology,” said Eric Knowles, a psychology professor at New York University who studies prejudice and politics. “There’s a lot of evidence that people have an ingrained even evolved tendency toward people who are in our so-called ‘in group.’”

But how we define those groups, and the tendency to draw divisions along racial lines, is social, not biological, he added. “We can draw those lines in a number of ways that society tells us,” he said.

…“The most likely predictor of that is exposure to a kind of ideology,” Knowles said. Most if not all people carry implicit biases and unexamined prejudices, he said, and some may harbor feelings of fear or resentment that they don’t express in public.

These insights are important, and kudos to these reporters for presenting a scientific perspective on the racism that motivated this horrible event. As helpful as this research is, however, it only reaffirms what some folks have known for years: That bigotry and bias are taught and reinforced by society.

In fact, if you want a more pop culture approach to this basic postulate, go back to the classic Rodgers & Hammerstein musical “South Pacific,” which opened on Broadway in 1949 and was later made into a movie in 1958. Set on a South Pacific island during World War II, the show deals with serious issues of race and color and was considered quite controversial for its time. One of the numbers, “You’ve Got To Be Carefully Taught,” is about how people learn racist beliefs and intolerance. Go here or click above for a snippet of the song from the movie version.

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Related note: The Bloomberg/BNA Daily Labor Report interviewed me about the employment law implications of the Charlottesville rally in this piece, “Can You Fire Someone for Attending a Rally of Racists?”

Can an employer fire a publicly-avowed white supremacist?

Screenshot of rally photo from Huffington Post

While following developments concerning the horrific white supremacist/neo-Nazi/KKK rally in Charlottesville, Virginia this weekend, I asked myself, how would I like to be working with one of these lovely individuals? I then thought, if I was a manager, could I simply fire a white supremacist for participating in the rally?

The answer to the first question is easy and purely personal: No way would I want to share office space, a cubicle area, an office suite, a store floor, or a factory floor with one of these folks. And as an Asian American, I assume they’d feel the same way towards me.

The answer to the second question is more objective, complicated, and nuanced: Yes, in many instances the law would allow a manager to terminate a white supremacist for participating in the rally, but there are potential exceptions and twists, especially for unionized and/or public employees. Without pretending to be exhaustive on the topic, here’s a brief lowdown of relevant legal rules:

  • In the U.S., the rule of at-will employment is the presumptive legal hiring relationship. Among other things, it means that an employer can hire or fire someone for any reason or no reason at all, so long as it does not violate existing legal protections or obligations.
  • Fair or not, the rule of at-will employment allows employers to make hiring and termination decisions based even on many types of off-site, non-work-related activities.
  • Employment discrimination law prohibits discrimination against or harassing of other employees on the basis of certain characteristics, including race, sex, religion, color, national origin, age, and disability. This would be especially relevant if someone took their white supremacist messages into the workplace.
  • For private-sector workers, constitutional free speech protections do not apply to their jobs.
  • For public-sector workers, constitutional free speech protections may apply if they are speaking out on matters of public concern in ways that aren’t related to or internally disruptive of their work. (Yes, as noxious as it may be to some of us, it is arguable that a public-sector worker participating in this rally would be protected from termination under this set of legal rules.)
  • For unionized workers, collective bargaining agreements may provide additional substantive and procedural safeguards for wrongful termination, which may cover off-site conduct.
  • A minority of employees have individual employment contracts with so-called morals clauses that may be relevant in these situations. 
  • State law can matter in these situations. Connecticut, for example, has a broad employee free speech law that covers both private and public sector workers. California has a law that protects employees’ right to political expression.
  • If an employee engaged in violent behavior, especially that leading to a criminal conviction, their potential legal protections against wrongful termination would severely diminish.

Taking all these points into consideration, what does this mean for whether employers could fire workers for participating in one of these rallies on their own time? Bottom line is that many private-sector employees could probably be terminated without much risk of liability, but that public-sector workers may be able to raise constitutional free-speech protections. However — and here’s my lawyer’s analytical caution entering the picture — each situation would have to be evaluated individually. There’s no sweeping, catch-all rule that answers this question as yes or no for every situation.

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August 14 update: This topic has gained relevance due to efforts by certain civil rights/social media activists to “out” white supremacist protesters who are appearing in published photographs of the Charlottesville rally. Apparently the first protester to lose his job is a young man who worked at a fast food eatery, Top Dog, in Berkeley, California, per this piece in the UC-Berkeley student newspaper. 

If readers detect some ambivalence on my part on the use of such tactics, then their perceptions are accurate. I abhor and detest these white supremacists and their worldview. But I also have concerns over how social media can be used to go after anyone in ways that have significant consequences. I think we need to be very careful about determining one’s suitability for employment based on off-site conduct that, while deeply objectionable, may be legal. 

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Though slightly dated, the legal discussion in my 1998 law review article on the free speech rights of private-sector employees, “Voices from the Cubicle: Protecting and Encouraging Private Employee Speech in the Post-Industrial Workplace” (Berkeley Journal of Employment and Labor Law), remains largely intact today. You may access it without charge here.

Work, savings, retirement: Generation Jones is getting hammered

If you were born between 1954 and 1965, then you may identify as a member of “Generation Jones,” that large cohort sandwiched between classic Baby Boomers and classic Generation Xers. The thesis is that Gen Jonesers, on average, have had very different life experiences than those of folks in the two iconic groupings. Indeed, with a 1959 birthdate, I am a card-carrying member of Generation Jones, and I have long believed that, on balance, our group is different than the mainstream Boomers with which we are often categorized.

Gen Jonesers now range from their early 50s and early 60s. And currently, this age group is getting hammered by economic conditions and policies, personal financial circumstances, and frequent age discrimination in the workplace.

To some extent, this Generation Jones has been snakebitten by broader events. During the early 1980s, many graduated into a terrible recession that limited entry-level job opportunities. This was also a time when America’s industrial jobs base went into sharp decline (a trend continuing to this day), wages started to flatline (ditto), and employers began eliminating pension plans (ditto again).

Fast forwarding, the Great Recession hit during what should’ve been Gen Jonesers’ strongest earning years, the heart of their 40s and early 50s. Many lost jobs and livelihoods during that time and have struggled to recover. Some have never recovered. Gen Jonesers are now hurtling toward what have been considered traditional retirement years; most are within 10-15 years of that time. But as I have written often on this blog (here, for example), America faces a retirement funding crisis of major proportions.

My own interest in this topic relates to my work on workplace bullying. I’ve witnessed the challenges that face those in middle age who have lost jobs and livelihoods due to bullying, mobbing, and abuse at work. The ongoing specter of age discrimination often undermines their efforts to seek new employment.

These are difficult topics, but they are vitally important, and they should be front and center in our national political and policy debates, even though anyone following the news knows they are not. For those who want to learn and think more, however, I’ll make two suggestions:

First, watch Elizabeth White’s TEDx talk, “Fifty-five, Unemployed, Faking Normal.” It’s an 18-minute reflection on what it means to have lost your job at middle age and to face the financial challenges that can follow. I’ve written about her important work before, and I’m a big fan of her book, Fifty-Five, Unemployed, and Faking Normal: Your Guide to a Better Life (2016). Richard Eisenberg, writing for the Next Avenue blog, previews White’s TEDx talk:

White’s TEDx Talk, filmed earlier this year in Richmond, Va., is a composite of her story and her friends’ — women and men in their 50s who are “faking normal.” By that, White’s talking about people who had good careers and lives until they didn’t. She describes them in the TEDx Talk as people who “entered the uncertain world of formerly and used to be.”

Second, read Elizabeth Olson’s New York Times piece, “Shown the Door, Older Workers Find Bias Hard to Prove,” which explains the legal challenges facing laid off workers who are alleging age discrimination:

Yet, even as the work force has a large number of older employees, one of the principal tools to fight such discrimination, the Age Discrimination in Employment Act — which Congress passed a half-century ago — may not be up to the task, said Laurie A. McCann, a lawyer with AARP Foundation Litigation, which is providing legal counsel to the Wichita plaintiffs.

“Ageism unfortunately remains pervasive in the American work force,” she said. Only two of the cases the E.E.O.C. filed in court last year involved the federal age discrimination act, according to a list assembled by AARP, the nonprofit older citizens group.

They were among a total of only 86 workplace discrimination cases litigated in court last year, AARP found. Few cases are taken to court because such complaints are complicated and expensive; it can take a long time to assemble relevant evidence and testimony.

Workplace bullying and mobbing: Toxic systems and the eliminationist mindset

(Drawing by Aaron Maeda, copyright 2016)

Virulent instances of workplace mistreatment often involve an eliminationist intention on the part of the chief aggressor(s). Two years ago I wrote that the eliminationist instinct may express itself in several ways, including workplace bullying and mobbing behaviors. It often reflects a desire not only to eliminate an employee from the workplace, but also to undermine the individual’s livelihood and health even after departure from the organization.

This year I’ve also been thinking a lot about the roles of lead aggressors vs. roles played by other organizational actors in work abuse situations, especially from a systems theory perspective that examines how human roles and interactions culminate in systems that produce certain results. In May I wrote:

Thus, a typical campaign of severe bullying or mobbing at work involves multiple players, including but hardly limited to:

  • The main aggressor(s);
  • The supervisor or boss of the main aggressor(s), in order to ratify and sometimes further the abuse;
  • On frequent occasion, peers recruited/pressured/incentivized to join in on the abuse;
  • Human resources personnel to bureaucratically process the abuse through review and discipline of the target;
  • Legal counsel to provide cover for the organization and sometimes direct additional intimidation toward the target.

These players join to create systems of abuse, sometimes tightly coordinated, other times acting in a sort of auto-pilot mode. Not infrequently, players outside of the workplace are enlisted to help out as well, thereby extending the system beyond the office or plant.

Recently I also speculated whether work abusers represented a “few bad apples” or a terribly bad harvest, suggesting that “(b)ad behaviors are typically enabled, endorsed, and/or empowered by bad organizations.”

So here are my questions for today: When does a whole system basically internalize the eliminationist mindset? When does the organizational toxicity metastasize to the point where most, if not all, relevant actors are now emotionally committed to eliminating the target? What factors and influences create this dynamic, which at this juncture is usually a full-on mobbing? As I wrote in April, such abuse can take on a multi-directional, blitzkrieg approach designed “to disorient, confuse, frighten, weaken, and ultimately disable the target.” 

These thoughts hopefully further the conversation about individual vs. organizational accountability for bullying and mobbing behaviors. As I suggested in February, it really should be about both. In the worst situations that I’ve become familiar with, the net must be cast widely in terms of identifying responsible players, typically implicating the organization as a whole.

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