Toxic work environments in the social justice, non-profit sector

Image courtesy of Clipart Kind

I have long insisted that workplace bullying and other forms of worker mistreatment are not limited to the big bad corporate sector. The non-profit sector has its own problems with bullying and toxic work environments. Recent reports about working conditions at two prominent social justice non-profits, the Southern Poverty Law Center and Amnesty International, are sadly reinforcing this reality.

Southern Poverty Law Center

Bob Moser’s recent, in-depth New Yorker piece about the Southern Poverty Law Center, examines the work climate, fundraising operations, and allegations of racial discrimination and sexual harassment at the venerable civil rights organization, in the wake of the termination of co-founder Morris Dees, a lawyer and well-known figure in the civil rights community. Moser writes:

The official statement sent by [SPLC president Richard] Cohen, who took control of the S.P.L.C. in 2003, didn’t specify why Dees had been dismissed, but it contained some broad hints. “We’re committed to ensuring that our workplace embodies the values we espouse—truth, justice, equity, and inclusion,” Cohen wrote. “When one of our own fails to meet those standards, no matter his or her role in the organization, we take it seriously and must take appropriate action.”

To Moser, a one-time SPLC staffer, the apparent circumstances that led to Dees’s ouster were not a surprise. Upon his arrival as a writer in 2001, Moser quickly understood that the organization was a place of contradictions:

But nothing was more uncomfortable than the racial dynamic that quickly became apparent: a fair number of what was then about a hundred employees were African-American, but almost all of them were administrative and support staff—“the help,” one of my black colleagues said pointedly. The “professional staff”—the lawyers, researchers, educators, public-relations officers, and fund-raisers—were almost exclusively white. Just two staffers, including me, were openly gay.

Prior to Moser’s arrival, several periodicals had published articles critical of the SPLC’s own record on racial and sexual diversity:

Co-workers stealthily passed along these articles to me—it was a rite of passage for new staffers, a cautionary heads-up about what we’d stepped into with our noble intentions. Incoming female staffers were additionally warned by their new colleagues about Dees’s reputation for hitting on young women. And the unchecked power of the lavishly compensated white men at the top of the organization…made staffers pessimistic that any of these issues would ever be addressed.

The article (link here) goes into a lot more detail, and it’s not a flattering picture. It makes me very sad. I have contributed to the SPLC in the past, and my late mom, a kindergarten teacher, used some of their educational materials in her classroom. I guess that’s all the more reason to pay attention to this look inside the organization.

Amnesty International

Al Jazeera reports that Amnesty International, the prominent human rights advocacy group, is engaging in a lot of internal reckoning about bullying, discrimination, and mismanagement within the organization (full article linked here):

Following the suicide of a staff member, Amnesty commissioned an independent review of its company culture, which found that some of its staff have been victims of bullying, public humiliation, discrimination, and abuses of power, and that these issues threaten the organisation’s credibility.

The report surveyed hundreds of employees as part of its investigation and found widespread mismanagement and a “toxic” work environment.

According to the report, 39 percent of staff had developed mental or physical health issues because of working there, and 65 percent didn’t believe their well-being was a priority for Amnesty.

“I think this was a problem that was left festering for decades,” Kumi Naidoo, Amnesty’s secretary-general, told Al Jazeera.

Naidoo, who began his role in August last year, is looking to address these issues quickly.

He said these problems, in part, come from the inherently stressful nature of their work, as well as from an outdated management structure and the company’s failure to prioritise its staff’s well-being.

At least AI’s leadership appears to be taking this seriously. It’s too early to say whether the Southern Poverty Law Center’s leadership understands its systemic problems.

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The theme of bullying and working conditions generally in the non-profit sector has been a repeated focus of this blog. Here’s an excerpt from my 2015 blog piece, “Toxic leaders in social change non-profits“:

Just because a non-profit organization is dedicated to changing the world for the better, don’t assume that its leadership is committed to creating a healthy, supportive workplace for the staff. That’s the underlying message of a terrific presentation by Vega Subramaniam, co-founder of Vega Mala Consulting, who presented on toxic leadership in the non-profit, social change sector at this year’s just concluded Work, Stress, and Health conference.

…Subramaniam and her business co-founder, Mala Nagarajan, are using interviews and surveys of workers in non-profit, social change organizations to study the presence and effects of toxic leadership….

…Subramaniam reported that they could “literally copy and paste” examples of toxic leadership as experienced by one worker to another. These included creating cultures of mistrust, micromanaging and holding “incessant meetings,” capricious behaviors, unfair blame for mistakes, coercive work demands, and engaging in misrepresentations to grant funders.

Workers found that sorting out and coping with these toxic environments became all consuming, with negative effects on their careers, health, and personal lives. It makes sense: Those who work for cause-driven non-profits are often drawn by the organization’s social mission. It’s a chance to make a difference, maybe even change the world, or at least a corner of it. Especially against the backdrop of this idealism, being bullied and otherwise mistreated in such jobs can be a devastating experience.

(Vega Subramaniam contributed a wonderful chapter reporting her research, “Working Bullying and Mobbing in the Nonprofit Sector,” to the book set I co-edited, Maureen Duffy & David C. Yamada, eds., Workplace Bullying and Mobbing in the United States (2018).)

For more on the non-profit sector, please check out:

Finally, in 2013 I was interviewed by Carey Goldberg of WBUR radio, Boston’s NPR news station, on “Bosses From Hell: Workplace Bullying In The Non-Profit Sector.”

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Hat tip to my brother, Jeff Yamada, for the article on Amnesty International.

 

Shawn Ginwright: From “trauma informed care” to “healing centered engagement”

Today I’m happy to share the work of Dr. Shawn Ginwright, a San Francisco State University professor who devotes himself to challenges facing young people in urban areas. Dr. Ginwright asserts that rather than focusing on “trauma informed care,” we should embrace a framework of “healing centered engagement.” Although he is a practitioner of trauma informed care, he sees some limitations in the concept. Here’s a snippet of what he wrote last year in Medium (link here):

More recently, practitioners and policy stakeholders have recognized the impact of trauma on learning, and healthy development. In efforts to support young people who experience trauma, the term “trauma informed care” has gained traction among schools, juvenile justice departments, mental health programs and youth development agencies around the country.

…While trauma informed care offers an important lens to support young people who have been harmed and emotionally injured, it also has its limitations. I first became aware of the limitations of the term “trauma informed care” during a healing circle I was leading with a group of African American young men. All of them had experienced some form of trauma ranging from sexual abuse, violence, homelessness, abandonment or all of the above. During one of our sessions, I explained the impact of stress and trauma on brain development and how trauma can influence emotional health. As I was explaining, one of the young men in the group named Marcus abruptly stopped me and said, “I am more than what happened to me, I’m not just my trauma”. I was puzzled at first, but it didn’t take me long to really contemplate what he was saying.

The term “trauma informed care” didn’t encompass the totality of his experience and focused only on his harm, injury and trauma.

Toward healing centered engagement

Ginwright goes on to suggest that we should look at healing from trauma in a more holistic way:

What is needed is an approach that allows practitioners to approach trauma with a fresh lens which promotes a holistic view of healing from traumatic experiences and environments. One approach is called healing centered, as opposed to trauma informed. A healing centered approach is holistic involving culture, spirituality, civic action and collective healing. A healing centered approach views trauma not simply as an individual isolated experience, but rather highlights the ways in which trauma and healing are experienced collectively. The term healing centered engagement expands how we think about responses to trauma and offers more holistic approach to fostering well-being.

A healing centered approach to addressing trauma requires a different question that moves beyond “what happened to you” to “what’s right with you” and views those exposed to trauma as agents in the creation of their own well-being rather than victims of traumatic events.

Although I have written about the importance of understanding psychological trauma, I agree with Ginwright’s preferred framework. Being trauma informed is very important, but it’s just part of the process of healing centered engagement. Furthermore, we might also consider that healing centered engagement naturally incorporates the idea of post-traumatic growth, another important concept that I wrote about last year (go here for link).

Ginwright’s focus also reinforces what I’ve tried to communicate many times here, namely, that social problems must be scrutinized at both the individual and systematic levels. This includes examining the political, social, and economic cultures that create and enable abusive mistreatment of others. 

Applied to workplace bullying and mobbing

This is very relevant to workplace bullying, mobbing, and other forms of worker mistreatment. Severe work abuse can wreak havoc on an individual’s mental and physical health. It can significantly undermine one’s ability to pursue a livelihood and a career. These behaviors rarely occur in a vacuum. Rather, they are typically enabled by the organization and its leadership.

In other words, the actors in work abuse situations and their impacts are often multifaceted — or, to add a twist, negatively holistic. In response, then, we should look at preventing and responding to bullying and mobbing in a more positive holistic, systemic way.

Finally, healing centered engagement helps to focus us away from trauma or victimization as a defining status, without ignoring the underlying mistreatment, its effects, and frequent lack of accountability that come with it. As the young man in Dr. Ginwright’s youth group told him, “I am more than what happened to me, I’m not just my trauma.” 

Applied to law and public policy

Healing centered engagement carries a lot of significance for practitioners of therapeutic jurisprudence (TJ), a school of legal thought that supports psychologically healthy outcomes in legal proceedings and the creation of laws that advance individual and societal well being.

Among other things, how can lawyers, judges, and other practitioners support laws and policies that support healing centered engagement? How can our systems of justice and dispute resolution do the same? Healing from trauma is relevant to many, many aspects of the design and application of our laws and legal systems.

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As I’ve written here before, I sometimes use this blog to share “pondering in progress.” I’m doing that here. I’ve got more thinking to do about this concept of healing centered engagement, but it resonates with me on many levels. I hope it prompts some useful thinking for you, too.

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Additional notes

  • Dr. Ginwright later revised his Medium piece and added references for an Occasional Paper published by an Australian social services agency, Kinship Carers Victoria. You may freely access it here. For a YouTube video including Ginwright’s 2018 conference presentation, go here.
  • I serve on the boards of two organizations relevant to the commentary above, and I invite readers to learn more about them. First is Human Dignity and Humiliation Studies, a global network of scholars, writers, practitioners, artists, activists, and students who are committed to advancing human dignity and reducing the experience of humiliation. Go here for the HumanDHS website. Second is the International Society for Therapeutic Jurisprudence, a new non-profit organization dedicated to the mainstreaming of therapeutic jurisprudence perspectives in our laws and legal systems. Go here for the ISTJ website

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A short list of recommended books for targets of workplace bullying and mobbing

When someone is experiencing workplace bullying or mobbing, understanding what’s happening and assessing options are vitally important towards finding a way to a better place. There are many helpful resources available to targets of work abuse, such as those mentioned on the Need Help? page of this blog and my recently updated list of recommended books on workplace bullying and mobbing. However, the volume of resources may seem overwhelming, so I thought I’d offer a very selective list of four affordable books that I am repeatedly recommend to others.

Let’s start with Gary Namie & Ruth Namie, The Bully at Work (2d ed. 2009). This is the bestselling book on dealing with workplace bullying situations, and for good reason. Gary and Ruth are co-founders of the Workplace Bullying Institute and pioneers of the U.S. workplace anti-bullying movement. They were the first North American subject-matter experts to conceptualize the dynamics of workplace bullying and to communicate their knowledge to the general public. Their work is foundational, and the insights and supportive advice in this book are invaluable. For so many people, this book helped them understand the abuse they were experiencing at work.

Next is Maureen Duffy & Len Sperry, Overcoming Mobbing: A Recovery Guide for Workplace Aggression and Bullying (2014). It’s safe to say that with this volume, Maureen and Len established themselves as the preeminent authorities on workplace mobbing. This book is a bit more academic in tone than The Bully at Work, but it is written in accessible prose and with a very supportive voice. It is also deeply insightful in grasping the dynamics of mobbing behaviors. This book, too, has provided many “light bulb” moments of understanding for people experiencing abuse at work.

Psychological trauma is one of the most frequent impacts of severe bullying and mobbing at work. To understand trauma and possibilities for treating it, Bessel van der Kolk, The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma (2014), is strongly recommended. This is a brilliant, in-depth, and accessible look at the nature of psychological trauma and potential treatment options, authored by one of the leading authorities. Suffice it to say that I have given away a good half dozen copies of this book to others.

Finally, there’s William Bridges, Transitions: Making Sense of Life’s Changes (2004). Severe workplace bullying or mobbing is a life-changing experience, and for many, it involves leaving their job and place of employment. It can have long-term effects on careers and livelihoods. In sum, it involves transitions. And while these life changes can be terribly difficult, they’re better than being stuck in place. Hence, I strongly recommend Bridges’s excellent book as a guide for forging and comprehending that path.

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Indiana elementary school preps for violence by shooting its own teachers with pellet guns

I have to say, this is a jaw-dropper: Earlier this year, the Meadowlawn Elementary School in Monticello, Indiana, held an “active shooter training” that included shooting its own teachers with plastic pellets, execution style. As reported by Arika Herron for the Indianapolis Star (link here): 

An active-shooter training exercise at an Indiana elementary school in January left teachers with welts, bruises and abrasions after they were shot with plastic pellets by the local sheriff’s office conducting the session.

The incident, acknowledged in testimony this week before state lawmakers, was confirmed by two elementary school teachers in Monticello, who described an exercise in which teachers were asked by local law enforcement to kneel down against a classroom wall before being sprayed across their backs with plastic pellets without warning.

“They told us, ‘This is what happens if you just cower and do nothing,’” said one of the two teachers, both of whom asked IndyStar not to be identified out of concern for their jobs. “They shot all of us across our backs. I was hit four times.

“It hurt so bad.”

Folks, welcome to a combination of incredible stupidity blended with America’s love of guns. Let’s see, how do we prepare our teachers to deal with the threat of workplace violence? The answer is easy. We shoot them, but only with pellet guns that leave welts and bruises. No better way to prepare for trauma than to inflict a bit of it ourselves.

Yes, I know, I’m being snarky. I can’t help it.

But here in the U.S., beyond this idiocy is the more serious question of how we can safeguard our public places, amidst a powerful gun lobby that opposes even the mildest safety checks on those who want to own some of the deadliest weapons. The answer may be a complicated one, but shooting workers with pellet guns as a drill isn’t part of the solution. In the meantime, mass shootings are becoming a tragically ho-hum reality here.

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A morning field trip to the Boston Globe

I am a big fan of newspapers. They are necessary for healthy civic life. They are also laboring under challenging circumstances in a digital era where print edition advertising dollars have diminished and lots of online readers expect news reporting to be accessible free of charge.

Among the papers I’m rooting for is the Boston Globe. I have no personal stake in it, other than being a resident of Boston and a subscriber. But I grasp its central role in shaping and informing our understanding of current events, such as over the weekend when — as I wrote earlier this week — they published two excellent features highlighting the destructive impact of workplace bullying.

A visit to the Globe

That’s among the reasons why I was delighted to participate in an onsite visit to the Globe’s downtown Boston headquarters this morning, courtesy of its Facebook group for subscribers. The Globe’s audience engagement team is experimenting with ways to connect with subscribers, and this tour was part of those efforts. Call it a neat little morning field trip.

The highlight of the tour was sitting in on the editors’ morning planning session. If you’re a news junkie like me, it is very, very cool to listen to the editors going around the table, sharing what pieces will be published online later in the day and, eventually, in the print edition. I appreciated their willingness to allow a group of strangers to witness discussions of developing news stories and decisions about what to publish and when.

Heightened appreciation

The Globe is a preeminent regional newspaper with national influence. Like most newspapers, it has suffered cutbacks and budget challenges over the years, thanks to the changing environment for print journalism. But it continues to publish comprehensive news reporting and features on a daily basis, as well as to break major investigative stories.

My appreciation for the Globe and newspapers like it has increased markedly during recent years. A prime example is reporter Jenna Russell’s in-depth piece about the savage bullying and harassment endured by a female corrections officer in Massachusetts. In the work I’ve been doing about workplace mistreatment, I have become familiar with stories like this in other parts of the country, where there are no newspapers capable of reporting them — or at least no papers willing to do so. It takes both resources and commitment to do journalism like this.

It may sound corny, but good newspapers shine a light on what’s happening in the world. Electronic news and social media play important roles as well, but only newspapers can do the deep digging on a consistent basis. We need them now more than ever.

It’s not Yale or fail: The college admissions scandal and our unhealthy obsession with school prestige

Top fueler of the unhealthy prestige obsession

Here in the U.S., we’re watching the unfolding of a major college admissions scandal (highlights here) led by criminal indictments alleging that dozens of wealthy parents engaged in fraud and bribery to get their kids into highly selective universities. It has prompted a fast-developing and overdue dialogue about how the wealthy and powerful are able to game the college admissions systems on behalf of their children.

Have you heard the term “Yale or jail“? It’s a catchphrase that refers to the notion that if you don’t get into a prestigious college, then your only option is a slide toward landing in jail. It’s a clever saying, but a more accurate descriptor of this dynamic is Yale or fail. You see, it’s not that parents and applicants fear an eventual jail sentence if they don’t attend Yale or a similarly elite school. Rather, it’s that they fear failure, loss of social status, and others’ perceptions of the same.

The Yale or fail dynamic, I submit, is the main answer to the question of why would rich parents risk felony indictments to snag that elusive letter of acceptance for their children.

This scandal, which just broke last week, has already prompted a ton of handwringing in media commentaries about social class inequality and how the wealthy and powerful gain undue access to prestigious institutions of higher learning. It has been accompanied by a wave of anger and resentment about those advantages, splashed all over the social media.

Of course, these protestations may be a bit overdue. In reality, these advantages have been around for a long, long time. Perhaps it took a scandal of this (alleged, of course) brazenness and magnitude to unleash the simmering backlash.

Against this backdrop is another truth: There are many colleges and universities outside of that elite circle that provide quality learning and open doors to life’s opportunities. Literally millions of people can personally attest to that. The focus on such a narrow band of colleges and universities takes out of the conversation hundreds of schools that deliver multiple, abundant benefits to their students.

The underlying culprit: U.S. News rankings

I submit to you that the world of American higher education changed dramatically when the U.S. News & World Report annual rankings of colleges, universities, and graduate programs came onto the scene. The appearance of the U.S. News rankings has been the most influential development in modern higher ed history, in terms of shaping perceptions of institutional prestige and accompanying priorities. These rankings have serious flaws — there’s a whole literature on that — but they have occupied the field nonetheless.

Many educators and administrators in higher education are positively obsessed with these rankings and their endless spinoffs. Of course, because the rankings are so influential, they are ignored only at one’s peril. They can and do matter. Ask any admissions director, and they’ll tell you why.

However, I have good reason to suspect that much of the obsession is due to too many denizens of higher education allowing their own self-images to be unduly shaped by those rankings. Intellectually, they know the U.S. News rankings are problematic, yet they buy into them. Beset by what I call the “good student” syndrome, they look externally for validation, rather than creating their own markers for evaluating quality and success. True, most of us do that to some extent, but here it can be taken to extremes.

The whole deal breeds a lot of insecurity and elitism among a bunch of people already susceptible to both. Former college president and physicist Robert Fuller has coined a term for this dynamic. He calls it “rankism,” or the abuse of rank-based privilege.

A better measure of institutional quality?

In the wake of these rankings has come a second generation of metrics and measures of institutional quality, infused with talk of “outcomes,” “assessments,” and “returns on investment.” This is the commoditization of higher learning, and it is contributing to the decline of important disciplines such as history, philosophy, and the liberal arts in general. It’s largely about training new worker bees, and measuring their schools by how much money their graduates are earning.

I propose an alternative measure of college quality, one that is concededly difficult, if not downright impossible, to package in purely numerical terms. In a reflective essay about my own undergraduate experiences at Valparaiso University in northwest Indiana (“Homecoming at Middle Age,” The Cresset, 2017; link here), I wrote the following:

Currently the higher education industry is positively obsessed with “assessments” and “outcomes,” educational jargon for figuring out what students learned. Well, here’s a longer-range outcome for colleges and universities to consider: How are your graduates turning out in life? If my friends are any indication, then Valparaiso can stand proud on this measure. They have turned out darn well, in myriad ways. Amid differences in life choices, family arrangements, political views, incomes, faith traditions, and vocational paths, they are grounded people leading good and meaningful lives. Some have met significant challenges with courage and determination.

In sum, this obsession with college prestige and reputation has gone too far. And while vocational considerations are certainly important in terms of post-secondary learning, a higher education should include a healthy dose of ideas, concepts, information, and experiences that don’t necessarily translate into a paycheck. Indeed, perhaps that education might even transmit the kind of values that would discourage someone from paying a huge bribe to get their child into a chosen school. Imagine that.

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Related writings

I’ve written a couple of law review articles about the influence of the rankings culture on aspects of legal education:

  • Way back in 1997, I wrote one of the first law review articles critiquing ranking schemes of law schools, “Same Old, Same Old: Law School Rankings and the Affirmation of Hierarchy” (Suffolk University Law Review; free download here). I pulled a few punches, as I was a very junior professor writing on a topic that had yet to be explored in legal scholarship, and my caution shows. However, I think it anticipates the fuller criticisms that have followed.
  • The rankings and prestige obsessions have infected the world of scholarly publication as well. I wrote a critique of the culture of legal scholarship and suggested alternatives in a more recent law review article, “Therapeutic Jurisprudence and the Practice of Legal Scholarship” (University of Memphis Law Review, free download here). If I may be immodest, it is one of my best long-form, essay-type writings.

Boston Globe: Two important features on workplace bullying

Over the weekend, the Boston Globe published two lengthy features on workplace bullying. Both are detailed and compelling and worthy of our close attention.

Bullied in the state prison system

The Globe‘s Jenna Russell goes in depth on the story of former corrections officer Marycatherin DeFazio, who suffered years of savage bullying and sexual harassment while working for the Massachusetts state prison system. It is a terrible account of repeated verbal battering, sexual vulgarities, defamatory rumor-mongering, physical assault, and abandonment by co-workers that left her at severe risk of harm. DeFazio’s reports of the abuse to prison officials made no difference.

Like so many stories of severe, ongoing bullying and abuse at work, this one cannot be easily summarized. Russell does a superb job of explaining the personal and organizational dynamics, sharing plenty of nuances that are part of many bullying situations. She also makes brief mention of efforts to enact the anti-bullying Healthy Workplace Bill here in Massachusetts. You can read the entire story here; registration may be necessary.

Bullied in the process of becoming a doctor

Dr. Amitha Kalaichandran, a Canadian resident physician and medical journalist, provides an in-depth look at bullying and mobbing behaviors at the residency stage of medical training:

THERE’S NO QUESTION that bullying is endemic in medical education. One study revealed that about half of residents and fellows in the U.S. reported being bullied, most often by their attending physicians. Canadian researchers found that 78 percent of residents surveyed reported being bullied and harassed in their training, often by attendings or program directors. 

The mistreatment can be so severe that suicides of residents have been associated with it. And if the abuse alone isn’t bad enough, consider that it also negatively affects patient care.

This piece, too, is hard to capture in a few snippets and thus merits a full read. You can read it in full here; again, registration may be necessary.

Some background

In December 2017, the Globe became probably the first major newspaper in the U.S. to put a feature about workplace bullying on its front page, when it ran Beth Teitell’s excellent overview of workplace bullying and its impact on workers and workplaces.

This weekend’s coverage took the focus into a deeper level of understanding. I have to say that I hopefully anticipated both features. I provided background information to both Russell and  Kalaichandran as they were preparing their articles, and I could tell that they “got it” in terms of grasping the complexities of bullying, mobbing, and related behaviors at work. This was borne out by the quality of their published pieces.

We need more media coverage of this caliber in order to expand public education of the human carnage wrought by bullying, mobbing, and abuse in the workplace. Hat’s off to the Globe for providing two excellent examples this weekend.

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