When a workplace bully gets his comeuppance, should we be gleeful?

A month ago, New York Times columnist Michelle Goldberg took particular satisfaction over president Donald Trump humiliating his national security advisor, John Bolton, in the midst of diplomatic negotiations over nuclear arms (link here). She didn’t pull any punches:

Say this for Donald Trump. He may be transforming American politics into a kleptocratic fascist reality show and turning our once-great country into a global laughingstock, but at least he’s humiliating John Bolton in the process.

Why the glee over Bolton being savagely undermined by his boss? It may be the spectacle of witnessing one bully being outdone by another. You see, John Bolton is a longtime presence on the American diplomatic scene — with apologies for using the terms “Bolton” and “diplomatic” in the same sentence. I first heard about Bolton during George W. Bush’s administration, when he was appointed the U.N. Ambassador. His Senate confirmation hearings for the position were replete with stories about his raging temper and bullying tactics.

In fact, I referenced Bolton’s record of workplace bullying in an online piece published in 2005:

Allegations of intimidating and angry treatment of co-workers lodged against John Bolton, the Bush Administration’s newly-appointed Ambassador to the United Nations, have put a spotlight on the problem of workplace bullying. While Bolton has not quite done for bullying what Clarence Thomas and his 1991 Supreme Court confirmation hearings did for raising awareness of sexual harassment, it is clear that this story struck a responsive chord with many workers who have experienced abusive treatment at the hands of bosses and co-workers.

…In recent months, many of these behaviors have been attributed to Bolton by current and former State Department co-workers and contractors. Ex-State Department intelligence chief Carl Ford, a Republican appointee, called Bolton a “serial abuser” of subordinates, adding that he showed a talent for stroking superiors while kicking down underlings.

The most publicized allegations came from Melody Townsel, a woman who worked with Bolton in Moscow under a government contract in 1994. Townsel told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that Bolton chased her down the halls of a Moscow hotel, threw a tape dispenser at her, made disparaging remarks about her appearance, left threatening letters under her hotel door, and pounded on her door and yelled at her.

Bolton is said to have pursued the removal of two intelligence analysts simply for disagreeing with him. He sought to have them fired, claiming that their work had deteriorated. Internal agency reviews of the analysts’ work found no merit to the claims. Other reports indicate that Bolton has a talent for shouting down diplomats from other nations and throwing last-minute monkey wrenches into delicate treaty negotiations.

Should we celebrate a bully’s comeuppance?

I’m not about to wag a finger at someone who takes delight in a bully’s downfall, especially if said bully was a personal tormenter. In fact, in writing this piece, I recalled once sounding a war whoop of delight upon hearing that karma had come around to bite someone who was responsible for bad things happening to people at work. I’m neither proud of, nor apologetic for, that emotional response.

I have no hard and fast rules for when the celebration becomes excessive. That said, I hope we can all summon our better natures in not letting such responses go too far. Public humiliation, in particular, has a way of becoming cyclical, leading to more of the same. This may include, among other things, unintended and negative consequences of bullying bullies.

A short speech in Rome


Judge Pauline Spencer of the International Society for Therapeutic Jurisprudence board of trustees introduced me and presented the award

Hello dear readers, during the next week I’ll be at the International Congress on Law and Mental Health in Rome, sponsored by the International Academy of Law and Mental Health. At the conference’s opening ceremonies on Sunday, I received the Bruce Winick Award for contributions to the field of therapeutic jurisprudence (TJ). I was invited to make a short acceptance speech, and I share it with you below.

A bit of background: In 1987, Bruce joined fellow law professor David Wexler to establish the interdisciplinary field of therapeutic jurisprudence, which examines the therapeutic and anti-therapeutic properties of laws, legal systems, and legal institutions. Sadly, Bruce passed away in 2010. But his memory and important writings, plus the ongoing, energetic presence of David Wexler, continue to inspire us. I’ve written about TJ often on this blog, including how it has become a theoretical and philosophical home base for my work on workplace bullying, mobbing, and abuse. In fact, I’ll be talking about this work at a panel discussion later this week.

This conference has served as a sort of global meet-up for the TJ community. In fact, at the 2017 International Congress in Prague, we launched the International Society for Therapeutic Jurisprudence. (Dues are $25 USD for the calendar year; students may join for free!) I’m now concluding my term as the group’s board chair.

Anyway, here’s the speech, in slightly edited form:

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Bruce Winick Award — Acceptance Remarks — International Congress on Law and Mental Health

David Yamada

July 21, 2019

Ciao a tutti, hi everyone. I want to express my deep gratitude to the International Academy of Law and Mental Health, and to my colleagues in the International Society for Therapeutic Jurisprudence, for nominating and selecting me for this award.

This distinction is especially meaningful because of its namesake, our late friend, Bruce Winick. Bruce co-founded, with David Wexler (another of one of my heroes), the field of therapeutic jurisprudence. But equally important, he was a good soul and a person of exceptional character. I knew Bruce only during the last two years of his life, but throughout that time, he, David, and others, welcomed me with open arms into the TJ community.

In fact, it was around a decade ago that I found myself drawn to TJ, as a mid-career professor. It had finally dawned on me that so much of my work on the legal aspects of workplace bullying and mobbing continually raised questions of psychology and mental health. The 2009 International Congress at New York University, especially, helped me to foster ties with the TJ community and led to friendships that I now regard as lifelong.

As many of you know, Bruce lost his eyesight during his later years. In fact, I recall Bruce at that 2009 NYU conference, sitting in one of the classrooms where sessions were held, often reaching down to affectionately pet Bruno, his loyal friend and service dog.

These warm impressions say a lot about this International Congress on Law and Mental Health. Every time I’m here, the compelling topics and speakers manage to compete mightily with the attractions of the great host cities. Every time I’m here, I make and renew connections with good people. I strongly endorse the adult education and community-building potential of great conferences, and this one stands among the very best.

This 2019 gathering strikes me as having a special significance. Around the world — including in my country — we see authoritarian forces undermining the rule of law and rejecting the values of inclusion, empathy, and compassion. As we scroll through the news headlines on our various devices each day, we may feel like we’re struggling for solutions to these existential threats.

Well, I gently submit that at least some of the answers we seek are in the work that brings us together this week. After all, we know that human dignity and psychological well being are cornerstones of a decent society. We know that psychology, mental health, and other disciplines can shape law and policy to create a better world. We know that kindness and understanding, paired with research and analysis, can be powerful forces for good.

So may I close with a modest suggestion that we use this week to recharge our intellectual batteries, gain new insights and inspirations, and nurture connections with friends and colleagues? And while we’re at it, let’s enjoy some good food and drink, and lots of great sightseeing . . . because after all, we also know that we are in Rome. Grazie, thank you.

France Télécom executives are on trial for workplace bullying associated with dozens of worker suicides

Former France Télécom executives are on trial for alleged violations of France’s “moral harassment” code, in a case alleging that systematic bullying tactics were employed to reduce the company’s workforce. During the time in question, 35 workers died by suicide, and many left notes explaining that working conditions had pushed them beyond their ability to endure. Angelique Crisafis reports for the Guardian (link here):

Former executives at France Télécom could face prison over organised workplace harassment that led to a spate of staff suicides a decade ago, as a two-month trial that shocked France draws to a close this week.

French state prosecutors have urged judges to find the executives guilty of moral harassment and hand down the maximum prison sentence of one year, plus large fines, after details emerged in court of the turmoil felt by workers over systematic bullying tactics aimed at pushing staff to leave.

MTW Revisions: July 2019

In this regular feature, each month I’m reviewing some of the 1,700+ entries to this blog since 2008 and opting to revise and update several of them. I hope that readers find the revised posts useful and interesting. Here are this month’s selections:

After being bullied at work, what next? (orig. 2009; rev. 2016 & 2019) (link here) — “Oftentimes, workplace bullying leaves a target’s head spinning. Whether of the overt or covert variety, or perhaps both, work abuse can be quickly destabilizing. It’s hard to get one’s bearings. …All of this boils down to the fact that targets must often consider their options on their own. For those who are in such a position, here are several questions to ask and answer, ideally earlier rather than later….”

The sociopathic employee handbook (orig. 2016; rev. 2019) (link here) — “I once had an opportunity to review provisions of an employee handbook from a large, mostly non-union employer in the non-profit sector. . . . Heh, among my reactions was that this handbook read like the handiwork of a sociopathic lawyer!”

What is at-will employment? (orig. 2015; rev. 2019) (link here) — “The legal rule of at-will employment is the presumptive employment relationship in the United States. It means that an employer can hire or terminate a worker for any reason or no reason at all, so long as that action does not violate existing legal protections. . . . Outside the U.S., at-will employment is not the norm. In many industrialized nations, workers can be terminated only for just cause, which usually means inadequate performance, serious misconduct, or financial exigency.”

Tribes for brewing ideas and engaging in positive change (orig. 2015; rev. 2019) (link here) — “Today, tribes may form and sustain with members spread across the land. Physical proximity helps a lot, of course, especially in the form of periodic conferences and meetings. But the online world can be a way of sustaining and building those bonds too, especially when face-to-face interactions are less feasible.”

MTW Newsstand: July 2019

Every month, the “MTW Newsstand” brings you a curated selection of articles relevant to work, workers, and workplaces. Whenever possible, the pieces are freely accessible. Here are this month’s offerings:

Caitlin Flanagan, “The Problem With HR,” The Atlantic (2019) (link here) — “If HR is such a vital component of American business, its tentacles reaching deeply into many spheres of employees’ work lives, how did it miss the kind of sexual harassment at the center of the #MeToo movement? And given that it did, why are companies still putting so much faith in HR?”

Shahida Arabi, “Bullied by Narcissists at Work? 3 Ways Narcissistic Co-Workers and Bosses Sabotage You,” PsychCentral (2019) (link here) — “If you work or have worked in a traditional corporate environment, chances are you’ve run into a narcissist or sociopath in your career. Research suggests that psychopathic personalities do climb the corporate ladder more readily and are able to charm and gain trust from other co-workers and management to do so.”

Quentin Fottrell, “Is your boss a psychopath?,” MarketWatch (2019) (link here) — “Do you ever wonder why the bad guy is in charge — and the good guy is pushing paper? There may be a reason for that. Bad bosses often promise the world, according to Deborah Ancona, a professor of leadership at MIT Sloan School of Management and founder of the MIT Leadership Center, and hard-working employees can be left to deal with the aftereffects. ‘Toxic leaders are often talking about all the great things that they can do,’ she told MIT Sloan.”

Amy Coveno, “As adults, some former bullies try to keep history from repeating,” WMUR (2019) (link here) —  “News 9 put out a call on Facebook for former bullies to tell their stories.”

Ruchika Tulshyan, “How to Reduce Personal Bias When Hiring,” Harvard Business Review (2019) (link here) — “Changes in process and diversity initiatives alone are not going to remedy the lack of equal representation in companies. Individual managers who are often making the final hiring decisions need to address their own bias.”

Randall J. Beck & Jim Harter, “Why Great Managers Are So Rare,” Gallup (2019) (link here) — “Gallup finds that great managers have the following talents….”

Janelle Nanos, “Wayfair walkout is part of a new era of employee activism,” Boston Globe (2019) (link here) — “Employees of Wayfair, the online furniture giant based in the Back Bay, weren’t planning to stage a walkout on Wednesday. But when the company’s leadership shrugged off workers’ objections to fulfilling a $200,000 furniture order for detention centers on the US-Mexico border, ‘Wayfairians’ became the latest group of tech co-workers to start a social activist movement targeting their own employer.”

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