Prominent non-profit head ousted after bullying and discrimination complaints surface

The CEO of New York Planned Parenthood has been terminated by the organization’s board of directors, in the wake of numerous employee allegations of bullying and discrimination, publicly posted on a site titled “Save Planned Parenthood of Greater New York.” Reporting for the New York Times (link here), Sharon Otterman summarized these complaints:

Facing mounting complaints about abusive behavior and unfair treatment of black staff members, the chief executive of Planned Parenthood of Greater New York, Laura McQuade, has been ousted from her job.

…The move came after hundreds of former and current employees signed a series of public letters over the past week faulting Ms. McQuade for what they said was an autocratic, abusive leadership style ill-suited to any organization, let alone one known for its progressive credentials.

The letters accused Ms. McQuade of berating and humiliating employees; presiding over a system that paid black staff members unequally and kept them from advancing in their careers; and supporting layoffs and furloughs for nearly a third of the organization’s employees amid the Covid-19 crisis without cutting her own pay or that of other top officials.

Overt, bullying behaviors seemed to be at the heart of McQuade’s way of interacting with staff. According to Otterman:

The open letters, signed by at least 350 current and former employees, included a litany of concerns. Topping the list were complaints about the harsh way that Ms. McQuade interacted with employees.

“Dozens of staff members have witnessed McQuade yell, berate, slam her fists, verbally abuse, humiliate, and bully employees, often brutally shaming staff members in internal meetings in front of their colleagues,” one letter stated.

“People could hear her down the hallway screaming and berating people,” said a current New York staff member, who, like nearly all of those who signed the letters, did so using initials and spoke anonymously for fear of retaliation.

McQuade denied behaving in this manner, but she declined to elaborate to the Times.

Once more, with feeling

OK folks, we’ve been here before: (1) another story about severe workplace bullying in the non-profit sector; and (2) the latest account of bullying allegations overlapping with discrimination claims.

First, as for bullying in non-profits, it is common, and it can be brutal. To learn more, take a look at these earlier posts:

  • “Toxic work environments in the social justice, non-profit sector” (2019) (click here)
  • “Workplace bullying in the non-profit sector” (rev. 2016) (click here)
  • “Myths and realities about working in the non-profit sector” (2014) (click here)

Second, as for the mix of bullying and discrimination (including sexual harassment) allegations, this is a frequent pairing. After all, it makes sense that bad organizations play host to multiple forms of employee mistreatment. To learn more, please look at these earlier pieces:

  • “When diversity issues emerge, bullying often lurks underneath” (2018) (click here)
  • “When a prominent employee is fired for creating an “abusive work environment”” (2018) (click here)
  • “Types of workplace bullying and potential legal protections in the U.S.” (2017) (click here)

What is unusual is that some 350 current and former Planned Parenthood employees joined voices in sharing stories about their work experiences. At least when it comes to bullying and abuse at large organizations, perhaps this serves as an example of how to bring concerns to public light.

US Attorney’s Office alleges that eBay cyberstalked and terrorized its critics

As many targets of workplace bullying can attest, some companies will engage in extraordinary, sustained measures to intimidate and retaliate against their critics. However, for many reasons, those stories usually do not become the stuff of major federal lawsuits and prominent news coverage. All too often, targets are left to their own devices to explain and verify harassing, even terrorizing behaviors that, at least on the surface, may seem implausible.

So perhaps it is useful to draw upon retaliatory campaigns in other contexts to understand just how extensive and sick those efforts can be. In fact, a story coming out of Massachusetts about how eBay employees allegedly cyberstalked and terrorized a local middle-aged couple who had blogged about eBay’s business practices illustrates the lengths to which a corporation will go to silence its critics. It is all now part of federal criminal charges brought by the U.S. Attorney’s Office. As Travis Anderson reports for the Boston Globe (link here):

It was a modest newsletter published by a suburban couple, hardly something that seemed likely to draw the ire of a Fortune 500 company. But eBay executives were growing weary of the bloggers’ pointed criticism, federal prosecutors said Monday, and they vowed reprisal.

“We’re going to crush this lady,” one eBay executive texted another in April 2019, according to a criminal complaint filed in federal court in Boston that alleged a bizarre intimidation campaign against a Natick couple by the online juggernaut.

Six former eBay employees are accused of harassing and cyberstalking the husband-and-wife team, sending a host of disturbing items that included fly larvae, live spiders, and a bloody pig mask to their home and traveling to Massachusetts to surveil the couple to make them stop publishing a newsletter critical of the online retailer, federal prosecutors said.

…That campaign included “anonymous and disturbing deliveries to the victims’ home, including . . . a bloody pig Halloween mask, a funeral wreath, a book on surviving the loss of a spouse,” and pornography sent to neighbors but addressed to the husband.

Some executives allegedly “sent private Twitter messages and public tweets criticizing the newsletter’s content and threatening to visit the victims in Natick,” prosecutors said. Some defendants also tried to install a GPS tracker in the couple’s vehicle.

Workers, too

Folks, we’ve seen this before in the workplace context, or at least variations of it. Targeted employees who report wrongdoing or blow the whistle can face, in turn, savage retaliation.

Cyberstalking, vandalism, thefts, break-ins. You name it. Credible accounts of hard-to-believe bullying and harassment from reliable individuals. 

The anonymous behavior of the terrorizing activities makes initial investigation, at least, very difficult. You can see the damage or the effects, but tracing the source(s) takes time, resources, and money.

Are these typical instances of workplace bullying? Thank goodness, no. They reflect a small share of bullying and related situations. But they are the ones that, from my perspective as a law professor and legal advocate, most strongly highlight the need for workplace anti-bullying legislation in the form of the Healthy Workplace Bill, which I have authored.

Plaintiffs’ employment lawyers see these cases and often wonder about (1) the potential client’s psychological stability; and/or (2) what, if any, existing employment protections might apply. One hopefully would understand that someone on the receiving end of an orchestrated campaign of bullying and harassment might not be the most emotionally stable individual for the time being. As for the law, well, these scenarios illustrate the need for workplace laws, which open the door to inquiring about, and obtaining through legal discovery processes, relevant evidence.

Some try to access police help. But local law enforcement agencies often dismiss it as a workplace “dispute.” Federal law enforcement often doesn’t think it’s a serious enough priority when compared, say, to global terrorism — forgetting, of course, that this is a form of domestic terrorism.

Major corporations and other larger employers have enormous resources to hassle, harass, intimidate, and terrorize their critics, including both consumers and employees. Right now, our legal system isn’t fully up to the task of playing a sufficient protective role.

Developing our 2020 vision

In an opinion piece for the Boston Globe last week (link here), veteran journalist and editor David Shribman speculated on how the momentous events of this year will shape, in one form or another, the rest of our lives. Here’s a good snippet:

It is only June, and so far the crises of the age — along with the diminution of the country’s international profile, the coarsening of the civic debate, the looming bitter election — comprise a page the country has not yet turned. But it’s clear that the year 2020 is a turning point — in public health, in public debate, in public affairs.

“This will be a year that lives eternally in the history books,’’ Rice University historian Douglas Brinkley said in an interview. “The country has a clear election decision, we have to decide whether we will be a global leader or revert to bedrock nationalism, and all the while a pandemic rages and the cities burn. Not since 1968 have things been so decision-fraught. We are going to have to decide what kind of people we are going to be. One way or the other, this year will be remembered as a turning point.”

History is full of turning points, moments when the patterns of human affairs are upended, when great disruptions course through the culture, when tranquility is shattered, assumptions are blown apart, whole ways of thinking and behaving are transformed.

As you can see, Shribman quotes Douglas Brinkley, a prominent American historian who is not one to overuse phrases such as “a year that lives eternally in the history books” and “(w)e are going to have to decide what kind of people we are going to be.”

With what feels like lightning speed, we now find ourselves in a truly momentous time. No wonder so many feel overwhelmed and powerless as individuals.

But let’s look at this differently. During the past few weeks, I’ve been doing a lot of reading, thinking, and talking with folks (via Zoom, FaceTime, and email) about our current state of affairs. I don’t have any great epiphanies as to grand fixes, but I now understand that this pain and tumult provide opportunities to make important changes in our society.

So I find myself asking over and again, how can we, individually and collectively, create our respective visions for making a positive difference in the world?

Speaking personally, I remain devoted to the work that has been motivating me for many years. As I suggested a month ago, workplace bullying, mobbing, and abuse aren’t about to go away because of our experiences of the past few months. So many other labor and employment issues merit our attention as well. As we haltingly return to our physical workspaces, the quest for dignity at work continues.

Of course, there’s much more to address: Global climate change is real, despite the efforts of those who try to deny or obscure the overwhelming weight of scientific evidence. The coronavirus pandemic is teaching us about the vulnerability of our public health systems and economic safety nets. And especially here in America, the current protests prompted by the police killing of George Floyd remind us of the continuing presence of racial injustice and systemic abuse. To name a few.

OK, so individually we cannot do it all, but we can be allies and supporters. And we can help connect these causes together, as part of a working agenda toward a better world.

***

Which brings me to folks roughly around my age (late Boomers, early Gen Xers), especially, who are faced with the question of how we will use our remaining productive years. To this consideration I’d like to reintroduce two frames that I’ve discussed before on this blog, legacy work and body of work:

Legacy work

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.

Body of work

Pamela Slim, author of Body of Work: Finding the Thread That Ties Your Story Together (2013), defines her operative term this way:

Your body of work is everything you create, contribute, affect, and impact. For individuals, it is the personal legacy you leave at the end of your life, including all the tangible and intangible things you have created.

Most of us won’t appear in the history books, and so perhaps our stories will go with us, at least beyond our immediate circles of family and friends. However, if we have some ability to define our personal legacy and our body of work, then perhaps we owe ourselves and others some consideration of how we can make the world a better place, given the challenging opportunities before us.

Dear reader, I won’t try to prescribe that path for you, but I hope these thoughts will help to prompt your way. After all, we sometimes have more power than we think we have. There’s no better time to utilize it than now.

Sorry, white supremacists, but I’ll keep wearing my Hawaiian shirts

The summer after earning tenure at Suffolk University Law School, I flew to Maui for a reunion of cousins. In addition to coming home with lifelong memories of a wonderful gathering, I returned with a suitcase full of new Hawaiian shirts.

I now call that cache my original “tenure wear” collection, because I began wearing those shirts to teach class. After seeing lawyers on Maui conducting their everyday business in bright Hawaiian hues, I decided that it was time to add some color to our classrooms.

Twenty years later, the Hawaiian shirt remains my standard classroom attire.

So imagine my dismay, then, over how certain white supremacists are appropriating the Hawaiian shirt as a symbol of their cause. (For more details, see Samantha Sutton’s In Style piece, here). In news coverage of their various protests, a lot of these guys are now appearing in the latest aloha fashions, along with their guns and ammo. 

The twist is that Hawaiian shirts stand for something much more inclusive and open. They originate from an island state known for its diversity and beauty. When you think “Hawaiian shirts,” you imagine beaches and palm trees, delicious food and drink, trade winds and sunshine, and warm, friendly people.

Okay, I agree if you’re saying that, given the challenges of fighting a global pandemic and systemic abuse, we shouldn’t get too caught up in the fashion choices of someone who is waving around an AR-15 because he can’t dine-in at Wendy’s. However, social context matters, and the Hawaiian shirt is only the latest symbol or tradition to be snatched by extremists, along with stuff like the flag and the concept of patriotism.

I take exception to these cultural hijackings in part because of my own story. During the Second World War, my paternal grandfather was removed from his home in Hawaii and kept for years in American internment camps, solely because of his Japanese ancestry. Members of my family served in the U.S. Army during the war, while at the same time their loved ones remained imprisoned in those camps.

Two generations later, I became only the second person of color to earn tenure at a law school that has sent countless graduates into important positions of public service. I’d say that’s progress, if haltingly so, and I am grateful for it.

As we witness daily, America still faces hard challenges with diversity and inclusion. During these trying times, the appearance of white supremacists sporting attire that actually mocks their worldview saddens me. So I’ll keep wearing my Hawaiian shirts, thank you, minus (of course) the cartridge belts and tactical vests.

A sorrowful and profoundly disturbing week in America

(screenshot from CNN.com)

Here in the U.S., the past week has been one of the most sorrowful in our modern history. As we continue to grapple with the coronavirus pandemic, many of us are reeling from the killing of George Floyd, an African American man suspected of the minor offense of passing a counterfeit bill, by police officers in Minneapolis, Minnesota. This latest instance of deadly brutality directed at Black people by white police officers has become international news, so I need not go into detail about it. (Go here if you need a summary).

The police killing of Mr. Floyd quickly went viral because it was recorded on cellphone cameras. The images of (now fired) police officer Derek Chauvin with his knee (and full body weight) on Floyd’s neck for some 9 minutes as he gasped for air have become etched in our consciousness. Around the nation and now the world, protests are ensuing. Most are peaceful, but some have become violent, accompanied by looting.

Sadly, we are bereft of the national leadership we need to help us cope with this tragedy and address the underlying systemic problems. Mainly via angry, ranting tweets and a stunning public appearance yesterday that smacked of authoritarianism and carried echoes of imposing martial law, the responses by president Donald Trump have largely fanned the flames of division and done little, if anything, to heal the anguish and unrest.

***

Of course, these abusive behaviors and wrongheaded responses are variations on a basic theme that many know all too well.

Police brutality is an abuse of state-sanctioned power, pure and simple. In the U.S., it is directed disproportionately toward Black people. As explained neatly by the Encyclopedia Brittanica:

Notwithstanding the variety among groups that have been subjected to police brutality in the United States, the great majority of victims have been African American. In the estimation of most experts, a key factor explaining the predominance of African Americans among victims of police brutality is antiblack racism among members of mostly white police departments. Similar prejudices are thought to have played a role in police brutality committed against other historically oppressed or marginalized groups.

As for the killing of George Floyd, the only participant in custody at this writing — Derek Chauvin (currently charged with 3rd degree murder and manslaughter) — had 18 prior complaints filed against him, with only two of them resulting in mild reprimands. This record suggests a dynamic that we see in workplace bullying and sexual harassment situations all too often, namely, one of continually sweeping reports under the rug. Thus, it is fair to question the roles of the police department, police union, prosecuting attorneys, and fellow officers in allowing this man to stay on the force until he finally crossed a line and committed an alleged homicide.

As for Donald Trump, in addition to building a long record of antipathy toward African Americans specifically and people of color generally, he consistently demonstrates a malignant, casual cruelty suggestive of a significant personality disorder. As badly as we need a national leader to help us respond to all this, it’s probably folly to hope for what he is fully incapable of providing. Indeed, I have shared my observations about him before (e.g., here, here, and here), and they continue to deepen with frightening clarity.

***

I confess that all of this weighs heavily on me in part because of the work I do. As long-time readers know, bullying and abuse of power have been focal points of my scholarly, public education, and advocacy work for over two decades. And although my emphasis has been on workplace behaviors, this work has yielded greater understanding of like forms of mistreatment and abuse in other settings. As such, events of the past week are pushing buttons.

I further admit that the logical and emotional sides of my brain are in full-on competition with each other right now, in ways that make it harder to stay on task and become a more effective part of needed solutions. I do know that we must step back, assess, and ask how we recover from this. Surely we’ve got our work cut out for us. If we cannot emerge from 2020 with the promise of a very different America, then I fear that we may never recover.

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