Advocacy and anger in the workplace anti-bullying movement

Recently, one “Hope Springs” posted a commentary to the Facebook page of the Massachusetts Healthy Workplace Advocates, urging supporters of the Healthy Workplace Bill to take a rhetorical high road in advocating for law reform, without referring to specific aggressors in angry, overly disparaging ways. With Hope’s permission, I’m sharing it here in its entirety:

Hello, supporters of the Massachusetts Healthy Workplace Bill.

I’d like to bring up the issue of “message discipline” and the importance of “acting politically” in promoting this important bill and winning reluctant parties to our side.

Occasionally, I have come across a post on this forum and others in which a victim of workplace bullying uses disparaging language and abusive names in calling out specific perpetrators. Some of this language has involved cursing and the bitter celebration of a perpetrator’s downfall, which -given the terroristic actions of workplace bullies- is perfectly understandable.

But, I think we have to be careful to maintain the high road at all times.

It seems important to carefully and strategically “name” the behavioral patterns of workplace bullies in a measured way and to persistently equate those patterns with adverse economic outcomes for organizations and for society at large. We have to continue to make a persuasive argument and not allow opposing forces to discredit targets of workplace bullying as “angry”, “bitter”, “difficult”, “mean”, “victim-mentality”, “adversarial” and other such epithets.

Name-calling and expressing personal bitterness towards perpetrators makes it easy for opponents to suggest that personal rivalry was involved in these situations (rather than the REALITY that victims were intentionally targeted with malicious intent by a perpetrator).

While recent research has suggested the widespread prevalence of workplace bullying (or “social violence” in the workplace as a colleague of mine puts it), people are reluctant to sign on mostly for economic reasons. Who wants to put their name on a movement that demands accountability and legal liability for managers, bosses, and politically powerful co-employees? Not too many.

So, I think we need to step back every so often and examine the messages we are sending. More and more people are getting behind this movement, because it’s based on a shared reality for a great many people. But, the momentum can easily be stopped if the general public perceives the chief proponents of this bill to be vindictive, disgruntled ex-employees with an axe to grind.

I hope that posting my concerns in this forum has not alienated people. I sincerely want this movement to succeed, and I believe as many do, that it’s only a matter of time.

But, unfortunately, it’s up to us to maintain the discipline of not resorting to the same mean-spirited tactics of those who routinely harm others in pursuit of their own egocentric need for triumph.

Yes, those of us who have experienced or witnessed workplace bullying have the right to be angry, bitter, depressed and hungry for triumph over evil. But, it might be more helpful to form support groups where we can explore these natural feelings so that they can be healed, transformed, and processed.

With the freedom that comes from the private act of processing the evil done to us -and by seeking support for our healing- we can roll up our sleeves and remember to act politically in the public sphere.

If we win, the nation wins.

Difficult stuff

Workplace bullying is a severe denial of one’s dignity, an offense that tramples over livelihood and personhood. The impulse or temptation to publicly accuse, and rage at, the perpetrators can be powerful. Furthermore, based on what we know about Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and a condition dubbed Post Traumatic Embitterment Disorder, many of these feelings are natural responses to severe mistreatment and injustice.

Lawmakers and policy makers need to understand that we are talking about a form of interpersonal abuse. I believe that message is coming through, and usually not via “vindictive, disgruntled ex-employees with an axe to grind” described by Hope, but rather by individuals who are more likely to have turned their suffering inward and are now summoning the strength to share their stories and experiences for the sake of the greater good.

In any event, I understand where Hope is coming from on this. A movement associated primarily with emotions of anger and bitterness faces an uphill battle, even if those feelings are entirely justifiable. In addition, we want to avoid fueling cycles of anger and abuse. The world offers too many reminders of this dynamic, in numerous settings and on all scales.

I wish that we didn’t have to face these issues. But we live in a society that discounts or dismisses those who have been tagged as embittered or angry, sometimes to the point of giving a free pass to those who committed the wrongful actions in the first place. Against this reality, we must hone our message at times, concededly not without some struggle.

 

 

 

“Askhole” behavior in non-profits: An insightful and entertaining Vu

In a marvelously insightful and entertaining piece published on his Nonprofit With Balls blog, executive director Vu Le calls out non-profit leaders and organizations who are constantly asking their employees and other stakeholders for feedback and ideas, only to reject or ignore their suggestions over and again. He uses the term “askhole” to capture this behavior, and many who have experienced work life in this sector will find themselves chuckling in agreement.

Le begins by illustrating askhole behavior in an everyday social context. It’s hilarious:

Basically, you know that one friend who keeps coming crying to you about something, asks you for advice, and so you hit pause on Netflix, listen to them attentively, empathize, and give them reasonable suggestions, and then later you find out that they completely ignored you or did the opposite of what you recommended? That’s an askhole. Or someone who keeps asking for advice until they get an answer they agree with. That’s also an askhole.

Although Le is especially critical of the askhole dynamic confronting communities of color, it may apply in virtually any non-profit context. In essence, askhole behavior in the non-profit world promotes false hopes and leads to jaded attitudes, especially when it occurs repeatedly. In a line that jumped out at me, Le says, “We’ve been giving the same answers for, like, forever.”

Le does not merely curse the darkness. In his article, he offers good advice on how non-profits can avoid askhole behavior, such as “before launching some listening forum, check around to see what work has already been done,” and “if you insist on doing a listening process, get your org or foundation mentally ready and committed to trust the community’s feedback and act on it.”

So here’s the question for you non-profit dwellers: How many town meetings, “open door policies,” online surveys (helloooo, Survey Monkey!), strategic planning discussions, and coffee hours have you been invited to by senior administrators and perhaps board members? Of these, how many times have your concerns or suggestions been seriously considered, much less acted upon in an inclusive way?

Your answers will go a long way toward determining whether you have a healthy or dysfunctional organizational culture. They also will correlate strongly to the overall morale of rank-and-file stakeholders within your organization.

***

Hat tip to Kayhan Irani for the Vu Le article!

Related posts

Myths and realities about working in the non-profit sector (2014)

One-way feedback: In-house employee surveys and the illusion of open decision making (2012)

“Strategic planning”: All too often, a time-sucking bridge to nowhere (2011)

U.S. legislative developments concerning workplace bullying (2013-15)

I just posted to my Social Science Research Network (SSRN) page a draft of a forthcoming law review essay, “Workplace Bullying and the Law: U.S. Legislative Developments 2013-15,” slated to appear later this year in the Employee Rights and Employment Policy Journal, published by the Chicago-Kent College of Law. This short piece is a follow-up to a panel presentation I gave in January at the Annual Meeting of the Association of American Law Schools.

Here’s the abstract:

In 2014, California and Tennessee enacted statutes covering workplace bullying, making them the first American states to codify laws addressing this form of interpersonal mistreatment at work. These two statutes led a procession of recent legal and policy initiatives concerning workplace bullying in the United States, which also included a vetoed state bill and continued advocacy at the state levels for enactment of comprehensive workplace anti-bullying legislation. This essay, a follow-up to my panel presentation at the 2015 Annual Meeting of the Association of American Law Schools, will discuss significant legislative developments concerning workplace bullying at the state levels, covering 2013 through early 2015. It is the latest in my series of periodic law review commentaries about workplace bullying and American employment law.

The essay focuses on four states: It summarizes and analyzes the new California and Tennessee laws. It discusses the merits of a gubernatorial veto of workplace bullying legislation in New Hampshire. Finally, it examines the fortunes of the Healthy Workplace Bill in Massachusetts. This is by no means a comprehensive summary of legislative activity during the past three years, but rather takes a snapshot look at some of the most significant recent developments.

You may download pdfs of this piece and my other law review commentaries without charge from my SSRN page.

Academic conferences: When small is beautiful

I am becoming a big fan of smaller scale academic gatherings that allow time and space for dialogue and fellowship. Toward that end, I’ve just posted to my Social Science Research Network page a short essay, “Academic Conferences: When Small is Beautiful” (Suffolk University Law Review Online, 2015), which may be downloaded without charge. The essay grew out of a 2014 symposium on therapeutic jurisprudence (TJ) that I hosted at Suffolk University Law School. Here’s the abstract:

This essay makes a case for organizing and hosting smaller academic conferences, workshops, and symposia that promote genuine dialogue and move at a slower, more contemplative pace. Although the main purpose of an academic gathering is not to create and experience a “feel good” event, smaller scale programs may better facilitate spirited, respectful dialogue, intellectual exchange, and an ethic of fellowship that nurtures connections and friendships. In addition, in offering post-program publication opportunities, we may consider packages of shorter essays as less burdensome alternatives to full-length symposium issues of journals. This essay grew out of the author’s hosting of, and participation in, a small conference on therapeutic jurisprudence at Suffolk University Law School in 2014.

Therapeutic jurisprudence symposium

The piece also serves as an introduction to five essays authored by presenters at the 2014 symposium, which may be downloaded here. In brief, here are the authors and their topics:

  • Prof. Mark Glover, University of Wyoming College of Law (TJ and estate planning)
  • Prof. Michael Jones, Arizona Summit Law School (Teaching TJ)
  • Prof. Shelley Kierstead, Osgoode Hall Law School, York University (TJ and legal writing)
  • Prof. Michael Perlin, New York Law School (TJ law teaching & scholarship vis a vis mental health & criminal law)
  • Prof. David Wexler, University of Puerto Rico School of Law (mainstreaming TJ in criminal & juvenile justice law)

Academic culture and practice

For those interested in reading more of my thoughts on academic culture and practice, especially in legal scholarship, here are two pieces I’ve authored, which can be accessed by clicking the titles:

If It Matters, Write About It: Using Legal Scholarship to Effect Social Change (Bearing Witness: A Journal on Law and Social Responsibility, 2013) — From my abstract: “This essay centers on the concept of ‘intellectual activism,’ discussing how legal scholarship can be used as the foundation for social change work. It recounts and reflects upon the author’s ongoing work in advancing issues such as workplace bullying and the rights of student interns. It concludes with advice on how to be effective in an intellectual activist mode.”

Therapeutic Jurisprudence and the Practice of Legal Scholarship (University of Memphis Law Review, 2010) — From my abstract: “The culture of legal scholarship has become preoccupied with article placement, citations, and download numbers, thus obscuring a deeper appreciation for the contributions of scholarly work. This article proposes that therapeutic jurisprudence (“TJ”), a theoretical framework that examines the therapeutic and anti-therapeutic properties of the law and legal practice, provides us with tools for understanding and changing that culture.”

***

Related posts

Workshopping human dignity (2014)

Inspiration in Amsterdam (2013)

Why conferences? (2013)

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Recycling: Five years of February

Each month I’m reaching into the archives to highlight a piece from that month for each of the past five years. Especially for those of you who missed them the first time around, I hope they provide interesting and useful reading. For each post I’m including a short excerpt; you may click on the title for the full article.

February 2014: “I want to help stop workplace bullying” — “Periodically I get e-mails and voice mails from people who would like to get involved in addressing bullying at work. More often than not, they have experienced or witnessed workplace bullying firsthand, and now they’d like to do something on a broader scale to prevent bullying and help others who have been targeted. Here are my thoughts on this topic . . .”

February 2013: On creating organizational culture: What if your boss simply doesn’t care? – “We talk about good leaders who strive to create healthy organizational cultures, the places where people want to work. We talk about bad leaders who crack the whip, bully, and treat others as expendable parts. But what about bosses who don’t think much at all about the quality of work life within their organizations? What if notions such as supportive work environments, fair compensation structures, and organizational justice don’t cross their radar screens? What if all that matters to them are profits/revenues, avoiding liability, pleasing their boards & superiors, and getting ahead?”

February 2012: Recipe for healthy employee relations: Encourage speech, nurture civility, and prohibit abuse – “Organizations can, if they wish, clamp down on employee speech, encourage cutthroat competition, and bully workers relentlessly. Much of this will be legal, given the weaknesses of worker protections beyond employment discrimination laws. Of course, most of us know that such practices are a recipe for disaster, or at least guarantee an underperforming, low-morale workplace. With that in mind, let’s set out a few basic parameters for something better . . .”

February 2011: School bullying and workplace bullying: More alike than different? – “Beyond our families, our first encounters with others in a structured setting come via school. Is it not surprising that bullying behaviors modeled and validated in school settings reappear and evolve devolve in the workplace? More stuff to ponder here.”

February 2010: The University of Alabama-Huntsville shootings and the academic workplace — “I usually hesitate to use this blog to provide instantaneous analyses of developing news stories, but already it is clear that Friday’s terrible shootings at the University of Alabama-Huntsville will carry broader implications for academic workplaces. Three professors were killed, and two other professors and one staff member were injured during an incident that took place at a faculty meeting. In custody is Amy Bishop, an assistant professor in UAH’s biology department. Earlier that day, Bishop learned she had lost an appeal of her tenure denial. As soon as that piece of information was reported, the story behind this tragedy started to sharpen quickly.”

Using the empty rhetoric of change to justify or impose change

With apologies to Bob Dylan, the times are always a-changin’. But if you buy into the rhetoric of certain practitioners of management-speak, then you’d think that the impetus for change occurs at those magic moments when they happen to be in charge.

Under such conditions, an assumed need to change becomes the catch-all justification for virtually any change. We have to change, so let’s change this! And if you oppose the change I want, well, then, you must be AGAINST CHANGE!!!!!

Or perhaps a given challenge or problem is used to justify a specific action. Times are tough, so we have to close this department! We’re in a competitive environment, so we have to cut your pay (while raising ours)! So stop opposing change!!!

Of course, it’s a logical fallacy that any given set of circumstances necessarily justifies a specific response or action, but organizations get away with it all the time, and a lot of people go along for the ride. After all, on the whole, we are much better at identifying or creating problems than we are at projecting the efficacy of proposed solutions. Unfortunately, the perceived pressure to change, whether self or externally generated, can lead to a lot of bad and hurtful decisions.

Okay, I realize these points may sound somewhat abstract to people accustomed to saner work environments. But I’m guessing that if you’ve been in an organizational setting where a lot of lousy decisions are made in the name of change, then you know what I’m talking about.

Could we someday “erase” the memories of workplace bullying?

In “Erasing bad memories,” a piece for the February 2015 issue of the American Psychological Association’s Monitor, Stacy Lu examines leading edge research on future possibilities for treating memories of traumatic experiences that fuel post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and related conditions:

When we think back on our lives, we generally try to dwell on good times and come to terms with bad. But for those who suffer from anxiety disorders, including post-traumatic stress disorder and phobias, just one intractable and unwelcome memory can influence a lifetime of perceptions, emotions and behavior, despite therapists’ best efforts.

But thanks to better imaging technology, neuroscientists and psychologists are able to explore the neural mechanisms by which memories are made and stored. And their research has uncovered several physiological interventions — including electrical currents and well-timed pharmacology — that appear to help destabilize fearful memories, a finding that could lead to more effective, targeted psychotherapy in the future.

While practitioners today rely solely on patient reports, “in years to come, neuroscience will inform clinical practice,” says Stefan Hofmann, PhD, who directs the Psychotherapy and Emotion Research Laboratory at Boston University. “We will use both biological and neurological measures to give us clues as to treatment.”

It’s an informative, scientifically detailed article on how fearful memories are formed, how they may be changed or eradicated, and how lifestyle factors relate to softening their impact.

Workplace bullying and PTSD

Many targets of severe workplace bullying report or show symptoms consistent with PTSD (go here for Mayo Clinic description), and that link has been observed and accepted by workplace bullying researchers for some time. Anecdotally speaking, post-event trauma constitutes one of the foremost challenges in helping workplace bullying targets to fully reclaim their lives and re-enter the labor market.

Developments and breakthroughs in PTSD research and treatment are thus especially important to these individuals and their families, and the work discussed by Stacy Lu raises both possibilities and concerns. All things being equal, presumably many, if not most, people suffering from PTSD would willingly undergo treatment to erase the memory of the traumatic experience that prompted their symptoms, assuming that the symptoms would disappear with the memories. But some of the potential treatments mentioned by Lu, “including electrical currents and well-timed pharmacology,” go beyond the less physically invasive counseling modes, especially if we presume that any drug capable of causing someone to erase a specific memory is made of awfully powerful stuff.

In addition, there are other important considerations associated with any attempt to “erase” a memory. For example, some aptly note the role of bad or difficult memories in building our wisdom and resilience. Others raise more philosophical questions about the role of memory in defining our lives and collective humanity. That said, I’d suggest that for many sufferers of PTSD, these would be trifling concerns, and understandably so.

In other words, we’re dealing with significant but potentially risky treatments here. However, the high stakes involved — i.e., restoring a sense of peace and security to those suffering from the effects of psychological trauma — justify continued, responsible research, accompanied by hopes that we can find more effective ways to help people dealing with these terrible conditions.

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