On creative destruction, radical disruption, and other extreme makeovers

Usually not the answer (image courtesy of clipart-library.com)

During the past few weeks, I’ve been giving some thought to two radical ideas that are floating around out in our public discourse.

One is coming from the far right: An organizing effort to hold a new Constitutional Convention, presumably to radically remake the U.S. Constitution. In the extreme right-wing fantasy mode, this would include removing federal authority to regulate things like environmental safety, health care, workers’ and civil rights, and various social and economic safety net provisions. As Carl Hulse reports for the New York Times:

Representative Jodey Arrington, a conservative Texas Republican, believes it is well past time for something the nation has not experienced for more than two centuries: a debate over rewriting the Constitution.

“I think the states are due a convention,” said Mr. Arrington, who in July introduced legislation to direct the archivist of the United States to tally applications for a convention from state legislatures and compel Congress to schedule a gathering when enough states have petitioned for one. “It is time to rally the states and rein in Washington responsibly.”

To Russ Feingold, the former Democratic senator from Wisconsin and president of the American Constitution Society, a liberal judicial group, that is a terrible idea. Mr. Feingold sees the prospect of a constitutional convention as an exceptionally dangerous threat from the right and suggests it is closer to reality than most people realize as Republicans push to retake control of Congress in November’s midterm elections.

The second idea I’ve been pondering is coming from the far left: It’s a call, well, to abolish work. I’m not talking about instituting a 4-day work week, or beefing up unemployment benefits, or tackling stuff like bullying and harassment. These folks literally want to end work, while assuming that all of life’s necessities will somehow be provided for. Nicole Froio advances the idea for Yes! magazine:

What if we abolished the institution of work?

If we were not required to work to pay for basic rights, such as food, shelter, and water, could we embrace radical solutions to change the current state of our society?

…Online, the rejection of the idea of work itself is a growing trend across social media platforms. . . . One TikToker’s message—“Fuck this, I don’t want to work for the rest of my life :(”—received thousands of likes and comments in agreement. On Twitter, where the constant barrage of negative news is constantly dissected and commented on, posters point out how capitalism keeps marching on despite the unconscionable tragedies we’ve all had to digest in the past two and a half years….On Reddit, the “antiwork” community (the r/antiwork subreddit) has 2 million subscribers who can easily access an online library about the abolition of work and exchange experiences with each other about the jobs they don’t want to do. The motto of this subreddit, whose members call themselves “idlers,” is “Unemployment for all, not just the rich!”

Personally, I’m much more concerned about a radical Constitutional Convention fueled by conspiracy-loving extremists than the highly unlikely prospect of everyone suddenly deciding to stop working. On the former, I believe we are in a precarious time as a working democracy. On the latter, while fully recognizing that our world of work needs fixing (my main focus for decades), I have not encountered any viable proposal that replaces working for pay.

In any event, the common threads between these ideas and others at the margins are the superficially attractive notions of “creative destruction,” “blowing things up,” “radical disruption,” and “starting all over” — all so we can get it just right this time.

Such thinking can be enormously appealing when the status quo seems deeply flawed. I’ve felt that way about certain matters myself.

But hold on a minute. What makes us think that we can do a clean sweep and nail the remake simply because, hey, we’re here?

There are many problems with the let’s-blow-it-up mentality.

First, calls for extreme makeovers are often driven by extreme points of view that aren’t deeply shared by the wide swath of people. Quick, dramatic fixes have great superficial attraction, especially when compared to the toil of digging into the nuances of complicated problems. They may sound especially attractive to those who aren’t thinking critically and who assume that only good can result from these efforts.

Second, when inflexible and/or extreme views prompt radical change, they often ignore or overlook the realities of unanticipated bad consequences. When anyone assumes a superior level of knowledge that justifies turning everything upside down and starting all over again, it’s usually wise to slow down and start asking questions.

Finally, extreme proposals for change tend to neglect collateral damage, by disregarding or minimizing the costs to those whose lives and circumstances are upended in the process. This encourages a sort of casual “othering” that easily dismisses the interests of those who are not in our core circles.

Given a choice, I usually prefer evolution to revolution, guided by courage, kindness, foresight, and wisdom. I have been an advocate for change for as long as I can remember, and that journey has taught me — sometimes by reckoning with my own erroneous assumptions — that most serious public challenges are multifaceted in nature and require thoughtful responses based on an understanding of systems and human imperfections.

I realize that I’m talking in somewhat abstract terms here. But if this prompts you to ask questions of, and require details from, the next person who bellows that it’s time for an extreme makeover that starts from scratch, then I will consider this short writing to be a successful one.

On making a difference through writing

On this day of remembrance here in the U.S., I thought I’d pull together a collection of past articles related to the theme of writing, especially those forms designed to make a difference in this world — which, when you think about it, is the larger contribution of just about all good writing. And, of course, the earliest piece starts with coffee.

Using scholarship to make a difference (2020) (link here) — “When I first became a law professor, I was skeptical about the potential of legal scholarship to influence law reform. My intention was to do scholarship in sufficient volume and quality to earn tenure, and then to pursue writing and activist projects that didn’t involve lots of citations and footnotes.”

The privileges of creating a “body of work” (2019) (link here) — “Four years ago, I wrote about Pamela Slim‘s Body of Work: Finding the Thread That Ties Your Story Together (2013), which invites us to examine — in the author’s words — ‘the personal legacy you leave at the end of your life, including all the tangible and intangible things you have created’…”

On the social responsibilities of writers (2019) (link here) — “I’d like to take a Sunday dive into the nature of writing to fuel positive individual and social change. This may be especially relevant to readers who write about fostering psychologically healthier workplaces that are free from bullying, mobbing, and abuse.”

Even Shakespeare had a writing circle (2017) (link here) — “It was an interesting exhibition, and here’s what specially caught my eye: Shakespeare was part of a writing circle — Elizabethan style!”

Author Jenna Blum: “I didn’t become a writer to not say what I believe in” (link here) — “On Saturday, Jenna was the featured speaker for a program hosted by the Boston chapter of the Women’s National Book Association, speaking on the ‘crucial role of women’s literary voices in literature in the current political climate, and the fusing of art, writing, and activism.'”

How do you take and keep notes? (2017) (link here) — “At annual board meetings and workshops of the Human Dignity and Humiliation Studies network in New York City, I’ve taken delight in watching peace educator Janet Gerson‘s use of hardcover sketchbooks to take and preserve her notes, as well as to host her artistic forays and distractions.”

Three great authors on writing to make a difference (2015) (link here) — “For fresh, inspiring outlooks on the uses of writing and scholarship to make a difference, I often listen to voices outside of mainstream academe. Here I happily gather together three individuals, Ronald Gross, Mary Pipher, and John Ohliger, whose names I have invoked previously on this blog.”

Embracing creative dreams at midlife (2010, rev. 2018) (link here) — “Hilda’s desire to write novels was evident in college, but getting married, raising a family in Valparaiso, and becoming a high school English teacher would come first. However, she never let go of the idea of a writing life, and over the years she would exchange ideas, essays, and chapter drafts with friends and family members.”

Intellectual activism and social change (2013) (link here) — “For some time I’ve been studying a topic that I’ve labeled ‘intellectual activism,’ the practice of using scholarly research and writing to inform, shape, and influence social change initiatives.”

Mary Pipher on Writing to Change the World (2012) (link here) — “For all in this broad category, Mary Pipher’s Writing to Change the World (2006) is instructive and inspirational. Pipher is a bestselling author and therapist. Her book reflects upon the uses of writing to make a positive difference.”

Collegiate reflections: Working on the campus newspaper (2012) (link here) — “The Torch was the most important extracurricular experience of my college career. The topics of my articles and columns were limited largely to campus issues, but even this was heady business for me. There was something powerful and scary about writing pieces for publication with my byline appended.”

Coffee and work (2011) (link here) — “Coffee seems to be especially associated with writers. Crookes invokes J.K. Rowling, Marina Fiorato, Ernest Hemingway, Henrik Ibsen, and Malcolm Gladwell as examples of writers drawn to cafes and coffee shops to do their work.”

Labor Day 2022: There’s something happening here

On this Labor Day 2022, the world of work is certainly calling for our attention. Among other things, we’re seeing:

Add to that a nation in civic turmoil, a continuing pandemic, a climate marked this summer by record-hot temperatures, an ongoing war in Europe, among other things, and you’ve got, well, very interesting times.

This is not a redux of the Sixties — what’s going on is even more dire than the events and changes of that era — but as I thought about today’s blog post, Buffalo Springfield’s “Stop Children What’s That Sound” came to mind. The lyrics sure do fit our times:

There’s something happening here
But what it is ain’t exactly clear
There’s a man with a gun over there
Telling me I got to beware

I think it’s time we stop
Children, what’s that sound?
Everybody look, what’s going down?

There’s battle lines being drawn
Nobody’s right if everybody’s wrong
Young people speaking their minds
Getting so much resistance from behind

It’s time we stop
Hey, what’s that sound?
Everybody look, what’s going down?

What a field day for the heat (Ooh ooh ooh)
A thousand people in the street (Ooh ooh ooh)
Singing songs and they carrying signs (Ooh ooh ooh)
Mostly say, “Hooray for our side” (Ooh ooh ooh)

It’s time we stop
Hey, what’s that sound?
Everybody look, what’s going down?

Paranoia strikes deep
Into your life it will creep
It starts when you’re always afraid
Step out of line, the men come and take you away

We better stop
Hey, what’s that sound?
Everybody look, what’s going down?

You better stop
Hey, what’s that sound?
Everybody look, what’s going down?

You better stop
Now, what’s that sound?
Everybody look, what’s going down?

You better stop
Children, what’s that sound?
Everybody look, what’s going down?

Historian David McCullough: He rang that bell gloriously

America lost one of its treasured storytellers several weeks ago, the renowned and beloved historian David McCullough (1933-2022). I’ve mentioned Mr. McCullough before on this blog and in my other social media writings, notably a post that praised his wonderful book, The Wright Brothers (2015).

So much has been said about this man since has passing, but I’d like to give him a bow by quoting a paragraph from his 2017 book, The American Spirit: Who Were Are and What We Stand For:

The world needs you. There is large work to be done, good work, and you can make a difference. Whatever your life work, take it seriously and enjoy it. Let’s never be the kind of people who do things lukewarmly. If you’re going to ring the bell, give the rope one hell of a pull. I wish you the fullest lives possible—full of love and bells ringing.

If it sounds like a line from a commencement-type speech, then you’re on the right path. This passage is from an address he gave at Dartmouth College in 1999. I think it’s a great sentiment for those of any age.

The thing is, David McCullough practiced what he urged these students to do with their lives. His life was rich and full and, well, “All American” in the best sense of the term. He fiercely loved this country and its many wonderful stories, and he contributed mightily toward our understanding of its history.

McCullough was not prone to regularly sharing his political views, which apparently tended toward the independent middle. He nevertheless stepped up in forming a group of prominent historians who jointly warned the nation of the dangers of a Trump presidency.

Boston was a favorite destination for his book talks, and I attended several of them. Each one was a treat. He will be deeply missed, even as his work lives on for future generations to discover and enjoy.

We need to dig beneath generic references to “toxic workplaces”

(image courtesy of clipart-library.com)

If you’ve been following media coverage of some of the not-so-wonderful aspects of the current American workplace, then you may have encountered the growing cacophony of references to “toxic workplaces,” “toxic work environments,” “toxic jobs,” and the like. (If you doubt me, do a few Google searches and you’ll quickly see what I mean!)

It appears that a mix of the following has given rise to generic references about toxic work settings:

  • The MeToo movement;
  • The pandemic and overwork of workers in essential job categories;
  • The Great Resignation;
  • Diversity, equity, and inclusion;
  • Political and social discord;
  • Bullying and incivility;
  • Attention to bad bosses;
  • Wage stagnation and benefit cuts;
  • The recent dramatic uptick in union organizing.

Organizational behavior research from years ago taught me that different forms of workplace mistreatment tend to run together in packs. Thus, if you encounter a workplace rife with sexual harassment, then you’re quite likely to see other forms of interpersonal mistreatment flourishing as well. Contemporary news accounts often confirm this. For example, I’ve noticed that investigative pieces focusing on sexual misconduct in a given workplace often then segue into describing behaviors that might be labeled as bullying and/or incivility.

In any event, if we wish to create healthier, happier, and more productive workplaces, then we need to dig beneath the generic tag of toxicity and ask specifically what’s going on. The results may yield different problem areas and different fixes. Some bad behaviors may be intentional. Others will fall under the categories of negligence or dysfunction. Some may implicate employment and labor law violations. Certain concerns may be organizational in nature; others may be limited to a department or working group.

It’s also true that, on occasion, frequent complainers will invoke the language of toxicity to avoid supplying specific allegations that won’t hold up. Some will do so as attempted shields against accountability for their own inadequate work performances.

That said, I feel confident in saying that there is a fair amount of genuine unhappiness and undue stress in our workplaces during this snapshot moment in time. Some of the causes may be beyond the means of even well-intentioned organizations to remedy. But good employers will address worker concerns with attention to detail and an innate sense of fairness and dignity, while bad ones will dismiss reports of workplace toxicity and sometimes pay the consequences.

Workplace bullying and mobbing: Annotated recommended book list for 2022

 

This is an updated and revised annotated list of books on workplace bullying and related topics, following up on earlier lists published here in 2011 and 2018. This list now sorts recommended volumes into categories, while recognizing there is considerable overlap among them.

Here are several preliminary points before I jump into the list itself:

  • First, this list emphasizes books that are primarily about workplace bullying, mobbing, and related behaviors, as well as the organizational cultures that fuel them. It also adds books that bring important contextual understanding to this subject matter.
  • Second, I have not included several valuable books that look at bullying in specific occupational fields, such as education and health care.
  • Third, there is a strong U.S.-based focus here, with a healthy sprinkling of international perspectives. That said, important work on this subject continues to expand on a global scale, and I won’t even try to capture all of it here.
  • Fourth, with one exception (okay, a two-volume book set I co-edited!), I have emphasized single-volume works that, at least for more recent titles still in print, are relatively affordable.
  • Fifth, I have not included the many treatments of workplace incivility or bad management, or books touting best practices in management generally. While important and related to workplace bullying, I needed to cabin in the scope of this list.
  • Sixth, I have not covered the growing number of self-published titles on these topics, including first-person accounts of those who have experienced severe workplace mistreatment. These works contain useful insights and stories, but regrettably I have not been able to review them closely for this list.
  • Finally, some acknowledgements: I have been involved in this work since the late 1990s. Accordingly, I have contributed to books about workplace bullying and been discussed and cited by colleagues who have authored some of these volumes. It is impossible for me to be objective in making this selection, so for the sake of full disclosure I mark books to which I have contributed content with a double asterisk (**); and books where my work is discussed in a more focused way and/or where I provided a promotional “blurb,” with an asterisk (*), in both instances following the date of publication.

ESPECIALLY FOR WORKERS

Gary Namie & Ruth Namie, The Bully at Work: What You Can Do to Stop the Hurt and Reclaim Your Dignity on the Job (2nd ed., 2009)* — A seminal work by the individuals most responsible for introducing the concept of workplace bullying to a North American audience. It remains the most readable, accessible book for targets of workplace bullying. (Disclosure note: I have worked with the Namies and their Workplace Bullying Institute on a pro bono basis for almost two decades, and my work is discussed in this book.)

Maureen Duffy & Len Sperry, Overcoming Mobbing: A Recovery Guide for Workplace Aggression and Bullying (2014)* — For both a comprehensive examination of workplace mobbing and valuable guidance for individuals, employers, and other workplace stakeholders, this is the best one-volume treatment of the topic.

ESPECIALLY FOR EMPLOYERS

Gary Namie & Ruth F. Namie, The Bully-Free Workplace (2011)* — The Namies’ step-by-step program for employers that want to pro-actively address workplace bullying, drawing upon many years of research and consulting.

Teresa A. Daniel & Gary S. Metcalf, Stop Bullying at Work: Strategies and Tools for HR, Legal, & Risk Management Professionals (2nd ed., 2016)* — A valuable “inside the fish bowl,” management perspective on preventing and responding to workplace bullying, with guidance for different levels of organizational leadership.

FOR RESEARCHERS GETTING STARTED

Stale Einarsen, Helge Hoel, Dieter Zapf & Cary L. Cooper, eds., Bullying and Harassment in the Workplace: Developments in Theory, Research, and Practice (3rd ed., 2020)** — Latest edition of the best one-volume, multidisciplinary, international collection of research and commentary on workplace bullying, with contributions from leading authorities.

Maureen Duffy & David C. Yamada, eds., Workplace Bullying and Mobbing in the United States (2018)** — A two-volume, encyclopedic, multidisciplinary examination of workplace bullying and mobbing from an American perspective, featuring the work of over two dozen contributors.

Maureen Duffy & Len Sperry, Mobbing: Causes, Consequences, and Solutions (2012)* — A thorough, scholarly examination of mobbing behaviors and dynamics and how to respond to them, co-authored by two leading authorities on the subject.

EARLY, FOUNDATIONAL WORKS

Andrea Adams, with Neil Crawford, Bullying at Work: How to confront and overcome it (1992) — A pioneering work by a BBC journalist whose investigations helped to launch the workplace anti-bullying movement.

Carroll M. Brodsky, The harassed worker (1976) — Perhaps the earliest book to document and analyze these behaviors, this out-of-print and hard to find volume is worthy of mention for serious researchers and scholars.

Noa Davenport, Ruth Distler Schwartz & Gail Pursell Elliott, Mobbing: Emotional Abuse in the American Workplace (2002) — An early, important work built around the European conceptualization of mobbing and the vitally important research of the late Heinz Leymann.

Tim Field, Bully in Sight (1996) — One of the first works on workplace bullying by an early U.K. anti-bullying movement advocate, it remains an important commentary for serious students of this subject.

Marie-France Hirogoyen, Stalking the Soul: Emotional Abuse and the Erosion of Identity (English ed., 2004) — Important analysis of emotional abuse in private lives and in the workplace by a French psychiatrist and therapist.

Gary Namie & Ruth Namie, BullyProof Yourself At Work! (1998)* — The Namies’ pathbreaking first take on comprehending and responding to workplace bullying.

Charlotte Rayner, Helge Hoel & Cary L. Cooper, Workplace Bullying: What we know, who is to blame, and what can we do? (2002) — An early examination by three leading authorities on bullying and stress at work.

Judith Wyatt & Chauncey Hare, Work Abuse: How to Recognize and Survive It (1997) — One of the earliest books about psychological abuse at work, this is an important piece of the literature.

ALSO HIGHLY RECOMMENDED

Judith Geneva Balcerzak, Workplace Bullying: Clinical and Organizational Perspectives (2015)* — Written by a clinical social worker and published by the National Association of Social Workers, this book is helpful to anyone who wants to understand workplace bullying and is especially useful for those in the social work field.

Carlo Caponecchia & Anne Wyatt, Preventing Workplace Bullying: An Evidence-Based Guide for Managers and Employees (2011) — Brisk overview with thought-provoking case studies, and applying research and analysis to practices and responses.

Ellen Pinkos Cobb, Workplace Bullying and Harassment: New Developments in International Law (2017)* — A handy and thorough global compilation and summary of laws and regulations pertaining to workplace bullying, mobbing, and harassment.

Lynne Curry, Beating the Workplace Bully: A Tactical Guide to Taking Charge (2016) — Authored by a management and human resources consultant who has experienced workplace bullying, this book takes a helpful, systematic, coaching-based approach for those who are dealing with bullying at work.

Suzi Fox & Paul E. Spector, eds., Counterproductive Work Behavior: Investigations of Actors and Targets (2005) — Very useful collection of chapter contributions that includes considerable research and commentary on bullying.

Harvey Hornstein, Brutal Bosses and Their Prey: How to Identify and Overcome Abuse in the Workplace (1996) — This work by a social psychologist examines bad boss behaviors, with especially relevant research findings and commentary about abusive supervision in the midst of difficult economic times.

Pamela Lutgen-Sandvik, Adult Bullying: A Nasty Piece of Work (2013) — A leading researcher on workplace bullying and related topics has gathered her journal articles, many of which are co-authored with other experts, into a single volume helpful to both scholars and those dealing with bullying at their workplaces.

Robert I. Sutton, The No Asshole Rule: Building a Civilized Workplace and Surviving One That Isn’t (2007) — While the title alone guaranteed this book a fair amount of attention, its discussion of bullying and incivility at work is noteworthy in its own right.

Noreen Tehrani, ed., Workplace Bullying: Symptoms and Solutions (2012)— A thought-provoking collection of chapter contributions from an international group of scholars and practitioners, with an emphasis on European perspectives.

PSYCHOLOGICAL AND PSYCHIATRIC PERSPECTIVES

Paul Babiak & Robert D. Hare, Snakes in Suits: When Psychopaths Go to Work (rev. ed., 2019) — A revised and expanded edition of this informative look at the very worst types of workplace abusers, authored by two leading experts in psychopathic behavior.

Sheila M. Keegan, The Psychology of Fear in Organizations (2015) — An insightful book by a British consultant and psychologist that links the experience of fear at work to organizational cultures, and suggests solutions for moving forward. Includes a chapter on workplace bullying.

Ronald Schouten & James Silver, Almost a Psychopath: Do I (or Does Someone I Know) Have a Problem with Manipulation and Lack of Empathy? (2012) — Examines the characteristics and behaviors of those who may not meet the strict clinical criteria for psychopathy, but who demonstrate associated qualities such as pathological lying and lack of empathy, including scenarios such as workplace bullying.

Robin Stern, The Gaslight Effect: How to Spot and Survive the Hidden Manipulation Others Use to Control Your Life (2018 ed.) — Explores the complicated dynamics of gaslighting, with the Introduction to the 2018 acknowledging the link between gaslighting and workplace bullying.

Martha Stout, Outsmarting the Sociopath Next Door (2020)* —  A followup to the author’s earlier groundbreaking work The Sociopath Next Door (2006), this accessible and gruesomely fascinating exploration about how to respond to sociopaths includes considerable discussion of work situations, including workplace bullying.

Bessel van der Kolk, The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma (2014) — Though not specifically about bullying, this is the most lucid, accessible, and hopeful book about psychological trauma and possibilities for successful treatment that I’ve encountered, authored by one of the pioneering experts in the field.

BROADER CONTEXTS AND FRAMES

Emily S. Bassman, Abuse in the Workplace: Management Remedies and Bottom Line Impact (1992) — Early and valuable examination of the organizational costs of emotional abuse at work.

Ellen Pinkos Cobb, Managing Psychosocial Hazards and Work-Related Stress in Today’s Work Environment: International Insights for U.S. Organizations (2022)* — Explores how employers can recognize and respond to psychosocial hazards, including workplace bullying, to prevent physical and psychological injury and stress.

Randy Hodson, Dignity at Work (2001) — Broad examination of dignity at work, including bullying behaviors, from a sociological perspective grounded in human dignity.

Jeffrey Pfeffer, Dying for a Paycheck: How Modern Management Harms Employee Health and Company Performance — and What We Can Do About It (2018) — Examines how modern management practices, including workplace bullying, are contributing to toxic workplaces that inflict significant harms on both worker health and organizational performance.

Peter Schnall, Marnie Dobson & Ellen Rosskam, eds., Unhealthy Work: Causes, Consequences, Cures (2009) — Occupational health experts analyze the psychosocial aspects of work, public health impacts, and possible stakeholder responses.

“The Wire” as work primer

A few weeks after the standard wave of school Commencement ceremonies, philosophy professor Evan Selinger (Rochester Institute of Technology) took to the pages of the Boston Globe (link here) for the purpose of offering one piece of advice to recent graduates: 

It’s the 20th anniversary of “The Wire,” a television show widely regarded as the greatest series of the 21st century. Viewing it is one of the best gifts you can give yourself if you’re a recent high school or college graduate, because nothing else will prepare you so well for the workforce.

Hmm…”The Wire” as a sort of prep course for the world of work?

Yup, and here’s a good snippet of Dr. Selinger’s explanation:

“The Wire” takes a cynical look at how systems — a combination of policies, procedures, and norms — maintain the status quo and prevent reformers from sparking change. The show portrays police work as focused on generating statistics that give the appearance of crime decreasing rather than genuinely making communities safer. “The Wire” presents a broken educational system in which teachers are forced to focus their efforts on getting students to pass standardized tests rather than helping them learn information and skills that will improve their lives. It shows newspapers driven to win awards more than to cover stories that benefit the communities they serve. And it presents politicians as publicly proclaiming that they are devoted public servants while privately making shady deals and scheming to enrich themselves.

In sounding such a pessimistic tone, Selinger emphasizes that he’s doing so to offer some lessons about the real world of work. They include:

  • “First, you’ll gain a better understanding of why people in different jobs express similar grievances.”
  • “Second, you’ll develop a better appreciation of whistleblowers — of their bravery and commitment.”
  • “Third, you might give more thought to embracing the freedom, and risk, of working for yourself.”
  • “Fourth, you might approach work differently.”

Selinger explains his points in greater detail in the full piece, which I strongly recommend.

Systems, systems, and more systems

For all but the most independent of workers, dealing with systems is a regular part of our work lives. That includes wage and salary workers, independent contractors, and folks providing invaluable, often non-compensated work such as parenting and caregiving. We’re all navigating these systems, which may run the gamut between functional and dysfunctional.

I have written a lot about systems in articles posted to this blog. They include, among others:

  • Freedom From Workplace Bullies Week 2021: All the Pieces Matter (2021) (link here);
  • The Holocaust is a key to understanding interpersonal abuse and systems that enable it (2018) (link here);
  • Workplace bullying and mobbing: Toxic systems and the eliminationist mindset (2017) (link here);
  • Systems enable workplace bullying, so where are the systems to stop it? (2017) (link here).

The centrality of systems in our lives is why I, too, join with Dr. Selinger in recommending “The Wire” as a primer on the realities of work.

“The Wire,” speaking personally

For yours truly, “The Wire” has had an oddly therapeutic effect. I’m a reform-minded person by nature, and I can be somewhat impatient about the pace of change. “The Wire” has reminded me that positive change is often incremental and can be reversed in a second. It has taught me how organizations can be obdurate, i.e., stubbornly refusing to change. It also has illustrated how change can be foolish, negative, or yield unexpected consequences (good and bad).

In Jonathan Abrams’ All the Pieces Matter: The Inside Story of The Wire (2018), David Simon, the show’s brilliant creator, said this about the challenges of reforming systems:

The things that reform systems are trauma. Great trauma. Nobody gives up status quo without being pushed to the wall. I believe that politically. The great reformations of society are the result of undue excess and undue cruelty. The reason you have collective bargaining in America and it became powerful is that workers were pushed to the starvation point. The reason that you have the civil rights we do is that people were hanging from trees.

Simon doubts that systems can self-reform. Instead, he believes that systemic change requires outside pressure and awareness of trauma that cut through inhumanity or indifference.

It’s a realpolitik view from a long-time, deeply insightful observer of our condition. And while these realities haven’t softened my desire to be an agent for positive change, they have made me more committed towards prompting good results over the long haul.

The Amy Wax situation: On academic freedom, diversity & inclusion, workplace mobbing, and cancel culture

Screenshot from Inside Higher Education

Applying just about any conventional measure, law professor Amy Wax has built a spectacularly successful career. She holds a chaired professorship at an Ivy League law school (University of Pennsylvania). She has assembled a ferocious c.v. (link here), loaded with sterling academic and professional achievements, publications, and awards. Her degrees include a J.D. from Columbia and an M.D. from Harvard.

And yet she is under heavy fire for an ongoing, alleged series of polarizing, critical statements and negative characterizations about people of color, women, and gays. For that she faces potential discipline and loss of tenure protections. The Dean of her law school has asked the university’s faculty senate to impose sanctions on her, a possible prelude towards eventual termination proceedings.

Scott Jaschik, writing for Inside Higher Education (link here), provides a lot of details about this situation, which has received national attention. Here’s his lede:

Some students and faculty at the University of Pennsylvania have been clamoring for years for the ouster of Amy Wax, the polarizing law professor who courted scandal with incendiary and racist remarks and writings and seemed to relish the resulting controversies. Despite the repeated calls for her removal from her tenured position, and the criticisms of her actions—including by university leaders—that followed each controversy, Wax remained in the position and seemed firmly protected by free speech and academic freedom rights.

That pattern may be about to change: the dean of the Penn law school has started a process that could lead to Wax’s termination.

To be clear, we’re not talking about an isolated instance or two of questionable speech. From Penn Law dean Theodore Ruger’s memorandum to the Chair of the Faculty Senate (link here), here are some of Prof. Wax’s alleged statements, made to individual students, her classes, and public audiences:

  • “Stating in class that Mexican men are more likely to assault women and remarking such a stereotype was accurate in the same way as ‘Germans are punctual.'”
  • “Commenting in class that gay couples are not fit to raise children and making other references to LGBTQ people that a student reported evinced a ‘pattern of homophobia.'”
  • “Commenting after a series of students with foreign-sounding names introduced themselves that one student was ‘finally, an American’ adding, ‘it’s a good thing, trust me.'”
  • Telling a Black student…”who asked whether Wax agreed with [a panelist’s] statements that Black people are inherently inferior to white people, that ‘you can have two plants that grow under the same conditions, and one will just grow higher than the other.'”
  • Telling a Black student “that Black students don’t perform as well as white students because they are less well prepared, and that they are less well prepared because of affirmative action.”
  • “Stating, based on misleading citation of other sources, that ‘women, on average, are less knowledgeable than men,’ women are ‘less intellectual than men’ and there is ‘some evidence’ for the proposition that ‘men and women differ in cognitive ability.'”
  • “Stating that ‘our country will be better off with more whites and fewer nonwhites.'”
  • “Stating that Asians have an ‘indifference to liberty,’ lack ‘thoughtful and audacious individualism’ and that ‘the United States is better off with fewer Asians and less Asian immigration.’”
  • “Stating that ‘there were some very smart Jews’ among her past students but that Ashkenazi Jews are ‘diluting [their] brand like crazy because [they are] intermarrying.'”
  • “Stating that low-income students may cause ‘reverse contagion,’ infecting more ‘capable and sophisticated’ students with their ‘delinquency and rule-breaking.'”
  • “Stating that ‘if you go into medical schools, you’ll see that Indians, South Asians are now rising stars. . . . [T]hese diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives are poisoning the scientific establishment and the medical establishment now.'”

In her recently posted GoFundMe appeal to create the “Amy Wax Legal Defense Fund” (link here), Prof. Wax states that Dean Ruger’s charges of inappropriate conduct are an attack on her conservative principles and are “littered with indignant invective and unsubstantiated and distorted claims.” She adds:

Penn Law Dean Ruger’s latest steps are part of a longstanding campaign at Penn Law School against me based on my stated positions, opinions, and speech, and despite my stellar performance as an award-winning teacher and academic during my decades-long career as a law professor. Penn’s actions represent an unprecedented and deeply destructive threat to the practice and traditions of free expression on campus and the tenure protections afforded to professors who express unpopular views. They are further evidence of the “woke” takeover of our university system, which seeks to stifle and punish dissent and purge our campuses of any deviation from a narrow set of progressive dogmas.

Academic freedom and tenure

While academic tenure may not be the lifetime job guarantee that some claim it is, it’s true that tenured professors at stable institutions who perform their work satisfactorily can expect continued employment. (For more about this topic, see my blog article, “What is academic tenure?,” link here.) And as a tenured professor at a prestigious university, Prof. Wax enjoys some of the strongest job protections available to any American employee.

One of the main purposes of tenure is to safeguard academic freedom in teaching, scholarship, and service activities. This includes freedom of expression, written or spoken. I regard academic freedom and tenure as carrying both rights and responsibilities. They include earned protections and accompanying obligations to perform one’s job with integrity. Tenure revocation is possible in cases of serious misconduct.

For controversial speech in such a context, I suggest that we establish a spectrum between being a thought-provoking scholar and being a simple provocateur.

The thought-provoking scholar pushes the boundaries of our assumptions and perceptions, using facts, analysis, interpretation, and sometimes creative expression. At times, this may include voicing or supporting unpopular viewpoints. The simple provocateur is more akin to a keyboard warrior, playing to the crowd in the comments section. This is the stuff of the internet troll and has very little to do with reasoned thought.

Where Amy Wax places on that spectrum may help us understand how her situation should be resolved. If her statements are considered so outlandish, irresponsible, and hurtful as to constitute misconduct, then sanctions may be in offing.

One of the most challenging considerations here is that we don’t have a bevy of comparable situations to give us guidance on how this should be handled. Assuming that Prof. Wax said or wrote most of the statements attributed to her, then this is a far cry from more typical scenarios that involve isolated instances or a small cluster of utterances deemed problematic.

It’s fair to point out that if Wax had been employed in a standard-brand, private-sector job setting (like a law firm or medical center), then it’s likely that she would’ve been terminated for cause already, perhaps following disciplinary warnings or a suspension. But academic freedom and tenure provide both substantive and procedural protections that most jobs do not offer.

Diversity and inclusion

You can easily see how the Wax situation is tailor-made for America’s tortured and fraught political and civic dialogue about diversity and freedom of expression. Her alleged statements have caused such an uproar because many have found them to be outrageous, hurtful, and wrongheaded. They’ve come at a time when “DEI” (diversity, equity, inclusion) is a deep focus of the day, in academe and corporate America alike.

Wax’s defenders range from those who agree with the substance of her alleged statements to those who place a very high value on academic freedom. 

Workplace mobbing

Folks have every right to criticize or defend Wax. She should be subjected to appropriate discipline if she’s crossed a clear line. From my concededly distanced perch, I believe that she is at that line or has even crossed it. While some of her alleged statements may fall under the cloak of academic freedom, many others appear to be grounded in animus towards difference.

Whether one agrees with Wax or not, there’s always a risk that critical voices can become an unruly mob. I find Wax’s worldview deeply objectionable, but I’m not happy about workplace mobbing scenes either. Prof. Kenneth Westhues’ pathbreaking work on mobbing in academe has repeatedly illustrated how quickly and dramatically such behaviors can escalate.

I imagine that Prof. Wax is feeling quite under siege right now. I don’t envy her. If she does face any disciplinary proceedings, then I hope — for everyone’s sake — that they will be conducted with dignity, fairness, and honesty.

Cancel culture

Especially because there is no legal definition of cancel culture, it’s important that we have some understanding of what it means in the employment context. I suggest that we define cancel culture at work as a response claimed to be disproportionately harsh — typically, either severe discipline or termination — to statements or actions deemed objectionable, hurtful and/or controversial.

At this juncture, it’s hard for anyone to legitimately claim that Amy Wax has been “cancelled.” However, the University’s moves toward possible disciplinary action and/or termination will cause the term to be used. And especially if her tenure is revoked and she is dismissed, then notwithstanding any due process she had been accorded, the cries of cancel culture from certain circles will be loud and sustained.

If Wax does leave Penn under whatever circumstances, then she will very likely land on her feet. She will be accorded martyr status and will no doubt be hired by an institution more compatible with her social and ideological views.

Summing up

While admitting that I’ve waded into this conversation with some trepidation, I feel obliged to share my own sense of this situation. I consider many of Amy Wax’s alleged statements to be hurtful and divisive. They sound like those of a provocateur fueling an ugly, exclusionary worldview, rather than those of a thought-provoking professor who occupies a position of enormous privilege and responsibility.

Yup, issues surrounding diversity and difference are challenging and can yield honest differences of opinion. There is a place in that discussion for strong language. But I don’t think that the heart of Wax’s rhetoric is contributing to our understanding of these issues. Sadly, one thing I’m certain of is that the eventual outcome of this situation — whatever it happens to be — will drive a deeper wedge into our political and social divide. 

Podcast: Drs. Gary & Ruth Namie and the history of the Workplace Bullying Institute

Earlier this week, I had the privilege of interviewing Drs. Ruth and Gary Namie of the Workplace Bullying Institute about the history of their pioneering work to address workplace bullying, the latest addition to Gary’s Workplace Bullying Podcast series. The interview — a conversation, really — runs about 90 minutes. You can access it here (YouTube) or here (Podcast page, “The WBI Story — Drs. Ruth and Gary Namie”).

In 1998, I stumbled upon an online interview with Gary, in which he was describing a form of employee mistreatment that he called “workplace bullying.” He further explained that he and his wife, Ruth, had started an initiative called the Campaign Against Workplace Bullying (eventually to become the Workplace Bullying Institute). I read the interview and had a fast epiphany: Bullying at work is one of the most neglected forms of abuse in the American workplace.

I called Gary and Ruth and introduced myself as a young law professor specializing in employment law. I offered to start researching potential legal protections against workplace bullying, and they accepted. This call would lead to a partnership and friendship that have endured to this day.

Thus, it was my special privilege to interview Ruth and Gary, starting with their origin story and moving into the present day. For those who have been closely following their work for years, this story should be of special interest.

The pandemic hasn’t curbed workplace bullying, but the Great Resignation might do so

Image courtesy Clipart Panda

As discussed on this blog last year, the pandemic did not put the breaks on workplace bullying, at least in the U.S. Rather, as verified in a scientific study by the Workplace Bullying Institute done with Zogby Analytics, much of the offending behavior simply went online, mainly via video conferencing platforms such as Zoom.

But perhaps the greatest shift in the labor market related to the pandemic — tagged broadly as the “Great Resignation” — is signaling to employers that it would be in their best interests to take bullying and related behaviors more seriously. 

You see, even the mainstream business media, such as Bloomberg and Forbes, are acknowledging that toxic work cultures are a major driver of the Great Resignation. And although references to toxic work environments do not necessarily equate with workplace bullying, you can bet that the latter makes up a lot of the former.

The pandemic has given many people opportunities to reflect upon their work experiences, and a good number have reckoned that they’ve been toiling under unpleasant conditions. Overall, a more plentiful labor market has offered workers greater flexibility in terms of changing jobs.

In addition, a resurgent labor movement — most strongly evidenced by a wave of successful union organizing campaigns at Starbucks locations across the country — is providing more workers with an opportunity to voice concerns about their conditions of employment, including bullying, harassment, and abuse. Bullying and related concerns can, in turn, be raised at the bargaining table. (Some unions, such as SEIU/NAGE here in Massachusetts, have become major allies in standing against workplace bullying.)

Generational dynamics are playing a role. There’s evidence that younger workers, in particular, appear to be valuing respectful working conditions over trendy perks. Many are entering the workforce after learning about bullying and exclusion during their years of schooling.

It’s too early to tell how many employers will take hard looks at their workplace cultures in the midst of this evolving labor market. After all, if there’s one word that characterizes our current climate of employee relations and the wider frame of the economy, uncertainty is it. In fact, if the economy goes into recession, then workers may suddenly find themselves with much less bargaining power over job offers and working conditions.

Nonetheless, smart employers will proactively address bullying and other abusive workplace behaviors as part of an intelligent program of employee relations aimed at bolstering productivity and worker well-being. The resources for doing so are readily available. The Workplace Bullying Institute, for example, offers a “Healthy Workplace System” with various education and training components. For starters, it can be as simple as applying lessons from The Bully-Free Workplace (2011), by Drs. Gary and Ruth Namie.

Opportunities to build healthier workplace cultures abound. Reducing and responding to workplace bullying can be chief among them.

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