Legislative briefing for Massachusetts Healthy Workplace Bill, June 18

Draft of my briefing discussion for June 18

Advocacy on behalf of the anti-bullying Healthy Workplace Bill (Senate No. 1072, Sen. Paul Feeney, lead sponsor; link here) is revving up here in Massachusetts.

As I wrote here in June 6, the HWB will be among the bills discussed in a public hearing before the Joint Committee on Labor and Workforce Development, on Tuesday, June 25, starting at 1 pm. I will be joining other advocates in testifying in support of the bill. We have also prepared a packet of written testimony for distribution to committee members.

But wait, there’s more!

We also now have a special briefing on the HWB for Massachusetts legislators and staff members scheduled for this coming Tuesday, June 18, at 11:00 am in Room 222 of the MA State House. In that briefing, Senator Feeney will speak about the need for the HWB, and I will give a presentation about the legal and policy mechanics that have informed my drafting of the bill. This recent addition to our advocacy and public education efforts is due to the work of Sen. Feeney and the support of SEIU-NAGE and the Massachusetts Healthy Workplace Advocates.

We are building on the organizing successes of the new legislative session. With 107 of the 200 elected state representatives and senators signed on as co-sponsors of the HWB for the 2019-20 session, this is by far the strongest showing of support for the bill among the five full sessions in which it has been active.

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You may follow latest developments at the Massachusetts Healthy Workplace Advocates blog site (link here) and Facebook site (link here).

Lessons learned early: School responses to bullying and abuse accusations

For better and for worse, we often learn about organizational responses to bullying and abuse accusations early in life, by witnessing how school systems deal with them. As Kerry Justich reports for Yahoo (link here), a high school senior in Vancouver, Washington, is learning what that response may entail:

A high school senior in Vancouver, Wash. will no longer be walking in his graduation on Saturday, after accusing the administration of ignoring bullying and sexual assault allegedly taking place at school.

Charles Chandler was giving a speech in front of students and families of Heritage High School during a ceremony on Wednesday when he went off script and made some controversial comments against the administration.

“And to you, underclassmen,” Chandler is heard saying toward the end of his speech, “who have to endure all the things the school throw at you for two to three more years. A school where the administration closes their eyes to everything that happens in the school. Their school. The sexual assault, the bullying, the depression, the outcasts. And they do nothing to fix it.”

Through surprised reactions heard throughout the crowd, Chandler continued to say that if the school does take notice of these incidents, “they take the side of the accused and not the victim,” before the audience ultimately erupted in cheers.

Although Chandler’s peers appeared to agree with him, principal Derek Garrison did not, claiming his comments were not truthful:

“His comments were full of inaccuracies, inflammatory statements and hurtful accusations,” the principal’s letter, obtained by Yahoo Lifestyle, reads. “Administrators called the student in to explain why spreading rumors and inaccurate information was extremely problematic.”

The story has attracted a lot of local attention, and several dozen Heritage students protested the school’s treatment of Chandler by staging a walkout.

One of many

Of course, this is only one of many accounts of how school systems have pushed back against accusations of bullying, sexual assault, and other forms of abuse and misconduct. Typically this takes place in one or more of these forms:

  • Outright denial that any wrongful behavior occurred;
  • Dismissal of the seriousness of the allegations, suggesting an overreaction;
  • Active coverups of abuse; and/or,
  • Retaliation against the accusers.

Hmm, this sounds like what happens in way too many bullying, harassment, and whistleblower situations at work, yes?

Indeed, school responses to student allegations of wrongdoing sometimes resemble responses of bad employers to employee allegations of mistreatment or misconduct. When both student complainants and bystanders witness how such allegations are swept under the rug or otherwise mishandled by their schools, they learn an unfortunate lesson about getting along, going along, and keeping their mouths shut in the face of wrongful behavior.

Back to Heritage High

We don’t know the full story behind Charles Chandler’s accusations about student life at Heritage High School. According to the Yahoo news article, the “principal’s letter offered Chandler the opportunity to participate in a ‘restorative solution,’ or face disciplinary action that included not walking at graduation,” and that Chandler opted for the latter. Reading between the lines, it appears that he didn’t trust the process offered to him, and that many of his fellow students — as evidenced by their support for him — share his concerns. 

In fact, Katie Gillespie reports for The Columbian that other students have reported mistreatment at the school (link here):

Some students at the school praised Chandler for standing up for what they see as continued tolerance of bullying and harassment at the Evergreen Public Schools campus.

Frost Honrath, 17, said she twice reported being physically assaulted by another student, but felt the district’s response was insufficient.

“I really want to see action in our school,” Honrath said. “They’re pushing it aside.”

Ethan Wheeler, 17, said a student once wrapped a noose, a prop from a play, around his neck and told him to kill himself. When he tried to get help, “it seemed like nothing was really done.”

This may turn out to be one of those more unusual situations of a story going viral, and thus prompting a public defense of the individual issuing the accusations. It could lead to a more comprehensive examination of student life at this high school. Maybe the students will learn a different lesson about the value of raising their voices.

Looking ahead in the Bay State: Healthy Workplace Bill legislative hearing + Freedom from Workplace Bullies Week

Massachusetts State House

For those of you in Massachusetts, here’s a brief heads-up on upcoming events relevant to the workplace anti-bullying movement.

Legislative hearing on the MA Healthy Workplace Bill

The Healthy Workplace Bill (Senate No. 1072, Sen. Paul Feeney, lead sponsor; link here) will be among the bills discussed in a public hearing before the Joint Committee on Labor and Workforce Development, on Tuesday, June 25, starting at 1 pm. I will be joining other advocates in testifying in support of the bill. We have also prepared a packet of written testimony for distribution to committee members.

Thanks to our extensive advocacy efforts, we now have 107 of the 200 elected state representatives and senators signed on as co-sponsors of the Healthy Workplace Bill for the 2019-20 session. This is a real breakthrough for us and a clear sign that this legislation is being taken very seriously. Special thanks go to Deb Falzoi (MA co-coordinator), Jim Redmond (SEIU-NAGE legislative rep), and Greg Sorozan (MA co-coordinator) for their first-rate leadership efforts in supporting the legislation.

You may follow latest developments at the Massachusetts Healthy Workplace Advocates blog site (link here) and Facebook site (link here).

Freedom from Workplace Bullies Week events — including Dr. Gary Namie!

Freedom from Workplace Bullies Week (link here) is an annual October event sponsored by the Workplace Bullying Institute, the pioneering research, advocacy, and public education initiative co-founded in 1998 by Drs. Gary and Ruth Namie.

This year’s Freedom Week promises to be a special one for those in Massachusetts, as Gary Namie will be in Greater Boston for two events:

  • Saturday, October 19 through Sunday, October 20 — A special edition of Workplace Bullying University, the Namies’ intensive, graduate-level training and education workshop about workplace bullying, offered specially for union members at SEIU-NAGE’s union headquarters in Quincy, MA, just outside of Boston. For more information, go here. (I have had the privilege of attending and participating in Workplace Bullying University sessions, and I can attest that it is immersive, insightful, and interactive, a truly soup-to-nuts educational experience.)
  • Friday, October 18 — This is more of a placeholder for now, but we will be scheduling an event featuring Gary Namie at my university –Suffolk University Law School in downtown Boston — for that day or early evening. Although it will not be an intensive workshop experience like Workplace Bullying University, it will give attendees an opportunity to meet Gary and to discuss the future of the workplace anti-bullying movement. In a few months, I will be posting more information about it to my New Workplace Institute/Minding the Workplace Facebook page, which you may access and “like” (link here).

Recovering from work-related trauma and abuse: The nature of “woundology”

“We are not meant to stay wounded.”

That one line from Chapter 1 of Caroline Myss’s Why People Don’t Heal and How They Can (1998) persuaded me to write about her concept of “woundology.” (The full chapter is excerpted here in the New York Times.) It has significant relevance to many people who are trying to recover and heal from traumatic work experiences, including bullying, mobbing, and violence.

Dr. Myss is a bestselling writer on human consciousness and an energy medicine practitioner. Her work is commonly categorized as New Age, spiritual, or alternative, which may cause some people to be immediately attentive and others to be immediately dismissive. Personally, I find myself open to a variety of healing modalities, because what works for one may not work for another, and vice versa.

In any event, Myss writes wisely about her encounters with good, caring, compassionate people who nevertheless could not get beyond wanting to be identified with, and to live in, their emotional wounds. They exhibited a continuing need “to be with people who spoke the same language and shared the same mindset and behaviors,” and they expected others in their support group to be in that place with them all the time. She calls this state one of woundology. She further explains:

So many people in the midst of a “process” of healing, I saw, are at the same time feeling stuck. They are striving to confront their wounds, valiantly working to bring meaning to terrible past experiences and traumas, and exercising compassionate understanding of others who share their wounds. But they are not healing. They have redefined their lives around their wounds and the process of accepting them. They are not working to get beyond their wounds. In fact, they are stuck in their wounds.

Myss goes on to emphasize:

We are not meant to stay wounded. We are supposed to move through our tragedies and challenges and to help each other move through the many painful episodes of our lives. By remaining stuck in the power of our wounds, we block our own transformation. We overlook the greater gifts inherent in our wounds–the strength to overcome them and the lessons that we are meant to receive through them. Wounds are the means through which we enter the hearts of other people. They are meant to teach us to become compassionate and wise.

Related ideas and concepts

Myss’s explanation of woundology is very consistent with concepts that I’ve written about here concerning the challenges that some targets of workplace bullying face in trying to recover. Back in 2014, for example, I wrote that for many bullying targets, getting “unstuck” is among their biggest difficulties (link here):

Some may feel trapped, helpless, or victimized. Others may be caught in a cycle of anger, defiance, or battle-like conflict. Oftentimes, these thought patterns and behaviors are associated with psychological conditions including depression, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress.

Bullying targets also may be dealing with what psychiatrist Michael Linden has labeled Post-Traumatic Embitterment Disorder, a condition triggering levels of “embitterment and feelings of injustice” to the point of impairing one’s “performance in daily activities and roles.”

In 2015, I expounded upon Dr. Michael Linden’s concept of post-traumatic embitterment disorder as related to workplace abuse (link here):

PTED is a psychiatric disorder proposed by Dr. Michael Linden, a German psychiatrist, grounded in his findings that people may become so embittered by a negative life event that normal functioning is impaired. In a 2003 article published in the journal Psychotherapy and Psychosomatics…, Dr. Linden defines the elements of PTED:

  • “a single exceptional negative life event precipitates the onset of the illness”;
  • “the present negative state developed in the direct context of this event”;
  • “the emotional response is embitterment and feelings of injustice”;
  • “repeated intrusive memories of the event”;
  • “emotional modulation is unimpaired, patients can even smile when engaged in thoughts of revenge”; and,
  • “no obvious other mental disorder that can explain the reaction.”

Linden lists other symptoms, including severe depression, “feelings of helplessness,” disrupted sleep, aggression, and even suicidal ideation. PTED lasts “longer than 3 months,” during which “(p)erformance in daily activities and roles is impaired.”

Also in 2015, I wrote about how many targets can get beyond constant rumination over their experiences (link here):

Bullying targets often ruminate obsessively about their situations. In a piece for the Greater Good Science Center, therapist Linda Graham defines rumination as “thinking the same negative worrisome thoughts over and over again.” She continues:

Rumination usually doesn’t solve what we’re worried about and, in fact, leaves us more vulnerable to staying in a funk, even becoming depressed. Rumination makes our view of events, and our feelings about ourselves, worse.

Graham encourages her clients to engage in self-compassion, which includes “evoking a sense of kindness and care toward one’s self.” Her full article delves deeper into nurturing practices of self-compassion, and for those who want to learn more, it is well worth a click and read.

There are sooo many overlapping ideas and concepts here. The commonalities are significant.

Peer support groups

Back in April I wrote about peer support groups for targets of workplace bullying and mobbing, and I suggested some resources that may be of help in forming and conducting them (link here). Such groups can be tremendously validating for targets, especially compared to the high levels of organizational denial and general lack of understanding about work abuse that these individuals often confront.

However, these support groups must also be cognizant of the dynamics of woundology, as suggested by Caroline Myss. Ideally they can help targets process their experiences toward recovery and renewal. On the negative side, they risk creating a core of individuals who, with the best of intentions, nevertheless enable one another to define themselves by, and continue to live in, their respective wounds.

Indeed, perhaps the best kind of peer support group is one in which the composition changes because members willingly depart after their hard work within them is completed. Some may continue to be involved in responding to the kind of abuse or mistreatment that caused them to have to “go deep,” but now from a position of greater strength and renewal. Others will find rewarding endeavors that have little to do with the experiences they endured. There are no right or wrong choices at this juncture; all steps forward are healthy and life-affirming.

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Hat tip to the Wisdom of Sophia for the Myss book chapter excerpt.

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Speaking truth to power at work: Incivility & abrasiveness vs. bullying & mobbing

Image courtesy of Clipart Panda

As I’ve shared with you before, dear readers, I sometimes use this blog to develop ideas-in-progress. This means engaging in some thinking out loud, so to speak. Back in 2015, I wrote about distinguishing workplace incivility and abrasiveness from bullying and mobbing (link here):

Readers from outside of academe may be amused to learn that research on bad workplace behaviors has broken down into several camps. Two of these are the incivility researchers and the bullying researchers. At organizational psychology conferences, it’s not unusual to hear remarks such as “oh, she’s an incivility person” or “no, he’s more into bullying.”

When I started this work over 15 years ago, I treated these behaviors as parts of a spectrum, with many overlaps present, but it’s clear that sharper lines are being drawn, at least for the purposes of putting together panel discussions and writing dissertations.

For me, the most significant line is where behaviors become abusive, motivated in significant part by a desire to cause distress or harm. When that line is crossed, it’s not about incivility or bad manners; we’re now into the territory of bullying or mobbing.

I went on to add that although incivility and bullying have both been receiving greater attention, the former has still gained greater acceptance among employee relations stakeholders and the mainstream media:

Over the years, both incivility and bullying have attracted greater attention from employee relations stakeholders and the popular media. However, we’re still at a point where workplace incivility, rudeness, and abrasiveness are more readily acknowledged than bullying and mobbing. I have many ideas as to why this is the case, and they tend to circle around the nature of power. Those in charge are much more threatened by allegations of bullying than by claims of incivility.

I greatly value the growing body of research and commentary on workplace incivility. After all, the more we understand incivility at work and how to prevent and respond to it, the better. However, I think that for some organizations, it’s safer to use the incivility label than to acknowledge the more abusive realities of bullying.

Along these lines, I’d like to gather my thoughts about why many organizations and other employee relations stakeholders are reluctant to recognize workplace bullying and mobbing:

  1. Bullying and mobbing involve abuses of power, not bad manners. Especially because these abuses are often top-down in nature (i.e., managers and supervisors directing abuse toward subordinates), acknowledging bullying and mobbing points a steady finger at the values, ethics, and practices of senior management.
  2. On an individual level, it’s one thing to say that a boss “doesn’t play well in the sandbox with others,” “is a little rough around the edges,” or “can be a jerk at times.” Such characterizations can be tagged as merely uncivil, not abusive, and thus don’t carry a heavy stigma. However, to recognize that a boss (or any other individual, for that matter) is abusive is very different thing.
  3. The abusive nature of bullying and mobbing also implicates the psychological makeup of leaders and organizational cultures. This means opening the door to characterizing individuals and organizations as possibly having qualities consistent with narcissism, sociopathy, and/or psychopathy.
  4. In the U.S. especially, where the rule of at-will employment (which includes the right to terminate a worker without cause) and its underlying theoretical legal framework of master-servant relationships still hold sway, accusations of work abuse directed at bosses and managers are extremely threatening to the power structure.
  5. Practically speaking, under at-will employment, a subordinate who bullies a boss can be fired without cause, while a boss who bullies a subordinate usually doesn’t have to worry about job security — unless the bullying is discriminatory in nature (race, sex, etc.) or in retaliation for legally-protected whistleblowing.
  6. Preserving this top-down power relationship is, no doubt, among the reasons why some employers and their trade associations oppose the anti-bullying Healthy Workplace Bill. Even if they have no intentions of treating workers abusively, they want to retain the right to do so, without fear of being held legally accountable.

Related posts

“Master and servant”: The roots of American employment law (2013)

At-will employment and the legality of workplace bullying: A brutal combo punch (2011)

In praise of late bloomers

We have a societal obsession with youth and shiny new things. This obsession seems to permeate our popular culture. In terms of work and hiring, organizations always seem to be on the lookout for young, rising stars. We put these early standouts on a pedestal and a fast-track.

But what about folks who might be described as late bloomers? You know, those people who might not make a big splash in their early years, but who get better with age? Journalist Rich Karlgaard puts himself in this category, and he’s written a book, Late Bloomers: The Power of Patience in a World Obsessed with Early Achievement (2019), that explores the phenomenon of late bloomers and what they have to offer us.

Karlgaard devotes a chapter of his book to “The Six Strengths of Late Bloomers.” They are:

  • Curiosity
  • Compassion
  • Resilience
  • Equanimity (“mental calmness, composure, and evenness of temper, especially in a difficult situation”)
  • Insight
  • Wisdom

That sounds like a pretty good package of attributes, yes? How many organizational cultures and performances would improve markedly with more of these qualities shaping their workforces?

In an interview/podcast for the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School (link here), Karlgaard explains a bit more about the reasoning behind his book:

I wish we’d see more of a push, more encouragement for late bloomers. By the way, this idea that we have unfolding gifts over the many decades of our lives is not my speculation. There was a terrific 2015 study led by Laura Germine at Harvard with a colleague at MIT, and they asked the question, at what decade of our lives do our cognitive abilities peak? It’s a really complex and intriguing answer. It depends what kind of cognitive intelligence you’re talking about. There are many of these forms of cognitive intelligence.

Sure enough, rapid synaptic processing speed, working memory, the things that make you a great software programmer or make you a very effective high-frequency trader on Wall Street, those peak in our 20s. But then in our 30s, 40s and 50s, deeper pattern recognition, empathy and compassion, communication skills — all the things you need to grow and be effective as a leader — come into play. Then in our 50s, 60s and 70s, a whole set of attributes that lead to what we might call wisdom come into play.

For readers of this blog who have suffered setbacks in midlife, Late Bloomers may be instructive and inspirational as they consider potential career options and transitions. It just could be that their late bloomer qualities will guide them towards something much more rewarding and fulfilling.

When the workplace causes depression and anxiety

In a recent piece (link here) on coping with depression and anxiety in today’s workplace, Yahoo finance writer Jeanie Ahn acknowledges that organizations themselves can trigger these conditions:

Workers should also recognize that the organization they work for could be dysfunctional: “The more disturbing the workplace, the more vulnerabilities and personal foibles will emerge,” says Dr. Lynn Friedman, a clinical psychologist and executive career counselor based in Washington, D.C.

Just like physical ailments, mental health can worsen from working long hours, lack of sleep, stress, overwhelming workloads, and toxic work environments.“One way to support people to be healthy is to look at areas of dysfunction in the workplace and address them in a direct and straightforward way,” says Friedman.

Of course, this plays right into the topic of workplace bullying and mobbing, which is responsible for causing a host of physical and mental health problems.

Disclosing to an employer

Regardless of whether a mental health situation has been caused or exacerbated by a toxic work environment, the question of disclosing the condition to one’s employer is full of complexities. If a condition rises to the level of a disability, then disability discrimination laws may require the employer to provide a reasonable accommodation for it. However, there are no guarantees here. Especially if the organizational culture is hostile or dysfunctional, it’s quite possible that disclosure and an accommodation request will yield negative results, including retaliation and/or being pushed out of one’s job.

Adds Yahoo’s Ahn:

“In an ideal world, you should be able to disclose a mental health issue without being discriminated against, but the reality is we don’t live in that perfect world,” says Darcy Gruttardo, director at the Center of Workplace Mental Health.

About half of workers in [a recent American Psychiatric Association survey] expressed concerns about discussing mental health issues at work; a third worried about consequences if they seek help. For those thinking about talking about it at work, Gruttardo recommends talking to your primary care doctor first to get any symptoms under control, before approaching human resources or an employee assistance program (EAP).

Missing from this analysis is the potential role of labor unions. Unionized workers will typically be able to approach their union representative for advice and support. In some cases, additional protections relevant to mental health treatment may be contained in a collective bargaining agreement. Like all types of organizations, some unions are much better than others at serving their members, but at the very least they provide options that other workers don’t enjoy.

As I say often on this blog, there are no easy answers when it comes to handling such matters. Organizations differ markedly in their fairness and integrity, as do individuals within them. At the very least, it’s important that we continue to understand organizational roles in supporting or undermining the mental health of workers. Only then can we consider solutions and responses.

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