Recycling: Five years of March

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.

March 2014: Dealing with a bad workplace: Getting to tolerance – “What do I mean by ‘getting to tolerance’? It means being able to deal with the undesirable aspects of your workplace without them constantly taking you down a notch, or at least bouncing back after a bad day there. It means being able to do your job well, perhaps even with some enthusiasm and satisfaction, despite the negative aspects of your work environment. It means not taking the bad parts of work home with you every day. It also means being able to develop and weigh future options in a constructive and hopeful way.”

March 2013: Does the Healthy Workplace Bill “demonize” workplace aggressors? — “I fully understand the emotions that cause some targets of workplace bullying to desire retribution. And while I do believe that compensation is a just goal for the Healthy Workplace Bill, the objectives of revenge and punishment seem less appropriate to fuel legislation designed, ultimately, to affirm human dignity. That said, holding someone accountable for engaging in proven, targeted, health-harming interpersonal abuse is not ‘demonization.’ We must be careful not to overuse the term, lest we become resistant toward all notions of personal responsibility for severe, intentional mistreatment of another.”

March 2012: Global report: Nearly 3 in 10 workers say workplace is psychologically unsafe — “If you need support for the proposition that employers need to take psychological health in the workplace more seriously, a Reuters global survey covering some 14,600 workers in 24 nations will give you some backup. The survey found that nearly three in ten workers deemed their workplaces psychologically unsafe and unhealthy….”

March 2011: Workplace bullying in the military — “At the 2010 International Conference on Workplace Bullying & Harassment in Cardiff, Wales, I attended a compelling session on whistleblowing and bullying that featured retired Irish Army captain Tom Clonan. Clonan shared with us the disturbing story of how he was retaliated against after submitting a report to his superiors about extensive levels of bullying, sexual harassment, and sexual assault directed at female soldiers by their male colleagues.”

March 2010: Do school bullying laws pave the way for the Healthy Workplace Bill? — “Time will tell if school bullying laws soften the way for workplace bullying laws, but I’m heartened by the fact that we’re starting to connect the dots on these forms of abusive behavior.  School bullying, workplace bullying, domestic abuse, child abuse…there are many ties that bind among these forms of mistreatment.”

The workplace phony: Annoyance vs. threat

When is phony behavior at work something we should shrug off as a minor annoyance, and when is it something we should be concerned about?

At a time when harsher terms are often used to describe dishonest behaviors and people, the word “phony” seems rather trite, like something from another era. I’m not necessarily calling for its resurgence, but I’m wondering how it applies to today’s workplace.

The Merriam-Webster Dictionary describes phony this way:

: not true, real, or genuine : intended to make someone think something that is not true

of a person : not honest or sincere : saying things that are meant to deceive people

More often than I’d like, terms such as narcissistic, psychopathic, and sociopathic enter my conversations about workplace bullying and related forms of severe mistreatment at work. Sadly, if the shoe fits….

“Phony,” however, has a gentler sound and feel. It may be an appropriate term to describe behaviors that are insincere, though perhaps not driven by malicious intent. Like the HR director saying with a smile that the company’s health care plan is actually better for you, despite the higher deductibles and co-pays. Or the real estate agent trying to sell you on office space she knows doesn’t quite fit your needs.

Such lighter level phony behaviors at work aren’t nearly as menacing as bullying, harassment, and mobbing. They usually don’t threaten our livelihoods or job security. Of course, underneath that quality of insincerity is an assumption that the person on the receiving end can be sold a bill of goods. If we think about it too much, we can let it push our buttons or get under our skin.

Furthermore, lest we get too judgmental, let’s acknowledge that people acting in apparently phony ways may simply be trying to acclimate to a role or work on their own stuff. Or perhaps it’s part of a required script at work, like that imposed by a retailer on its customer service workers. Maybe the term applies to something we’ve done or said, voluntarily or otherwise.

On the other hand, phony behavior can be a mask for something more pernicious. Like the boss who tearfully tells her staff that she’s doing everything she can to avoid layoffs, after already having informed HR of the people to be terminated. Or a co-worker who gives you a big smile as he shamelessly tries to flatter you into applying for a job that isn’t right for you, because he knows it would derail your career and he wants you out of the way. 

So, here’s where we must make distinctions. Most of us can and should deal with the occasional snake oil salesman or superficial dishonesty. Don’t sweat the small stuff, right?! 

By contrast, a workplace grounded in a culture of insincerity and dishonesty is an especially capable host of abusive behavior, and this is when our antennae should be up. In such instances, beware of workplace aggressors who dress up as mere phonies.

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Homework assignment: Google “phonies at work” and you’ll come up with a lot of interesting takes on this topic!

Meetings that should be e-mails, and e-mails that should be meetings

Image from willbryant.com

Image from willbryant.com

When I saw this ribbon by artist and designer Will Bryant, I knew I had to write about meetings that should be e-mails, and e-mails that should be meetings.

Quality leaders make the best use of meetings and e-mail communications. They understand that meetings should be devoted to more important matters, especially when discussion and active deliberation are merited. At times, this may include uncomfortable or tense dialogue, but good leadership is all about working through such exchanges.

Weak leaders, however, are more likely to apply these rules of thumb: Avoid tough topics in meetings by stuffing the agenda with information, announcements, and presentations on comparatively minor subjects. Save the important and difficult topics for e-mails, especially if there’s anything smacking of bad news or controversy. Make it harder for people to ask questions, raise concerns, or offer comments.

If you’re in a dysfunctional institution, especially in academe or the non-profit sector where larger group meetings are standard fare, then you may know exactly what I mean. Bad use of meeting time is a practice truly deserving of a ribbon.

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You may order Will Bryant’s ribbon for yourself and loved ones here — only $3.50 plus s&h!

Hat tip to Laura Puchtell Barclay for the heads up on the ribbon.

Let’s get apocalyptic

jensen

University of Texas journalism professor Robert Jensen, in his thought provoking little book We Are All Apocalyptic Now: On the Responsibilities of Teaching, Preaching, Reporting, Writing, and Speaking Out (2013), urges intellectuals to be “responsibly apocalyptic.” I’ve discussed Dr. Jensen’s book before, and I’d like to spend a little more time with it. 

A different kind of revelation

Jensen defines apocalypse not in dramatic Biblical terms, but rather in reference to “crises that concentrated wealth and power create.” He continues, saying that “(i)t is not crazy to look at the state of the world — economically, politically, culturally, and ecologically — and conclude that there are rocky times ahead.” However, rather than invoking “a reactionary theology” that predicts “the rapture to come,” the concept of “apocalyptic vision can help us understand social and ecological ruptures in the here and now” (emphasis mine).

Intellectuals in institutions

Furthermore, Jensen observes that many intellectuals associated with institutions — “universities, think tanks, government, corporations” — go along with prevailing norms because they either believe in them or don’t want to get in trouble. Instead, he urges intellectuals to be “responsibly apocalyptic” and “to challenge the pre-ordained conclusions that the powerful prefer.” If intellectuals do not confront these norms, then the powerful need not worry about being accountable for their actions.

Responsibility

I referenced Dr. Jensen’s work in a blog piece in 2013, “The social responsibilities of intellectuals at a time of extraordinary human need,” written in conjunction with my participation in the biennial Congress of the International Academy of Law and Mental Health.” In that post, I invoked “responsibly bold” as my catchphrase for how scholars and intellectual activists should conduct themselves.

I agree with Jensen that we are living in an era marked by extreme inequalities of wealth and power distribution. These inequalities surely relate to a market-based economy run amok. In addition, they implicate power grabs in many societal settings that may transcend political labels — unless, of course, “thuggishness” counts as an ideology.

I have witnessed these dynamics in the workplace issues I study, research, write, and advocate about on a regular basis.

For example, workplace bullying is directly linked to organizational leadership and abuses of power. Though perpetrated by individuals, work abuse cannot flourish without buy-in and endorsement from the top.

Also, the widespread practice of unpaid internships, especially in the private sector, exploits labor under the guise of gaining “experience” and “credentials.” It also excludes those who cannot afford to work without pay.

Topics that haven’t been focal points for my scholarship, but that have appeared regularly on this blog, include exorbitant student loan debt, long-term unemployment for older and younger workers alike, and America’s burgeoning retirement funding crisis. In the U.S. alone, these are all symptomatic of a broken economic structure and social safety net.

Those of us who engage the world of public ideas have a change-making opportunity to be responsibly bold. We should put forth sound analyses, interpretations, and recommendations for the greater good, especially during this plutocratic, New Gilded Age that has become our reality. If that’s what being “apocalyptic” is all about, then so be it.

What separates the “best” workplace abusers from the rest?

Over the years I’ve heard and read more stories than I’d like about severe workplace bullying and related behaviors. It’s not pretty stuff. But after a while, patterns emerge, included those associated with perpetrators of the mistreatment.

One of my central observations is that many of the “best” workplace abusers — the ones who get their prey and continually evade being held responsible — are calculating, committed, and smart planners. With task-oriented surgical precision and detachment, they plot and scheme. Like the serial killer who manages to escape capture, they’re usually a step or three ahead of everyone else.

Some enable themselves by occupying positions where they can devote “quality time” to planning. While others do real work or otherwise conduct their lives, the expert bullies use chunks of time to assess and strategize, often obsessively so. They also find ways to access, control, and manipulate information and resources to which others, especially their targets, are not privy. This means, of course, that they need organizational sponsors who enable them or at least let them have free reign.

I won’t attempt to match this proclivity for careful planning against clinical criteria for conditions such as antisocial personality disorder (psychopathy, sociopathy) or narcissistic personality disorder. While I have no doubt that many of the worst workplace bullies fall into these categories, I’m focusing here on one behavioral trait.

Indeed, I’m simply making connections grounded in years of immersion in this realm: Among those who bully and abuse others at work, the expert planners often rank in the vanguard.

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Why it’s important that AlterNet wrote on workplace bullying and abusive bosses

AlterNet, one of the leading progressive, online news aggregators and publishers, has run a lengthy piece on workplace bullying by Alyssa Figueroa, emphasizing the frequency and mental health impacts of abusive mistreatment at work. Here’s a snippet:

“Anything that affects 65 million Americans is an epidemic,” said Gary Namie, co-founder of the Workplace Bullying Institute. “But it’s an un-discussable epidemic because employers don’t want this discussed.”

Not talking about work abuse has, in turn, normalized the violence, fear and power structure inherent to the phenomenon.

As Namie said, “Work abuse doesn’t shock Americans anymore.”

…While we try to explain away work abuse, its victims are quietly suffering anxiety, depression and even PTSD. In one extreme example, Carrie Clark, a former teacher and school administrator, developed such severe PTSD she suffered permanent brain damage that left her with a speech impediment.

“It’s shameful when you’re being targeted at work. It’s such an embarrassment. That had never happened to me before. I loved working. … I had quite the career,” Clark said of the months she was targeted by her boss.

The article is a good one that covers a lot of ground, but pieces detailing the frequency and impact of workplace bullying are nothing new. What makes this especially noteworthy is its appearance on a politically progressive news site, connecting workplace bullying to larger issues of workers’ rights.

Although the effects of workplace bullying on workers and their families are well known, placing this issue on the liberal agenda has not been easy. Over the years, mainstream media, public health media, the business press, and to some extent, the legal press, have given workplace bullying far much more coverage than progressive and labor-oriented news sources.

So, hat’s off to AlterNet and to Alyssa Figueroa for this piece. I hope it sends a message to other progressive journalists that workplace bullying is a violation of human dignity and human rights that merits their attention.

The world of work during Boston’s record breaking winter

The lovely walk home from the subway, earlier this month

The lovely walk home from the subway, earlier this month, Jamaica Plain, Boston (Photo: DY)

With a bit of the white stuff falling upon us on Sunday evening, we did it: Boston broke its all-time record for snowfall! That’s 108.6 inches of snow, breaking the previous record of 107.6 inches during 1995-96. Oh boy, it’s time to celebrate, yes?! Like when the Patriots won the Super Bowl, or when the Red Sox won the World Series. Hip hip hooray!

Not.

Folks, this has been a brutal winter here. And it has wreaked havoc on the world of work.

The economic effect has been especially harsh on wage workers who either couldn’t get to work or found their places of employment closed down while the city dug out from the latest mega-storm. It also has been very harsh on retail businesses who depend on pedestrian foot traffic to buy goods and services.

If you’re in real estate, the market, well, kinda froze. After all, it’s hard to host an open house or a showing when the roads and public transportation are shut down.

Public workers involved in snow removal and public transportation had their work cut out for them. If you drove one of the city’s plow trucks during the four worst weeks of January and February, I wonder if you were ever permitted to leave your vehicle. Boston’s public transit system took some well-deserved criticisms, but the rank-and-file workers who helped to get things moving again deserved much praise.

There were multiple days when just about everything was shut down. How many thousands of meetings, appointments, and just about every other type of face-to-face event were cancelled during this time?

God have mercy on anyone who worked in customer service at Logan Airport.

Those of us who teach experienced unprecedented numbers of snow days. The first snow day was really cool. The second one, still a bit of a novelty. And then it got old fast. In higher ed, we’re doing make-up classes whenever we can squeeze them in. K-through-12 educators probably will be in their classrooms until August! (Just kidding, but only slightly.)

If you own a plow truck and a snowblower, you may have made a mint doing freelance jobs, like the guys who picked up a quick wad of cash from me when I realized that I could shovel for 12 hours and barely make a dent. Same thing if you did snow and ice removal from roofs. However, my guess is that you had your fill of that work even with the extra cash.

Maybe it’s the Cancerian in me talking, but I believe that someday, we’ll look back at this winter with a sort of fond nostalgia. Or maybe I’m just being delusional. Whatever, we’ll see.

Looking down my street at what is supposed to be the sidewalk, during one of the February blizzards, Jamaica Plain, Boston. (Photo: DY, 2015)

Looking at what is supposed to be the sidewalk alongside my building, during one of the February blizzards, Jamaica Plain, Boston. (Photo: DY, 2015)

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