When workplace predators silence and intimidate their targets

The ongoing revelations concerning sexual harassment and abuse allegations lodged against powerful Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein took a major turn this week via some excellent investigative reporting by the New Yorker‘s Ronan Farrow. Here’s the lede:

In the fall of 2016, Harvey Weinstein set out to suppress allegations that he had sexually harassed or assaulted numerous women. He began to hire private security agencies to collect information on the women and the journalists trying to expose the allegations. According to dozens of pages of documents, and seven people directly involved in the effort, the firms that Weinstein hired included Kroll, which is one of the world’s largest corporate-intelligence companies, and Black Cube, an enterprise run largely by former officers of Mossad and other Israeli intelligence agencies.

The details are stunning. Here are just a few:

  • “Two private investigators from Black Cube, using false identities, met with the actress Rose McGowan, who eventually publicly accused Weinstein of rape, to extract information from her. One of the investigators pretended to be a women’s-rights advocate and secretly recorded at least four meetings with McGowan.”
  • “The explicit goal of the investigations, laid out in one contract with Black Cube, signed in July, was to stop the publication of the abuse allegations against Weinstein that eventually emerged in the New York Times and The New Yorker. Over the course of a year, Weinstein had the agencies “target,” or collect information on, dozens of individuals, and compile psychological profiles that sometimes focussed on their personal or sexual histories.”
  • “In some cases, the investigative effort was run through Weinstein’s lawyers, including David Boies, a celebrated attorney who represented Al Gore in the 2000 Presidential-election dispute and argued for marriage equality before the U.S. Supreme Court.”

The full article is lengthy (as a first-rate investigative piece usually will be), but it’s well worth reading to grasp the extent of these efforts to investigate and intimidate victims and reporters.

NBC’s Megyn Kelly, Kate Snow, and Cynthia McFadden on the fallout

Some of the fallout from these revelations is discussed in this 11-minute segment featuring Megyn Kelly’s interview with NBC correspondents Kate Snow and Cynthia McFadden. It is also worth your time. Among other things, Kelly takes aim at how women are often ridiculed and dismissed when they make claims of abusive behavior by powerful men, often to the point of being called crazy and paranoid.

Moral monsters in suits

As Farrow’s New Yorker piece explains, prominent attorney David Boies was a key point person in running Weinstein’s black ops against these women and reporters. It brings to mind a blog post I wrote in 2011 about bad employers and their lawyers:

I have no academic study to verify this, but I have concluded that many bad employers have a sixth sense for retaining thuggish employment lawyers who serve as their willing executioners of workers who file complaints about working conditions, blow the whistle on ethical and legal lapses, or attempt to organize a union.

Indeed, to keep their misdeeds from going public and to preclude being held accountable for their actions, folks like Weinstein often need lawyers who are willing to help them. I once again appeal to Hannah Arendt to help us understand this dynamic:

Philosopher Hannah Arendt invoked the phrase “banality of evil” to describe how Adolf Eichmann served as one of Hitler’s architects of the Holocaust. Since then, the phrase has come to represent — in more generic terms — how ordinary people become easily invested in the values of a morally bankrupt status quo and participate in terrible behaviors that seemingly are unthinkable in civilized society. These insights teach us a lot about how bureaucratic enablers of abusive bosses can help to facilitate the destruction of a bullying target. These professional handmaidens (usually HR folks and employment lawyers) are more than simple bystanders; rather, they are complicit in the abuse.

Attorney Boies had also been retained by the New York Times on various legal matters. Today, after learning that Boies had targeted their own reporters as part of this cloak and dagger campaign, the Times severed its ties with his law firm, stating:

“We never contemplated that the law firm would contract with an intelligence firm to conduct a secret spying operation aimed at our reporting and our reporters….Such an operation is reprehensible.”

Been there, seen that

This aspect of the Weinstein saga may seem like an extreme anomaly. But for those of us who are closely familiar with other orchestrated attempts to further bully, silence, dismiss, marginalize, and disempower targets of interpersonal abuse, this is more validating than shocking. Unfortunately, money and influence can muster a lot of power to engage in further abuses, and this is simply a (now) very public manifestation of what continues to occur in so many other settings.

The awful necessity of the “business case” against workplace harassment and abuse

The ongoing and very public torrent of stories and accusations of sexual harassment and abuse directed at Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein has prompted an endless stream of commentaries about sexual harassment in the workplace. For example, the Economist magazine weighed in on the bottom-line business impacts of unchecked sexual harassment:

The victims often suffer depression, anger and humiliation. Firms where harassment happens are eventually harmed, too. Mr Weinstein’s studio may be sued…. The company could even be destroyed by the scandal. Even if one leaves aside all moral arguments—which one should not—failing to deal with harassment is usually bad for business. Firms that tolerate it will lose female talent to rivals that do not, and the market will punish them. The costs of decency are trivial; the rewards to shareholders are large.

This is yet another version of the so-called “business case” against work abuse, in this instance sexual harassment. For those of us who have been addressing workplace bullying and mobbing behaviors, this rap sounds familiar. We are continually urged to make the business case against psychological abuse at work, including articulating its cost impacts and, whenever possible, assigning estimated monetary figures.

I understand that whenever abusive behaviors are prevalent in the workplace, it makes sense to point out the costs to the organization. However, I do so with an underlying slow burn. It means that it’s not enough to show that bullying, mobbing, and harassment can wreak havoc on an individual’s health, livelihood, and overall well being. It means that all too many CEOs, senior executives, and managers won’t take work abuse seriously until they understand the monetary costs to their organizations. 

I’m a pragmatist. If it takes the “business case” against work abuse to get organizational leaders to care, I say let’s make it. But this sure doesn’t say much about the morals, ethics, and empathy of the executives who look the other way unless it hits them in their wallets and profit-and-loss statements. Human suffering alone is not enough for them; money, not decency, is what motivates them to act.

Thanks a million — and lots more to come!

I’m doing a quick little celebration here. Sometime over the past hour or so, this modest little blog recorded its one millionth “page view,” or “hit.” When I started Minding the Workplace some nine years ago, I had no idea whether it would endure or attract any interest. But thanks to you, my readers, what began as an opportunity to share some of my work and observations  — mainly about workplace bullying and abuse — has grown into a more broad-ranging source of commentary about the experience of work and related topics.

Because of a packed schedule, I admit that I’m sort of gliding into this first million. During the past six months I’ve been extremely busy on matters that overlap with many topics raised on this blog. They include co-editing (with Dr. Maureen Duffy) a forthcoming two-volume book set, Workplace Bullying and Mobbing in the United States and serving as the founding board chairperson of a new non-profit organization, the International Society for Therapeutic Jurisprudence, launched over the summer and going operational online in January. These initiatives, along with a sea of other writing and organizational commitments, have caused me to post less frequently here.

That will change next year, as I plan to resume a more frequent blogging schedule. Among other things, I’m going to be drawing regularly from Workplace Bullying and Mobbing in the United States and our more than two dozen contributors to offer snippets of commentary, research, and insight on work abuse. There’s so much in these two volumes that will be worth summarizing and discussing.

Of course, the world of work will continue to supply an ongoing stream of topics to write about, including cutting-edge research by scholars, compelling commentary by journalists and fellow bloggers, and real-life events and trends that demand our close attention.

I look forward to sharing this with you during the months and years to come!

 

Passion + mission + vocation + profession = “Ikigai”

Screenshot from businessinsider.com

Laura Oliver, writing for the World Economic Forum (via Business Insider), discusses the Japanese philosophy and practice of “ikigai” as “a way to live longer and better.” She explains:

While there is no direct English translation, ikigai is thought to combine the Japanese words ikiru, meaning “to live,” and kai, meaning “the realization of what one hopes for.” Together these definitions create the concept of “a reason to live” or the idea of having a purpose in life.

Oliver adds that according to experts, four key questions start us down the path toward the state of ikigai:

  • What do you love?
  • What are you good at?
  • What does the world need from you?
  • What can you get paid for?

Elusive combination

Okay, let’s be honest. Work and career opportunities that combine the answers to these four questions are not easy to obtain or create. We’re talking about the gold standard here. Nevertheless, if these inquiries can lead us to the best opportunities given current realities, then we’re better off for doing the exercise.

Unexpected difficulties

Furthermore, let’s acknowledge that what look like “dream jobs” from even the slightest distance can deteriorate into something much less in terms of reality. Many readers who have found this blog because of their experiences with workplace bullying, mobbing, or harassment can attest to that. So…the human side of our work environment may have a lot to do with ikigai, too, yes?

For those who have experienced the nasty side of work, perhaps the ikigai concept can help you think through your next options.

Skilled trades, too

In using the term “profession,” the graphic pictured above may suggest that ikigai has a white collar, professional bias. So let’s be sure to include skilled trades, among other things, as part of the mix. For example, take a look at this essay by Matthew Crawford, Shop Class as Soulcraft, which examines how deeply meaningful it can be to make a living via manual labor. (He later expanded the essay into a book by the same title, published in 2009.)

Avocations as an option

If that all-encompassing dream job proves to be elusive, then perhaps turning part of the dream into an avocation is an option. I’ve written about that possibility and how satisfying it can be, such as in this 2010 piece, “Embracing Creative Dreams at Midlife.”

***

Hat tip to Dr. Peggy Berry for the Business Insider article.

The “me too” campaign as both voice and trigger

When the New York Times broke the story that powerful Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein has quietly settled numerous sexual harassment claims against him going back decades (per this article by Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey), it unleashed an ongoing storm of similar allegations against Weinstein and stories of the “casting couch” practices of the filmmaking industry. Not since the 1991 Senate confirmation hearings for Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas centering on Anita Hill’s allegations of sexual harassment has this topic been so prominently in the mainstream news.

And now the forces of social media are weighing in, especially with a meme/hashtag campaign of “me too,” whereby (mostly) women are posting these two words on Facebook and other sites to proclaim that they, too, have experienced sexual harassment and abuse. Scrolling through my Facebook newsfeed over the past couple of days has conveyed a powerful message about the frequency and pain of these behaviors.

For some, it hasn’t been a difficult decision to type in “me too” and click “post.” But for many, many others, the “me too” campaign has been a triggering event at the same time it has provided an opportunity to be heard, causing them to relive their own experiences, which in some cases have been deeply traumatic.

There’s more that I want to write about the Harvey Weinstein story, but because it’s still developing, I will wait a bit. For now, however, let’s acknowledge that for many women, the question of whether to post two simple words to their Facebook page or Twitter feed has triggered conflicting emotions about voice, outrage, abuse, and victimization. Their ultimate decision is not ours to judge, either way. But if we care about dignity and equality in the workplace and in society overall, then we must understand why so many are saying “me too.”

Workplace bullying and mobbing stories: “Do you have a few hours?”

…in about the time it takes to read this book

Countless public speaking appearances about workplace bullying have taught me that covering the essential basics about work abuse is doable in about 15 minutes or so. For many talks, I include a “Workplace Bullying 101” intro segment that quickly describes the most common bullying behaviors and their impacts on workers and organizations, as well as prevalence rates and a few other key pieces of information. As I go through this baseline description, I often see folks nodding their heads in recognition.

However, what I can’t do in the typical short presentation is adequately convey the twisted, sick, and utterly disturbing narratives of the worst individual bullying and mobbing experiences, where the abusive behavior has been ongoing, targeted, malicious, multidirectional, and often suggesting an absence of conscience on the part of the main perpetrator(s). In past blog posts, I have invoked terms to describe aspects of these behaviors — “crazy making,” “gaslighting,” “blitzkrieg,” “eliminationist,” and the like — but a standard entry of 300-750 words does not yield sufficient space to communicate the excruciating details of individual stories.

I have learned that some of the most compelling stories of work abuse often take hours to explain, even if the targeted individuals have been able to work through the resulting trauma so as to be able to share their experiences coherently. (See my 2016 blog entry, “Workplace bullying, psychological trauma, and the challenge of storytelling,” summarizing scientific research that explains why traumatized individuals may find it difficult or impossible to provide ordered narratives of their experiences.) You see, the complexities of certain bullying and mobbing situations often do not fit into neat, sequential, and linear start-to-finish storylines. There are digressions, subplots, and spin-offs along the way, and some of them are important toward comprehending the overall narrative. In fact, sometimes these little details provide the “OMG” moment of understanding the breadth and depth of the situation.

In trying to get to the essence of a story, many of us would prefer The Little Engine That Could over Moby Dick, at least if we’re stretched for time. I believe this is among the reasons why targets of bullying and mobbing who have committed their stories to paper have found that conventional book publishers are not very receptive to their work. Some have opted for the self-publishing route as an alternative. While these self-published narratives are uneven in quality, they are uniformly reflective of the writers’ courage in bringing them to publication.

Personally, I’m at a point where I’m not searching for more stories. Alas, the ones I’m closely familiar with have sufficiently informed my grasp on how virulent, heartless, and harmful these behaviors can be. I also realize that longer, detail-packed narratives of work abuse exceed the attention spans of most legislators, executives and managers, labor leaders, and other individuals who should be taking such mistreatment more seriously. That said, the true horror and destructiveness of severe bullying and mobbing at work cannot be known without absorbing the whole of individual stories. We have to find a better way to tell and share them.

Workplace bullying and mobbing: Abuse vs. conflict

image courtesy of clipartfest.com

As I wrote in my previous post, Dr. Maureen Duffy and I are doing a final review of our forthcoming two-volume book set, Workplace Bullying and Mobbing in the United States (ABC-CLIO, 2018), scheduled for publication in December. The process of re-reading 25 chapters featuring the work of over two dozen contributors highlights recurring themes for me. Among others, I keep coming back to this question: In terms of negative workplace interactions, what factors distinguish “conflict” from “abuse”? 

You’ll find differences of opinion on this question among our learned contributors. For me, the distinction between workplace conflict and workplace abuse often boils down to two major factors, namely, (1) the intentions of the parties, and (2) the power relationships between the parties.

If a party’s main intention is to cause harm or distress to another (thus meeting a common legal definition of malice), then the situation is more likely to be an abusive one.

If the power relationships between the parties are significantly uneven due to some combination of internal hierarchy (e.g., supervisor vs. subordinate), numbers (e.g., many vs. one), personality matches (e.g., exploiting someone’s emotional vulnerabilities), and resources (organizational, financial, etc.), then the situation is more likely to be an abusive one.

If one side exhibits malicious intent and exercises a significant power advantage over the other, then the situation is very likely to be an abusive one. The combination of bad intentions and the ability to effectuate them can be overwhelming to the less-advantaged individual.

Here is where we find some of the sharper dividing lines between disrespect and incivility on one hand, and bullying and mobbing on the other. Of course, there are others, including repeated acts of aggression and the greater presence of serious health-harming effects with the latter.

If you’d like an illuminating comparison in terms of social relationships, consider spousal or domestic partnership relationships. It’s one thing for a couple not to get along, perhaps even to the point where the conflict has elevated to frequent disagreements and verbal and non-verbal aggression. It’s quite another for one party to continually subject the other to verbal and/or physical abuse in a one-sided show of aggression. (This illustration is among the reasons why I have long joined with others in believing that workplace bullying is more like domestic abuse than schoolyard bullying.)

Again, I’m simply sharing my thoughts on this topic as an ongoing response to reviewing the forthcoming book volumes. I’m sure that once these volumes are published, I’ll be drawing upon them frequently for more observations and insights.

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