When a prominent employee is fired for creating an “abusive work environment”

Workplace bullying, not sexual harassment, prompted this week’s termination of popular Boston public radio program host Tom Ashbrook by his employer, Boston University, which owns the WBUR-FM radio station. From the station’s report:

BU reached this decision after an independent review verified claims that Tom had created an abusive work environment. Over the past two months, while Ashbrook was off the air, two firms investigated allegations made by 11 former On Point producers. A law firm looked into the sexual harassment allegations and found that Tom’s unwelcome conduct was not sexual in nature, and did not constitute sexual harassment under university policy. A consulting firm looked into broader workplace culture issues at On Point. It concluded that Tom consistently overstepped reasonable lines and created a dysfunctional workplace. The investigators talked with about 60 people, including Tom and management.

In December, sexual harassment allegations against Ashbrook surfaced publicly, and soon it became evident that bullying-type behaviors were also part of the alleged misconduct. He was suspended by WBUR pending an investigation.

That month I was invited by WBUR to do a segment on the legal differences between sexual harassment and workplace bullying. On December 14 I was interviewed by Deborah Becker; you can read the transcript or listen to the 6-minute interview here. I used the term “abusive work environment” to describe how my proposed workplace anti-bullying legislation — known as the Healthy Workplace Bill — characterizes workplace bullying. I found it interesting that WBUR used the same term to describe Ashbrook’s conduct, distinguishing it from sexual harassment.

The Ashbrook situation raises several important points:

First, as we are seeing with other public allegations of sexual harassment, workplace bullying is often part of the picture. Accused serial sexual harasser Harvey Weinstein, for example, has also been tagged as a bullying boss. As reported last October by Brett Lang for Variety

In an industry known for attracting its share of screamers, few raged as violently as Harvey Weinstein. “There was a lot of pounding his fists on the desk and a lot of yelling,” said one of his former employees. “There was an anger inside of him that was jarring and scary.”

Another onetime staffer says that in recent years Weinstein had reined in a penchant for physical altercations but had not lost his talent for berating employees. He was particularly cruel with assistants and executives who didn’t push back when he tore into them.

Second, Ashbrook’s termination indicates that some employers are starting to get it about workplace bullying and its destructive effects on morale. Although it must be said that Ashbrook’s behavior was apparently no secret within WBUR for some time, when things did go public and the station ordered an investigation, they fired him despite a finding that there was insufficient evidence to support claims of sexual harassment. Rather, they cited the bullying behaviors as the main reason for the decision.

Third, this doesn’t mean that everyone is satisfied with a decision to terminate a well-known radio host for workplace bullying. Looking at social media comments, several posters accused Ashbrook’s co-workers of being “snowflakes” who couldn’t take his rough communication style. Based on my knowledge of folks who work in media settings, I would take issue with such characterizations. The electronic and print media are not vocations for the feint of heart, and I doubt that many folks at WBUR, if any, fit into the category of being “oversensitive.” But this is among the responses we can anticipate as more employers respond to workplace bullying.

On being responsibly bold (and other advice for legal activists)

The short version is here

At the recent therapeutic jurisprudence (TJ) workshop hosted by Professor Carol Zeiner and the St. Thomas University School of Law in Miami, Florida, I urged us all to be “responsibly bold” in our research and advocacy for legal and policy change. The term resonated with a number of workshop participants, and that response has prompted me to gather three clusters of advice for legal activists who are working toward the greater good.

The advice is based primarily on two ongoing points of significant involvement:

  1. engaging in scholarship, legislative drafting and advocacy, and public education on workplace bullying and mobbing; and
  2. researching and proposing law reform measures concerning the widespread practice of unpaid internships.

It is also informed by the promise of our new organization, the International Society for Therapeutic Jurisprudence, which is happily recruiting founding members.

I hope these thoughts will inspire your ideas about how to be effective in a legal activist mode.

Be responsibly bold

If it matters, write about it, even if no one else is doing so.

Take smart chances to be among the first, if not the first, to address a topic worthy of attention.

Furthermore, instead of merely analyzing the problem and providing broad parameters for a legal or policy response, offer a proposed solution with enough detail to lead the discussion on what should be done.

This may include outlining the specific strategy of a legal challenge or drafting a proposed statute or regulation.

As a law professor, I’ve noticed that some legal scholars opt not to take their analysis and writing this far. They critique a set of judicial decisions or an existing statute thoroughly and relentlessly, leaving nothing to pick over but the bones. However, when it comes to proposing a solution, they lapse into safer generalities. Rather than proposing, for example, specific language for a statutory amendment or a revised regulation, they morph into Impressionism and finish with erudite yet vague conclusions.

Instead, when recommending new or reformed public policies, the potential agenda setting approach is to write up the proposed statute or regulation. Greater specificity fuels the possibility of playing a more significant role in changing law and policy.

Be willing to write the first draft

Many years ago, Anthony Amsterdam, a New York University law professor and legendary civil rights lawyer, suggested to a group of new law instructors that if we are willing to be “the bottom name on the brief,” i.e., the person who does the grunt-level research and drafting even though others with fancier titles are listed above us on the pleading, then we can potentially enjoy the greatest influence over the shaping of the document.

Tony’s maxim taught me a lesson, and it has been verified in virtually every legal, political, policy, and bureaucratic setting to which I have been privy: Do a really good job on a first draft and the words continue to influence others. They may even help to frame a broader legal or policy agenda.

A quality brief or proposed statute becomes the template for others to borrow or tweak. A well-crafted set of talking points appears time and again in the remarks and speeches of others. A neatly worded resolution cuts through a lot of excess verbiage and half-baked thoughts in a meeting or conference.

Seek out partnerships and affiliations

A change agent should seek out partnerships and affiliations with organizations, associations, and agencies that can help to advance one’s work. Connections with the right groups and individuals can lead to a sharing of ideas, access, and resources. They can open doors that may appear to be closed when working solely on our own.

Considerations of partnerships and associations overlap strongly with writer and entrepreneur Seth Godin’s suggestion that in order to achieve desired change, those of like interests and commitments should gather together in “tribes.”

In his 2008 book, Tribes: We Need You to Lead Us, Godin defines a tribe as “a group of people connected to one another, connected to a leader, and connected to an idea,” adding that the two things a group needs to operate as tribe are “a shared interest and a way to communicate.”

He has further identified three types of tribes and individuals:

  • Those who react,
  • those who respond, and
  • those who initiate.

He suggests that while many simply react or respond to external stimuli, genuine leaders initiate by recognizing needs and opportunities that others miss, thereby playing a greater part in shaping change.

I am currently serving as the first board chairperson of the International Society for Therapeutic Jurisprudence. For those interested in law reform that embraces well-being and psychological health, I hope that the ISTJ will serve as a nurturing, inclusive, and forward-looking tribe. One look at the overall state of the world should tell us that a TJ perspective is badly needed when it comes to informing our laws, legal systems, and legal institutions.

We’ve got our work cut out for us. Let us be among the change agents who offer responsibly bold and humane solutions that advance human dignity.


A slightly different version of this post was published by the Therapeutic Jurisprudence in the Mainstream blog. Portions of the above are adapted from my 2016 article, “Intellectual Activism and the Practice of Public Interest Law” (Southern California Review of Law and Social Justice), which can be downloaded here without charge.  It’s a very personal piece, filled with reflections on my experiences with law reform activities. The roles of TJ and interdisciplinary connections figure prominently in my commentary.

Our primary purpose behind “Workplace Bullying and Mobbing in the United States”

Volumes 1 and 2 are published!!!

Waiting for me in my office today was a box containing authors’ courtesy copies of the newly-published, two-volume book set that Dr. Maureen Duffy and I co-edited, Workplace Bullying and Mobbing in the United States (Praeger/ABC-CLIO, 2018). This was the first time that I’d held the actual printed volumes in my hands, and I have to say it was a happy and proud moment.

This is, after all, the culmination of a lot of work with a superb co-editor who invited me to join her in this endeavor and a very talented and smart group of contributors. The project reflected our deep and ongoing commitment to research and public education about workplace abuse. In fact, I would like to draw from our Preface to share our primary purpose behind the project:

Our primary purpose in developing this book set was to bring together important research and thinking about workplace bullying and mobbing from leading and emerging American researchers, theorists, and practitioners and to present that work in a comprehensive and systematic way. (For a chapter on applications from neuroscience, we did go half-way around the world to Australia to find the relevant expertise.) We assure our readers, especially those from outside the United States, that we were not being provincial or ethnocentric in choosing this focus. Rather, we understood that the employment context in the United States is very different from that in European nations, Australia, and Canada—countries that have produced so much foundational, high-quality research, scholarship, and commentary about workplace bullying and mobbing. For better and for worse, these American differences cover the major employment sectors (private, public, and nonprofit); systems of employee relations; and mechanisms for resolving legal and labor disputes.

In the context of this American focus, we perceived a need for an encyclopedic treatment of workplace bullying and mobbing that embraces multidisciplinary and multifaceted examination and analysis. We intended these volumes to be theoretically inclusive and to present a range of policy, practice, and research perspectives. We also wanted to showcase the accumulated wisdom of practitioners in the area of workplace bullying and mobbing so that readers would be able to juxtapose practitioner understandings and perspectives with those of researchers and scholars. In so doing, we tried to stay true to the most robust and comprehensive interpretation of evidence-based practice, namely, reliance on a combination of research and practice evidence with stakeholder values, priorities, and preferences.

We believe that the books will serve a variety of important uses for our readers. As we further stated in our Preface:

We hope that these volumes will be useful in different ways, depending on the individual reader’s needs. For some, this material will yield specific research summaries or potential good practices. For others, single chapters or groups of chapters will be worth cover-to-cover reads to obtain topical overviews. For those who want a comprehensive overview of workplace bullying and mobbing, a full reading of both volumes will provide a useful, comprehensive starting point. In any event, we trust that engaging with these volumes will be time well spent.

The book set includes 25 chapters written by over two dozen contributors, with some 600 pages packed into two volumes. You can use the “Look Inside” feature on the Amazon page to read the table of contents, Foreword, Preface, and first chapter. I also provided details about the book set in a January blog post.

With a $131 publisher’s retail price (e-book versions cost about 20 percent less), the volumes are aimed at researchers and practitioners who want an encyclopedic treatment of this topic, as well as specialized and general libraries. Most of the chapters are accessible to a general audience as well, and thus will be informative for individuals who simply want to learn more about the overall topic.

Therapeutic jurisprudence: Human dignity as a prime objective for law and public policy

(photo: Kathy Cerminara)

I just returned to Boston from a two-day workshop on therapeutic jurisprudence (TJ), hosted by Professor Carol Zeiner at the St. Thomas University School of Law in Miami. Like every other TJ gathering that I’ve been a part of, it was a compelling blend of thought-provoking ideas and information, matched by a wonderful sense of fellowship.

My talk was titled “TJ as a Framing Response to Anger, Shock & Trauma in Public Policy Making.” In addition to quickly surveying some of the disturbing developments in U.S. immigration and health care policy, I discussed the challenges of advocating for workplace anti-bullying legislation. The key message of my talk was that we must, without apology, frame debates about law reform and the making of legislation in terms of individual and collective dignity.

If you’d like a sampling of what TJ scholars and practitioners are working on, here’s the Day 1 agenda of our workshop:

And here’s the Day 2 agenda:

As some subscribers to this blog are aware, I am serving as board chair of the new, non-profit International Society for Therapeutic Jurisprudence (ISTJ). For many years, the TJ community existed as an informal, interdisciplinary network of scholars, practitioners, judges, and students. With the formation of the ISTJ, we are consolidating a variety of TJ initiatives and building a global organization for this growing community. Membership is open to all who share the goals of the ISTJ (not just lawyers!), with regular 2018 membership dues set at $25 USD and student memberships for free.

“Let’s leave it all out on the field”: A Gen Joneser rallying cry?

Bartlet (l) and McGarry (r) confer

Dear readers, I confess that this is a bit of a ramble, a lot of thinking out loud in digital form. It’s about my generational cohort — the one dubbed Generation Jones, i.e., late Boomers and early Gen Xers born between 1954 and 1965 — and how we might contribute to the world in the years to come.

One of my favorite television characters is Leo McGarry from “The West Wing,” the Emmy Award-winning political drama that ran on NBC for seven seasons. The late John Spencer, a supremely underrated actor, played McGarry, a politically savvy and trusted close advisor to President Jed Bartlet (Martin Sheen).

A favorite West Wing episode comes late in the series (season 6, episode 12). McGarry is returning to White House duties after a heart attack and bypass surgery, and the Bartlet Administration has only a year left in its second term. The President is fatigued due to a chronic illness, and McGarry is struggling to regain his health and his role in the Oval Office. Too often the Administration is letting events control it, rather than the other way around. Leo senses that maybe the President and his inner circle are simply running out the clock, while trying resting on their laurels.

In a great scene featuring McGarry and the President, Leo challenges his long-time friend and fellow political war horse to push hard during their last year in office: “Both of us, sir, this is our last game. Let’s leave it all out on the field.” With the President’s approval, Leo calls a late night meeting for the senior staff, during which they begin to map out an ambitious policy agenda for the Bartlet Administration’s final 365 days.

A Gen Joneser rallying cry?

I love that scene between McGarry and the President. Yeah, it is corny and doesn’t bear any resemblance to today’s Washington D.C. But for pure inspiration, it works for me.

And maybe it even speaks to me. Let’s leave it all out on the field. When I think of fellow members of Generation Jones, these words come to mind as a potential rallying cry for our (hopefully many!) remaining years.

Today’s Gen Jonesers are roughly between 52 and 64 years old. In terms of traditional age demographics, this covers a healthy span of middle age. And while our bodies may be feeling the passage of time, we also have a lot of accumulated wisdom, insight, and experience. I’d like to think that we have a lot of gas left in our tanks. In fact, in many realms we may be at or near the top of our games in terms of productivity and leadership capabilities. These qualities give us opportunities to make significant contributions to the world around us during the years to come.

In some cases, a middle-aged career shift may be part of a fundamental personal transition. Career counselors and coaches have sometimes referred to this as pursuing an “encore” career, one that may involve earning less or even no money — the latter crossing into the realm of avocation — but in any event enabling someone to make a difference in a chosen arena. A popular website devoted to the pursuit of encore careers uses the tag “Second acts for the greater good.” It’s an appealing idea: Earn enough money to secure your future, then spend a chunk of the rest of your time giving back.

Imagine, millions of seasoned, able, mature workers pursuing work and activities that help our communities, big and small. It’s about defining personal legacies, giving back, and paying it forward, right? As I wrote in 2016:

…(W)e live in a world in serious need of more joy, creativity, humanity, and compassion. Who wants to look back at a life only to see a lot of wonderful opportunities squandered and wasted?

Reality checks

But hold on, there are harsh reality checks on my generational cheerleading. Let’s start with economics and personal finances. As I wrote last year, many members of Gen Jones are getting hammered in terms of jobs, savings, and retirement readiness:

…Generation Jones has been snakebitten by broader events. During the early 1980s, many graduated into a terrible recession that limited entry-level job opportunities. This was also a time when America’s industrial jobs base went into sharp decline (a trend continuing to this day), wages started to flatline (ditto), and employers began eliminating pension plans (ditto again).

Fast forwarding, the Great Recession hit during what should’ve been Gen Jonesers’ strongest earning years, the heart of their 40s and early 50s. Many lost jobs and livelihoods during that time and have struggled to recover. Some have never recovered. Gen Jonesers are now hurtling toward what have been considered traditional retirement years; most are within 10-15 years of that time. But as I have written often on this blog…, America faces a retirement funding crisis of major proportions.

Gen Jonesers are in the bull’s-eye of that retirement funding crisis, as will become evident during the next decade. In terms of its entrance into the labor market, this age group is the first to fully experience the widening wealth gap that began in the 1980s and continues to this day. Absent dramatic changes in the American economic structure — likely through some combination of civic leadership, public policy, and political voice — we are a preview of things to come.

Overall, the march of time brings a mix of ordinary and extraordinary life challenges. Job losses and career setbacks have emotional as well as financial impacts. Illnesses and deaths are a part of life, but no less difficult because of their inevitability. As many regular readers of this blog know, various forms of abuse can exact a significant toll and have cumulative effects.

Looking ahead

So what is it to be? A rich midlife with impact-making encore contributions, or remaining years spent pinching pennies and recovering from setbacks? Of course, the reality for most Gen Jonesers will be somewhere in between, replete with individual stories and circumstances. After all, there is no one-size-fits-all playbook for midlife and beyond.

With all that said, here is a cluster of framing ideas for our consideration, some possible ways for us to leave it all out on the field:

Legacy work — It starts with legacy work. Again from 2016:

By “legacy work” I mean our core contributions and accomplishments, the stuff we’d like to be remembered for in the longer run and by people we care about. In the realm of vocation, it may involve creative or intellectual work, achievement in business, service to others, building something, activism and social change work, or some type of innovation or invention.

…(O)ne’s legacy work need not be vocational in nature. It can include parenting, caregiving, an engaging avocation, a deeply meaningful hobby, or charitable work. For some, a “day job” may pay the bills, but an unrelated project or endeavor brings the deeper meaning.

Community — In recent years, loneliness has been labeled an epidemic and a public health crisis by health experts. (See recent pieces in the Washington Post and New York Times for more.) Part of the answer is to build and maintain genuine communities. These communities can be grounded in geography (e.g., neighborhood), shared interests and activities (e.g., vocations, avocations, hobbies), or shared values (e.g., social and faith beliefs). The care and feeding of communities and those within them require intention and commitment.

Recovery — By the time midlife hits, a lot of folks find themselves recovering from setbacks small and large. The big hits often involve fear, stress, and even trauma. Fortunately, for many there are paths to recovery. For example, even those experiencing post-traumatic stress, once thought to be extremely hard to treat, may heal via new healing modalities and even enter a phase known as post-traumatic growth.

Scarcity, generosity, and choices — Some very smart people are telling us that we face a long-term era of scarcity. Accordingly, our challenge may be to find ways to live good and meaningful lives during a time when resources (personal and global) are limited. As I see it, it will require letting go of some the values that led us to this place and reorienting our lives and lifestyles so that we are less about stuff and more about humanity. It will mean giving back and paying it forward, while defining abundance differently from the ways we have done so before.

Instructive on these points are the words of my late friend and pioneering adult educator John Ohliger (1926-2004), which appeared in a 1981 issue of his newsletter Second Thoughts:

My picture is of a future where we live more relaxed and more modest lives with an abundance of unmeasurable and infinitely available non-material (or better, trans-material) resources. All the travail and pressure we’re going through right now may be paving the way for that future. This future could be one where we will have a choice of “goodies”; not ones requiring scarce energy, minerals, or dollars; or ones permitting some people to get rich while others go hungry, but choices that we create with our own hearts and heads and hands among people we know and care for.

Related posts

Obviously there’s a lot to contemplate here, and I’ve barely scratched the surface. For those who would like to explore some of these themes a bit deeper, I’ve collected a bunch of past entries relating to midlife, transitions, vocations, avocations, and community building:

Work, savings, and retirement: Generation Jones is getting hammered (2017)

From hoop jumping to legacy work and places in-between (2016)

Charles Hayes on the ripples of our lives (2016)

David Brooks and his “moral bucket list” (2015)

Defining, refining, creating, and redefining your “body of work” (2015)

Tribes for brewing ideas and engaging in positive change (2015)

The power of face-to-face dialogue for change agents (2015)

Taking stock at midlife: Time for reading assignments (2014)

Hard looks at joblessness, retirement funding, and Generation Jones (2014)

Personal reinvention: Take a look at “50 over 50” (2014)

Holiday reads: Fueling heart, mind, and soul (2014)

“The Shift: Ambition to Meaning” (2014)

Transitions and inner callings (2014)

Inauthenticity at work and the fast track to a midlife crisis (2013)

“Follow your bliss”? Parsing Joseph Campbell’s famous advice (2012)

What’s your legacy work? (And how can you de-clutter way to it?) (2011)

The “butterfly effect” and working as an educator (2011)

Embracing creative dreams at midlife (2010)

Will our avocations save us? (2010)

Does life begin at 46? (2010).

Are You a Marathoner or a Sprinter? (2009)

Workplace perks don’t replace respect & honesty

In a piece for Workforce magazine, Paul McDonald urges employers to remember that fancy perks and benefits don’t replace treating employees with genuine respect and honesty:

Faced with a red-hot job market, employers are offering perks like free ski passes, complimentary e-readers and on-site acupuncture to attract and retain quality employees.

…But there are organizations where once the luster wears off, employees begin to see that these benefits are simply camouflage over a toxic work environment.

…Workplaces with low employee morale see constant churn, and right now, the number of U.S. workers quitting their jobs is the highest it’s been in more than a decade. Seven in 10 American workers are not engaged in their jobs, according to Gallup’s recent “State of the American Workplace” survey.

All the bells & whistles, McDonald suggests, don’t substitute for a strong foundation of good employee relations. To attract and keep good workers, “employers must work to develop positive, healthy workplaces.”


Indeed, I’ve written about how some employers offer fancy employee wellness programs while simultaneously ignoring their own toxic work environments that fuel employee health problems, lower morale, and reduce productivity. It’s as if one hand doesn’t know what the other is doing.

After all, if someone needs 30 minutes to slug away at the in-house health center’s punching bag to work off anger and frustration over how poorly they’re being treated by their boss, then there’s a fundamental disconnect between the everyday experience of work and employer-provided perks to reduce stress and anxiety.

APA Center for Organizational Excellence

For employers that want to take this stuff seriously, a great starting place is the American Psychological Association’s Center for Organizational Excellence, which offers a wealth of practical resources and information. Among other things, their site includes a resource page devoted to workplace bullying, which I helped to organize and assemble.

Overall, it’s the best one-stop-shopping site around for employers that want to create and maintain psychologically healthy workplaces. It will help you avoid turning this Onion parody piece into your organizational reality.

Yeah, it’s an Onion parody, but still….

Reissued for 2018: Robin Stern’s “The Gaslight Effect”

Dr. Robin Stern’s The Gaslight Effect: How to Spot and Survive the Hidden Manipulation Others Use to Control Your Life, first published in 2007, has just been reissued in paperback for 2018 with a new Introduction. Especially for those interested in more manipulative forms of workplace bullying and abuse, this is a very useful and important book.

Dr. Stern defines gaslighting as:

a type of emotional manipulation in which a gaslighter tries to convince you that you’re misremembering, misunderstanding, or misinterpreting your own behavior or motivations, thus creating doubt in your mind that leaves you vulnerable and confused. Gaslighters might be men or women, spouses or lovers, bosses or colleagues, parents or siblings, but what they all have in common is their ability to make you question your own perceptions of reality.

According to Stern, gaslighting is a “mutually created relationship” involving a gaslighter who wants “the gaslightee to doubt her perceptions of reality,” and a gaslightee who is “equally intent on getting the gaslighter to see her as she wished to be seen.”

For those who are new to the term, gaslighting draws its inspiration from a 1944 film, “Gaslight,” in which a husband is trying to drive his wife insane, including the periodic dimming of gaslights in a house where her aunt was murdered years before.

Stern has played a major role in popularizing the concept of gaslighting, with her main focus being on such behaviors in interpersonal relationships, especially as experienced by women. This emphasis remains in the re-issued edition, but the new Introduction explains how gaslighting is now being applied to additional scenarios, including bullying. In fact, I was flattered to read a reference to this blog:

Meanwhile, an increasing number of blogs linked gaslighting to bullying, both in personal relationships and at work. “Is gaslighting a gendered form of workplace bullying?” asked David Yamada on his blog, Minding the Workplace, while numerous dating and self-help blogs talked about the importance of identifying and standing up to your gaslighter. 

I’m happy to recommend The Gaslight Effect. In addition, you can check out past blog posts about gaslighting at work and in society:

Gaslighting at work (2017)

Inauguration Week special: “Gaslighting” goes mainstream (2017)

Is gaslighting a gendered form of workplace bullying? (2013)

Gaslighting as a workplace bullying tactic (2012)

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