Is your workplace psychologically and ethically healthy?

Is your workplace a beacon of psychological health, or do employees experience the Sunday night dreads over the coming week? Is there a sense that it is run with integrity and transparency, or are folks waiting for (maybe hoping for) some investigation or even indictment?

I periodically post questions that help us determine the psychological well-being and ethical culture of a given workplace, often drawing upon experts in employment relations, organizational behavior, and psychology. I’ve collected some of them here, with links to the original posts.  Read ’em and cheer…or weep:

1.  The New Workplace Institute’s “Eightfold Path” toward a psychologically healthy workplace:

  1. Is there a sense of zest, “buzz,” and opportunity in the workplace?
  2. Do employees feel they are valued and treated with respect and dignity?
  3. Is the organizational culture friendly, inclusive, and supportive?
  4. Is organizational decision making fair, transparent, and evenhanded?
  5. Are diversities of all types welcomed and accepted?
  6. Does the organization face tough questions concerning employee relations?
  7. Are allegations of mistreatment of employees handled fairly and honestly, even when the alleged wrongdoers are in positions of power?
  8. Are compensation and reward systems fair and transparent?

2.  From the American Psychological Association’s Psychologically Healthy Workplace Program, how does your workplace stack up based on these criteria?

Every year, the APA recognizes North American employers who excel in these five categories:

  • “Employee involvement”
  • “Work-life balance”
  • “Employee growth & development”
  • “Health & safety”
  • “Employee recognition”

3.  From psychologists Linda Hartling and Elizabeth Sparks, what kind of workplace culture do you have?

Hartling and Sparks note that a healthy “relational” culture is one that values “growth-fostering relationships, mutual empathy, mutuality, [and] authenticity,” creating qualities of “zest, empowerment, clarity, sense of worth, and a desire for more connection.”

By contrast, they identify three types of “non-relational” cultures that hurt morale and productivity:

(1) “traditional hierarchical” cultures that emphasize top-down power;
(2) “pseudo-relational” cultures that value superficial “niceness” over constructive change; and,
(3) brute “survival” cultures that pit everyone against one another in the quest for status and institutional spoils.

4.  From Chief People Officer Kevin Kennemer, questions about willingness to mistreat employees:

  • Does your company employ leaders and/or employees who lack that strong inner conscience to resist  shocking behavior?
  • Do you think your coworkers are capable of inhumane treatment?
  • Do psychologically abused employees find themselves stranded and secluded from their coworkers?
  • What do you do if you see an employee being psychologically abused by a supervisor?

5.  From business ethics & law professor Marianne Jennings, does your workplace exhibit any of the “seven signs of ethical collapse”?

  • Pressure to maintain numbers
  • Fear and silence
  • Larger than life CEO
  • Weak board of directors
  • Conflicts of interest
  • Innovation trumping any other priority, such as ethics
  • Belief that goodness in some areas atones for wrongdoing in others

6.  From writer and organizational consultant Art Kleiner, who are the core groups in your workplace?

If you want to understand how an organization includes or excludes, identifying the core group is a vital first step.  Examine the core group members in terms of demographics.  Look at the inclusionary or exclusionary practices of those within the core group.  You’ll get a lot of answers about the culture of a particular workplace or institution, along with some insights about what is required to achieve positive change.

Bullying, incivility, and conflict resolution at work

This topic deserves more in-depth consideration than what I can offer here, but it’s been pinging away at me: The intersection of workplace bullying, workplace incivility, and conflict resolution.

At times bullying and incivility are conflated, and I plead guilty to that.  To illustrate, I’ve cited leading studies on workplace incivility in making a case for taking bullying seriously on a legal and organizational level.  Because terms and definitions in this realm are not uniformly adopted, there will be some inevitable sloshing around.

But there are distinctions worth drawing a line in the sand.  For example, in an earlier post, I agreed with those who believe that genuine workplace bullying — targeted, hurtful behavior — cannot, or at least should not, be subject to traditional mediation approaches.  One does not attempt to mediate abuse.

However, I believe that lesser forms of workplace discord definitely may benefit from mediation and other dispute resolution techniques.  The difference lies in the distinction between abusive behavior vs. conflicts between parties with relatively equal institutional and personal power.

Is some incivility necessary, even, umm…useful?

In addition, some forms of incivility may be necessary toward building a psychologically healthy workplace.  After all, honest expressions of emotion, including anger, can be a first step in resolving differences.

Workplaces that expect their employees to neuter their emotions are sorry environments indeed, yet too many of them exist.  (I should know: I’m both a lawyer and an academician, two of the most emotionally repressed vocations imaginable!)  Some of these bottled up places host a lot of bad behaviors, especially of the passive-aggressive variety.  At the same time, their socially dysfunctional cultures frown upon outward expressions of emotion to exhibit concern or exasperation.  It makes for a lot of quietly angry and resentful employees.

Pseudo-relational workplace cultures

Psychologists Linda Hartling and Elizabeth Sparks, whose important analysis of organizational cultures I described in an earlier post, have identified these types of workplaces as hosting “pseudo-relational” cultures that value superficial “niceness” over constructive change.  By keeping everything at this level, the hard stuff of addressing conflicts and difference is ignored.  In fact, those who try to press these issues are labeled as troublemakers and malcontents.

On mediating bullying in academe

Here’s an interesting piece by Peter Schmidt in the Chronicle of Higher Education on using mediation to resolve bullying situations in higher education:

College faculty members who are bullied or abused by coworkers often feel they must either suffer through it or quit. Soon, however, colleges may be pressed to give them a third option: requesting the intervention of a mediator or arbitrator to try to turn their workplace situation around.

What is unclear is whether such interventions will make life more tolerable for bullies’ victims or leave them feeling more beat up than they were before.

As I wrote last December, standard-brand mediation is not appropriate for genuine bullying situations.  Abuse should not be “mediated.”  However, as some commenters to the post noted, there may be a role for non-traditional mediation approaches.

In any event, I’m glad the topic is getting attention.  Bullying in higher ed is a real problem.  By far the most popular post on this blog is the extended piece I did about bullying and mobbing in academe.

Don’t assume that HR is your buddy

Time and again I learn about situations where employees erroneously believed that the human resources office was their friend in helping to resolve a workplace conflict or problem.  The truth is maybe yes, quite possibly no.

Understanding the multifaceted roles and true loyalties of HR is an important starting place.  Toward that end, from via Yahoo!, here’s an interesting piece by Jim Rendon, 10 Things Human Resources Won’t Say:

1. “We’re Squeezed Too.”
2. “We’re Not Always Your Advocate…”
3. “…But We Can Help Your Career.”
4. “Want the job? Then You’ll Want to Get to Know Us.”
5. “Yes, Facebook Can Get You Fired.”
6. “In Some Companies, We’re Not Very Useful at All.”
7. “You’re Not Paranoid — We are Watching You.”
8. “Read the Fine Print.”
9. “We Know More About You Than You think.”
10. “We Love Tests.”

It echoes some of the observations made in one of this blog’s most popular posts, “HR was useless”, which discusses some of the realities of relying on HR to help workers.

Targets of workplace bullying, sexual harassment, etc., and potential whistleblowers, take heed.

Mediation Channel on good blogging and recommended ADR blogs

Diane Levin, friend of this blog and host of the popular Mediation Channel (, has written a great post that both affirms basic “best practices” about blogging and provides a list of alternative dispute resolution blogs that capture those practices.

Her three rules of thumb for good blogging are “create good content,” “be social,” and “don’t plagiarize,” and she elaborates nicely on each point.  Her list of ADR blogs is a blessed time saver for those in search of quality commentary.

Mediation Channel was recognized by the ABA Journal as one of the top 100 law-related blogs, and Diane has been a leader in promoting an interactive and collegial blogosphere among legal and ADR practitioners and thinkers.


Work and Workplaces of the New Decade: Notes on a “Dignitarian” Agenda

As we turn to a new decade, permit me to set out some notes on a “dignitarian” (to borrow Robert Fuller‘s wonderful term) agenda for work and workplaces for the next 10 years. Obviously this is far from the last word on the subject, but establishing some basic themes may be helpful:

1.  Let’s put human dignity at least on par with markets and management.

Enough of this blind worship of unfettered free markets and management power. This mentality led us to the current meltdown and to workplaces that are top-down and stressed out. We need to place human dignity front and center in our systems and practices of employment relations. How these values play out will vary among workplaces, public policy initiatives, and whatnot, but recognizing their centrality is a good first step.

2.  Let’s tackle all forms of mistreatment at work, especially bullying and discrimination.

Bullying and discrimination remain significant problems in the modern workplace. Better management, worker activism, enactment of workplace bullying laws, and effective enforcement of existing discrimination protections will point us in the right direction.

3.  How about a genuine safety net for the unemployed, injured, and sick?

If you lose a good job or suffer some other misfortune that prevents you from working, life’s challenges can pile up pretty quickly. We need to develop a better safety net for those who face life’s inevitable ups and downs. Health insurance (it looks like we may be getting there), adequate disability and workers’ compensation, and transitional assistance and training should be integrated in a way that helps people reclaim and rebuild their lives.

4.  We badly need to reform our ways of resolving workplace disputes.

Current approaches to resolving workplace disputes too often lead to expensive, lengthy, angry, and torturous proceedings for all parties involved. Even claimants who “win” their lawsuits often feel like they have been battered along the way by our justice system. We need to streamline these proceedings and find a way to use them to repair, not fracture, troubled employment relationships.

5.  The revival of an active, inclusive labor movement will fuel a dignitarian agenda.

Labor unions provide an important source of countervailing power to the authority exercised by management. Good, inclusive unions can give rank-and-file workers a rallying point for living wages, decent working conditions and fair treatment when problems arise.

6.  Automation isn’t the only reason why that new VCR costs only $40.

The globalization of markets has led to the exploitation of workers at home and abroad. It’s easy for us to forget this reality when we pick up that $40 VCR at the local “big box” superstore. Too many workers are toiling in sweatshop conditions in order for some of us to enjoy life niceties at a lower cost.

7.  With rights and privileges come responsibilities.

I fear that we are suffering from an integrity deficit in our workplaces, highlighted by scandals, corruption, and excessive executive compensation. This is not a screed against the big bad corporation; it cuts across the private, public, and non-profit sectors. We cannot have dignitarian workplaces without deeper individual commitment to doing our jobs ethically and competently.


This is something of responsive sequel to my post last week, “The Terrible 2000s: Goodbye and good riddance.” 

For a much lengthier, law & policy oriented discussion of these themes, see my law review article, “Human Dignity and Employment Law” (University of Richmond Law Review) which can be freely downloaded by clicking the title. 

Workplace bullying in health care IV: Nurses bullied and responding

Here’s a quick assignment: After you read this post, go to Google and type in these two words as a search request: nurses bullying.  If you had a dollar for every hit, you could retire right now and live very, very comfortably.

When it comes to workplace bullying in the healthcare workplace, nurses get the worst of it.  They are bullied by doctors.  They are bullied by fellow nurses.  And when patients act out, they’re more likely to take it out on a nurse than someone else, at times using physical violence.

Studies and More Studies

A recent study by the Joint Commission “found that more than 50 of nurses have been the target of some form of abuse at work and more than 90 percent have witnessed abusive behavior.  Furthermore, 75 percent of nurses who responded believed that this type of behavior can reduce patient satisfaction and disrupt care.”

A well attended symposium on bullying in hospital settings held at the Work, Stress, and Health Conference in November further highlighted the experience of nurses.  Paula Grubb (National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health) and Michelle Kaminski (Michigan State U.) presented papers on bullying of nurses that generated considerable discussion.

Two studies from the United Kingdom by psychologist Lyn Quine add support to these concerns.  Her 2001 study of National Health Service nurses found that:

Forty-four percent of nurses reported experiencing one or more types of bullying in the previous 12 months, compared to 35 percent of other staff. . . . Nurses who had been bullied reported significantly lower levels of job satisfaction and significantly higher levels of anxiety, depression and propensity to leave.  They were also more critical of aspects of the organizational climate of trust.

Quine’s 1999 survey of National Health Service employees found that 38 percent “reported experiencing one or more types of bullying in the previous year,” resulting in “significantly lower levels of job satisfaction.”

Nurses’ Unions as a Collective Voice?

Lots of nurses are unionized, and their unions may be in the best position to serve as a staging area for raising issues about bullying in healthcare.

For example, the Massachusetts Nurses Association has incorporated their concerns about workplace bullying into their workplace violence campaign.  Workplace bullying has been a topic of their workshops and annual meetings.  Several years ago, a small delegation of their members participated in a two-session roundtable on workplace bullying that I hosted at Suffolk University Law School, and the discussions were detailed and very personal.

Nurses’ unions can educate members in responding to bullying situations, negotiate abusive supervision clauses in collective bargaining agreements, support workplace bullying legislation, and provide assistance to bullied co-workers.  Along with healthcare organizations, they can work toward constructive responses to workplace bullying on individual and systemic levels.


This is the fourth and final post in a short series about workplace bullying in healthcare.

Link to the first post, discussing the Joint Commission standards

Link to the second post, discussing the Vanderbilt University Medical Center remedial program for physicians

Link to the third post, discussing tort (personal injury) claims that have been brought against doctors by co-workers for bullying behaviors

Workplace bullying in healthcare III: A sampling of legal cases

Here are three court decisions that illustrate how healthcare workers have attempted to use tort (personal injury) law against doctors for bullying behaviors, with varying success.

A bit of background: Although targets of workplace bullying currently do not enjoy abundant legal protections against this form of mistreatment, some have filed tort claims in an effort to gain redress.  As I have explained at length in two law review articles (“The Phenomenon of ‘Workplace Bullying’ and the Need for Status-Blind Hostile Work Environment Protection” and “Crafting a Legislative Response to Workplace Bullying,” both available in the Free Articles section of this blog), employees face an uphill battle using this legal route.  But some do prevail.

RAESS v. DOESCHER, Indiana Supreme Court (2008)

In the 2008 case of Raess v. Doescher, the Indiana Supreme Court affirmed a jury award of $325,000 for assault to a perfusionist (operator of “a heart-lung machine during open heart surgeries”) who brought an action against a surgeon for an altercation at a hospital.   The claim was based on the following factual allegations:

(T)he defendant, angry at the plaintiff about reports to the hospital administration about the defendant’s treatment of other perfusionists, aggressively and rapidly advanced on the plaintiff with clenched fists, piercing eyes, beet-red face, popping veins, and screaming and swearing at him.  The plaintiff backed up against a wall and puts his hands up, believing that the defendant was going to hit him…. Then the defendant suddenly stopped, turned, and stormed past the plaintiff and left the room, momentarily stopping to declare to the plaintiff, “you’re finished, you’re history.”

The Court’s decision was based largely on procedural and evidentiary issues.  It rejected a challenge to expert testimony about workplace bullying rendered by Dr. Gary Namie for the plaintiff, finding there was nothing in the record to suggest that Namie’s testimony was inadmissible, and ultimately holding that the issue was not properly preserved for appellate review.   It also held that the trial court “did not abuse its discretion in refusing” the defendant’s tendered jury instruction concerning workplace bullying.

The legal impact of Raess v. Doescher with regard to workplace bullying is modest because of the limited scope of the Indiana Supreme Court’s holdings.  It created no new legal claim, and did not expand substantive tort law in a way that might pave the way for future plaintiffs.  However, the decision has received national attention because the media characterized it as a successful workplace bullying claim.   It has been cited as evidence of a growing liability risk that counsels employers to take workplace bullying more seriously.

HOLLOMON v. KEADLE, Arkansas Supreme Court (1996)

Most bullying-type lawsuits that allege the a claim of intentional infliction of emotional distress are not successful, with courts holding that the offending behavior was not sufficiently outrageous.  Perhaps the most stunning example of this reasoning came in Hollomon v. Keadle, a 1996 Arkansas Supreme Court case that involved a female employee, Hollomon, who worked for a male physician, Keadle, for two years before she voluntarily left the job.

Hollomon claimed that during this period of employment, “Keadle repeatedly cursed her and referred to her with offensive terms, such as ‘white nigger,’ ‘slut,’ ‘whore,’ and ‘the ignorance of Glenwood, Arkansas’.” Keadle repeatedly used profanity in front of his employees and patients, and he frequently remarked that women working outside the home were “whores and prostitutes.”

According to Hollomon, Keadle “told her that he had connections with the mob” and mentioned “that he carried a gun,” allegedly to “intimidate her and to suggest that he would have her killed if she quit or caused trouble.” Hollomon claimed that as a result of this conduct, she suffered from “stomach problems, oss of sleep, loss of self-esteem, anxiety attacks, and embarrassment.”

On these allegations, the Arkansas Supreme Court ruled for the defendant Keadle, holding that Hollomon’s failure to establish that Keadle was made aware of her peculiar vulnerability to emotional distress was fatal to her claim.

SNYDER v. TURK, Ohio Court of Appeals (1993)

The defendant, Turk, was a surgeon performing a gall-bladder operation.  According to Turk, a nurse, plaintiff Snyder, was making mistakes and complicating an already difficult procedure.  Turk became so exasperated that when Snyder handed him the supposedly wrong instrument, he grabbed her shoulder, pulled her face down toward the surgical opening, say “Can’t you see where I’m working?  I’m working in a hole.  I need long instruments.”

At trial, after the plaintiff presented her evidence, the judge directed a verdict for Turk, holding that Snyder, among other things, (1) had not established the elements of intentional infliction of emotional distress; and (2) had not established the elements of battery (offensive or harmful touching).

The Ohio Court of Appeals agreed that the emotional distress claim was not warranted, it reinstated the battery claims finding that a jury could have found the physical contact to be offensive.


It is notable that all three of these claims were brought against individual doctors, not the hospitals or clinics where they worked.  It is quite possible this was the case because in many states, workers’ compensation precludes workers from bringing individual lawsuits against their employers for intentional harm at work.  Workers’ compensation is designed to largely replace personal injury lawsuits as a means of compensating employees for injuries suffered on the job.

However, workers’ compensation may not necessarily insulate individual co-employees from being sued.  Doctors should take note, as those who bully and have “deep pockets” (i.e., money to pay damages in a lawsuit) could find themselves personally liable for their own behaviors.


Link to the first in this series of posts on bullying in health care, discussing the Joint Commission standards

Link to the second post in the series, discussing the Vanderbilt University Medical Center remedial program for physicians

Link to the fourth and final post in the series, discussing bullying of nurses and how nurses’ unions can respond

“Can workplace bullying situations be mediated?”

Can workplace bullying situations be mediated?

This is a recurring question that came up again in the aftermath of a talk I gave yesterday on workplace bullying at the annual workshop on Humiliation and Violent Conflict, sponsored by the Human Dignity and Humiliation Studies Network and hosted by Columbia University in New York City.  I have meant to post about this question in more detail, incorporating the many discussions that have taken place over it among experts in workplace bullying and dispute resolution, but for now let me give you my short answer:

I think it’s necessary, in this context, to distinguish between workplace bullying and lesser forms of workplace incivility.

Workplace bullying typically involves an abuse of power accompanied by malicious intent, enabled by differences in organizational rank and privilege, dint of personalities, or some combination.   Attempts to mediate such situations subject targets to even more abuse, and wrongly suggest that somehow we can split the differences between the parties and arrive at a fair resolution.  Just as we would not attempt to mediate child abuse or spousal abuse, we should not attempt to mediate work abuse.

However, lesser forms of incivility, where power imbalances are not as pronounced and intentions are not malicious, may well benefit by a mediation approach.  It can mend fences, reduce stress, smooth over working relationships, and perhaps even keep parties out of court.

Of course, it’s not always easy to differentiate between abusive bullying and other forms of employee discord.  Drawing those lines in an academic, definitional sense is hard enough; applying those distinguishing characteristics in real life is even harder.  I won’t attempt to tackle that subject here.

I’ll have more to say about the excellent workshop itself in a later post. For now, suffice it to say that I am heartened by the work of so many change agents in endeavors related to human dignity.

Link to Human Dignity and Humiliation Studies Network:

Check out these blogs recognized by the ABA Journal

The ABA Journal, the American Bar Association membership magazine, highlights its 3rd annual “Blawg 100” in the December issue.  Among the honorees are three on our blogroll.  Hat’s off to all three!

Mediation Channel (

Connecticut Employment Law Blog (

Delaware Employment Law (

Link to ABA Journal “Blawg 100” article:

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