Of maize and blue: Talking about workplace bullying, at the University of Michigan

I just had the distinct pleasure of spending two days on the University of Michigan campus, courtesy of a speaking invitation from the school’s Interdisciplinary Committee on Organizational Studies (ICOS) and Dr. Lilia Cortina, a psychology and women’s studies professor and leading authority on workplace harassment and incivility. ICOS describes its mission this way:

ICOS, or the Interdisciplinary Committee on Organizational Studies, has the single goal of enhancing the University of Michigan’s strength as a world center for interdisciplinary research and scholarship on organizations. We seek to enrich the intellectual environment of Ph.D. students and faculty interested in organization studies, by increasing the quality, breadth, depth, and usefulness of organizational research.

It was a wonderfully stimulating and intellectually rewarding visit. My talk, which you may access here, addressed some of the demographic and diversity aspects of workplace bullying. Here’s how I previewed it in my abstract:

This talk will examine bullying, mobbing, and harassment at work, with an emphasis on demographics and diversity. It will briefly sketch out some basics, a sort of “Workplace bullying 101.” It will then look at the demographic and diversity dynamics of these behaviors overall, especially pertaining to aggressors and targets, especially in the context of organizational cultures. Finally, it will take a closer look at gendered aspects of bullying and related behaviors at work, including (1) linkages between bullying and sexual harassment in the midst of the #MeToo movement and (2) complicated issues of bullying-type behaviors between women at work. Plenty of time will be reserved for comments and questions.

Over the years, I’ve been fortunate to visit a number of colleges and universities to give guest lectures, and all have been a worthy expenditure of time and energy. What distinguished this visit from most of the others was the way in which the ICOS program goes well beyond the guest lecture to add in lots of additional conversations through small group meetings and meals.

In addition to my talk, my time on campus included meetings and meals with faculty in psychology, English, theatre, engineering, medicine, and business; a deep conversation about diversity initiatives with leaders of the university’s organizational learning programs; and multiple exchanges with U of M Ph.D. students, whose own research in organizations, working conditions, and diversity will no doubt command our attention sooner than later.

Some of my academic colleagues may be thinking, whoa, that’s a lot to be doing during a visit of barely two days. Indeed, when I first previewed the fulsome itinerary, I knew that I’d have to be “on” for most of that time. But I will attest that this is a very smart way to maximize the value of guest speakers’ visits and to give them plenty of opportunities to share their work and insights. It also tells them that their contributions are respected and trusted beyond the inherent boundaries of formal presentations.

Now that I’m back in Boston, I’ve got pages of notes and names from my short trip, some which will result in followup contacts and maybe even another blog post or two. In sum, it was a great visit featuring lively, informed, and appreciative dialogue throughout.

***

My talk can be accessed here. Go to this page to access presentations from other speakers in the ICOS series.

Sculpted tile: A lovely gift from my friends at ICOS

Elizabeth White’s “55, Underemployed, and Faking Normal”

Because of circumstances that I wish were different for so many people, Elizabeth White’s 55, Underemployed, and Faking Normal (2019) is one of the most important books of the New Year. Here’s the opening to her Preface:

You know her.

She is in your friendship circle, hidden in plain sight. Her clothes are still impeccable, bought in the good years when she was still making money.

To look at her, you would not know that her electricity was cut off last week for nonpayment or that she meets the eligibility requirements for food stamps.

But if you paid attention, you would see the sadness in her eyes, hear that hint of fear in her otherwise self-assured voice.

…You invite her to the same expensive restaurants that the two of you have always enjoyed, but she orders mineral water now with a twist of lemon instead of the $12 glass of Chardonnay.

…She is tired of trying to keep up appearances. Faking normal is wearing her out.

…She has no retirement savings, no nest egg. She exhausted that long ago. There is no expensive condo from which to draw equity and no husband to back her up.

White’s book comes from personal experiences that are all-too-familiar for many: At midlife, she made some career & financial moves that didn’t work out, she lost her six-figure job in the wake of the Great Recession, and she burned through her savings. Well into her fifties, job and consulting leads dried up, and applications no longer yielded interviews. In the meantime, she’d get together with friends at pricey eating & drinking establishments and fake normal.

Her underlying message is that there are millions of women and men who now find themselves in similar circumstances, and that’s it well past time for us to take this crisis seriously. There is a lot of wisdom in this book, as well as validation and support for those who are recovering from a midlife job loss and accompanying financial challenges.

White’s publishing journey

55, Underemployed, and Faking Normal is the updated, revised, and commercially published (Simon & Schuster) edition of a book that White launched via a self-published version in 2016 under a slightly different title (55, Unemployed, and Faking Normal). I’ve written several pieces discussing the earlier edition (here, here, and here) that I will draw from here, for if anything, White’s work grows in significance and merits repeated mentions.

White first wrote about her experiences in a 2015 Next Avenue blog essay, discussing how the recession and life circumstances had affected the lives of professional women in their 40s and older. The piece went viral. It also resonated with middle-aged men who had lost their jobs and struggled to recover. It attracted thousands of responses, many by way of personal stories. Excerpts from many of these comments appear in White’s book.

I would not call 55, Underemployed, and Faking Normal an “elegant” work. Rather, it’s an honest, blunt, and humane book, filled with stories of setbacks and genuine hope. It’s a valuable resource guide, loaded with information, guidance, and advice for folks who find themselves in situations like White’s. It’s also a call for us to address broader questions of age bias, economic policy, and retirement security. After all, we are dealing with systemic issues here.

Furthermore, White doesn’t dodge the role of gender and race in discussing the impact of the Great Recession and economic circumstances facing Americans. If you think that these factors don’t matter, then look at the research she summarizes and think again.

Resilience circles

White’s first piece of advice is to create a “resilience circle”:

You likely already know one person among your friends and friendly acquaintances who is faking it, and that person likely knows one other, and so on. That’s enough to begin.

Approach that person. Tell him or her that you’d like to start a small group: a Resilience Circle to support each other and to discuss issues related to aging and living a good life on a limited income.

…Hold meetings even if your Resilience Circle consists of just you and two or three other people at the beginning. It’s hard to navigate these waters alone. Isolation is crazy making. Peer-to-peer support can keep you even-keeled and open to possibility.

The theme of building of stronger social ties echoes throughout the book. It’s about breaking down unwarranted shame or embarrassment and creating healthy connections with others.

For targets of workplace bullying and mobbing

White’s book may resonate with, and be helpful to, many folks who have experienced workplace abuse and lost their jobs as a consequence, especially those in their middle years. Here’s a snippet of what I wrote in 2016:

This topic intersects with workplace bullying, because middle-aged workers endure a lot of it. When work abuse culminates in their termination or departure, they often face multi-level challenges in trying to pull themselves together and obtain new employment.

Two years ago, I summarized Workplace Bullying Institute instant poll results showing that workers in the 40s and 50s are frequent bullying targets. The poll asked visitors to the WBI website who have experienced workplace bullying to respond to a single question, “How old were you when the bullying at work began?” WBI collected 663 responses and reported the following:

The average age was 41.9 years. Targets in their 40’s comprised 30% of all targets; in their 50’s were 26.4%; under 30 years of age were 21.3%; those in their 30’s were 18.9%. The prime productive years are also the prime years for being [targeted] for bullying.

Workplace bullying and mobbing hits anyone hard, but it can create even more challenges when experienced in later years. A job loss at 55 is often more problematic than one at 25. This book is an excellent complement to the resources available specifically on dealing with workplace mistreatment.

A book for most of us

To some extent, White’s book is a call for us to get back to basics and to ask core questions about how we live and spend our money. When compelled to curb spending, we have to think through our priorities. Obviously food, shelter, clothing, and health care are chief among them, but beyond that we have choices to make.

Perhaps you’re reading this and thinking, well, thank goodness that’s not me, but fortunately I’ve got my personal finances all lined up, and my job is pretty secure. If that is truly the case, then you are among a small percentage of people who can say that with genuine authority. For most everyone else at middle age and beyond, we are but one job loss away from dealing with challenges similar to those addressed by White.

There’s so much more that I could say about this important book, but I’ll stop here and invite you to read it yourself.

In the news 2018

Periodically I’m contacted by reporters about topics discussed on this blog. Here’s a fairly complete list of 2018 news stories in which I’ve been interviewed or where my work has been discussed:

When diversity issues emerge, bullying often lurks underneath

Last week, NBC News cancelled the “Megyn Kelly Today” show days after Kelly made racially insensitive remarks about wearing blackface for Halloween. As reported by Megan McCluskey for Time magazine:

Amid growing controversy over Megyn Kelly’s racially insensitive comments about blackface, NBC News has announced that it has canceled Kelly‘s 9 a.m. hour of the Today Show, Megyn Kelly Today.

. . . Kelly came under fire earlier this week for saying that she doesn’t understand why blackface Halloween costumes are racist during a roundtable discussion on offensive costumes on her talk show, Megyn Kelly Today.

“What is racist?” she asked a panel that included Jenna Bush Hager, Jacob Soboroff and Melissa Rivers. “You do get in trouble if you are a white person who puts on blackface for Halloween, or a black person who puts on whiteface for Halloween. Back when I was a kid, that was okay just as long as you were dressing as a character.”

One can make a plausible claim that cancellation was a harsh consequence for one badly misinformed and ignorant remark. After all, Kelly’s transgression paled next to virulently mean-spirited statements tweeted out by Donald Trump on a regular basis. However, many news reports have suggested that this may have been simply a tipping point preceded by other concerns about her show. Among other things, while Kelly has become a strong voice for women’s interests during the #MeToo era, she also has a history of stirring up controversy on matters related to race.

In any event, as I searched around to learn more about Kelly’s situation, I found an earlier news report that reminded me once again that when diversity-related concerns publicly emerge out of a given workplace, allegations of bullying behaviors often aren’t far behind. From January of this year, here is Emily Smith’s Page Six account of a “Megyn Kelly Today” writer who lost his job after complaining of alleged bullying behaviors faced by staffers: 

A top staffer on Megyn Kelly’s show has been fired after claiming there is a “toxic and demeaning” environment on set, rife with bullying and “abusive treatment.”

Kevin Bleyer was fired as a writer from “Megyn Kelly Today” this week after complaining that Kelly’s two top execs, Jackie Levin and Christine Cataldi, were bullying lower-level members of staff.

. . . Bleyer — a multiple Emmy-winning former writer for “The Daily Show” and speechwriter for President Barack Obama — on Tuesday sent the email to NBC News human resources, and was fired shortly after.

He wrote in the memo, revealed by the Daily Mail,“I’m sad to say … the executive incompetence continues — as does the dysfunctional management, abusive treatment, maddening hypocrisy, staggering inefficiencies, acidic and deficient communication, and relentless scapegoating. Jackie Levin persists in creating a toxic and demeaning environment, and Christine Cataldi enables and reinforces it.”

He claims Cataldi regularly calls her assistant “an idiot,” and when he offered suggestions for the show, Levin called him a “f–king whiner.”

At times there’s a more direct connection between the diversity-related behaviors and workplace bullying. As I reported earlier this year, Tom Ashbrook, a popular public radio program host here in Boston, was fired for engaging in bullying behaviors after initially being accused of sexual harassment. In the same piece, I wrote about how Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein, an accused serial sexual harasser, has also been tagged as a bullying boss.

The Kavanaugh confirmation as a mirror onto America

(image courtesy of getdrawings.com)

Here in America, we have just endured an extraordinarily ugly and partisan confirmation process for a U.S. Supreme Court nominee. Events leading to the confirmation of Brett Kavanaugh to be the next Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court now comprise a terrible episode in our political and legal history. This will reverberate on many levels for a long time.

Kavanaugh, a U.S. Court of Appeals judge, was nominated by Donald Trump to fill a vacant seat on the Supreme Court. Late in the confirmation process, several women accused Kavanaugh of sexual misconduct when he was in high school and in college.

Psychology professor Christine Blasey Ford was the first and most prominent accuser, alleging that during high school, a drunken Kavanaugh and his friend attempted to rape her. She and Kavanaugh both testified about these allegations before the Senate Judiciary Committee on September 27. The debates over these allegations and Kavanaugh’s suitability for confirmation have dominated the national news coverage and everyday conversations across the country.

I make no claim to objectivity on this topic. I was among some 2,400 American law professors who signed a public letter expressing concerns about Judge Kavanaugh’s judicial temperament and urging the U.S. Senate to reject the appointment. However, my purpose here is to pull back on the camera a bit and examine the destructive impact of this episode on America’s civic, political, and legal culture. Here are some of the key dimensions:

A deeply divided country

If America needed yet another painful reminder of its deep political and ideological divisions, this was it. It’s too early to predict exactly how this will affect future national elections, but it will play a major role in shaping political discussions.

Trauma and abuse

For trauma survivors, especially women who have experienced sexual assault, these events may have been alternately re-traumatizing, empowering, sorrowful, clarifying, angering, depressing, and validating. It has been a very difficult and trying two week period for many. It remains to be seen whether this will galvanize a movement to call greater attention to sexual assault, psychological trauma, and the rights of abuse victims.

Toxic masculinity

The mocking and trashing of women who courageously gave credible accounts of sexual assault was horrific and outrageous, especially when it came from men in positions of power. It’s time to mainstream the term toxic masculinity and to understand that this behavioral dynamic is very much a part of American culture.

Getting to the truth

Thanks to boundaries set by the White House, the FBI’s investigation into allegations against Kavanaugh was grossly inadequate and gave all appearances of providing cover, rather than searching for the truth. Neither the accusers’ allegations nor Kavanaugh denials were subjected to a thorough vetting, and numerous possible witnesses were ignored.

High school

Believe me, a lot of people people experienced vivid flashbacks to high school during these events. For some this was accompanied by uncomfortable memories and contemplations about behavioral excesses during adolescence and early adulthood.

Class privilege

Matters of class privilege played out prominently. Media coverage of student life at elite private high schools and Ivy League career networks gave detailed, snapshot examples about how such advantages manifest themselves early in life and continue through adulthood.

Public job interview

My own impressions of Kavanaugh notwithstanding, I would not wish upon anyone this equivalent of a job interview in the form of a public ordeal, with millions of people watching the proceedings and discussing very personal and normally private aspects of an applicant’s life. It made for a tawdry spectacle.

Institutional credibility

The reputations of both Congress and the Supreme Court took well-deserved hits. And thanks to Kavanaugh’s highly partisan language and angry, threatening tones towards his opponents in his September 27 testimony, his credibility as an impartial judge is forever suspect. With that suffers the credibility of the Supreme Court as a judicial body.

Bullying behaviors

Accusations of bullying behaviors flew back and forth between both sides. While few incidents rose to the kind of virulent bullying discussed often on this blog, the proceedings were rife with incivility and name calling.

Conservative bloc

The Kavanaugh confirmation gives the conservative bloc of the Supreme Court the votes it needs to advance a sharply right-leaning legal agenda for years to come. We are very likely to see reversals in civil rights and workers’ rights as a result.

***

The events surrounding the Kavanaugh confirmation process will be studied and discussed for many years. Kavanaugh’s votes and judicial opinions will be scrutinized closely against the backdrop of how he was confirmed. I don’t have much optimism for the civic aftermath of what we’ve just experienced, but I hope that I’m wrong.

Have we entered an “era of empathy” at work? (Uh, well, at least not yet)

Four years ago, business school professor Rita Gunther McGrath (Columbia U.) suggested in a piece for the Harvard Business Review that we are entering an “era of empathy” at work. I wasn’t sure what to make of that assertion when I first read her commentary, so I kept the article on file and told myself that I’d return to it someday. I figured this Labor Day weekend is a good time to revisit it.

According to Dr. McGrath, “we’ve seen three ‘ages’ of management since the industrial revolution, with each putting the emphasis on a different theme: execution, expertise, and empathy.”

The rise of an industrial economy prompted the era of execution, focussing on “execution of mass production, and managerial solutions such as specialization of labor, standardized processes, quality control, workflow planning, and rudimentary accounting were brought to bear.”

Then came the era of expertise, signaled by the emergence of university business schools and the establishment of journals such as the Harvard Business Review during the late 1800s and early 1900s. These developments marked “progress toward the belief that management was a discipline of growing evidence and evolving theory.”

Now, wrote McGrath, we have entered a third era, that of empathy:

Today, we are in the midst of another fundamental rethinking of what organizations are and for what purpose they exist. If organizations existed in the execution era to create scale and in the expertise era to provide advanced services, today many are looking to organizations to create complete and meaningful experiences. I would argue that management has entered a new era of empathy.

This quest for empathy extends to customers, certainly, but also changes the nature of the employment contract, and the value proposition for new employees. We are also grappling with widespread dissatisfaction with the institutions that have been built to date, many of which were designed for the business-as-machine era. They are seen as promoting inequality, pursuing profit at the expense of employees and customers, and being run for the benefit of owners of capital, rather than for a broader set of stakeholders. At this level, too, the challenge to management is to act with greater empathy.

The era of empathy hasn’t reached the workplace yet

As Dr. McGrath suggests, all the research, knowledge, and analytical tools are in place to usher in this age of empathy into the workplace: We’re aware of burgeoning income and wealth inequality. We’re aware of negative changes in employment relations, especially the demise of unions. We’re aware that bullying, mobbing, sexual harassment, and other forms of worker mistreatment continue to inflict huge individual and organizational tolls.

We’re also aware that treating employees with a baseline of dignity is a great way to grow and maintain a stable, productive, and loyal workforce.

But here’s the disconnect. Despite all this research, knowledge, and analysis, too many employers are preserving the status quo, or doing even worse. On this Labor Day weekend:

  • Income and wealth inequality continue to expand, especially as measured by the widening gap between highest and lowest paid employees in organizations;
  • Employers, backed by inadequate enforcement of labor laws, continue to vigorously oppose unions and collective bargaining;
  • Work abuse in the forms of bullying, mobbing, and harassment continues to ignored and sometimes fueled by too many senior managers and executives.

I don’t think the era of empathy is going to become a reality without workers demanding so. While certainly there are employers who do the right thing by their employees and reap the benefits (Costco comes to mind), all too many of their counterparts operate in a much different manner. The latter includes some of the giants of our labor market (e.g., Amazon and Walmart), who set the pace for others and can do better.

Put simply, we need a revived, energetic, inclusive, and creative labor movement to usher in these needed changes. Unions will be a big part of that revival, but so will other worker advocacy, civil rights, and religious groups, as well as networks of individuals connecting in person and online. It will also require electing to office those who value the interests of everyday workers over the interests of those vested in concentrations of wealth and power.

It’s a big, challenging task. Labor Day is a good time to rededicate ourselves to it.

A story for our times

So here’s the short version: A woman who objects to an eight-year-old girl selling bottled water on the street is filmed apparently calling the police on the young kid. The video goes viral, and the woman loses her job. There’s a racial dynamic here too, as the woman is white and the girl is black. As reported by CBS News:

STUDIO CITY, Calif. — The woman dubbed “Permit Patty” for threatening to call police on an 8-year-old black girl selling water on the street has stepped down as CEO of her cannabis company. CBS Los Angeles reports the move follows a massive online backlash that resulted in her products getting dropped by other marijuana sellers.

Several Bay Area dispensaries are now refusing to sell products made by Alison Ettel’s company TreatWell Health, The San Francisco Chronicle reported Tuesday.

“It is Ms. Ettel’s belief that TreatWell, its employees and patients should not have to suffer because of a situation that occurred in an escalated moment,” company spokeswoman Cynthia Gonzalez is quoted as saying in the paper.

At least three marijuana dispensaries stated publicly they would stop selling TreatWell products.

It’s a story for our times: Incivility, race, smartphones, social media, legalized pot, and job loss.

From an employment standpoint, the lesson is an easy if unsettling one. Anything we do these days can be caught on a smartphone camera. If the behavior reflects negatively on us and the video goes viral, it can affect our employment status. Most American workers today are employed on an at-will basis, which means they can be terminated for any reason that does not violate existing employment laws. Video footage from an incident outside of work that causes negative publicity for the company can be among the legally valid reasons to fire an at-will employee.

I don’t know the specific nature of Allison Ettel’s employment status with her now-former company, but her demise was swift.

As far as the racial aspect goes, I won’t assume how race impacted Ms. Ettel’s actions. But in these hyper-charged times, racial optics matter and sharpen quickly. When they go viral online, that can be all that counts. This just looks bad.

The marijuana angle adds a humorous twist. Believe it or not, I’ve never even tried pot; I’m a pretty straight-laced, geeky guy. But how many of you were thinking that Ms. Ettel might’ve benefited from a toke or two before getting so worked up over a young kid trying to earn some money by selling bottled water on the street?

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