We need to dig beneath generic references to “toxic workplaces”

(image courtesy of clipart-library.com)

If you’ve been following media coverage of some of the not-so-wonderful aspects of the current American workplace, then you may have encountered the growing cacophony of references to “toxic workplaces,” “toxic work environments,” “toxic jobs,” and the like. (If you doubt me, do a few Google searches and you’ll quickly see what I mean!)

It appears that a mix of the following has given rise to generic references about toxic work settings:

  • The MeToo movement;
  • The pandemic and overwork of workers in essential job categories;
  • The Great Resignation;
  • Diversity, equity, and inclusion;
  • Political and social discord;
  • Bullying and incivility;
  • Attention to bad bosses;
  • Wage stagnation and benefit cuts;
  • The recent dramatic uptick in union organizing.

Organizational behavior research from years ago taught me that different forms of workplace mistreatment tend to run together in packs. Thus, if you encounter a workplace rife with sexual harassment, then you’re quite likely to see other forms of interpersonal mistreatment flourishing as well. Contemporary news accounts often confirm this. For example, I’ve noticed that investigative pieces focusing on sexual misconduct in a given workplace often then segue into describing behaviors that might be labeled as bullying and/or incivility.

In any event, if we wish to create healthier, happier, and more productive workplaces, then we need to dig beneath the generic tag of toxicity and ask specifically what’s going on. The results may yield different problem areas and different fixes. Some bad behaviors may be intentional. Others will fall under the categories of negligence or dysfunction. Some may implicate employment and labor law violations. Certain concerns may be organizational in nature; others may be limited to a department or working group.

It’s also true that, on occasion, frequent complainers will invoke the language of toxicity to avoid supplying specific allegations that won’t hold up. Some will do so as attempted shields against accountability for their own inadequate work performances.

That said, I feel confident in saying that there is a fair amount of genuine unhappiness and undue stress in our workplaces during this snapshot moment in time. Some of the causes may be beyond the means of even well-intentioned organizations to remedy. But good employers will address worker concerns with attention to detail and an innate sense of fairness and dignity, while bad ones will dismiss reports of workplace toxicity and sometimes pay the consequences.

The Amy Wax situation: On academic freedom, diversity & inclusion, workplace mobbing, and cancel culture

Screenshot from Inside Higher Education

Applying just about any conventional measure, law professor Amy Wax has built a spectacularly successful career. She holds a chaired professorship at an Ivy League law school (University of Pennsylvania). She has assembled a ferocious c.v. (link here), loaded with sterling academic and professional achievements, publications, and awards. Her degrees include a J.D. from Columbia and an M.D. from Harvard.

And yet she is under heavy fire for an ongoing, alleged series of polarizing, critical statements and negative characterizations about people of color, women, and gays. For that she faces potential discipline and loss of tenure protections. The Dean of her law school has asked the university’s faculty senate to impose sanctions on her, a possible prelude towards eventual termination proceedings.

Scott Jaschik, writing for Inside Higher Education (link here), provides a lot of details about this situation, which has received national attention. Here’s his lede:

Some students and faculty at the University of Pennsylvania have been clamoring for years for the ouster of Amy Wax, the polarizing law professor who courted scandal with incendiary and racist remarks and writings and seemed to relish the resulting controversies. Despite the repeated calls for her removal from her tenured position, and the criticisms of her actions—including by university leaders—that followed each controversy, Wax remained in the position and seemed firmly protected by free speech and academic freedom rights.

That pattern may be about to change: the dean of the Penn law school has started a process that could lead to Wax’s termination.

To be clear, we’re not talking about an isolated instance or two of questionable speech. From Penn Law dean Theodore Ruger’s memorandum to the Chair of the Faculty Senate (link here), here are some of Prof. Wax’s alleged statements, made to individual students, her classes, and public audiences:

  • “Stating in class that Mexican men are more likely to assault women and remarking such a stereotype was accurate in the same way as ‘Germans are punctual.'”
  • “Commenting in class that gay couples are not fit to raise children and making other references to LGBTQ people that a student reported evinced a ‘pattern of homophobia.'”
  • “Commenting after a series of students with foreign-sounding names introduced themselves that one student was ‘finally, an American’ adding, ‘it’s a good thing, trust me.'”
  • Telling a Black student…”who asked whether Wax agreed with [a panelist’s] statements that Black people are inherently inferior to white people, that ‘you can have two plants that grow under the same conditions, and one will just grow higher than the other.'”
  • Telling a Black student “that Black students don’t perform as well as white students because they are less well prepared, and that they are less well prepared because of affirmative action.”
  • “Stating, based on misleading citation of other sources, that ‘women, on average, are less knowledgeable than men,’ women are ‘less intellectual than men’ and there is ‘some evidence’ for the proposition that ‘men and women differ in cognitive ability.'”
  • “Stating that ‘our country will be better off with more whites and fewer nonwhites.'”
  • “Stating that Asians have an ‘indifference to liberty,’ lack ‘thoughtful and audacious individualism’ and that ‘the United States is better off with fewer Asians and less Asian immigration.’”
  • “Stating that ‘there were some very smart Jews’ among her past students but that Ashkenazi Jews are ‘diluting [their] brand like crazy because [they are] intermarrying.'”
  • “Stating that low-income students may cause ‘reverse contagion,’ infecting more ‘capable and sophisticated’ students with their ‘delinquency and rule-breaking.'”
  • “Stating that ‘if you go into medical schools, you’ll see that Indians, South Asians are now rising stars. . . . [T]hese diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives are poisoning the scientific establishment and the medical establishment now.'”

In her recently posted GoFundMe appeal to create the “Amy Wax Legal Defense Fund” (link here), Prof. Wax states that Dean Ruger’s charges of inappropriate conduct are an attack on her conservative principles and are “littered with indignant invective and unsubstantiated and distorted claims.” She adds:

Penn Law Dean Ruger’s latest steps are part of a longstanding campaign at Penn Law School against me based on my stated positions, opinions, and speech, and despite my stellar performance as an award-winning teacher and academic during my decades-long career as a law professor. Penn’s actions represent an unprecedented and deeply destructive threat to the practice and traditions of free expression on campus and the tenure protections afforded to professors who express unpopular views. They are further evidence of the “woke” takeover of our university system, which seeks to stifle and punish dissent and purge our campuses of any deviation from a narrow set of progressive dogmas.

Academic freedom and tenure

While academic tenure may not be the lifetime job guarantee that some claim it is, it’s true that tenured professors at stable institutions who perform their work satisfactorily can expect continued employment. (For more about this topic, see my blog article, “What is academic tenure?,” link here.) And as a tenured professor at a prestigious university, Prof. Wax enjoys some of the strongest job protections available to any American employee.

One of the main purposes of tenure is to safeguard academic freedom in teaching, scholarship, and service activities. This includes freedom of expression, written or spoken. I regard academic freedom and tenure as carrying both rights and responsibilities. They include earned protections and accompanying obligations to perform one’s job with integrity. Tenure revocation is possible in cases of serious misconduct.

For controversial speech in such a context, I suggest that we establish a spectrum between being a thought-provoking scholar and being a simple provocateur.

The thought-provoking scholar pushes the boundaries of our assumptions and perceptions, using facts, analysis, interpretation, and sometimes creative expression. At times, this may include voicing or supporting unpopular viewpoints. The simple provocateur is more akin to a keyboard warrior, playing to the crowd in the comments section. This is the stuff of the internet troll and has very little to do with reasoned thought.

Where Amy Wax places on that spectrum may help us understand how her situation should be resolved. If her statements are considered so outlandish, irresponsible, and hurtful as to constitute misconduct, then sanctions may be in offing.

One of the most challenging considerations here is that we don’t have a bevy of comparable situations to give us guidance on how this should be handled. Assuming that Prof. Wax said or wrote most of the statements attributed to her, then this is a far cry from more typical scenarios that involve isolated instances or a small cluster of utterances deemed problematic.

It’s fair to point out that if Wax had been employed in a standard-brand, private-sector job setting (like a law firm or medical center), then it’s likely that she would’ve been terminated for cause already, perhaps following disciplinary warnings or a suspension. But academic freedom and tenure provide both substantive and procedural protections that most jobs do not offer.

Diversity and inclusion

You can easily see how the Wax situation is tailor-made for America’s tortured and fraught political and civic dialogue about diversity and freedom of expression. Her alleged statements have caused such an uproar because many have found them to be outrageous, hurtful, and wrongheaded. They’ve come at a time when “DEI” (diversity, equity, inclusion) is a deep focus of the day, in academe and corporate America alike.

Wax’s defenders range from those who agree with the substance of her alleged statements to those who place a very high value on academic freedom. 

Workplace mobbing

Folks have every right to criticize or defend Wax. She should be subjected to appropriate discipline if she’s crossed a clear line. From my concededly distanced perch, I believe that she is at that line or has even crossed it. While some of her alleged statements may fall under the cloak of academic freedom, many others appear to be grounded in animus towards difference.

Whether one agrees with Wax or not, there’s always a risk that critical voices can become an unruly mob. I find Wax’s worldview deeply objectionable, but I’m not happy about workplace mobbing scenes either. Prof. Kenneth Westhues’ pathbreaking work on mobbing in academe has repeatedly illustrated how quickly and dramatically such behaviors can escalate.

I imagine that Prof. Wax is feeling quite under siege right now. I don’t envy her. If she does face any disciplinary proceedings, then I hope — for everyone’s sake — that they will be conducted with dignity, fairness, and honesty.

Cancel culture

Especially because there is no legal definition of cancel culture, it’s important that we have some understanding of what it means in the employment context. I suggest that we define cancel culture at work as a response claimed to be disproportionately harsh — typically, either severe discipline or termination — to statements or actions deemed objectionable, hurtful and/or controversial.

At this juncture, it’s hard for anyone to legitimately claim that Amy Wax has been “cancelled.” However, the University’s moves toward possible disciplinary action and/or termination will cause the term to be used. And especially if her tenure is revoked and she is dismissed, then notwithstanding any due process she had been accorded, the cries of cancel culture from certain circles will be loud and sustained.

If Wax does leave Penn under whatever circumstances, then she will very likely land on her feet. She will be accorded martyr status and will no doubt be hired by an institution more compatible with her social and ideological views.

Summing up

While admitting that I’ve waded into this conversation with some trepidation, I feel obliged to share my own sense of this situation. I consider many of Amy Wax’s alleged statements to be hurtful and divisive. They sound like those of a provocateur fueling an ugly, exclusionary worldview, rather than those of a thought-provoking professor who occupies a position of enormous privilege and responsibility.

Yup, issues surrounding diversity and difference are challenging and can yield honest differences of opinion. There is a place in that discussion for strong language. But I don’t think that the heart of Wax’s rhetoric is contributing to our understanding of these issues. Sadly, one thing I’m certain of is that the eventual outcome of this situation — whatever it happens to be — will drive a deeper wedge into our political and social divide. 

Internships (paid and unpaid) are back in the news

A welcomed, if long overdue announcement from the White House and an excellent New York Times article have brought important questions about unpaid internships back into the spotlight.

Last week, the Biden Administration issued a statement (link here) announcing that, starting this fall, its interns no longer will have to work for free. This is the first time in the history of this coveted opportunity that interns will be paid, thus opening the door to highly qualified applicants who come from modest financial means. Said the White House:

Too often, unpaid federal internships have been a barrier to hardworking and talented students and professionals, preventing them from contributing their talents and skills to the country and holding them back from federal career advancement opportunities. This significant milestone of paying White House interns will help remove barriers to equal opportunity for low-income students and first-generation professionals at the beginnings of their careers and help to ensure that those who receive internships at the White House—and who will be a significant part of the leadership pipeline across the entire federal government—reflect the diversity of America.

On the heels of the White House announcement comes “Why We Still Haven’t Solved the Unpaid Internship Problem” (link here), a very informative and wide-ranging piece on the barriers posed by unpaid internships, authored by Times personal finance writer Ron Lieber. He draws upon his own experience back in the 1990s to illustrate the key issue:

Millions of college students work for money each summer because they need it and their financial aid office tells them to go earn some. Then there are those White House interns from previous administrations — often white, sometimes rich and, by summer’s end, presumably very well connected — buffing their résumés.

Is the problem evident? It first clicked in for me in the early 1990s when my interview for a summer internship at Chicago magazine was going well until I found out that I’d be working for free.

When I started asking questions — what was a financial aid recipient like me supposed to do to make enough to afford school, and isn’t this all a form of classism? — the tenor of the meeting took a turn. I didn’t get the offer.

Paying tuition to work for free

Lieber asked me to comment on the exploitative practice of colleges and universities offering academic credit for internships in return for paying tuition:

Then there’s the glaring issue of schools that offer course credit for internships.

Schools benefit from this arrangement in two ways, said David C. Yamada, a professor at Suffolk University Law School in Boston and an expert on the rules around internships. First, intern-for-credit programs can allow institutions to collect tuition for that credit, even as students are working out in the world and don’t need classroom space or an instructor standing in front of it for four months.

Then, it allows a school to say it’s providing valuable career preparation. “If I hear another university invoke the phrase ‘Hit the ground running,’ I think I’m going to scream,” he said.

Previous work

I have written often on this blog about the intern economy, especially during a period several years ago, when the issue was getting lots of media attention due to lawsuits invoking minimum wage laws to challenge the widespread practice of unpaid internships. Those legal challenges yielded some disappointing court decisions but kept open the possibility of future lawsuits. They also served a valuable consciousness-raising function that caused some employers to reconsider their internship programs and begin paying their interns.

But the overall topic has faded from public view since then. I hope that the White House pronouncement and Ron Lieber’s article will help to remedy that and prompt a resurgence of attention.

I have written several law review articles examining the legal and policy implications of unpaid internships. You may freely access pdfs of those pieces:

  • “‘Mass Exploitation Hidden in Plain Sight’: Unpaid Internships and the Culture of Uncompensated Work,” Idaho Law Review (2016) (link here) — Shorter piece emerging from a symposium of emerging employment law issues held at the University of Idaho College of Law.
  • “The Legal and Social Movement Against Unpaid Internships,” Northeastern University Law Journal (2016) (link here) — Comprehensive overview and assessment of many major legal, policy, and advocacy developments concerning unpaid internships during a critical period between 2010 and 2016.
  • “The Employment Law Rights of Student Interns,” Connecticut Law Review (2002) (link here) — Foundational article that helped to inform legal challenges to unpaid internships.

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Update: I was interviewed by KCBS news radio in San Francisco about the recent White House announcement that it will begin paying its interns. You may listen to that brief interview here.

 

On expanding our view of global leadership to embrace human dignity

The term “global leadership” is strongly associated with economic, political, and social dominance in a neoliberal context. Degree programs using global leadership or similar monikers tend to be offered through graduate schools of business, and they usually emphasize market command in terms of ideas, information, and products. The latter point also applies to business conferences and workshops invoking the term.

However, at last December’s Annual Workshop on Transforming Humiliation and Violent Conflict, hosted by Human Dignity and Humiliation Studies (HDHS), I suggested that we should reframe global leadership through lenses of servant leadership and global stewardship. I expounded upon this topic and related it to themes of compassionate justice and therapeutic jurisprudence during my short remarks (under 10 minutes), which you may access here.

Definitions

If you’re wondering where I’m going with this, it may help to define terms, and I’ll simply draw from Wikipedia:

Servant leadership is a…

…leadership philosophy in which the goal of the leader is to serve. This is different from traditional leadership where the leader’s main focus is the thriving of their company or organization. A servant leader shares power, puts the needs of the employees first and helps people develop and perform as highly as possible. Instead of the people working to serve the leader, the leader exists to serve the people.

Stewardship is an…

…ethic that embodies the responsible planning and management of resources. The concepts of stewardship can be applied to the environment and nature, economics, health, property, information, theology, cultural resources etc.

With these general definitions as guideposts, I would like us to conceptualize and practice global leadership in a way that emphasizes our roles as stewards of, and servants to, the health of this planet and its inhabitants. 

Google hits

Last fall, in preparation for the HDHS workshop, I did a quick Google search to see how many “hits” certain relevant terms would yield. Here is what I found:

  • Search “global leadership” = ~1,060,000,000 hits
  • Search “global stewardship” = ~93,000,000 hits
  • Search “servant leadership” = ~57,000,000 hits

Clearly, among these terms, “global leadership” holds sway. Hence my belief that we should invoke it to advance dignitarian values, while elevating global stewardship and servant leadership in association with the core term.

Legal systems

As I further noted in my HDHS presentation, we have to apply these concepts of servant leadership and stewardship to those served by our legal systems, on a global level. After all:

  • Many are ill-served by it right now.
  • Our laws & public policies and their applications are not necessarily just.
  • The experiences of litigation and dispute resolution can be traumatizing in and of themselves.
  • Access to quality legal assistance is far from universal.

One of the answers to this is the field of therapeutic jurisprudence (TJ), which examines whether our laws, legal systems, and legal institutions support or undermine individual and societal well-being and psychologically healthy outcomes in legal proceedings. I have discussed TJ often on this blog. In 2017, I helped to create the International Society for Therapeutic Jurisprudence, and last year I published a thorough assessment of the field, “Therapeutic Jurisprudence: Foundations, Expansion, and Assessment,” in the University of Miami Law Review. You may freely access it here.

On disability bullying

We have long known that children who have disabilities are more likely to experience bullying behaviors than their peers who are perceived as being non-disabled. The National Bullying Prevention Center (link here), for example, shares that in 10 U.S. studies examining “the connection between bullying and developmental disabilities, all of these studies found that children with disabilities were two to three times more likely to be bullied than their nondisabled peers.”

Indeed, search the term “disability bullying” and you’ll find the top hits centering almost exclusively around bullying of kids with disabilities. I’m glad that we have established that connection. At the very least, it validates the experiences of those being targeted and helps us to focus on preventive and responsive measures.

What about bullying of adults with disabilities?

We see less attention given to bullying of adults who have disabilities. That’s among the reasons why I welcomed a recent column by disability expert Andrew Pulrang, “The Many Flavors Of Disability Bullying” (Forbes.com, link here):

There are few things as simply and straightforwardly awful as bullying disabled people. But there is so much more to do about ableist bullying than just condemning it.

Ableist bullying is surprisingly difficult to recognize and understand, because it’s more than one thing, and has has many facets and flavors.

Pulrang goes on to identify predominant forms of bullying behaviors directed at adults with disabilities:

  • “Simple, superficial mockery,” such as making fun of appearances, physical movements, and mental health conditions;
  • “Dismissing complaints” over problems that persons with disabilities might face;
  • “Portraying disabled people as privileged and entitled” as they struggle to deal with impairments and seek accommodations;
  • Making jokes about someone’s disability in their presence, as if to test their sense of humor; and,
  • Gaslighting disabled individuals into questioning their perceptions of reality.

He concludes:

To fight disability bullying, people of all backgrounds and roles need to not only refrain from these bullying behaviors, but also engage with and refute the kinds of thinking and assumptions that prompt them.

The legal angle

At times, those subjected to these forms of mistreatment may have legal recourse via civil rights and anti-discrimination laws. In workplace and public accommodations settings, the Americans with Disabilities Act figures most prominently. Here is where questions of reasonable accommodation come into play.

Furthermore, if someone is being subjected to workplace harassment because of their disability, they may have a hostile work environment claim under the ADA. However, such legal claims are hard to win. Occasional jokes or putdowns about a disability, for example, may not be sufficient to state a harassment claim under the ADA.

Ultimately…

A combination of more enlightened human behaviors and stronger legal enforcement will diminish bullying behaviors directed at people with disabilities. Obviously we have work to do on this front. If you doubt this, then consider that less than six years ago, the U.S. elected a President who cruelly mocked a reporter’s disability while on the campaign trail.

In the past, this one act would’ve been sufficient to self-torpedo any political campaign. I can only surmise that in 2016, some people voted for him in spite of this incident, while others were more inclined to vote for him because of it. Both possibilities teach us sad but important lessons about unfinished business in terms of advancing human dignity.

Sharing insights about workplace bullying and mobbing in SafeHarbor, Part II

In my last post, I wrote about my visits to SafeHarbor (link here), the online site created by Dr. Gary Namie, co-founder of the Workplace Bullying Institute, to serve as “a community dedicated to the people affected by workplace bullying and those devoted to helping them.” I also shared some past blog pieces that I’ve posted for SafeHarbor members.

Creating safe online spaces surrounding difficult and sometimes painful topics is a challenge, and the success of SafeHarbor so far has been the generation of a spirit of support, understanding, and kindness. Gentle is the word I would use to describe the online voices of those serving as facilitators and discussion leaders. This does not preclude respectful differences of opinion. But it does set a peaceful vibe that runs counter to the experiences that brought many to the site.

Here are more past blog articles that I’ve posted to SafeHarbor:

  • Workplace bullying and mobbing in academe: The hell of heaven? (2009, rev. 2014) (link here)
  • How harmful thought patterns about workplace bullying and mobbing may accelerate the aging process (2019) (link here)
  • When a prominent employee is fired for creating “an abusive work environment” (2018) (link here)
  • We understand human dignity only if we also comprehend humiliation and abuse (2015) (link here)
  • Workplace mistreatment: The importance of cross-situational empathy (2015) (link here)
  • Shame-based organizations: When workplaces resemble dysfunctional families (2015) (link here)
  • “Jerks at work” vs. workplace soul stalkers (2017) (link here)
  • “Master and servant”: The roots of American employment law (2013) (link here)
  • Life lessons from Dr. Edith Eger, Auschwitz survivor (2018) (link here)
  • What separates the “best” workplace abusers from the rest? (2015, rev. 2019) (link here)

“Members Who Inspire” profile in ABA Journal

The latest issue of the ABA Journal, the membership magazine of the American Bar Association, includes a generous profile of my work on workplace bullying and on therapeutic jurisprudence, as the latest in its “Members Who Inspire” series. You may access an online version of the article by Amanda Robert, “David Yamada is fighting to end workplace bullying,” by going here.

In addition, the ABA Journal invited me to contribute a short sidebar advice piece for legal employers on how to address workplace bullying. You may access “6 ways to fight workplace bullying in legal spaces” here.

I am grateful for Amanda Robert’s feature article and laudatory comments in the piece from Dr. Gary Namie (co-founder of the Workplace Bullying Institute) and Prof. David Wexler (co-founder of the field of therapeutic jurisprudence), two long-time dear colleagues whose pioneering work has inspired mine.

Anti-bullying Healthy Workplace Bill reintroduced for 2021-22 session of Massachusetts Legislature

Here in the Bay State, State Senator Paul Feeney (D-Bristol & Norfolk) has just reintroduced workplace anti-bullying legislation known as the Healthy Workplace Bill (HWB) for the 2021-22 session of the Massachusetts Legislature (link here). The HWB permits targets of severe workplace bullying to seek damages in court and creates liability-reducing incentives for employers to act preventively and responsively towards bullying behaviors at work. The bill is currently designated as Senate docket no. 2426; a bill number will be assigned later.

The HWB has been steadily gaining support in the Massachusetts Legislature. During the 2019-20 session, over half of the elected state senators and representatives signed on as co-sponsors. Although the coronavirus pandemic put the HWB on hold for much of the remainder of that session, the strong support for the bill within the State House anticipates the day that this bill will eventually become law.

As the author of the core language of this legislation, I can attest that it fills a large gap in our current employment protections, while treating employers fairly. The bill filed by Senator Feeney is the latest full version of the HWB, which adds an express statement that online workplace abuse is covered — making explicit what was previously implicit in previous filings.

If you’re a Massachusetts resident and would like to see the HWB enacted into law, please contact your state senator and state representative and ask them to sign on as co-sponsors. You may go here for contact information.

Puerto Rico enacts workplace anti-bullying law

(courtesy of 4vector.c0m)

In the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico has enacted a workplace anti-bullying law that allows employees to file a legal claim for in response to severe bullying and abuse. The National Law Review, an online legal news site maintained by in-house corporate attorneys, broke the story about the new law (link here):

In an unprecedented move and without taking into consideration the mass opposition from the private sector, on August 7, 2020, the Governor of Puerto Rico signed into law House Bill 306 to prohibit workplace bullying. This law goes into effect immediately.

Under the new law, employees in the public and private sector have a cause of action for conduct the law classifies as workplace bullying. Aggrieved employees would be entitled to remedies greater than those under local anti-discrimination statutes.

In addition, government and private sector employers, among others, must adopt policies and protocols advising employees about their rights under this new law. Employers must prohibit all forms of harassment and bullying in the workplace and provide mechanisms to address and investigate internal allegations. Unlike other employment law claims, an employee needs to exhaust both internal remedies with the company and external remedies with the Alternate Dispute Resolution Bureau of the Judiciary through a mediation process as a prerequisite to filing a lawsuit in court.

Puerto Rico is the first American jurisdiction to adopt a comprehensive workplace anti-bullying law. The law bears some resemblances to the template Healthy Workplace Bill currently pending in a number of U.S. states, but adds additional provisions unique to Puerto Rican employment and labor law. Similar to the HWB, it requires that the totality of the circumstances be considered in determining whether or not a legally actionable workplace bullying is present. It also requires a showing of malicious intent, a high standard of proof that had been included in earlier versions of the HWB.

In 2014, the Governor of Puerto Rico vetoed a workplace bullying bill after it had been passed by the legislature.

I’ll be taking a closer look at the new law in the weeks and months to come. In the meantime, this is an enormously positive development for the workplace anti-bullying movement. While many American states have been deliberating upon the Healthy Workplace Bill and similar proposals for years, Puerto Rico has stepped up and proclaimed that severe workplace bullying is now an unlawful employment practice.

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Adapted from a previous blog post, here is a brief timeline of major developments in the path toward enacting workplace anti-bullying laws in the U.S.:

  • 2000 – Basic parameters for the eventual drafting of the Healthy Workplace Bill (HWB) are set out in David C. Yamada, The Phenomenon of “Workplace Bullying” and the Need for Status-Blind Hostile Work Environment Protection,” Georgetown Law Journal (2000).
  • 2002 – I draft and begin circulating early iterations of the HWB.
  • 2003-04 – California becomes the first state to consider the HWB.
  • 2003-present – Over 30 state and territorial legislatures have considered versions of the HWB.
  • Early 2000s – Various states consider bills designed to create study commissions and climate surveys about workplace bullying.
  • 2010 — New York State Senate passes HWB.
  • 2010 – Illinois State Senate passes a version of the HWB applying to public sector workers only.
  • 2010s – Several Employee Practices Liability Insurance policies start to cover liability for bullying-related claims.
  • 2011-12 – Massachusetts House of Representatives moves the HWB to a stage known as “third reading,” making it eligible for a floor vote in the House of Representatives.
  • 2012 – Prompted by the HWB grassroots advocacy movement, more than 100 U.S. local governmental entities issue proclamations endorsing “Freedom From Workplace Bullies Week.”
  • 2013 – Fulton County, Georgia county government (covering Greater Atlanta) adopts a workplace bullying ordinance covering public workers, using the operative definition from the HWB, and permitting discipline or termination of offending employees.
  • 2014 – California enacts legislation that requires employers with 50 or more employees to provide supervisory training and education about workplace bullying, using the operative definition from the HWB.
  • 2014 – The governors of New Hampshire and Puerto Rico veto what they consider to be problematic workplace bullying legislation.
  • 2015 – Utah enacts legislation requiring state agencies to train supervisors and employees about workplace bullying prevention, using the operative definition from the HWB.
  • 2019 – Building on a 2014 law covering state and local public employers, Tennessee enacts an odd statute that immunizes employers from bullying-related legal claims if they have adopted a model anti-bullying policy.
  • 2019-20 — Massachusetts HWB attracts 109 co-sponsors, out of 200 elected state legislators.
  • 2019-20 – Rhode Island State Senate passes the HWB.

Prominent non-profit head ousted after bullying and discrimination complaints surface

The CEO of New York Planned Parenthood has been terminated by the organization’s board of directors, in the wake of numerous employee allegations of bullying and discrimination, publicly posted on a site titled “Save Planned Parenthood of Greater New York.” Reporting for the New York Times (link here), Sharon Otterman summarized these complaints:

Facing mounting complaints about abusive behavior and unfair treatment of black staff members, the chief executive of Planned Parenthood of Greater New York, Laura McQuade, has been ousted from her job.

…The move came after hundreds of former and current employees signed a series of public letters over the past week faulting Ms. McQuade for what they said was an autocratic, abusive leadership style ill-suited to any organization, let alone one known for its progressive credentials.

The letters accused Ms. McQuade of berating and humiliating employees; presiding over a system that paid black staff members unequally and kept them from advancing in their careers; and supporting layoffs and furloughs for nearly a third of the organization’s employees amid the Covid-19 crisis without cutting her own pay or that of other top officials.

Overt, bullying behaviors seemed to be at the heart of McQuade’s way of interacting with staff. According to Otterman:

The open letters, signed by at least 350 current and former employees, included a litany of concerns. Topping the list were complaints about the harsh way that Ms. McQuade interacted with employees.

“Dozens of staff members have witnessed McQuade yell, berate, slam her fists, verbally abuse, humiliate, and bully employees, often brutally shaming staff members in internal meetings in front of their colleagues,” one letter stated.

“People could hear her down the hallway screaming and berating people,” said a current New York staff member, who, like nearly all of those who signed the letters, did so using initials and spoke anonymously for fear of retaliation.

McQuade denied behaving in this manner, but she declined to elaborate to the Times.

Once more, with feeling

OK folks, we’ve been here before: (1) another story about severe workplace bullying in the non-profit sector; and (2) the latest account of bullying allegations overlapping with discrimination claims.

First, as for bullying in non-profits, it is common, and it can be brutal. To learn more, take a look at these earlier posts:

  • “Toxic work environments in the social justice, non-profit sector” (2019) (click here)
  • “Workplace bullying in the non-profit sector” (rev. 2016) (click here)
  • “Myths and realities about working in the non-profit sector” (2014) (click here)

Second, as for the mix of bullying and discrimination (including sexual harassment) allegations, this is a frequent pairing. After all, it makes sense that bad organizations play host to multiple forms of employee mistreatment. To learn more, please look at these earlier pieces:

  • “When diversity issues emerge, bullying often lurks underneath” (2018) (click here)
  • “When a prominent employee is fired for creating an “abusive work environment”” (2018) (click here)
  • “Types of workplace bullying and potential legal protections in the U.S.” (2017) (click here)

What is unusual is that some 350 current and former Planned Parenthood employees joined voices in sharing stories about their work experiences. At least when it comes to bullying and abuse at large organizations, perhaps this serves as an example of how to bring concerns to public light.

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