MTW Newsstand: August 2019

Every month, the “MTW Newsstand” brings you a curated selection of articles relevant to work, workers, and workplaces. Whenever possible, the materials are freely accessible. Here are this month’s offerings:

Zakiyah Ebrahim, “Office horror stories: Workers tell of trauma at the hands of office psychopaths and bullies,” Health24 (2019) (link here) — “Earlier this month, Health24 ran a story on several types of psychopaths you might find in the workplace, and reached out to victims of workplace bullying. They told us about how the thought of work filled them with dread. They were cornered for every little mistake, and the anguish and pain of being bullied was sometimes so severe that often throwing in the towel often seemed to be the only way out. Here are their stories….”

Bartleby, “Employee happiness and business success are linked,” The Economist (2019) (link here) — “Rather like the judge’s famous dictum about obscenity, a well-run company may be hard to define but we can recognise it when we see it. Workers will be well informed about a company’s plans and consulted about the roles they will play. Staff will feel able to raise problems with managers without fearing for their jobs. Bullying and sexual harassment will not be permitted. Employees may work hard, but they will be allowed sufficient time to recuperate, and enjoy time with their families. In short, staff will be treated as people, not as mere accounting units.”

“How to Curb Workplace Incivility,” Knowledge@Wharton (2019) (link here) — “Companies expect every employee to behave respectfully in the workplace, but that doesn’t always happen. A lack of professionalism can imperil an employee’s future, isolate co-workers, upset customers and infect the wider corporate culture. Workplace incivility in health care can be especially harmful because mistakes made by distressed employees can have grave consequences. The Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania has launched a Campaign for Professionalism to mitigate such conflicts.”

Noah Smith, “America’s Workers Need a Labor Union Comeback,” Bloomberg (2019) (link here) — “Unions are probably a big part of the reason that people look back so fondly on the era of manufacturing. So far, the service-sector jobs that now employ a large majority of the American workforce have failed to unionize like manufacturing workers once did. A recent spate of strikes shows that this vast low-paid service class may finally be awakening to the possibility of collective bargaining….”

Jennifer Moss, “When Passion Leads to Burnout,” Harvard Business Review (2019) (link here) — “At the end of the day, everyone wants to go home to our personal lives feeling inspired and fueled by a day of passionate engagement in purposeful work. This is clearly preferable to monotony and boredom, which can also cause burnout. But we have to be careful: When it feels like your passion for work — or that of your employees —has become all-consuming, it might be time to take — or to offer — a break.”

Chrystle Fiedler, “How Being Kind Makes You Healthier,” Next Avenue (2019) (link here) — “When you are kind to another person, even in a small way, it has a positive effect by helping that person feel valued and supported. If you make such acts of kindness a regular habit, it’s actually good for your health and even slows your body’s aging process, according to research.”

France Télécom executives are on trial for workplace bullying associated with dozens of worker suicides

Former France Télécom executives are on trial for alleged violations of France’s “moral harassment” code, in a case alleging that systematic bullying tactics were employed to reduce the company’s workforce. During the time in question, 35 workers died by suicide, and many left notes explaining that working conditions had pushed them beyond their ability to endure. Angelique Crisafis reports for the Guardian (link here):

Former executives at France Télécom could face prison over organised workplace harassment that led to a spate of staff suicides a decade ago, as a two-month trial that shocked France draws to a close this week.

French state prosecutors have urged judges to find the executives guilty of moral harassment and hand down the maximum prison sentence of one year, plus large fines, after details emerged in court of the turmoil felt by workers over systematic bullying tactics aimed at pushing staff to leave.

MTW Revisions: July 2019

In this regular feature, each month I’m reviewing some of the 1,700+ entries to this blog since 2008 and opting to revise and update several of them. I hope that readers find the revised posts useful and interesting. Here are this month’s selections:

After being bullied at work, what next? (orig. 2009; rev. 2016 & 2019) (link here) — “Oftentimes, workplace bullying leaves a target’s head spinning. Whether of the overt or covert variety, or perhaps both, work abuse can be quickly destabilizing. It’s hard to get one’s bearings. …All of this boils down to the fact that targets must often consider their options on their own. For those who are in such a position, here are several questions to ask and answer, ideally earlier rather than later….”

The sociopathic employee handbook (orig. 2016; rev. 2019) (link here) — “I once had an opportunity to review provisions of an employee handbook from a large, mostly non-union employer in the non-profit sector. . . . Heh, among my reactions was that this handbook read like the handiwork of a sociopathic lawyer!”

What is at-will employment? (orig. 2015; rev. 2019) (link here) — “The legal rule of at-will employment is the presumptive employment relationship in the United States. It means that an employer can hire or terminate a worker for any reason or no reason at all, so long as that action does not violate existing legal protections. . . . Outside the U.S., at-will employment is not the norm. In many industrialized nations, workers can be terminated only for just cause, which usually means inadequate performance, serious misconduct, or financial exigency.”

Tribes for brewing ideas and engaging in positive change (orig. 2015; rev. 2019) (link here) — “Today, tribes may form and sustain with members spread across the land. Physical proximity helps a lot, of course, especially in the form of periodic conferences and meetings. But the online world can be a way of sustaining and building those bonds too, especially when face-to-face interactions are less feasible.”

Working notes as summer beckons

Briefing MA legislators, staffers, and interns on the Healthy Workplace Bill

Dear readers, with summer now officially here in Boston, I’m working away at various projects, initiatives, and events. In addition to writing a law review article, here is a sampling of what has been keeping me busy and drawing my attention during recent months and heading into summer:

Legislative briefing on MA Healthy Workplace Bill

Last Tuesday, we had a very successful briefing session on the Massachusetts Healthy Workplace Bill (Senate No. 1072, link here), with a full room of legislators, legislative staffers, and interns joining us at the State House. Jim Redmond, legislative agent for SEIU-NAGE, facilitated the briefing. Our lead sponsor, Senator Paul Feeney, spoke about the need for the HWB, and I gave a short presentation about the legal and policy mechanics that have informed my drafting of the bill. We had time for Q&A, which included added remarks by former SEIU president Greg Sorozan, a key leader behind labor efforts to address workplace bullying.

This coming Tuesday, June 25, the legislature’s Joint Committee on Labor and Workforce Development will hold a hearing on labor-related bills, including public testimony on the HWB (go here for info). We’ll be there in full force for that, as well.

Medium highlights the Healthy Workplace Bill campaign

We continue to advocate for workplace anti-bullying legislation on a national basis. Recently, for a piece in Medium titled “How to Outlaw the Office Bully” (link here), I shared this observation with writer Leigh Ann Carey:

“We are benefitting from a ripple effect from the #MeToo movement,” Yamada says. “The media headlines start with sexual harassment, but as you read deeper into the story you find out there’s a lot of generic bullying. These behaviors don’t occur in a vacuum. They hang together. Shouldn’t we be free of all this stuff by now?”

A Rome conference

A recurring educational highlight for me is the biennial International Congress on Law and Mental Health, sponsored by the International Academy for Law and Mental Health (IALMH). Thanks to the good graces of the IALMH, our International Society for Therapeutic Jurisprudence organizes a dedicated stream of panels specifically on therapeutic jurisprudence topics. The conference is a welcomed opportunity to share some of my own work and to attend panels featuring colleagues from around the world.

The next International Congress is scheduled for this July in Rome. I’ve organized two panels for the conference, both of which I’ll share more details later:

  • A panel on “Bullying, Mobbing, and Harassment: Psychological Trauma and Civil Litigation.” I’ll be talking about the concept of “trauma points” in employment litigation, highlighting (1) the many points at which a plaintiff in an employment lawsuit must retell the narrative of an abusive work situation, leading to re-traumatization; and (2) the traumatizing nature of litigation itself, as a legal process. I’ll be building my talk around a prototypical racial harassment claim, drawn from real-life cases. 
  • A panel on “Legislative Scholarship, Design, Advocacy, and Outcomes.” I’ll be examining how therapeutic jurisprudence principles should be applied to the development of public policy, referencing — among other things — the U.S. push for workplace anti-bullying legislation.

I’ve included in my travel schedule a few extra days for sightseeing, as I’ve never been to Rome and look forward to exploring it. But seriously, the conference is a draw in and of itself, as every time I come away from it enriched by the research, insights, and ideas offered by so many of my colleagues. It’s an intellectual treat, with real-world applications.

Blog planning

I’ve never been very systematic about planning entries to MTW, but I’d like to become a bit more focused in the future. Also, with some 1,700 pieces posted here since late 2008, and a lot of other folks entering the social media fray on topics such as workplace bullying, I’d like to spend more time updating past pieces and sharing relevant commentaries from other sites. This summer I’ll be implementing a monthly blogging schedule that looks something like this:

  • A new and original post about workplace bullying, mobbing, and abuse;
  • A post that collects and shares my revisions of, and updates to, some of the 1,700+ articles previously posted here;
  • A post that collects and links to a variety of articles and resources relevant to work, workers, and workplaces, as well as broader, related topics of psychology, economics, and public affairs;
  • A post on miscellaneous topics relevant to this blog.

I’m also going to consider ways in which educators might better access and use the material that I’ve posted here. This idea was planted by a review of this blog discussed below.

Finally, I’m posting more content to my new Facebook Page, especially links to interesting pieces and to relevant past blog posts. If you’re on Facebook, you may receive new postings by “liking” or “following” this link.

MTW receives positive review from educational resources site

MERLOT.org, a popular educational resources site devoted to sharing online materials that can be used for classroom purposes, has given Minding the Workplace a very positive peer review (link here). This is especially gratifying in view of the fact that MTW has not been necessarily designed for classroom use. Nevertheless, the reviewer saw the potential usefulness of MTW for classroom purposes. Here’s a snippet of that review:

The blog underscores workplace issues of enormous contemporary significance (e.g., diversity, bullying, toxic cultures) and provides a perspective that can deepen students’ understanding. The author of the blog is an expert in the subjects that the blog addresses. The blog is exceedingly well-written, well-informed, and professionally presented. Entries link out to a variety of newspapers and periodicals. The blog contains links to key organizations and scholarly articles that address workplace bullying, employee dignity, and employment law. 

The reviewer concluded that MTW is an “excellent resource for faculty and students who have an academic or professional interest in issues and challenges related to workplace culture.”

Speaking truth to power at work: Incivility & abrasiveness vs. bullying & mobbing

Image courtesy of Clipart Panda

As I’ve shared with you before, dear readers, I sometimes use this blog to develop ideas-in-progress. This means engaging in some thinking out loud, so to speak. Back in 2015, I wrote about distinguishing workplace incivility and abrasiveness from bullying and mobbing (link here):

Readers from outside of academe may be amused to learn that research on bad workplace behaviors has broken down into several camps. Two of these are the incivility researchers and the bullying researchers. At organizational psychology conferences, it’s not unusual to hear remarks such as “oh, she’s an incivility person” or “no, he’s more into bullying.”

When I started this work over 15 years ago, I treated these behaviors as parts of a spectrum, with many overlaps present, but it’s clear that sharper lines are being drawn, at least for the purposes of putting together panel discussions and writing dissertations.

For me, the most significant line is where behaviors become abusive, motivated in significant part by a desire to cause distress or harm. When that line is crossed, it’s not about incivility or bad manners; we’re now into the territory of bullying or mobbing.

I went on to add that although incivility and bullying have both been receiving greater attention, the former has still gained greater acceptance among employee relations stakeholders and the mainstream media:

Over the years, both incivility and bullying have attracted greater attention from employee relations stakeholders and the popular media. However, we’re still at a point where workplace incivility, rudeness, and abrasiveness are more readily acknowledged than bullying and mobbing. I have many ideas as to why this is the case, and they tend to circle around the nature of power. Those in charge are much more threatened by allegations of bullying than by claims of incivility.

I greatly value the growing body of research and commentary on workplace incivility. After all, the more we understand incivility at work and how to prevent and respond to it, the better. However, I think that for some organizations, it’s safer to use the incivility label than to acknowledge the more abusive realities of bullying.

Along these lines, I’d like to gather my thoughts about why many organizations and other employee relations stakeholders are reluctant to recognize workplace bullying and mobbing:

  1. Bullying and mobbing involve abuses of power, not bad manners. Especially because these abuses are often top-down in nature (i.e., managers and supervisors directing abuse toward subordinates), acknowledging bullying and mobbing points a steady finger at the values, ethics, and practices of senior management.
  2. On an individual level, it’s one thing to say that a boss “doesn’t play well in the sandbox with others,” “is a little rough around the edges,” or “can be a jerk at times.” Such characterizations can be tagged as merely uncivil, not abusive, and thus don’t carry a heavy stigma. However, to recognize that a boss (or any other individual, for that matter) is abusive is very different thing.
  3. The abusive nature of bullying and mobbing also implicates the psychological makeup of leaders and organizational cultures. This means opening the door to characterizing individuals and organizations as possibly having qualities consistent with narcissism, sociopathy, and/or psychopathy.
  4. In the U.S. especially, where the rule of at-will employment (which includes the right to terminate a worker without cause) and its underlying theoretical legal framework of master-servant relationships still hold sway, accusations of work abuse directed at bosses and managers are extremely threatening to the power structure.
  5. Practically speaking, under at-will employment, a subordinate who bullies a boss can be fired without cause, while a boss who bullies a subordinate usually doesn’t have to worry about job security — unless the bullying is discriminatory in nature (race, sex, etc.) or in retaliation for legally-protected whistleblowing.
  6. Preserving this top-down power relationship is, no doubt, among the reasons why some employers and their trade associations oppose the anti-bullying Healthy Workplace Bill. Even if they have no intentions of treating workers abusively, they want to retain the right to do so, without fear of being held legally accountable.

Related posts

“Master and servant”: The roots of American employment law (2013)

At-will employment and the legality of workplace bullying: A brutal combo punch (2011)

On following evil orders at work

In a piece for Medium (link here), Sarah Griffiths interviews psychological researcher Julia Shaw (University College London) on her new book Evil: The Science Behind Humanity’s Dark Side (2019). Here’s what Dr. Shaw says about the negative implications of our tendency to follow orders:

Following orders is the default human tendency, so if there’s someone in authority, or someone who has authority over you, then you are likely to follow their orders, unless you are in danger. That’s for a host of social reasons, not the least of which is that we are generally trusting of our fellow humans and if we’ve placed them in a position of responsibility — a political office, for example — then we trust the decisions they are making are not going to break social norms or moral values.

It’s also a lot of work to stand up against authority and think for ourselves in a situation when we feel we don’t have to, so we quite readily outsource immorality as our brains are effectively a bit lazy and are constantly trying to conserve resources.

Among other things, these dynamics can lead us to take part in cruel and abusive behaviors. History is riddled with examples of this, including participation in torture and genocides.

In response, Shaw suggests three things that we can do to avoid engaging in mistreatment of others, at the behest of someone in authority:

There are three things you can do. The first is to learn about things and prepare yourself when times are good for when times are bad.

…The second thing you can do is “foster heroic imagination,” … (s)o you can picture yourself swimming against the tide of “evil” and going out of your way to do good things for other people — playing the hero.

…The third thing is to make sure that when you are in a situation requiring morally challenging decisions, that you deliberately fight the urge to give in and go with the flow.

At work

Naturally I’m translating this into workplace settings: What if an employee is directed or enlisted to take part in the bullying, mobbing, or harassment of a co-worker? How should that individual respond? What are the costs and consequences of resisting versus going along?

Certainly we can all grow as individuals and develop stronger moral and ethical groundings in terms of how we respond to directives to do wrongful things to others. In that sense, it seems that the three things suggested by Dr. Shaw require a lot of foundational work on ourselves, well before the precipitating events arise. Those events will test us, and decisions on how to respond will emanate from our core foundations.

That said, I am only mildly optimistic about our collective ability to respond to work abuse in the individualized manner suggested by Shaw. Typically these forms of interpersonal mistreatment are enabled or endorsed by organizational leaders. Our tendency to take our cues from the top — the very tendency centrally acknowledged by Shaw — creates shared presumptions that succeeding on the job means accepting, or at least not resisting, the accompanying values and behaviors. By contrast, someone “playing the hero” in the face of wrongful behaviors is often left to do so on their own, with all the accompanying risks.

Rather, the solutions are more systemic. We need a stronger, more inclusive labor movement to provide a countervailing voice for everyday workers. We need laws against workplace bullying. We need stronger enforcement of existing workplace protections. Ultimately, we need to embrace dignity as the primary framing value for our society, joined with a commitment that dignity should not be sacrificed for the right to earn a living and pursue a vocation.

True, advocating for these changes often requires speaking truth to power, but at least if we do so more collectively, our chances of success are much greater than going it alone.

Talking about workplace bullying and disability at the Jacobus tenBroek Disability Law Symposium

Dr. Jacobus tenBroek (www.nfb.org)

Last week I had the privilege of discussing workplace bullying and disability at the Jacobus tenBroek Disability Law Symposium, an annual conference sponsored by the National Federation of the Blind (NFB) in Baltimore, Maryland. Based on the feedback I received, I believe that my presentation offered a useful contribution to the conference. (More on that below.) In addition, for me personally, the biggest gift of the conference was being able to experience it and learn from other participants.

Perspective-changing

I’ve been to dozens of academic and professional conferences during my career, but this was my first attendance at a larger event where people living with various disabilities — in this case, especially those with visual impairments — formed such a significant share of fellow participants. One might claim that I was long overdue in this regard, and I would strongly agree. It is a perspective-changing thing to spend an extended period of time in such a setting, to be in a very different kind of normalcy. Many of the lawyers, advocates, and scholars are living with disabilities that happen to be among the focal points of their work. Substantively, this diverse mix positively influenced the quality, depth, and authenticity of exchanges on topics that are sometimes understood and treated superficially. 

Conferences, symposia, and workshops have their own cultures or vibes. Some are friendly, while others are stuffy. Some help to foster a sense of community and inclusion, while others feature preening and posturing. The tenBroek event is a community builder, where people hatch ideas, teach and mentor one another, and renew friendships and acquaintances. It’s not as if everything is all hearts-and-flowers consensus. Among other things, there were earnest discussions about the need for more racial diversity among speakers and attendees. Nevertheless, the tenBroek symposium serves as an important annual gathering spot for folks interested in legal and policy issues concerning disabilities of all types.

Workplace bullying and disability

The session on bullying, harassment, and the civil rights of persons with disabilities was the final panel of the conference, and I happened to be the last speaker on it. This gave me an opportunity to explain the basics of what we know about bullying and mobbing at work, then go into why existing employment protections have proven inadequate to provide relief to so many abused workers. I then discussed the Healthy Workplace Bill and why it’s needed.

Although we have long understood that work abuse can cause mental disabilities or exacerbate current ones, we know a lot less about the experiences of those with physical disabilities and workplace bullying. During my remarks, I said that we would benefit greatly by learning more about that.

I also put in plugs for two organizations whose overall missions are very consistent with the work being done by folks at the conference, the International Society for Therapeutic Jurisprudence (link here) and Human Dignity and Humiliation Studies (link here), both of which I’ve mentioned frequently on this blog. (In fact, it was my connection with Prof. Michael Perlin, a mental health law expert who is active in both of these communities and serves on the NFB board, that led to my invitation.)

About Jacobus tenBroek

I also learned a little bit about Dr. Jacobus tenBroek , the NFB’s founder and a remarkable individual. The NFB’s Lou Ann Blake, in a 2006 biographical profile about tenBroek (link here), wrote the following:

Most Federationists know that Dr. Jacobus tenBroek founded the National Federation of the Blind in 1940. However, today in 2006, thirty-eight years after his death from cancer on March 27, 1968, the majority of Federationists may not be aware that Dr. tenBroek was also a constitutional law scholar, a civil rights activist, a leader in the reform of social welfare, and a distinguished national and international humanitarian. From his days as a law student until his death, Dr. tenBroek produced thousands of written documents, including letters, speeches, law review articles, and books.

Wow, what a powerhouse. No wonder his spirit helps to drive this conference.

***

If you’re on Facebook, please “like” my new Page for this blog and the New Workplace Institute, where I’m adding content and hosting conversations that don’t appear here. Go here to sign up.

%d bloggers like this: