Labor Day 2012 soapbox: Workers, meltdown politics, and workplace bullying

Recent annual editions of What Color Is Your Parachute?, the hugely popular job-hunting manual by Richard N. Bolles, open with a new chapter titled “How to Find Hope.”

It’s a not-so-subtle admission in this otherwise upbeat book that many people have been so demoralized by the economy and job market that they must first pick themselves off the ground before diving back into the search for work and a fulfilling livelihood. As this Labor Day weekend approaches, I take it as yet another small sign of how things have changed.

Four years ago, on the eve of Labor Day 2008, we were just weeks away from a rapid escalation of the economic meltdown. When things really started to go bad, they did so at a surreal pace that taught us how quickly a 401(k) plan can disintegrate. (Do you remember the news coverage back then? How many of us were asking, what the —- is going on?)

This catastrophe was not caused by school teachers, assembly line workers, retail clerks, firefighters, nurses, labor unions, radical professors, or even — heaven forbid — trial lawyers. No, this was courtesy of the financial masters of the universe on Wall Street, with a big assist from their allies in Washington D.C.

And today, we’re still sorting through the human rubble.

Disappearing middle

Thank goodness we’re not Greece. There still are millions of Americans who have good jobs with decent pay and benefits.

But those numbers are dwindling. In particular, our middle class is shrinking, with a few moving into the top, and many more joining the economically vulnerable.  A major study recently released by the Pew Research Center (link here) concluded that we are living in the “lost decade of the middle class.” The official unemployment rate hovers at around 8 percent, and the unofficial rate — including the vastly underemployed as well as discouraged job seekers no longer tallied in the official one — falls anywhere from 15-20 percent.

New vocabulary

The times even have spawned additions to our economic vocabulary:

Four years ago, the term “99ers” may have sounded like the name of a sports team. But now it refers to individuals whose unemployment benefits — extended during the recession to 99 weeks — have expired.

Four years ago, “underwater” was an aquatic term. Now, of course, it refers to a mortgage balance — in many cases, despite timely payments — that exceeds the declining value of the home.

Four years ago, I’m not even sure if “new normal” had a common meaning. Today it refers to accepting a higher official unemployment rate, say, 8 or 9 percent, as the new normal, replacing the “old” normal of maybe 3 or 4 percent.

Let’s get political

How targeted is this assault on everyday workers? Folks, it’s no longer about shared sacrifice or belt tightening when times are tough. Rather, in some circles it’s about paying rank-and-file workers as little as possible while top executives and shareholders reap the benefits of their labor.

If you need evidence of this, look at the recent strike at the Caterpillar plant in Joliet, Illinois. As reported by Steven Greenhouse for the New York Times (link here), management strong armed the union into accepting wage and pension freezes despite record profits and a 60 percent raise given to the CEO! Need more? Talk to veteran employees of major commercial airlines, who in the post-9/11 world of air travel took huge pay cuts to help the industry survive, while in many cases high-ranking airline executives were collecting obscene bonuses.

Perhaps you’re not surprised that I’m very concerned about the economic and social policies supported by the Romney-Ryan ticket. The hard right has so taken over the GOP that mainstream conservatives of 30 years ago would be branded as traitors to the cause today. Of course, I can’t promise that re-electing President Obama is going to result in dramatic progress either. But at least the Democrats aren’t serving up — as a featured convention speaker — the likes of South Carolina governor Nikki Haley, who repeatedly boasts proudly about being a union buster.

Workplace bullying and politics

I respect the fact that some readers do not subscribe to my generally liberal political beliefs. But especially for those who found this blog because of their own experiences with workplace bullying, I ask them to consider the possible connections.

No, I’m not claiming that all Republicans are bullies and all Democrats are nice people. Far from it. I don’t see hard correlations between individual political beliefs and how people treat each other at work. Applied to my own political leanings, I readily admit there are some liberals I wouldn’t want to work for in a million years, while there are some conservatives I would trust and respect as my boss without qualification.

Nor do I suggest that workplace bullying is limited to the big bad corporations. As I’ve noted here, some of the worst workplace abuse can be found in do-gooder non-profits, labor unions, and government agencies.

But on a systemic, policy level, yes, differences emerge.  For example, the two most powerful organizations opposing the anti-bullying Healthy Workplace Bill (HWB) are the Chamber of Commerce (a GOP favorite) and the Society for Human Resource Management. In Massachusetts, another powerful business lobby, the Associated Industries of Massachusetts, opposes legal protections for bullying targets.

In the meantime, labor unions and civil rights groups have been the leading sources of organizational support for the HWB.

It’s not as if opponents of the HWB are promising to discipline or dismiss the aggressors, in return for us dropping our support for legal reform. To the contrary, some are claiming that existing laws are sufficient to protect bullying targets, which they know isn’t true unless they’re listening to lawyers who don’t understand employment law.

Others complain that legal protections against severe workplace bullying would serve as “job killers” by undermining productivity and the spirit of healthy competition. But what’s “productive,” “healthy,” and “competitive” about interpersonal abuse?

There are honest differences of opinion as to where the law should draw the line on legal claims for workplace bullying. But shouldn’t it be wrong to treat another human being so abusively as to destroy one’s psyche and livelihood?

What will it take?

Yup, as we approach this Labor Day weekend, the world of work and workers faces very serious challenges.

And the stakes are too important for us to throw in the towel. Somehow, we must forge a more humane consensus about how people should be treated at work. Let’s claim human dignity as our starting place for employee relations and go from there. That embrace still leaves us to sort out the complicated questions of workplace laws, policies, and practices, but at least it recognizes the essential humanity of labor.

After all, it’s hard to get the details right when the core values are absent.


My law review article, “Human Dignity and American Employment Law” (free download here) contains a more detailed exposition on human dignity and the workplace. Ironically, I was completing the final manuscript right at the time the economy was melting down in Fall 2008.

The American academic response to workplace bullying: A grounded orientation

Serious social problems typically attract a variety of scholars who engage in research and education designed to address them. This is no different with workplace bullying in the U.S.

However, whereas some social problems attract gobs of attention from those affiliated with elite academic institutions, the American academic response to workplace bullying has been driven, for the most part, by professors holding appointments at state and regional private universities. I believe this is a telling reason why so much of the important scholarly work concerning workplace bullying has genuine real world application.

Pioneering scholars

Consider the current institutional affiliations of some of the pioneering American academicians on workplace bullying and related behaviors: Loraleigh Keashly (Wayne State), Joel Neuman (SUNY New Paltz), Pamela Lutgen-Sandvik (New Mexico), Suzi Fox (Loyola-Chicago), Judith Richman (Illinois-Chicago), and Kathleen Rospenda (Illinois-Chicago). Fine schools all, but not the Ivy League.

What ties their work together is a quality of intellectually stimulating research that consistently demonstrates on-the-ground relevance. This is not the space to engage in a summary of their studies and writings, but suffice it to say that their work is the stuff of both fascinating seminar discussions and practical insights into workplace behaviors.

In the emerging field of occupational health psychology, which has proven to be very hospitable to workplace bullying research, we see similar types of institutional affiliations. For example, the current and past presidents of the Society for Occupational Health Psychology include Vicki Magley (Connecticut), Janet Barnes-Farrell (Connecticut), Robert Sinclair (Clemson), Peter Chen (Colorado State), and Leslie Hammer (Portland State).

At this juncture, Robert Sutton (Stanford) is one of the few professors affiliated with an elite American university who is devoting serious attention to bullying-type behaviors.

Law schools

A similar picture emerges in terms of legal scholarship on workplace bullying. Most of the significant law review commentary has originated from a small group of law professors holding appointments at regional law schools.

In addition to my work as a professor at Suffolk University Law School in Boston, other law professors authoring major pieces primarily about workplace bullying have included Brady Coleman (formerly at South Texas), Susan Harthill (Florida Coastal), and Kerri Stone (Florida International).

Non-traditional universities

Finally, non-traditional, distance learning universities are playing a major role in training the next wave of scholar-practitioners to enter the fray.

In fact, many of the first American dissertations and theses on workplace bullying came from students enrolled at places such as Walden University, Fielding Graduate University, Capella University, and the University of Phoenix.

Why? Because the flexible delivery models and practice-friendly orientations of those schools are hospitable to adult learners, and workplace bullying is more likely to be a topic that attracts people who have experienced the workplace.


This grounded response has been strongly influenced by the roots of the American movement to respond to workplace bullying.

Much of the original impetus to label and address bullying at work in the U.S. came from Drs. Gary and Ruth Namie during the late 1990s.  More than a decade later, their Workplace Bullying Institute (WBI) is the most significant North American non-governmental organization addressing the problem today.

WBI is not a huge think tank operation; its small staff works on all aspects of bullying, ranging from its effects on individuals to the need for effective legal responses. While WBI has moved beyond being a shoestring operation, its resources pale compared to those of the Chamber of Commerce and the Society for Human Resource Management, two trade associations with very different takes on workplace bullying and the need for legal reform.

WBI has served as an important link between the practice and academic communities. From the start, the Namies made a concerted effort to link university professors, practitioners, and activists who are committed to addressing workplace bullying, and I believe that orientation played a critical role in creating a core community that respects both research and practice.

Ground level

Workplace bullying can lend itself to abstract theorizing, but it makes more sense when grasped at the ground level.

Thus, universities that welcome scholarship about workplace bullying may well be those that are neither fearful nor disdainful of the real world and do not greet the term “applied research” with knee-jerk hostility. They may be more likely to attract faculty and graduate students who have not led rarefied lives that might cause them to scoff at the notion of people and organizations suffering from the psychological abuse of employees.

Also, it is probable that workplace bullying, especially before it started to enter the mainstream of American employment relations, scared off more than a few potential professors and graduate students at elite schools because it seemed too risky to delve into something new and unexplored. Caution and timidity are two dominant, less-admirable traits of academe, and their hold can get stronger as one climbs the academic hierarchy.


However, this relative paucity of elite institutional affiliations means that the American intellectual response to workplace bullying is something of a Little Engine That Could. While we can pat ourselves on the back for our populist look & feel, we also know that in traditional academe, institutional prestige counts for a lot with some folks.

Furthermore, in surveying law school employment law casebooks, industrial/organizational psychology treatises, labor relations texts, and the like, it is worth noting that workplace bullying still doesn’t get a lot of play. If workplace bullying is to become fully integrated into the study and practice of employment relations, that must change.

In sum, we academicians have our work cut out for us in terms of educating our colleagues about workplace bullying and its significance as a topic of research and study.

Reporting on Orlando: Until we create more humane workplaces, do we need coping and resilience skills for all?

Do we all need training in coping and resilience skills to prepare us for the rough-and-tumble realities of the workplace?

Last month I posted an article asking whether young lawyers needed military-style resilience training to help them deal with the rough edges of the law firm work environment (link here). I found myself thinking about that post during much of the just-concluded “Work, Stress, Health” conference in Orlando, during which speaker after speaker described difficult working conditions in many vocations.

Bullying and abuse

During a panel I participated in on workplace bullying, public school administrator and human resources professional Matt Spencer described the bullying of young teachers. Matt drew his remarks from his 2010 essay, “Stealing From Children: A Great Injustice of Workplace Bullying In America’s Schools” (link here):

Each year, outstanding teachers such as these are hired for service in schools all across America.  They can’t wait to get to work in their classroom at their new school and begin the process I described above…loving and caring for their students and giving them an outstanding educational experience everyday!

But it’s only a matter of time when to many of these teachers finds themselves in the crosshairs of a bully; a predator that roams the halls of their school looking for a victim.  The bully could be an administrator, a fellow teacher, a custodian, or anyone in the organization.  But the bully has selected a teacher as a target and begins the devastating assault on this unsuspecting servant of the common good.

Co-panelist Greg Sorozan, a Massachusetts union president who has become a leading advocate for the Healthy Workplace Bill, described his own experiences with workplace bullying and the challenges of dealing with bullying behaviors in a unionized work setting.

I also attended a number of talks on the healthcare work environment. And once again I heard a lot about the experiences of nurses, who enter the profession full of enthusiasm and commitment, and all too often face bullying from fellow nurses and physicians and violent behaviors from patients. Many become burned out and leave the profession.

Shattered assumptions

I keep returning to the basic theme of psychology professor Ronnie Janoff-Bulman’s Shattered Assumptions: Towards a New Psychology of Trauma (2002 ed.), in which she posits that the traumatization process shatters three commonly held, fundamental beliefs “about ourselves, the external world, and the relationship between the two”:

The world is benevolent.

The world is meaningful.

The self is worthy.

Many idealistic young people enter the workforce with those very assumptions. When they are treated abusively, they struggle to process what just hit them. The gap between expectations and realities is beyond anything they ever imagined.

Missing piece of our schooling

Think about it: In the typical American high school and college, how much are we prepared for the realities of entering the workplace? If schooling is supposed to be, at least in part, a socialization process that eases our way into being adult members of society, then shouldn’t we be better prepared for the world of modern workplaces?

And especially in educational programs designed to train someone for a profession or trade, shouldn’t the curriculum cover the experience of working in a given vocation?

Perhaps it is unfortunate that we have to look at military training — with its literal life-and-death significance — as evidence of the need for such training, but at least the armed forces recognize that psychologically preparing men and women to serve in uniform is an important component of readying them to do their jobs.

Beyond coping and resilience

Of course, we also need to look beyond coping and resilience and maintain a laser-sharp focus on creating workplaces that don’t require such protective armor. That means embracing dignity at work as a fundamental human right and, among other things, translating that conviction into measures that prevent and stop abusive behaviors at work.

Does it boil down to the rich & powerful vs. the rest of us?

Amid the economic and personal struggles confronting people as they deal with forces that sometimes appear beyond their ability to manage or control, I find myself thinking a lot about the abuse of power and authority in our society. Recently these ruminations were triggered by an old book and two January magazine cover stories:

Bertram Gross, Friendly Fascism

Fascism is such an overused word in our tear-down political discourse that I’m instantly suspect of any book that uses it in the title. But Bertram Gross’s Friendly Fascism: The New Face of Power in America (1982), is becoming one of the most remarkably prescient books I’ve ever encountered about politics and society.

Conflicting trends

Gross was a social science professor and public servant who served in two presidential administrations. In Friendly Fascism, he warned of two conflicting trends in American society, as he set out in the preface to his 1982 edition:

The first is a slow and powerful drift toward greater concentration of power and wealth in a repressive Big Business-Big Government partnership. . . . The phrase “friendly fascism” helps distinguish this possible future from the patently vicious corporatism of classic fascism in the past of Germany, Italy and Japan.

…The other is a slower and less powerful tendency for individuals and groups to seek greater participation in decisions affecting themselves and others. . . . It is embodied in larger values of community, sharing, cooperation, service to others and basic morality as contrasted with crass materialism and dog-eat-dog competition.

Power mongers

Gross went on to identify the types of people who are consolidating power in America:

I see at present members of the Establishment or people on its fringes who, in the name of Americanism, betray the interests of most Americans by fomenting militarism, applauding rat-race individualism, protecting undeserved privilege, or stirring up nationalistic and ethnic hatreds.

From the magazine stand

Fast forward to modern day.  Here are two magazine cover headlines. First, from the Jan.-Feb. issue cover of the Atlantic (article link here):

The Rise of the New Ruling Class — How the Global Elite is Leaving You Behind

From a January cover of the Economist (article link here):

The rich and the rest — A 14-page special report on the global elite

What’s going on here? The moderate-to-liberal Atlantic and the free-market Economist on the same page? Well, not quite.

Rise of the plutocracy

Chrystia Freeland’s article in the Atlantic is more along the lines of what concerns me. Freeland tells us that as a business journalist, she’s “spent the better part of the past decade shadowing the new super-rich: attending the same exclusive conferences in Europe; conducting interviews over cappuccinos on Martha’s Vineyard or in Silicon Valley meeting rooms; observing high-powered dinner parties in Manhattan.”

Based on these observations and events surrounding the economic meltdown, she acknowledges the “wider—and not unreasonable—fears that we are living in not merely a plutonomy, but a plutocracy, in which the rich display outsize political influence, narrowly self-interested motives, and a casual indifference to anyone outside their own rarefied economic bubble.” Her lengthy analysis concludes:

The lesson of history is that, in the long run, super-elites have two ways to survive: by suppressing dissent or by sharing their wealth. It is obvious which of these would be the better outcome for America, and the world. Let us hope the plutocrats aren’t already too isolated to recognize this.

But we’re in good hands, right?

By contrast, the Economist‘s take on elites and their power is not so alarmed, suggesting that with appropriate tweaks, things should be fine:

All these curbs require continual refinement: greater transparency in government, vigorous enforcement of antitrust rules, efforts to make justice swift and fair. Yet by and large in liberal democracies the powerful get on by pleasing others. In short, they work for us.

From 1980 onward

My generally liberal politics aside, I often enjoy the Economist‘s sensible, understated prose. But on this I believe they are dead wrong. Since 1980 (at least), buoyed by the election of Ronald Reagan and the policies that came in on his coattails, we have been witnessing a concentration of wealth and power that puts an exclamation mark on what Bertram Gross was writing about as this era was unfolding.

Another way it trickles down, jackboot style

The abuse of wealth and power can manifest itself at the micro level as well. Labor journalist James Parks, in a piece posted to Today’s Workplace blog (link here), reports on a study showing a correlation between excessive CEO pay and poor treatment of workers:

The study examined the corporate behavior of 261 companies and found a close correlation between pay inequality and poor treatment of workers. In companies where CEOs made much more than their average workers, the companies were more likely to underfund pensions or cut corners on health and safety. Often, according to the study, the bosses engaged in a cost-benefit analysis, calculating that a fine would be a cost of doing business, compared with the profits they could make.

Docility, apathy, acceptance

Gross predicted that the rise of friendly fascism would create a politically docile and apathetic American public that largely accepts the economic and power inequities of the status quo, while getting caught up in a culture that embraces petty conflict and superficiality.

Of course, it’s wholly unfair to label an entire populace as being this or that. But if you think we’re in good shape, check out an episode of the “Jerry Springer Show” or “Judge Judy,” watch Donald Trump telling a reality TV underling that he’s fired, listen to a few rap songs, and then log onto the Internet news coverage to read about the latest troubles of Lindsay Lohan.

For now, at least, I rest my case.

The costs of suffering in silence about bad work situations

(Drawing copyright Aaron Maeda)

Let’s say you’re being bullied or harassed or otherwise mistreated at work. Or maybe you’ve just learned that you’re being horribly underpaid compared to the less-than-stellar fellow in the next office or cubicle.

Anger and resentment are natural responses to these situations, but is there any outlet to express your emotions at work?

Bottled up

Many people will keep it bottled up inside them.

After all, self-censorship has long been a staple of behavior for the rank-and-file worker who has assessed the potential risks of speaking up and concluded that silence is a more prudent option. During difficult economic times and amid tough job markets, folks often reason (with good justification) that it’s better to internalize their bad feelings rather than express them.

Health impacts

Repressing these emotions can have grave health consequences, however.

Dr. Gabor Maté, an expert on the relationship of emotions to overall health, discussed the links between expression of emotions and immune system impairments in a 2010 interview conducted by Amy Goodman (link here):

Women who don’t know how to express their boundaries emotionally, they suppress their boundaries immunologically, and therefore they’re more likely to develop disease. The same is true, of course, of men, so that the immune system is in constant interaction with our emotional responses.

…In another study with the immune system, medical students under the stress of examination were found to have diminished activity of their natural killer cells, these immune cells. But those students who were emotionally isolated were most likely to have diminished activity of their immune system.

In a 2009 post (link here), I cited a Swedish study indicating that when men repress their anger over unfair treatment at work, their risk of having a heart attack or dying of heart disease doubles.

The self-enforced silence can stoke a brutal, continuous loop of rumination (discussed here and here) and embitterment (discussed here). As I suggested in 2015, workplace abuse can become an obsessive filter “through which so many other work and life experiences are screened, interpreted, and understood.”

Bringing it home

Unfortunately, what is bottled up at work sometimes bubbles over at home.

Contrary to common advice, it’s not always easy to “leave it at the office.”  How much pent up frustration stored up during the workday is dished out toward family members and friends? And how often does displaced anger directed at spouses, partners, and children reach abusive levels?

One-way boxing match

The state of employment law promotes remaining silent, at least for the vast majority of workers who are not protected by collective bargaining agreements. When I first started researching legal protections against workplace bullying and restrictions on employee free speech (especially in the private sector), I realized very quickly that when it comes to freedom of expression at work, it’s a one-way boxing match.

In other words, a supervisor can yell and scream at an underling and usually get away with it, but if the underling acts in the same way, she can be disciplined or fired and the law often will say it’s legal under the rule of at will employment.

Bottom line

We also know how this affects the one thing even bad companies embrace, the holy bottom line. When employees feel mistreated, they are less loyal and productive and more likely to bolt once anything resembling a better job comes along. Stress-related absenteeism and higher health care costs also are a part of the mix.

Public health problem

Workplace bullying, harassment, and other forms of abuse are more than “just” employment problems. We need to teach everyone that these are public health problems as well. When stress inducing, anger producing mistreatment at work continues to be written off as part of the everyday cost of having a job, the negative public health impacts will ripple out over and again.


This post was revised in February 2021.

“Work is broken” (Can we fix it and remake it?)

Work is broken. This line was invoked by several speakers during opening sessions of the annual meeting of the Labor and Employment Relations Association (LERA), held on January 6-9. It stood as a repeated acknowledgment of the deterioration of the employment relationship, the loss of good jobs, and the overall state of work in America.

LERA (website here) is the nation’s leading non-profit, interdisciplinary research and education association for scholars and practitioners in fields concerned with workplace relations. Work is broken was a telling admission from folks who have been researching and practicing for decades.

Let me count the ways

Of course, work may be broken in different ways to different people.

To workers who have been unable to obtain work for months or perhaps longer, we’re talking about the enduring effects of a recession that economists claim ended in June 2009. (That reminds me of a certain President who stood on the deck of an aircraft carrier with a big “mission accomplished” banner behind him….)

To workers who have been bullied or harassed out of their jobs while company executives or HR officers turned the other way, we’re looking at work environments so bereft of ethics that basic human dignity has been cast aside.

To workers who now are hearing that their pension plans may go under, we’re witnessing the breach of a social and legal contract that offered a decent retirement in return for many loyal years on the job.

Fixing work

Straight jobs

We need to rebuild our base of what some call straight jobs. By that I mean conventional jobs in the service, retail, and manufacturing sectors that provide a fair day’s pay for a good day’s work. Solid jobs where people are treated decently — some perhaps short on thrills and challenges, but at least paying for life’s expenses while providing the dignity of a paycheck.

Straight jobs anticipate working in offices and cubicles, factories and construction sites, and retail outlets of various shapes and sizes. They are fine for many people. After all, conventional employment can provide security, stability, and built-in resources — not a bad deal!

Recovering a balance of power

On a systemic level, we need to re-embrace the 3-way structure of employment relations in which workers, management, and government have a voice at the table in determining workplace governance. This was the case during the heyday of the American economy, covering roughly the late 1940s through 1960s. Our system reflected a better balance of countervailing power between major stakeholders in the employment relationship.

Labor movement

Accordingly, we need to rebuild our labor movement. Intense employer hostility to unions, weak government enforcement of labor laws, and changes in the labor market have resulted in that balance going way out of whack, especially in the private sector where individual workers are largely on their own to secure better pay and working conditions.

Unions are not a panacea. The bad ones are no more virtuous than lousy corporations, and I have heard many, many complaints from workers who were let down by theirs. Nevertheless, strong, effective, and inclusive unions remain the best way to channel concentrated employee power and voice for the largest number of workers.

Something different…

Equally important, we have to empower the creative and entrepreneurial instincts of those who want to do something different. Here’s why:

Our economy badly needs the jump start effects of new businesses. Supporting the creation of small businesses is a means to that end.

Furthermore, for some, straight jobs are limiting or even stifling. The 9 to 5 thing may be a long-time American staple, but it’s not for everyone.

In addition, many of these traditional work settings are, by their very nature, breeding grounds for dysfunctional and unethical behaviors. For example, unchecked workplace bullying rarely occurs in a vacuum; those who bully typically have been enabled by their organizations. Similarly, organizations where executive pay has become excessive usually have created the conditions that allowed it to happen.

Increasingly I am skeptical that most organizations with entrenched, dysfunctional cultures are capable of significant change. Perhaps a “marketplace” of ethical behavior can supplant some of the bad apples with entities capable of both productivity and decency.

Remaking work

So, what are some of these new ways of working? To encourage your brainstorming and visionary thinking, take a look at these resources, the first two of which I have mentioned before on this blog. Together they raise a world of possibilities:

Freelancer’s Union

The Freelancers Union (link here) is an advocacy and support organization for America’s 42 million independent workers, who represent roughly 30 percent of the workforce. These include “freelancers, consultants, independent contractors, temps, part-timers, contingent employees, and the self-employed.”

Seth Godin

Godin (blog here) is a bestselling author of books on work, careers, and entrepreneurship. His pithy works, in the forms of books and free online materials, encourage us to think imaginatively about how we spend our time working. For previous posts on Godin, go here.

Chris Guillebeau

Guillebeau (website and blog link here) is a writer on a crusade to encourage people to follow their dreams, not what others suggest for them, even if it puts them at odds with the mainstream.

He is the author of The Art of Non-Conformity: Set Your Own Rules, Live the Life You Want, and Change the World (Perigree 2010). Although the book suffers from a touch of youthful arrogance (he appears to be in his early 30s), his message may resonate strongly with folks experiencing a midlife crisis who are in search of inspiration and guidance to do something different with their lives. It’s a quick and excellent read.

Much of the book was developed out Guillebeau’s much-downloaded free pdf, A Guide to World Domination. He has a lot of great ideas, and I’ll be returning to his work in future posts.


Panel on Psychological Health at Work

If we’re going fix and remake work, then psychologically healthy workplaces must be part of the mix. Thus, I appreciate that LERA hosted a panel I organized titled “Psychological Health at Work: The Roles of Law, Policy, and Dispute Resolution.” I’ll have more to say on the subject matter of the presentations in future posts, but for now, here was our lineup:


Heather Grob, Saint Martin’s University


John F. Burton, Jr., Rutgers University (NJ)—Workers’s Compensation Benefits for Workplace Stress

Krista Hoffmeister, Colorado State University (CO)—Beyond Prevention Through Design: Perspectives from Occupational Health Psychology

Debra A. Healy, Healy Conflict Management Services (OR)—Mediating Workplace Abuse: Does It Work?

Tapas K. Ray, National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (OH)—Costs of Stress at Work: Who Bears Them?

David C. Yamada, Suffolk University (MA)—Workplace Bullying, Mobbing, and Harassment: Emerging Legal Responses

Workplace bullying 2010: “Bullycides,” Breakthroughs, and Backlash

The year 2010 was a significant one for the emerging American movement to stop workplace bullying. Here is my attempt to characterize major developments of the past year.


An unfortunate but apt term entered our lexicon this year, “bullycide,” referring to suicides linked to bullying at work and schools.

In the workplace context, two such deaths became especially prominent. One involved the July suicide of Kevin Morrissey, an editor at the University of Virginia’s Virginia Quarterly Review, which was linked to severe bullying by his supervisor, the journal’s editor-in-chief.

Another involved the 2008 suicide of Jodie Zebell, a health care worker whose story was shared with the Wisconsin legislature when it deliberated upon the anti-bullying Healthy Workplace Bill (see below for more on the HWB). We also heard about similar tragedies in other countries, such as the bullying-related suicide of Brodie Panlock, a young Australian woman who worked as a waitress.

On a very related note, suicides of bullied children figured prominently in the news this year. For example, the suicide of 15-year-old Massachusetts high school student Phoebe Prince attracted national news coverage. The suicide of Rutgers University student Tyler Clementi following the Internet posting of his intimate encounter with a man led to proposed federal legislation to protect college students from bullying and harassment.


Workplace bullying became more prominent in the realm of employment relations and in the public eye generally. The most significant breakthrough was how the movement to enact the Healthy Workplace Bill entered the mainstream of the news. Although the bill has yet to be enacted, the state senates of both New York and Illinois passed versions of it, with the progress in New York attracting considerable media attention.  (Go here for my brief interview on MSNBC and here for a piece in Time magazine by Adam Cohen.)

Growing public support for workplace bullying legislation was evidenced in an online poll by Parade magazine, a popular Sunday insert in dozens of newspapers across the country. Some 93 percent of respondents voiced support for the proposition that workplace bullying should be illegal, a remarkable showing even taking into account the non-scientific nature of the survey.


It is a truism that the mass media like to build up and then tear down. We saw that turn with workplace bullying in the U.S. during the second half of 2010. Less flattering stories questioning the basis of the anti-bullying movement and characterizing it as an increasingly well-heeled industry appeared in prominent news outlets.

In addition, opposition to workplace bullying legislation showed a more public side. For example, after the New York state senate passed the Healthy Workplace Bill, the Society for Human Resource Management, the nation’s largest association of human resources professionals, came out in opposition to it. Others continued to opine that the legislation is a “job killer” because the threat of litigation would chase employers elsewhere.

Work to be done

The end of a calendar year provides a convenient opportunity to look back and assess. I think there are firm grounds for optimism: A term that few people used and understood a decade ago has now entered the mainstream of American employment relations, and even the backlash is a sign that the message is getting through.

But make no mistake about it, the abuse continues. Untold numbers of people suffer because of it, and thousands of organizations — knowingly or not — lose productivity and employee loyalty due to this form of mistreatment. In sum, the progress we have made to date must inspire us to do more.

When Boomers retire (or try to): America’s coming train wreck

Do I have it completely wrong, or is most of America ignoring the coming economic and social train wreck that will occur when millions of Baby Boomers realize they do not have sufficient resources to fund a relatively comfortable retirement?

I’ve been trying to connect the dots, and the emerging picture of the Boomer retirement crisis frightens me:

Reality 1: A cool million may not be enough

What’s your number?

This question is bandied about often among those who are within imagining distance of retirement age. In essence, it refers to the nest egg that one should have in order to live a relatively comfortable retirement.

Conventional wisdom has been that one million dollars should be a target goal, but today’s investment advisers are saying that isn’t enough. As reported in March by Joe Mont for TheStreet (link here):

That target may be easy to remember, but it falls short of the true cost of what’s required for post-career comfort. Longer life spans, the threat of inflation and the uncertain future of Social Security benefits make this long-touted savings advice inadequate for most, advisers say.

Reality 2: Most folks aren’t even close to saving a million anyway

Most Americans are neither close to saving a million dollars nor on a reasonable track toward doing so.

Even before the Great Recession, researchers were voicing grave concerns about the financial readiness of the Baby Boomer generation for retirement. When the bottom fell out of the economy, retirement accounts of millions of Americans took a savage beating, with many workers losing a quarter, half, or even more of their savings. Those who bailed out of the market at that point lost out on the partial recovery that followed.

Google phrases such as “retirement savings statistics” and “Boomer retirement savings” and you’ll get a blizzard of facts and figures from multiple sources documenting the crisis. Here’s a very random sampling:

From Money 101:

Most Americans think that they’ll be able to retire comfortably, but most aren’t saving nearly enough to meet that goal. Sixty-eight percent of workers are confident that they will have adequate funds for a comfortable retirement. And yet, more than half of those workers have saved less than $25,000 for retirement. Only 20% of Americans have saved $100,000 or more. Only 10% of Americans have amassed retirement savings of $200,000.


According to the Employee Benefits Research Institute’s 2009 Retirement Confidence Survey, 53% of workers in the U.S. have less than $25,000 in total savings and investments. The typical American household (headed by a 43 year old) has just over $18,000 in savings! That’s a scary number.

From David Ignatius of the Washington Post:

Okay, for households headed by persons between the ages of 55 and 64, the median value of all retirement accounts was just $100,000. [Financial analyst Patrick] Purcell noted that for a 65-year-old man retiring last month, that $100,000 would buy an annuity that would pay a paltry $700 a month for life, based on current interest rates.

Don’t stop there. Look at dozens of other sources and you’ll see the litany of alarming facts and figures goes on and on.

Reality 3: Many public sector workers are sitting on a crumbling foundation

Public sector pension funds — the main source of retirement funding for public sector workers in education, social services, and public safety — are in bad to terrible shape in many states. For example, Gus Lubin, writing for The Business Insider, identifies 11 state pension funds that are projected to run out of money within the next decade or so (link here):

Here’s a shocker: The most immediate state pension crises aren’t in New York or California. They’re in Middle America.

When it comes to state pensions in the most trouble, do places like New Hampshire come to mind? Probably not, unless you live there, and maybe not even then.

Once those funds run dry, the public may be on the hook to fulfill those obligations. Lubin’s article includes the projected percentage of annual state revenues that will be required to make the pension payments once the funds are empty. The numbers are stunning, running from 17 to 54 percent.

Reality 4: Compared to pensions and retirement savings, the Social Security system looks pretty viable

As I discussed in a previous article, the crush of Baby Boomers hurdling towards retirement means that considerable strain will be put on America’s Social Security system. Two years ago, the Social Security Administration advised that by 2019 it will be “paying more in benefits than we collect in taxes,” and by 2041 it will have sufficient funds “to pay only about 78 cents for each dollar of scheduled benefits.”

Even with this anticipated shortfall, however, Social Security remains one of America’s most stable benefit programs — despite the rush of misleading, apocalyptic claims that the system is on the brink of going under. As Jane Slaughter of Labor Notes observed, the projected funding gap can be addressed fairly and cleanly by raising the income cap on payroll taxes. Currently the top 6 percent of income earners pay FICA only on the first $106,800 of their income. By removing the cap, the Social Security fund will be able to pay full benefits for everyone and rebuild its surplus.

It must be emphasized that Social Security alone does not meet the normal retirement income needs of most Americans. However, with a relatively modest fix it will continue to be the safety net that saves many from sinking into poverty.

Reality 5: It’s not just about the retiree wannabes

If older workers cannot afford to retire, then entry-level work opportunities for younger workers are likely to be curtailed. When a bad economy and/or lack of retirement readiness forces older workers to remain in or return to the workforce, the result may be a “face-off” between the young and the old for precious employment opportunities. In addition, during the coming decades, it is a demographic reality that fewer workers will be paying taxes to support public programs and retirement benefits.

(For more on this topic, see my short article, The Looming 21st Century Generation Gap: Economic Challenges Facing Younger Workers, which can be downloaded without charge, here.)

Reality 6: We must start acting now, before panic ensues

It appears we have about 10 to 15 years to respond pro-actively to the coming retirement disaster. After that, panic will ensue, thus increasing the risk that bad personal and public policy decisions will become the norm.

The landscape of responses is littered with landmines. Take, for example, the seemingly no-brainer goal of getting Americans to save more money for retirement. Great idea, right?! But here’s the potentially huge catch: If most Americans begin stashing away dramatically larger shares of their income for retirement, then less money will be fueling the retail market economy, contributing to tax revenues (remember, a lot of retirement plan options are tax-exempt), and donated to charitable causes.

I don’t claim to have all the answers, but at least two points are clear. First, ensuring Social Security’s long-term viability is a bedrock necessity. Second, providing quality, affordable healthcare for all will be even more important as the population ages.

Beyond that, there is no quick fix, perhaps only a loose-parts approach of partial measures that will cushion, but not wholly prevent, the coming pain. Regardless, the sooner we begin acknowledging the crisis, the more likely it is that millions of people will be spared abject poverty and lonely struggle in their later years.


For more links to useful articles, see my January 2011 post, “The press discovers the coming Boomer retirement crisis.”

Newsweek on bullying and related behaviors

Over a two week span, Newsweek has been both on and off target when it comes to coverage of bullying and related behaviors.

Mistakes in health care

Last week, Newsweek‘s Claudia Kalb wrote an informative piece (link here) about how medical errors can be prevented, identifying hierarchy and intimidation in healthcare as part of the problem:

Undoing a culture is hard, especially one steeped in hierarchy and intimidation, where doctors tend to reign supreme and nurses, pharmacists, and technicians fall into the ranks below. “What underlies it is arrogance,” says [Peter] Pronovost, an anesthesiologist and director of Hopkins’s Quality and Safety Research Group.

Kalb referenced a report by Dr. Lucian Leap, a patient safety expert, recommending that med students be taught about how to work with others:

Earlier this year, Leape published a report saying med schools are failing to teach future physicians the most urgent lessons about why mistakes happen and how to prevent them. The report calls on schools to teach patient safety as a basic science, to train students to work in teams with nurses and pharmacists, and to have “zero tolerance” for disrespectful or abusive behavior, which can lead to mistakes.

Leap’s recommendations dovetail with standards issued by the Joint Commission, an independent, non-profit organization that accredits health care organizations and programs.  In 2008, the Joint Commission issued a standard on intimidating and disruptive behaviors at work, citing concerns about patient care. (For an earlier post on the Joint Commission standard, go here.)

Phoebe Prince case

One of Newsweek‘s feature stories this week delves into the suicide of Phoebe Prince, the Massachusetts teenager who took her own life after being bullied by her classmates. (I’ve written a lot on this tragedy — go here for links.) In her article, Jessica Barnett suggests that we now may be overreacting to the specter of bullying behaviors (link here):

The reality may be that while the incidence of bullying has remained relatively the same, it’s our reaction to it that’s changed: the helicopter parents who want to protect their kids from every stick and stone, the cable-news commentators who whip them into a frenzy, the insta-vigilantism of the Internet. When it comes down to it, bullying is not just a social ill; it’s a “cottage industry,” says Suffolk Law School’s David Yamada—complete with commentators and prevention experts and a new breed of legal scholars, all preparing to take on an enemy that’s always been there. None of this is to say that bullying is not a serious problem (it is), or that tackling it is not important. But like a stereo with the volume turned too high, all the noise distorts the facts, making it nearly impossible to judge when a case is somehow criminal, or merely cruel.

Barnett weighed in with an earlier piece referencing suicides of gay teens and college students, posing the question of whether the “bullying epidemic” is a “media myth” (link here).

Okay, I confess I excerpted the paragraph above in part because I’m unhappy over how Newsweek utilized my interview, taking one comment I made to a reporter to insinuate that I’m critical of how much attention bullying is starting to receive. Nothing could be further from the truth. While I agree that the coverage of deaths associated with bullying sometimes has been sensationalistic, I see it as the inevitable result of the media’s belated discovery of behaviors that have been ignored for too long.

Folks, we’re now talking about the suicides of young people here. This is not — as Barnett suggests — a matter of helicopter parents being overprotective or of kids simply being too thin skinned! In any event, Newsweek lops together virtually anyone who is raising awareness of bullying — “commentators,” “prevention experts,” and “legal scholars” (umm, I guess that’s me) — in assigning blame for turning the volume too high and distorting the facts.

Indeed, Newsweek itself is guilty of jumping on a trend. After ignoring these destructive behaviors for so long, it now is doing the easy thing by criticizing the emerging coverage and attention. In doing so, it is merely reacting and responding to the news, rather than taking a lead role in shaping our understanding of bullying and its consequences.


Addendum — Newsweek also has posted a short piece, “The Booming Anti-Bullying Industry,” link here. It’s the 3rd piece in which they invoked my “cottage industry” line to buttress their skepticism.

Can an ethical HR officer survive at a bad company?

Say you’re a human resources director who honestly and fervently believes that treating employees fairly and with respect is a classic win-win practice. It makes for high productivity and happy workers, right?

If you work for an organization that shares your values, you’re a partner in a great match. But what happens if you don’t?

Kris Dunn’s HR oath

In a piece for Workforce Management, human resources expert Kris Dunn proposes a wonderfully edgy “HR Oath” (link here) for fellow practitioners. At least one provision of Dunn’s oath involves no small degree of personal risk:

Speak up at the possible risk of my job when I see my boss or a peer doing something that blatantly runs counter to the people mission of our company.

Kris, meet Mary

Over the summer, “Mary,” a long-time HR director blogging at, wrote about attending the annual meeting of the Society for Human Resource Management (link here). She noted that most of the sessions addressed important topics in constructive ways. However, she then acknowledged the reality of going back to the office after the convention was over:

I’ve seen it time and time again: HR pros attend training and come home with a wealth of positive recommendations for making their organizations more “people-centered”. Then they’re hit with the reality of their top brass pushing back, saying that – although People Are Our Greatest Asset – we’re not really willing to invest the time and money in ensuring that our people are protected from bullying, retaliation and other adverse employment actions. The organization weighs the cost of defending against a lawsuit or governmental agency investigation and decides it’s cheaper to fight than to do the right thing in the first place.

Neck, meet chopping block

Mary further wrote about her own experiences:

A true HR professional doesn’t sell out his or her principles even when ordered by management to discriminate or retaliate against an employee. I’ve been the victim of retaliation by my boss and her boss for whistleblowing activities – and that’s why I’m your Undercover HR Director.

So there you have it: She stuck to her principles — in effect putting one of Kris Dunn’s postulates into practice — but now she is writing as the Undercover HR Director. Yup, sometimes there are costs for doing the right thing.

Ethics, meet reality

For HR practitioners who see their role solely as an extension of upper-level management, questions of how to treat the rank & file are easy to resolve: Go with what the bosses want, even if it means that someone gets screwed over or unethical behavior is swept under the rug. In cases of workplace bullying or sexual harassment, we know what this usually means.

Conscientious HR practitioners, however, face a dilemma when management philosophy and practice run squarely into the ethical treatment of workers. If they antagonize their bosses by doing the right thing, they, too, may find themselves on the firing line.

HR’s role

Obviously this calls into question HR’s role in shaping the culture of a workplace. Sometimes HR can “manage up” in terms of influencing an organization’s approach to employment relations. Good companies welcome this participation. At others, these opportunities may arise when timing and luck combine with extraordinary skill.

Furthermore, most personnel decisions are not so laden with dire consequences that HR is constantly caught in a bind. In fact, ethical HR folks potentially can serve as buffers between less-than-enlightened top management and those who are on the payroll.

All too often, however, it boils down to these truths: In workplaces that adopt and practice strong ethical values, HR practitioners can play a significant role in advancing a positive mission. By contrast, in workplaces that regard employees as expendable commodities, HR practitioners frequently become willing executioners of bad employment practices.


For a related post, “HR was useless,” go here.

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