Lessons learned early: School responses to bullying and abuse accusations

For better and for worse, we often learn about organizational responses to bullying and abuse accusations early in life, by witnessing how school systems deal with them. As Kerry Justich reports for Yahoo (link here), a high school senior in Vancouver, Washington, is learning what that response may entail:

A high school senior in Vancouver, Wash. will no longer be walking in his graduation on Saturday, after accusing the administration of ignoring bullying and sexual assault allegedly taking place at school.

Charles Chandler was giving a speech in front of students and families of Heritage High School during a ceremony on Wednesday when he went off script and made some controversial comments against the administration.

“And to you, underclassmen,” Chandler is heard saying toward the end of his speech, “who have to endure all the things the school throw at you for two to three more years. A school where the administration closes their eyes to everything that happens in the school. Their school. The sexual assault, the bullying, the depression, the outcasts. And they do nothing to fix it.”

Through surprised reactions heard throughout the crowd, Chandler continued to say that if the school does take notice of these incidents, “they take the side of the accused and not the victim,” before the audience ultimately erupted in cheers.

Although Chandler’s peers appeared to agree with him, principal Derek Garrison did not, claiming his comments were not truthful:

“His comments were full of inaccuracies, inflammatory statements and hurtful accusations,” the principal’s letter, obtained by Yahoo Lifestyle, reads. “Administrators called the student in to explain why spreading rumors and inaccurate information was extremely problematic.”

The story has attracted a lot of local attention, and several dozen Heritage students protested the school’s treatment of Chandler by staging a walkout.

One of many

Of course, this is only one of many accounts of how school systems have pushed back against accusations of bullying, sexual assault, and other forms of abuse and misconduct. Typically this takes place in one or more of these forms:

  • Outright denial that any wrongful behavior occurred;
  • Dismissal of the seriousness of the allegations, suggesting an overreaction;
  • Active coverups of abuse; and/or,
  • Retaliation against the accusers.

Hmm, this sounds like what happens in way too many bullying, harassment, and whistleblower situations at work, yes?

Indeed, school responses to student allegations of wrongdoing sometimes resemble responses of bad employers to employee allegations of mistreatment or misconduct. When both student complainants and bystanders witness how such allegations are swept under the rug or otherwise mishandled by their schools, they learn an unfortunate lesson about getting along, going along, and keeping their mouths shut in the face of wrongful behavior.

Back to Heritage High

We don’t know the full story behind Charles Chandler’s accusations about student life at Heritage High School. According to the Yahoo news article, the “principal’s letter offered Chandler the opportunity to participate in a ‘restorative solution,’ or face disciplinary action that included not walking at graduation,” and that Chandler opted for the latter. Reading between the lines, it appears that he didn’t trust the process offered to him, and that many of his fellow students — as evidenced by their support for him — share his concerns. 

In fact, Katie Gillespie reports for The Columbian that other students have reported mistreatment at the school (link here):

Some students at the school praised Chandler for standing up for what they see as continued tolerance of bullying and harassment at the Evergreen Public Schools campus.

Frost Honrath, 17, said she twice reported being physically assaulted by another student, but felt the district’s response was insufficient.

“I really want to see action in our school,” Honrath said. “They’re pushing it aside.”

Ethan Wheeler, 17, said a student once wrapped a noose, a prop from a play, around his neck and told him to kill himself. When he tried to get help, “it seemed like nothing was really done.”

This may turn out to be one of those more unusual situations of a story going viral, and thus prompting a public defense of the individual issuing the accusations. It could lead to a more comprehensive examination of student life at this high school. Maybe the students will learn a different lesson about the value of raising their voices.

Texting suicide case: When words have terrible consequences

In 2014, Michelle Carter, then 17 years old, used an ongoing series of text messages to repeatedly encourage her boyfriend, Conrad Roy, age 18, to die by suicide. Prodded by Carter, Roy killed himself by using a truck filled with carbon monoxide gas.

Carter was convicted of involuntary manslaughter and sentenced to 15 months in prison. Earlier this month, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court upheld her conviction, holding that Carter’s intentions and acts overcame concerns about freedom of speech. As reported by WBUR News:

A young woman who as a teenager encouraged her boyfriend through dozens of text messages to kill himself is responsible for his suicide, Massachusetts’ highest court ruled Wednesday in upholding her involuntary manslaughter conviction.

The Supreme Judicial Court said in a unanimous decision in the novel case that Michelle Carter’s actions caused Conrad Roy III to die in a truck filled with toxic gas in a deserted parking lot nearly five years ago.

…”After she convinced him to get back into the carbon monoxide filled truck, she did absolutely nothing to help him: she did not call for help or tell him to get out of the truck as she listened to him choke and die,” Justice Scott Kafker wrote.

The Court’s full opinion may be accessed here.

Both of these young people had struggled with mental illness during the time preceding Roy’s death:

Carter and Roy both lived in Massachusetts but met in Florida in 2012 while both were on vacation with their families. Their relationship consisted mainly of texting and other electronic communications. Both teens struggled with depression. Carter had also been treated for anorexia, and Roy had made earlier suicide attempts.

Carter was 17 when Roy, 18, took his own life in Fairhaven, a town on the state’s south coast, in July 2014. Her case raised thorny legal questions about free speech and provided a disturbing look at teenage depression and suicide.

“I thought you wanted to do this. The time is right and you’re ready – just do it babe,” Carter wrote in one message.

“You’re finally going to be happy in heaven. No more pain. It’s okay to be scared and it’s normal. I mean, you’re about to die,” she wrote in another.

Boston Globe columnist Kevin Cullen, who has followed this case closely, expresses concerns that, in the court’s eyes, Carter’s actions didn’t become illegal until she directed him to get back into his poisonous gas-filled truck and then failed to call for assistance:

The Supreme Judicial Court unanimously affirmed Juvenile Court Judge Lawrence Moniz’s ruling that Carter was guilty because she took “wanton and reckless” actions by ordering Roy to climb back into his truck and by not summoning help.

The SJC ruling suggests that, absent behavior as egregious as Carter’s, it will be a stretch for prosecutors to charge someone who encourages or coerces a vulnerable person to kill themselves.

Carter repeatedly encouraged Roy to kill himself, recommended ways for him to do it, and chastised him when he lost the nerve, besieging him with text messages and calls so that her cellphone became a virtual weapon. But under current Massachusetts law, none of those abhorrent actions amounted to a crime.

Cullen would like to see the law cover the broader spectrum of Carter’s actions.

When it comes to this particular set of facts, I am comfortable with the legal result: A manslaughter conviction with a very light sentence. The crime for which Carter was found guilty sends the right message, while the sentence imposed takes into account her age, immaturity, and mental health status at the time. As to whether the criminal law should reach deeper into the ongoing course of Carter’s behavior that led to Roy’s death, I think it is worthy of discussion.

Furthermore, Cullen may be hinting at what some of us are thinking: There is something profoundly disturbing about this young woman. Yes, she may have psychiatric problems that call for treatment and understanding. But her own words also reveal how a sharp intellect and a seeming absence of conscience combined to prod and manipulate Conrad Roy into taking his own life. Especially given her age at the time of the act, I will defer to my colleagues with clinical and counseling training to opine on whether this is suggestive of a more baked-in personality disorder that could lead to future like behaviors. That said, in my psychological layperson’s view, she gives me the creeps.

Applications to workplaces

I pay attention to stories like this one in part because I ask how they may be pertinent to workplaces. Alas, there is no shortage of relevancy. The worst instances of workplace bullying and mobbing, and most toxic workplaces generally, are often fueled by intellectually sharp people who lack a conscience. Whether it’s targeted abuse towards an individual, or, say, a wave of ground-level layoffs without an ounce of sacrifice from highly-paid executives, the actions are frequently executed and/or enabled by those who are missing qualities of empathy and kindness. In cases of work abuse, words are typically deployed as weapons.

Here in the U.S., we pride ourselves on boasting that we enjoy the right of free speech, as enshrined in our Constitution. How true that happens to be in reality may be subject to debate, but it is part of our cultural norm nonetheless. In any event, we too often see that right as absolute, rather than acknowledging how freedom of speech should come with a responsibility — moral if not legal — to use it wisely. In some cases, an expression of speech becomes harmful conduct, such as when it is used intentionally to harass, bully, and hurt others. When words are used specifically to wound, and they achieve that desired objective, then we should at least be discussing the possibility of legal interventions.

We’ve already crossed that juncture with employment discrimination laws, under which harassment on the basis of race, sex, religion, disability, and other protected classes is an unlawful employment practice. We’re also working on creating legal protections against severe workplace bullying, mobbing, and abuse via the proposed Healthy Workplace Bill, which is currently pending before the Massachusetts legislature with over 90 co-sponsors. Adapting from sexual harassment law, the bill uses the term “abusive work environment” to signal needed legal protections.

Freedom of speech is necessary for open, democratic societies. But when words are used to abuse and destroy others, well, that’s not something we should be waving the flag about. A decent nation embraces human dignity as part of free expression.

 

Incivility and “deplorables”

In a recent piece for The Atlantic, law school dean Blake Morant (George Washington U.) recalled a speaking appearance in which he was verbally challenged by a man who called himself a “deplorable”:

One month before the 2016 presidential election, I spoke on a panel in Charlottesville, Virginia, on the topic of campus speech. The audience was generally enthusiastic and engaged. A tense moment arrived, however, when one individual, who identified himself as a “deplorable,” took issue with the composition of the panel (two white women and myself, an African American male). He explained that the panel in his view was slanted, did not represent a more conservative position, and that I, as an African American, represented so much of why he as a working-class white male struggles in this economy.

Morant wrote that he tried to engage the man in a conversation, but that his efforts failed. He added that he has been haunted by the exchange, asking himself if he could’ve responded to the man in a more constructive way. He used the story of the incident to call for more civility in our civic discourse.

The backstory

But there’s a catch here that Morant didn’t mention. The term “deplorables,” in this context, traces back to a Hillary Clinton speech at a fundraising event during the 2016 presidential campaign. Here’s what happened, per this report for Time magazine that includes the full transcript of her remarks:

Speaking at a fundraiser in New York City on Friday, Hillary Clinton said half of Donald Trump’s supporters belong in a “basket of deplorables” characterized by “racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, Islamaphobic” views.

“You know, to just be grossly generalistic, you could put half of Trump’s supporters into what I call the basket of deplorables. Right?” Clinton said. “The racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, Islamaphobic—you name it. And unfortunately there are people like that. And he has lifted them up.”

She said the other half of Trump’s supporters “feel that the government has let them down” and are “desperate for change.”

I remember feeling my heart sink when I read the news reports. Of course, I knew it would become a campaign issue, and that was enough to cause despair. Boiled to its essence, Clinton had just called millions of likely Trump voters “deplorables.”

And that, indeed, is how it was reported in the popular media. Clinton’s reference to the other half of his supporters who felt let down by the system was largely ignored.

In response, lots of Trump supporters, playing on Clinton’s remark, began to identify themselves as “deplorables.” They co-opted and claimed the insult.

And so that is why Dean Morant’s unhappy panel discussion attendee announced himself as a “deplorable.”

Civility, opinion, and judging

I voted for Hillary Clinton without reservation, largely because I found her opponent’s worldview and behavior to be alarming and disturbing.

But I voted for Clinton also without enthusiasm, in part because of her “deplorables” comment. It reflected an elitist attitude that is entrenched in powerful circles, and that includes a certain cohort within the left-of-center. 

It may be a fine line, but there’s a critical difference between calling someone’s opinions or conduct deplorable and calling that person a deplorable.

At times, I’m guilty of taking the latter approach. Instead of characterizing viewpoints I find deeply objectionable, I label the person.

Nevertheless, the world would be better off if we kept those judgments to a minimum and gave people the benefit of the doubt, at least when it comes to avoiding blanket condemnations. (There are exceptions, of course, and I admit that I apply one to America’s current president.)

Incivility, like bullying and abuse, often runs in cycles. Once it starts, it can be hard to stop. We’re seeing an ugly, destructive ramping up of that dynamic in our civic life today. As these divisions deepen, they will become harder to dissolve.

In praise of thoughtful dissenters

(image courtesy of quote fancy.com)

In a 1954 broadcast critical of red-baiting U.S. Senator Joseph McCarthy, celebrated journalist Edward R. Murrow urged upon his listeners that “We must not confuse dissent with disloyalty.” Given today’s often poisonous political and social atmosphere, buttressed by bad leaders fueling these dynamics, Murrow’s words continue to ring very true.

And if you’re looking for some contemporary commentary about the importance of dissent in our institutions, workplaces, and civic life, then I’m pleased to recommend a new title by social psychologist Charlan Nemeth (UC-Berkeley), In Defense of Troublemakers: The Power of Dissent in Life and Business (2018). In her book, Dr. Nemeth poses a challenge to leaders and institutions that drive us toward consensus, without leaving room for thoughtful dissent and questioning. Here’s a description, drawn from her website:

Good decision making requires divergent thinking, an unbiased search for information on all sides of the issue, a consideration of multiple alternatives, the weighing of the cons as well as the pros of any given position etc. Regardless of good intentions or even education and training, we don’t do this. We are subject to biases and most social processes conspire to narrow the range of considerations. Consensus and the seeking of it are culprits, not because we follow the consensus right or wrong, but because we think about the issue from that perspective.

By contrast, dissent opens the mind and actually stimulates divergent thinking. It not only challenges and breaks the hold of the majority, it stimulates the information search and consideration of alternatives; it widens the strategies used in problem solving and increases the originality of thought. This is true even when the dissenter is wrong. It is true even when we vigorously dislike the dissenter and her ideas.

The take-home of this book is two-fold. There are perils in consensus and there is value in dissent.

Okay, I hear you: Isn’t reaching consensus a good thing? Don’t we all want to “get to ‘yes'”?, to paraphrase the title of a popular conflict resolution book. Obviously decisions have to be made, for in their absence, things can grind to a halt. Nemeth is not advocating for such outcomes or calling for people to be knee-jerk naysayers. Instead, she’s saying that when decisions result from weighing differences of opinion, the outcomes are often better.

There are lessons in this book for everyone. For example, when I’m in leadership roles or in the classroom, I can be welcoming of differing points of view. However, when I feel very strongly that I’m right, I can get impatient, especially when I perceive that other comments are not well reasoned. Nemeth understands that dissenting opinions — even ultimately erroneous ones — can slow down the process, but she urges their importance nevertheless.

Believe me, I’ve been in academic workplaces long enough to see the damage wrought by marginalizing and even squelching dissenting voices. Organizations that do not encourage genuine input often pay for their insularity. Sadly, their leaders rarely comprehend or admit those costs, instead preferring to bumble along with a top-down approach. Inclusive leadership, bolstered by the confidence to encourage thoughtful dissent, is the better way to go.

In the news

It has been a year of prominent news stories related to the workplace, especially the avalanche of accounts concerning sexual harassment. Here are many of the 2017 news stories in which I’ve been quoted or where my work has been discussed:

Can an employer fire a publicly-avowed white supremacist?

Screenshot of rally photo from Huffington Post

While following developments concerning the horrific white supremacist/neo-Nazi/KKK rally in Charlottesville, Virginia this weekend, I asked myself, how would I like to be working with one of these lovely individuals? I then thought, if I was a manager, could I simply fire a white supremacist for participating in the rally?

The answer to the first question is easy and purely personal: No way would I want to share office space, a cubicle area, an office suite, a store floor, or a factory floor with one of these folks. And as an Asian American, I assume they’d feel the same way towards me.

The answer to the second question is more objective, complicated, and nuanced: Yes, in many instances the law would allow a manager to terminate a white supremacist for participating in the rally, but there are potential exceptions and twists, especially for unionized and/or public employees. Without pretending to be exhaustive on the topic, here’s a brief lowdown of relevant legal rules:

  • In the U.S., the rule of at-will employment is the presumptive legal hiring relationship. Among other things, it means that an employer can hire or fire someone for any reason or no reason at all, so long as it does not violate existing legal protections or obligations.
  • Fair or not, the rule of at-will employment allows employers to make hiring and termination decisions based even on many types of off-site, non-work-related activities.
  • Employment discrimination law prohibits discrimination against or harassing of other employees on the basis of certain characteristics, including race, sex, religion, color, national origin, age, and disability. This would be especially relevant if someone took their white supremacist messages into the workplace.
  • For private-sector workers, constitutional free speech protections do not apply to their jobs.
  • For public-sector workers, constitutional free speech protections may apply if they are speaking out on matters of public concern in ways that aren’t related to or internally disruptive of their work. (Yes, as noxious as it may be to some of us, it is arguable that a public-sector worker participating in this rally would be protected from termination under this set of legal rules.)
  • For unionized workers, collective bargaining agreements may provide additional substantive and procedural safeguards for wrongful termination, which may cover off-site conduct.
  • A minority of employees have individual employment contracts with so-called morals clauses that may be relevant in these situations. 
  • State law can matter in these situations. Connecticut, for example, has a broad employee free speech law that covers both private and public sector workers. California has a law that protects employees’ right to political expression.
  • If an employee engaged in violent behavior, especially that leading to a criminal conviction, their potential legal protections against wrongful termination would severely diminish.

Taking all these points into consideration, what does this mean for whether employers could fire workers for participating in one of these rallies on their own time? Bottom line is that many private-sector employees could probably be terminated without much risk of liability, but that public-sector workers may be able to raise constitutional free-speech protections. However — and here’s my lawyer’s analytical caution entering the picture — each situation would have to be evaluated individually. There’s no sweeping, catch-all rule that answers this question as yes or no for every situation.

***

August 14 update: This topic has gained relevance due to efforts by certain civil rights/social media activists to “out” white supremacist protesters who are appearing in published photographs of the Charlottesville rally. Apparently the first protester to lose his job is a young man who worked at a fast food eatery, Top Dog, in Berkeley, California, per this piece in the UC-Berkeley student newspaper. 

If readers detect some ambivalence on my part on the use of such tactics, then their perceptions are accurate. I abhor and detest these white supremacists and their worldview. But I also have concerns over how social media can be used to go after anyone in ways that have significant consequences. I think we need to be very careful about determining one’s suitability for employment based on off-site conduct that, while deeply objectionable, may be legal. 

***

Though slightly dated, the legal discussion in my 1998 law review article on the free speech rights of private-sector employees, “Voices from the Cubicle: Protecting and Encouraging Private Employee Speech in the Post-Industrial Workplace” (Berkeley Journal of Employment and Labor Law), remains largely intact today. You may access it without charge here.

Tolerance and acceptance at work

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Journalist Joanne Richard kindly interviewed me for a Monster Canada piece on tolerance at work, timed to coincide with the United Nations’ International Tolerance Day on November 16. Here are some of my comments:

Workplaces have become more inclusive and tolerant in the past five decades, says Dr. David Yamada, internationally recognized authority on workplace bullying and employment discrimination. “More enlightened social attitudes and the messaging roles of employment discrimination laws have contributed to this progress.”

But recent divisive political antics may have set us back: “Survey data from the American Psychological Association indicate that the U.S. presidential election has had a negative effect on workplace conversations and that workers are divided by gender and generation, all to the detriment of overall productivity,” says Yamada, law professor and director of New Workplace Institute at Suffolk University Law School in Boston.

***

Incivility, ostracism, bullying, and harassment remain serious problems in less-than-wonderful workplaces, says Yamada. “Of course, external individual events may fuel intolerance in the workplace as well. These range from the seemingly trivial, such as sports rivalries, to the more serious, such as politics, religion, and major public events,” he says.

Bad behaviour takes its toll, including increased interpersonal conflicts, greater stress and anxiety, and drops in individual and organizational productivity, he adds.

I gave these three suggestions for creating more tolerant, inclusive workplaces:

  • “Let’s give each other some room to express our differences, to vent, and to have a bad day.”
  • “Play and work by the Golden Rule.”
  • “Contribute to building organizational cultures of acceptance and individual dignity.”

Tolerance, acceptance, and taking a stand

I must admit that I sometimes struggle with the term “tolerance” in these contexts. When I think of the word, it means a sort of grudging, teeth-gritting exercise of breathing deep and keeping your mouth shut when something rubs you the wrong way, a sort of coping in relative silence for some greater good. I should know, as I’ve been there and sometimes go back there!

Acceptance of differences is a much more splendored next level. All things being equal, a live-and-let-live attitude is better for everyone. When I’m in that place, I can practically feel my blood pressure lowering.

However, I know that all things are not equal, which is why a pie-in-the-sky, happily ignorant form of acceptance won’t work for me. Among other things, working toward acceptance does not mean tolerating (or, heaven forbid, accepting) the intolerable or intolerant. Sometimes we must take a stand, hopefully in the most effective way possible.

Here in the U.S., we’re struggling with this in the aftermath of the presidential election. This struggle is manifesting itself in our workplaces, communities, and circles of friends and family. I have a feeling we’re in for a very bumpy ride, and the ways in which we relate to one another individually will make a big difference.

 

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