“Post-truths” at work and management messaging

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Alison Flood reports for The Guardian newspaper that “Oxford Dictionaries has declared ‘post-truth’ to be its international word of the year.” She continues:

Defined by the dictionary as an adjective “relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief”, editors said that use of the term “post-truth” had increased by around 2,000% in 2016 compared to last year. The spike in usage, it said, is “in the context of the EU referendum in the United Kingdom and the presidential election in the United States”.

I couldn’t help but think of popular “post-truths” circulated by some employers to their rank-and-file workers:

  • “We’re all in this together.”
  • “Each and every employee matters to us.”
  • “We’d hate for a union to come in and interfere with the direct communications we enjoy with our valued employees.”
  • “We’re absolutely committed to equal opportunity.”
  • “Don’t worry, you can trust the HR office with all of your concerns.”
  • “Think of us as one big family here.”

I’m sure that readers can add their own post-truths to this list.

Of course, at some workplaces, many of these statements actually apply. But in too many places of employment, the more you hear them, the less truth they happen to carry. 

The sociopathic employee handbook

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I once had an opportunity to review provisions of an employee handbook from a large, mostly non-union employer in the non-profit sector. Like many employee handbooks, there were sections devoted to employee rights, obligations, and performance expectations. On the surface, this handbook seemed to provide a good number of safeguards for workers to prevent unfair treatment and evaluations. But then I read the document more closely, and a chill ran up my spine. It was a cleverly, nay, ingeniously worded document that exposed workers to severe remedial measures, substantial discipline, or even termination for relatively minor inadequacies and transgressions. 

Among my reactions was that this read like the work of a sociopathic lawyer! The handbook contained a lot of cool, calm, bureaucratic-sounding language, mixed in with deftly worded provisions that would allow the employer to make mountains of molehills and to quietly knife people in the back — figuratively speaking, of course.

Employee handbooks are legally significant. During recent decades, state courts have consistently held that handbook provisions can be contractually binding upon employers and employees alike. For better or worse, employee handbooks heavily weighted toward management prerogative are pretty much the norm these days.

However, much worse are those handbooks that have a distant appearance of fairness while actually being loaded with details that can be used to roughhouse rank-and-file employees. I think there is a special place in a certain hot spot for those who write and impose such documents on workers. It is, to be sure, a twisted abuse of power.

Did the Great Recession fuel a continuing climate of fear in the workplace?

Edvard Munch's "The Scream" (1893)

Edvard Munch’s “The Scream” (1893)

According to economists, the Great Recession is officially over, having “ended” sometime during 2009-2010. However, its negative shock waves continue to impact world economies, labor markets, and the experience of work. Among the most costly and underreported effects is how the Great Recession has enabled some employers to stoke an ongoing climate of fear in the workplace.

British psychologist and consultant Sheila M. Keegan, in her thought-provoking new book The Psychology of Fear in Organizations (KoganPage, 2015), suggests that even though the “recession has eased, . . . its psychological effects may well be with us for some years to come.” In fact, she offers the possibility that “just as the Second World War shaped the attitudes of a generation, so too the recent recession will shape the attitudes, behaviours and fears within organizational life for some decades to come.”

This does not bode well for the current state of our workplaces. In her Preface, Dr. Keegan states:

There is a considerable body of research that points to the rise of fear within organizations and indeed a climate of fear that is widespread and contagious. Employees feel fearful of job loss, of being demoted, bullied, shamed or humiliated. This level of fear can become self-sustaining so that it is difficult to separate the causes of fear; fear at work becomes normalized.

I’ll have more to say about this excellent book in a future post, but for now let’s center on the effects of the recession on psychological health in the workplace. Keegan is spot-on in her assessment: We’ve seen evidence, for example, that bullying-type behaviors tend to be more frequent in recessionary economies. We also know that this recession has led to massive job losses and continuing fears of unemployment. Less humane employers have played on workers’ fears by trying to squeeze every ounce of work out of them, while freezing or cutting their pay and benefits. Intentionally generated stress and anxiety are everyday parts of too many work lives.

Some might say that people simply have to suck it up and deal with it. Tough economic times are just that, right? Generally speaking, personal resilience is a good thing, but especially if the Great Recession has left a long-term psychological imprint on the workplace, then we need to talk about comprehensive responses and changes. Ultimately, we need to prompt a paradigm shift that puts human dignity at the center of our systems and practices of employee relations.

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Related posts

Our economic systems, psychopathy, and bullying at work (2014)

Making human dignity the centerpiece of American employment law and policy (2014)

Suicide and the Great Recession: Will we heed the tragic warnings? (2013)

For more on the links between recessionary economies and workplace bullying, go herehere, and here.

Five signs of the eliminationist instinct in today’s workplaces

(Image courtesy of all-free-download.com)

(Image courtesy of all-free-download.com)

We typically hear the term “eliminationist” in association with massacres and genocides. The eliminationist instinct captures a facile ability to regard other human beings as objects to be tormented, excised, or forgotten. When this form of dehumanization surfaces on a mass scale, it fuels some the worst outrages in human history.

In addition, manifestations of the eliminationist instinct are hardly limited to large-scale horrors. They may appear in the workplace as well. True, the perpetrators are not mass killers, but their actions embody an easy ability to dehumanize others. Lacking empathy for their targets, they ply their trade with words and bureaucratic actions, rather than with weapons or instruments of physical torture.

Here are five ways in which I see the eliminationist instinct manifesting itself in our worst contemporary workplaces:

1. Workplace bullying

Workplace bullying is motivated by a desire to cause distress or harm to a target. In its most virulent forms, it can have a destructive impact on a target’s health and livelihood. Here is where the eliminationist instinct may be specially present, with a huge capacity for dehumanization. The target is regarded as something that can and should be rubbed out.

2. Whistleblower retaliation

Whistleblowers may cause the eliminationist instinct to go on overdrive. In ethically challenged organizations, whistleblowers are regarded as the ultimate traitors. Having turned themselves into disloyal Others, they now deserve retaliation, and if it results in the end of their employment and (not infrequently) their careers, then so be it.

3. Mass layoffs

Not all large-scale layoffs are driven by an eliminationist instinct, but some definitely are so. Take, for instance, a large company that closes a store after the workers have voted to unionize. Fueled by a determination to keep wages low and not be subject to workers’ collective bargaining efforts, the company shuts it down, hoping to send a message to employees at other locations about the fate that awaits them if they try the same thing.

4. Same-day termination protocols

The so-called “exit parade” is an inhumane HR practice in which a worker is called into an office, informed of her termination, and escorted out of the building, sometimes by a security guard. This is a degradation ceremony that instantly transforms a loyal employee into a threat to be removed. It also sends a terrible message to those who remain about their worth to the employer once it is “done” with them.

5. Creating “unpersons”

For some bosses and organizations, it’s not enough simply to get rid of someone. They also must turn the departed worker into an “unperson.” Many years ago, George Orwell referred to “unpersons” as those whose existence would be expunged from records and memories by repressive governments. Today, in all sectors, the creation of unpersons is as easy as removing any reference to them from the organization’s website and minimizing future mentions of them and their contributions.

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The workplace phony: Annoyance vs. threat

When is phony behavior at work something we should shrug off as a minor annoyance, and when is it something we should be concerned about?

At a time when harsher terms are often used to describe dishonest behaviors and people, the word “phony” seems rather trite, like something from another era. I’m not necessarily calling for its resurgence, but I’m wondering how it applies to today’s workplace.

The Merriam-Webster Dictionary describes phony this way:

: not true, real, or genuine : intended to make someone think something that is not true

of a person : not honest or sincere : saying things that are meant to deceive people

More often than I’d like, terms such as narcissistic, psychopathic, and sociopathic enter my conversations about workplace bullying and related forms of severe mistreatment at work. Sadly, if the shoe fits….

“Phony,” however, has a gentler sound and feel. It may be an appropriate term to describe behaviors that are insincere, though perhaps not driven by malicious intent. Like the HR director saying with a smile that the company’s health care plan is actually better for you, despite the higher deductibles and co-pays. Or the real estate agent trying to sell you on office space she knows doesn’t quite fit your needs.

Such lighter level phony behaviors at work aren’t nearly as menacing as bullying, harassment, and mobbing. They usually don’t threaten our livelihoods or job security. Of course, underneath that quality of insincerity is an assumption that the person on the receiving end can be sold a bill of goods. If we think about it too much, we can let it push our buttons or get under our skin.

Furthermore, lest we get too judgmental, let’s acknowledge that people acting in apparently phony ways may simply be trying to acclimate to a role or work on their own stuff. Or perhaps it’s part of a required script at work, like that imposed by a retailer on its customer service workers. Maybe the term applies to something we’ve done or said, voluntarily or otherwise.

On the other hand, phony behavior can be a mask for something more pernicious. Like the boss who tearfully tells her staff that she’s doing everything she can to avoid layoffs, after already having informed HR of the people to be terminated. Or a co-worker who gives you a big smile as he shamelessly tries to flatter you into applying for a job that isn’t right for you, because he knows it would derail your career and he wants you out of the way. 

So, here’s where we must make distinctions. Most of us can and should deal with the occasional snake oil salesman or superficial dishonesty. Don’t sweat the small stuff, right?! 

By contrast, a workplace grounded in a culture of insincerity and dishonesty is an especially capable host of abusive behavior, and this is when our antennae should be up. In such instances, beware of workplace aggressors who dress up as mere phonies.

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Homework assignment: Google “phonies at work” and you’ll come up with a lot of interesting takes on this topic!

Measuring employer heart quality: How does an organization handle worker departures?

This hit me like a ton of bricks the other day: If you want to know whether an organization is a good place to work, take a look at how it treats people at the end of the employment relationship. In other words, the way in which an employer handles resignations, terminations, and retirements speaks volumes about how it values its workers.

Sure, hiring the right people for the right jobs is challenging work. But it’s usually a positive result and interaction. People are glad to get jobs, and employers are pleased to hire new folks to fill their needs. Most everyone feels good about it.

However, concluding an employment relationship is quite another matter. This is, after all, a separation, and with it goes much of the perceived value the worker offers to the employer. For various reasons, the employer, employee, or both have decided that it’s time to part company.

It may involve a resignation or voluntary departure: A worker retires. Another goes to a competitor. Still another pursues a new vocation.

It also could be in the form of an involuntary termination: Perhaps someone is performing under expectations or isn’t a good fit for the position. Maybe business is bad and layoffs are deemed necessary.

Does the organization handle these myriad departures with class and decency, and maybe even support and kindness when appropriate? Or does it treat people as disposable parts, exhibiting as little grace as possible? In the case of involuntary separations, does it typically use the ritual degradation ceremony of same-day terminations, often with an escort out of the building?

Finally, does the organization conduct a genuine exit interview when an employee decides to leave, or does it simply assume that every departure short of a termination is “voluntary” and for positive reasons? Good employers want honest information about why people leave; bad ones prefer to assume there’s nothing wrong.

Of course, where a forced resignation or involuntary termination is the final piece of an extended period of bullying, mobbing, or harassment, then that says all we need to know about organizational integrity.

In sum: Quality workplaces do their best to conclude employment relationships with humanity and dignity, while less wonderful others treat soon-to-be-former workers as “unpersons,” to be quickly processed, dispatched, and (oftentimes) forgotten in a coldly efficient manner.

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Recycling: Five years of September

Each month I’m reaching into the archives to highlight a piece from that month of each past year. Especially for those of you who missed them the first time around, I hope they provide interesting and useful reading. For each piece I’m including a short excerpt; you may click on the title for the full article.

September 2013: Does the Dunning-Kruger Effect help to explain bad bosses and overrated co-workers? — “The Dunning-Kruger Effect has major implications for the workplace. It likely translates into incompetent people demanding better pay and perks, and regarding themselves as especially worthy of elevation to management positions. They may be more effective, or at least more assertive, when it comes to self-promotion. By contrast, competent people may well be more modest about touting themselves and their accomplishments. Some may self-select out of opportunities and promotion possibilities, figuring that other more worthy candidates will apply. They may be less likely to see themselves as leaders.”

September 2012: Will workplace bullying behaviors become increasingly covert and indirect? — “…I’d like to offer a reluctant hypothesis: As workplace bullying continues to enter the mainstream of American employee relations, and as advocates for the workplace anti-bullying movement enjoy greater successes in public education, employer awareness, and law reform, bullying behaviors at work will become increasingly covert and indirect.”

September 2011: Should workplace bullying be a criminal offense in the U.S.? —  “I cannot speak with sufficient authority about whether the legal systems in other nations are capable of handling criminal claims for workplace bullying, but I do believe that making standard-brand workplace bullying a criminal offense in the U.S. would create significant challenges for targets seeking justice and seriously disrupt our workplaces.”

September 2010: 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?”

September 2009: When workplace bullying triggers workplace violence — “In his 1995 book Violence at Work, Joseph A. Kinney, founder of the National Safe Workplace Institute, observed that workplace violence can be a consequence of bullying at work. Kinney noted that ‘there have been numerous instances where abusive supervisors have baited angry and frustrated employees, pushing these individuals to unacceptable levels of violence and aggression.’…Sadly, it appears that a workplace killing in Fresno, California last week was a replay of that scenario.”

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