Systems enable workplace bullying, so where are the systems to stop it?

(Image courtesy of Clipartpanda.com)

As I wrote earlier this year, workplace bullying and mobbing “usually cannot flourish without organizational sponsorship, enabling, or, at the very least, indifference.” Indeed, if we take this a step further, we see that workplace abuse is enabled by formal and informal systems of people and networks.

Those who study social work or organizational behavior learn about systems theory, which is basically a fancy way of saying that human roles and interactions are complex, interrelated, and intertwined, culminating in systems that produce certain results. With workplace bullying and mobbing, dysfunctional or hostile systems inflict injuries on targets and protect their abusers. Thus, a typical campaign of severe bullying or mobbing at work involves multiple players, including but hardly limited to:

  • The main aggressor(s);
  • The supervisor or boss of the main aggressor(s), in order to ratify and sometimes further the abuse;
  • On frequent occasion, peers recruited/pressured/incentivized to join in on the abuse;
  • Human resources personnel to bureaucratically process the abuse through review and discipline of the target;
  • Legal counsel to provide cover for the organization and sometimes direct additional intimidation toward the target;

These players join to create systems of abuse, sometimes tightly coordinated, other times acting in a sort of auto-pilot mode. Not infrequently, players outside of the workplace are enlisted to help out as well, thereby extending the system beyond the office or plant.

Countervailing power

On previous occasions here, I have invoked economist John Kenneth Galbraith’s theory of countervailing power. In the 1950s, Galbraith wrote that organized labor exercised “countervailing power” in the battle over the division of profits with the titans of business and investment. Today, some labor unions help to safeguard their members against bullying and mobbing; others get a failing grade in this regard. In any event, with less than 12 percent of the American workforce currently unionized, few workers can even theoretically turn to unions to protect them from mistreatment on the job.

Accordingly, most workers who face bullying at work today do so without any kind of protective system to stand up to the forces that are abusing them. Sure, they can retain a lawyer, seek counseling and health care, and otherwise attempt to create a “loose parts” network to help them, but the organized, countervailing power to which Galbraith referred isn’t present. If their employer doesn’t take work abuse seriously, they’re basically looking at a lonely fight.

I don’t have any easy answers at this point. Instead, I’ll simply say that we need to (1) revive the labor movement in the form of strong, pro-member unions that understand the harm wrought by work abuse; and (2) create other entities that can help bullied workers in a more powerful, assertive way. We also need plenty more public education about workplace bullying and mobbing in order to build widespread objection to these forms of interpersonal abuse. 

Gaslighting at work

Gaslighting is a form of deliberate manipulation intended to disorient, confuse, and frighten those on the receiving end. Many discussions about gaslighting occur in reference to personal relationships, often in the context of domestic or partner abuse. However, gaslighting can occur in other settings as well, including workplaces. In fact, I predict that we’ll be hearing a lot more about gaslighting at work during the years to come, and I’d like to survey that waterfront.

Despite growing awareness of the term and its underlying behaviors, the idea of gaslighting is so rooted in pop psychology that there are no “official” definitions from more authoritative psychological sources. Indeed, the best definition that I’ve found comes from Wikipedia, a distinctly non-academic source:

…a form of manipulation that seeks to sow seeds of doubt in a targeted individual or members of a group, hoping to make targets question their own memory, perception, and sanity. Using persistent denial, misdirection, contradiction, and lying, it attempts to destabilize the target and delegitimize the target’s belief.

Dr. Martha Stout describes the origins of the term in her excellent book, The Sociopath Next Door (2005):

In 1944, George Cukor directed a psychological thriller entitled Gaslight, in which a beautiful young woman, played by Ingrid Bergman, is made to feel she is going insane. Her fear that she is losing her mind is inflicted on her systematically by Charles Boyer, who plays her evil but charming husband. Among a number of other dirty tricks, Boyer arranges for Bergman to hear sounds in the attic when he absent, and for the gaslight to dim by itself, in a menacing house where her aunt was mysteriously murdered years before.

Gaslighting steps

In a Psychology Today blog post, Dr. Robin Stern, author of The Gaslight Effect (2007), offers a list of questions to determine whether someone is dancing what she calls the “Gaslight Tango.” Here are several that are especially relevant to the workplace:

  • “You are constantly second-guessing yourself.”
  • “You ask yourself, ‘Am I too sensitive?’ a dozen times a day.”
  • “You often feel confused and even crazy at work.”
  • “You have the sense that you used to be a very different person – more confident, more fun-loving, more relaxed.”

“Crazy at work.” Gaslighting can be, and often is, crazy making.

Gaslighting and workplace bullying & mobbing

Gaslighting usually involves a power imbalance grounded in formal hierarchy, interpersonal dynamics, or both. This makes the workplace a prime host for such behaviors, with bullying a frequent variation. As I wrote several years ago in one of this blog’s most popular posts:

Specific workplace bullying tactics can run from the obvious and transparent to the remarkably deceitful and calculated. Among the most treacherous of the latter is “gaslighting”….Gaslighting at work can range from orchestrated, manipulative aggressor-to-target behaviors, to HR officers expressing faux incredulity in response to claims of abusive mistreatment.

My hypothesis is that a large percentage of the most virulent, targeted bullying and mobbing campaigns involve serious amounts of gaslighting.

Management gaslighting in union organizing campaigns

Gaslighting is often used by employers to oppose labor unions. They use deceptive messaging to get workers to doubt their common sense:

  • “We’re all in this together, so do you really want a union to interfere with that relationship?” — If everyone is truly in this together, then how has the pay gap between high-level executives and rank-and-file workers become so wide and deep over the past few decades? These vast divides exist in most organizations that oppose unions.
  • “If you vote for a union, then you lose your individual voice” — This dubious claim assumes that the individual worker had a meaningful voice to begin with! (Imagine an entry-level administrative assistant or retail store worker approaching their manager with a request to enter into negotiations about their pay and benefits.) On balance, unionized workers have a lot more legal and contract protections for expressing work-related concerns than do non-union workers.
  • “We can’t control what happens if a union is voted in” — This is a classic gambit meant to plant confusion and fear of the unknown about the consequences of a successful union election.

Gaslighting and managerial pronouncements

We may think of gaslighting as being targeted at individuals, but sometimes it’s a group experience on the receiving end.

When an executive, manager, or senior administrator invokes the term “transparency” (or some variant) and it feels like they’re merely being transparent about being opaque, that’s potential gaslighting. When human resources announces changes in employee relations policies that offer more “flexibility,” “freedom to choose,” or “streamlining” that will advantage all, when in reality it means lower or fewer benefits and/or more hassle, that’s potential gaslighting.

If your response upon hearing such pronouncements is along the lines of “hold it, this makes no sense” or “do they really think I’m that stupid?!,” well, then, look for the gaslight.

Intentional, but not necessarily maliciously so

Yes, gaslighting is often employed to intimidate, confuse, frighten and/or diminish its target. In this way it is a significant, malicious, dignity-denying abuse of power.

However, in a smaller share of situations it may be used to fight back against injustice, mistreatment, or abuse, to basically keep the other side guessing. Why a smaller share? Because gaslighting does not come naturally to most of us. “Thinking like a gaslighter” can mean having to think like a psychopath, sociopath, or severe narcissist. It’s not a pleasant place to be.

What gaslighting is not

Of course, now that gaslighting has become a more popular term, it is inevitable that it will be misused or confused with other behaviors. Over the years, I’ve read and heard about claims of gaslighting that do not appear to be the case. Gaslighting is generally not synonymous with:

  • An honest disagreement, even an intense or heated one;
  • An argument that includes misunderstandings, sometimes on both ends;
  • Individuals being obstinate or stubborn;
  • Erroneous, even confusing, orders and instructions;
  • One side or multiple sides talking past, over, or through each other;
  • “White lies” meant to mask a more painful or difficult truth;
  • Instances of incivility; or,
  • An incoherent explanation.

Of course, gaslighting could become a part of these interactions, but it is not their equivalent.

A gray area is when people are, well, “messing with each other’s heads.” This can occur in dysfunctional relationships of all kinds. I’ll leave it to readers to make a call on this. (As I see it, the devil rests in the details.)

At the worst end of the spectrum

Like any other form of manipulation, instances of gaslighting are not equal in frequency and severity. The worst cases, however, are truly disabling and debilitating, the products of scary minds capable of inflicting serious psychological abuse. I hope that gaslighting will gain greater attention as we continue to address behaviors in our society worth preventing and stopping.

“Post-truths” at work and management messaging

photo-541

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. 

Labor Day 2016: War plans

The Pentagon [by mindfrieze (CC BY-SA X.X)]

The Pentagon [by mindfrieze (CC BY-SA X.X)]

Okay, folks, I’m deliberately being provocative with this title.

In November 2014, I wrote a piece, “What can military planning teach us about creating transformative change?” Here was my lede:

Can an understanding of military strategy and tactics yield important lessons for achieving social change? With America’s Veterans’ Day upon us tomorrow, I thought I might acknowledge some of those lessons.

Yup, I know, some readers may wonder why a civilian with liberal politics (uh, that’s me) is looking to the military in this way. But I’m also a devoted amateur student of history, I have a lot of respect for many of those who serve in the military, and I believe that we have much to learn from the best military leaders.

I went on to share how these lessons can inform planning for positive social change:

Plant the seeds for future success now, even if that success seems far away

During the early years of the Second World War, Hitler was running rampant over Europe and the Japanese were doing the same in the Pacific. The Allies were losing the war on just about all fronts. Nevertheless, their leaders assessed what needed to be done, and they developed rough timelines for achieving their goals. Among other things, Churchill and Roosevelt made the critical decision to defeat Germany first, then beat the Japanese.

Lesson: At times, changing things for the better seems like an insurmountable obstacle. If your assessment of a situation indicates that major change will require many steps and stages, plan out the order in which things should be done and go from there.

Avoid tunnel vision: Plan using parallel tracks

Sound military strategy usually involves a multifaceted approach toward achieving goals. For example, those planning the D-Day landings in France needed to think about personnel, equipment, geography, weather, communications, and a host of other logistics and contingencies. Take the “simple” question of building landing craft to reach the beaches: Someone had to develop proper designs, the factories had to start mass producing them, and the boats had to be shipped to England. All of those plans had to be in the making well before the June 6, 1944 landings.

Lesson: Most significant social change goals also require parallel tracks of planning. Making the world a better place typically involves multiple stakeholders, actions, and timelines. Understanding how those dots connect is vital toward achieving success.

Be passionate about your goals, but plan and evaluate dispassionately

The stakes in warfare could hardly be greater. But when it comes to military planning, the best leaders don’t let their emotions carry them into making bad choices. They stay focused yet appropriately flexible, with a constant eye on their endgame.

Lesson: Change agents are similarly urged to disentangle their passion for a cause from the cool planning and evaluation needed to create transformation. This is not easy. The more invested we are in addressing injustice or a societal challenge, the harder it can be to advocate effectively. May our hearts continue to fuel our passions, with our actions guided by our heads.

Learn from mistakes, even (especially!) gruesome ones

If you study the biographies of great military leaders, you will see that many of them made fairly big mistakes and experienced setbacks on the way to their signature successes. They learned from their mistakes and stayed determined to succeed.

Lesson: There’s no substitute for experience and the capacity for continued growth. This includes the lessons we learn from our miscues.

Sometimes you compromise, and sometimes you fight

Not every situation in life can be a “win-win,” and armed conflict is a prime example. At times, negotiation, compromise, and settlement are the right thing to do. On other occasions, one must press on to overcome the enemy. Hitler is an easy case of an enemy who had to be stopped completely, but there are countless other situations more complicated than that. The Cuban Missile Crisis, for example, offers valuable lessons about how military force, diplomacy, and compromise combined to narrowly avert a nuclear catastrophe.

Lesson: This dilemma applies to nearly every attempt to engage in meaningful change. When do you broker an agreement, when do you go for it all, and when do you back off? A capacity for understanding the bigger picture helps us to make smart choices in this regard.

Be gracious and humane in victory

Wise wartime victors know that treating a vanquished foe with dignity is the right thing to do, both morally and out of self-interest. In the aftermath of the First World War, the victorious Allies set out to punish Germany, imposing humiliating conditions of surrender. They stoked the destruction of the German economy and planted the seeds for Hitler’s rise to power. After the Second World War, however, the Allies realized their mistake and imposed conditions upon Germany and Japan that promoted renewed relations with those nations and the rebuilding of their economic and social structures.

Lesson: In social change efforts, too, good victors don’t attempt to humiliate their opponents. Such mistreatment likely fuels cycles of anger, resentment, and aggression.

Envision something better

As the tides of the Second World War turned, the Allied nations began planning the United Nations. Today, the U.N. is far from being a perfect world organization, but it plays an important role in brokering diplomatic outreach and humanitarian efforts.

Lesson: As your social change goals near a milestone victory, think hard about how that success can lead to more lasting, positive transformations. What comes next?

Let’s apply these lessons to advocacy for dignity at work

Yup, I understand that references to war planning may make some folks uncomfortable. But I’ll stick to my point: We can learn a lot from military strategists and tacticians when it comes to organizing for change.

And that includes advocacy for workplace dignity.

Right now, those who want to aggrandize their money and power have the strong upper hand over those who want a society grounded in fairness, kindness, and human dignity. Too many of our workplaces reflect and advance these dynamics. Good, steady jobs with decent pay and benefits continue to diminish. Wide pay disparities remain. The relational and emotional dynamics of work continue to subject way too many workers to bullying, harassment, and incivility. In the meantime, labor unions continue to be under siege and are treated as “special interests” rather than bulwarks of a civil society.

In other words, we’ve got our work cut out for us. We need to do a better job of planning our way back, and we could do worse than to draw lessons from those who have dealt with conflict involving some of the highest stakes imaginable.

Labor Day 2015: Affirming worker dignity

(Image courtesy carlswebgraphics.com)

(Image courtesy carlswebgraphics.com)

Folks, I don’t have any huge epiphanies for this Labor Day 2015. We simply must plow forward to affirm human dignity in our workplaces, and so the task remains before us.

However, I do want to take this opportunity to remind us of the importance of quality labor unions, especially in the lowest-paying vocations. Without the labor movement, the quest for worker dignity has no chance of success.

In my 2009 law review article, “Human Dignity and American Employment Law” (University of Richmond Law Review), I devoted a fair amount of space to discussing the labor movement as a centerpiece for affirming worker dignity. I noted how union membership levels have been in a consistent and sharp decline in the U.S., often prompted by virulent anti-union messaging and intimidation campaigns by employers. I also outlined the benefits of union membership to many workers, including higher wages, better benefits, and safer working conditions.

If you want to understand the bigger framework concerning worker dignity and the law in the U.S., please read the full article (freely downloadable pdf here), which runs under 50 pages. If you want to read only the portions specifically about unions and collective bargaining, you may read pages 532-34 and 556-58.

In writing the article, I made an extra effort to keep it as free of legal jargon and mumbo jumbo as possible. If you do take the time to read the whole thing, I think you’ll find it a worthwhile effort. The piece is now some six years old, but the basic points still ring very true.

What is at-will employment?

The legal rule of at-will employment is the presumptive employment relationship in the United States. It means that an employer can hire or terminate a worker for any reason or no reason at all, so long as that action does not violate existing legal protections. It also means that an employee may leave a job for any reason or no reason at all, again, subject to existing legal protections.

Outside the U.S., at-will employment is not the norm. In many industrialized nations, workers can be terminated only for just cause, which usually means inadequate performance, serious misconduct, or financial exigency. Within the U.S., such protections typically extend only to unionized workers (less than 12 percent of the workforce) and to select categories of employees, such as tenured professors.

At times, at-will employment can inure to the employee’s benefit, especially if someone has unique talents that can be shopped around in the midst of a robust job market. However, more often the employer holds the cards in at-will employment situations, especially when jobs are in short supply.

This is why employers in the U.S., in particular, have been extremely opposed to relinquishing their at-will right to hire and fire. It’s one of the main reasons why they resist labor unions that introduce collective bargaining to the employment relationship.

Here’s a snippet of what I wrote about at-will employment in my 2009 law review article, “Human Dignity and American Employment Law” (University of Richmond Law Review):

The low union density in America means that most workers are not covered by collective bargaining agreements and presumptively are at-will employees. In terms of voice in the workplace, the typical at-will employee enjoys, at best, the ability to make requests of, or submit non-binding suggestions to, an employer. Only the most fortunate individuals, notably those with special skills or in high-demand professional, athletic, or artistic vocations, possess the leverage to engage in individual negotiations over job security, compensation, and working conditions.

Consequently, in most non-union workplaces, the power to set internal employment policies, as well as compensation and benefits, remains largely in the hands of management, but is subject to compliance with regulatory standards. At larger companies, high-level executives establish broad parameters for employment relations, human resources offices administer personnel policies, and mid-level managers supervise and evaluate the work of sub- ordinates. They are supported by in-house lawyers who provide advice, counsel, and litigation support.

Of course, at-will employees are not without labor protections and safeguards. In particular, the 1960s and 1970s witnessed the emergence of a large body of statutory, administrative, and common-law protections granting various employment rights to individuals. The most notable of these are the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and other employment discrimination laws, the Occupational Safety and Health Act, and various wrongful discharge claims grounded in contract and tort law doctrine. The ongoing development of this body of law has resulted in greater safeguards against physical and dignitary harms, created several exceptions to the rule of at-will employment, and forged a modest safety net of wage and benefit protections.

For most American workers, this somewhat unwieldy legal smorgasbord serves as their primary source of legal protections on the job. Although the creation of individual employment protections was spurred in part by civil rights advocacy backed by the solidarity of social movements, workers often must effectuate these rights in solitary fashion, pursuing stressful, lengthy, and expensive legal proceedings, typically without the benefit of large group or union support. Modern employment litigation all too often encompasses the David versus Goliath scenario of an aggrieved worker and a small plaintiffs’ law firm vying against a large company armed with an overstaffed team of attorneys.

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Related posts

“Master and servant”: The roots of American employment law (2013) — “‘Master and servant’ is a legal term ported over from English common law, centuries ago. It is what it sounds like, a term deeply rooted in hierarchical, subservient personal and occupational relationships.”

At-will employment and the legality of workplace bullying: A brutal combo punch (2011) — “In the U.S., the combination of at-will employment and the lack of protections against workplace bullying make for a brutal combo punch that often leaves mistreated workers legally powerless.”

“On Limiting the Abusive Exercise of Employer Power” (2011) — “For legal geeks like me, one of the starting places for understanding the modern state of workers’ rights is a classic 1967 Columbia Law Review article by University of Kansas law professor Lawrence Blades, ‘Employment at Will vs. Individual Freedom: On Limiting the Abusive Exercise of Employer Power.’ . . . Although he may not have fully anticipated the growth of the service sector and the non-profit sector and the significance of employment discrimination law, his success is in how he foresaw the expansion of private economic power and shaped the thinking of employment law scholars and other legal stakeholders.”

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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