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

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

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

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

MTW Revisions: July 2019

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

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

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

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

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

MTW Newsstand: July 2019

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

Caitlin Flanagan, “The Problem With HR,” The Atlantic (2019) (link here) — “If HR is such a vital component of American business, its tentacles reaching deeply into many spheres of employees’ work lives, how did it miss the kind of sexual harassment at the center of the #MeToo movement? And given that it did, why are companies still putting so much faith in HR?”

Shahida Arabi, “Bullied by Narcissists at Work? 3 Ways Narcissistic Co-Workers and Bosses Sabotage You,” PsychCentral (2019) (link here) — “If you work or have worked in a traditional corporate environment, chances are you’ve run into a narcissist or sociopath in your career. Research suggests that psychopathic personalities do climb the corporate ladder more readily and are able to charm and gain trust from other co-workers and management to do so.”

Quentin Fottrell, “Is your boss a psychopath?,” MarketWatch (2019) (link here) — “Do you ever wonder why the bad guy is in charge — and the good guy is pushing paper? There may be a reason for that. Bad bosses often promise the world, according to Deborah Ancona, a professor of leadership at MIT Sloan School of Management and founder of the MIT Leadership Center, and hard-working employees can be left to deal with the aftereffects. ‘Toxic leaders are often talking about all the great things that they can do,’ she told MIT Sloan.”

Amy Coveno, “As adults, some former bullies try to keep history from repeating,” WMUR (2019) (link here) —  “News 9 put out a call on Facebook for former bullies to tell their stories.”

Ruchika Tulshyan, “How to Reduce Personal Bias When Hiring,” Harvard Business Review (2019) (link here) — “Changes in process and diversity initiatives alone are not going to remedy the lack of equal representation in companies. Individual managers who are often making the final hiring decisions need to address their own bias.”

Randall J. Beck & Jim Harter, “Why Great Managers Are So Rare,” Gallup (2019) (link here) — “Gallup finds that great managers have the following talents….”

Janelle Nanos, “Wayfair walkout is part of a new era of employee activism,” Boston Globe (2019) (link here) — “Employees of Wayfair, the online furniture giant based in the Back Bay, weren’t planning to stage a walkout on Wednesday. But when the company’s leadership shrugged off workers’ objections to fulfilling a $200,000 furniture order for detention centers on the US-Mexico border, ‘Wayfairians’ became the latest group of tech co-workers to start a social activist movement targeting their own employer.”

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

Image courtesy of Clipart Panda

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Related posts

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

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

Decades of repeated sexual misconduct complaints finally lead to a resolution at Harvard

Here in Greater Boston, the local news is reporting that Harvard University has stripped retired professor Jorge Dominguez of his emeritus status, following a review of multiple allegations of sexual misconduct towards women at the university spanning decades. From the Harvard Crimson (link here):

Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences Claudine Gay announced in an email to FAS affiliates Thursday that she has stripped former Government Professor Jorge I. Dominguez of his emeritus status and disinvite him from the FAS campus following the conclusion of a months-long investigation into allegations of sexual misconduct.

Under the sanctions Gay imposed, Dominguez will lose the rights and privileges afforded to emeritus faculty members. He will be unable to hold an office on campus, teach and advise students, or receive support from administrative or research assistants.

The Office for Dispute Resolution investigation into Dominguez found that he engaged in “unwelcome sexual conduct” toward several individuals multiple times over a decades-long period, according to Gay.

. . . In a February 2018 Chronicle of Higher Education report, at least 10 women publicly accused Dominguez of repeated acts sexual misconduct. A follow-up Chronicle story revealed that Dominguez faced sexual misconduct allegations spanning four decades from 18 women.

“Emeritus” status is a courtesy title commonly given to retired professors who have provided long service to a university. While presumably the university’s actions do not affect his past compensation, they essentially render him persona non grata on the Harvard campus and serve as a very public rebuke of his career.

Four decades?

Okay, so it’s good that Harvard stepped up, did a real investigation, and acted upon its results.

But I think the lede is being buried here: The real story is that it took them four decades — with allegations from 18 women — to engage in real action on this professor.

Why so long?

I’m not privy to the inner workings at Harvard, but I’ve been studying and experiencing academic life for years. It’s safe to say that, on balance, colleges and universities are not the most courageous organizations around, especially if they are led by senior administrators and boards who are primarily focussed on preserving and advancing institutional reputations.

For example, as the horrible revelations of sexual abuse at Michigan State University (Nassar scandal concerning sexual abuse of women gymnasts) and Penn State University (football program and child sex abuse) have documented, academic administrators repeatedly swept concerns under the rug in order to save their schools from public scrutiny and accountability.

Through it all, there’s an ongoing belief system that holds sway, namely, that those who are subjected to abuse and mistreatment count for much less than the reputations of the institution and those who hold privileged positions. It’s about moral and ethical failure.

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Integrity catastrophes: How lying becomes an organizational norm

Have you ever worked at a place where, well, it just seems that typical work-related pronouncements and conversations are big on lies and short on truth?

You’re certainly not alone in that experience, and now management consultant Ron Carucci is sharing a research study that identifies four institutional factors that contribute to lying becoming normal organizational behavior. Writing in the Harvard Business Review, Carucci explains that his research team conducted a 15-year study, incorporating 3,200 interviews drawn from 210 organizational assessments, “to see whether there were factors that predicted whether or not people inside a company will be honest.”

With an emphasis on organizational measures, rather than individual personalities, their study identified four factors that contribute to a propensity to engage in frequent lies. From Carucci’s HBR piece:

  • A lack of strategic clarity. When there isn’t consistency between an organization’s stated mission, objectives, and values, and the way it is actually experienced by employees and the marketplace, we found it is 2.83 times more likely to have people withhold or distort truthful information.”
  • Unjust accountability systems. When an organization’s processes for measuring employee contributions is perceived as unfair or unjust, we found it is 3.77 times more likely to have people withhold or distort information.”
  • Poor organizational governance. When there is no effective process to gather decision makers into honest conversations about tough issues, truth is forced underground, leaving the organization to rely on rumors and gossip. . . . We found that when effective governance is missing, organizations are 3.03 times more likely to have people withhold or distort information.”
  • Weak cross-functional collaboration. . . . When cross-functional rivalry or unhealthy conflict is left unaddressed, an organization is 5.82 times more likely to have people withhold or distort truthful information. . . . Divisional loyalties paint those outside the team as an enemy to be feared, resented, or blamed.”

Taken together, these characteristics can be deadly for organizational integrity, but Carucci emphasizes that positive change is possible:

Because the factors are cumulative, an organization afflicted with all four is 15 times more likely to end up in an integrity catastrophe than those who have none. But that doesn’t have to be the case. By taking aim at these four issues, you can make it far more likely that your company will create the culture of honesty you, your employees, and your customers eagerly want.

Integrity catastrophe. I like that term. It says a lot.

Human impacts

As a consultant, Carucci’s focus is understandably on company performance, so his emphasis isn’t so much on how an organizational culture of dishonesty affects workers on the ground level. But we know that in its more toxic manifestations, that experience can be demoralizing, stressful, and head-spinning. It also promotes more of the same.

At the more extreme end, we have the practice of gaslighting, a form of deliberate manipulation intended to disorient, confuse, and frighten those on the receiving end. In “Gaslighting at work” (revised 2018), I wrote this about 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 the human resources office 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.

Lose-lose

When I talk about workplace bullying, I often invoke the term “lose-lose.” In organizations rife with bullying behaviors, workers suffer, and the organizational performance suffers. The same goes for organizational cultures of dishonesty, which breed distrust, cynicism, fear, and anger. Cheers to Ron Carucci and his team for highlighting key institutional factors that fuel habitual lying, and for suggesting that it doesn’t have to be this way.

Can abused workers turn out to be great bosses? (Some good news here)

Let’s start the New Year with some good news. A study led by University of Central Florida researchers suggests that workers who have been subjected to workplace bullying and abuse are more likely to treat subordinates with decency when they are elevated to managerial positions. Science Daily reports:

A new University of Central Florida study suggests abuse and mistreatment by those at the top of an organization do not necessarily lead to abusive behavior by lower-level leaders. When offered leadership opportunities, prior victims of workplace abuse are more likely to treat their own subordinates better by learning from the bad behavior of their bosses.

UCF College of Business professors Shannon Taylor and Robert Folger, in collaboration with researchers at the University of Texas at El Paso, Suffolk University and Singapore Management University, recently published their findings in the Journal of Applied Psychology.

“Some employees who are abused by their bosses resolve not to repeat that pattern with their own subordinates and become exceptional leaders of their teams,” Taylor said. “Our study sheds light on a silver lining of sorts for people who are subjected to abuse at work. Some managers who experience this abuse can reframe their experience so it doesn’t reflect their behavior and actually makes them better leaders.”

This study is welcomed news. Those who research and analyze interpersonal abuse in any context are familiar with the unfortunate and sometimes tragic dynamic of the abused becoming the abusers. We see it in workplace, spousal and intimate partner, and parental relationships. Abuse can beget abuse; it can create a vicious cycle.

But we’ve all seen instances where, for example, people who suffered abuse as children became very good parents and partners. The UCF study suggests that this positive dynamic can occur in the workplace as well. Abused workers can channel their empathy and understanding of their own experiences into a desire to be different when they get a chance to serve in a leadership or managerial capacity. In all such instances, the cycle of abuse is stopped cold.

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Hat tip: Society for Occupational Health Psychology

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