MTW Revisions (August 2020)

Dear readers, I’ve gathered some posts that I’ve revised over the years and have not shared in previous “MTW Revisions” features. This particular collection emphasizes workplace bullying and toxic or difficult work environments. I hope you find the selections interesting and useful.

Weighing the exit option for a toxic job (orig. 2016; rev. 2019) (link here) — “But until more employers start to take abuse at work seriously and the law steps in to create stronger legal protections, leaving a bad job — voluntarily or otherwise — will remain the most common “resolution” of severe workplace bullying. Whenever possible, those who are experiencing toxic jobs should try to get ahead of the situation. It is not an easy thing to do — at first glance, it may feel downright impossible — but it’s much better than waiting for others to impose the choices.”

What separates the “best” workplace abusers from the rest? (orig. 2015; rev. 2019) (link here) — “One of my central observations is that many of the “best” workplace abusers — the ones who get their prey and continually evade being held responsible — are calculating, committed, and smart planners. With task-oriented surgical precision and detachment, they plot and scheme. Like the serial killer who manages to escape capture, they’re usually a step or three ahead of everyone else, with a scary sense of anticipation.”

When employees leave your organization, how do they feel about it? (orig. 2013; rev. 2019) (link here) —  “If you’re looking for a quick “status check” on the culture of your workplace, ask this simple question: When employees leave the organization, how do they feel about it?

Is closure possible for targets of workplace bullying and injustice? (orig. 2011; rev.2016) (link here) — “Targets of workplace bullying or mobbing often hear some variation on the phrase you really need to get over this. I suppose there’s some truth in this. No decent human being wants to see another stuck in a place of stress, fear, anger, and trauma. But prodding someone with those words, however well meaning, is rarely helpful — especially absent more concretely useful assistance.”

Dealing with “gatekeepers” at work: Beware of Dr. No (orig. 2011; rev. 2020) (link here) — “In darker situations, gatekeeping can be a form of intentional exclusion, perhaps a passive-aggressive, bullying-type tactic. It’s a way of keeping someone in their place, blocking them from advancement, or preventing them from making a unique contribution.”

Is emotional detachment an antidote for a nasty workplace? (orig. 2010; rev. 2016) (link here) — “Emotional detachment does not come without its costs, as anyone who understands workplace bullying can comprehend. After all, indifferent slackers aren’t the ones typically targeted by abusive bosses or co-workers.  Oftentimes it’s the high achiever, or at least someone who is engaged in her work, who is marked for mistreatment. Telling this person to turn off the passion for her work is indeed an instruction to numb her soul, even if for the purpose of avoiding deeper injury.”

LOL: “We have ZERO TOLERANCE….”

 

(image courtesy of ya-webdesign.com)

We see it over and again: An organization is accused of egregious instances of sexual harassment, racial discrimination, bullying at work, or similar mistreatment. The allegations are reported in the media, accompanied by the standard organizational response:

We have zero tolerance for this kind of behavior.

Zero tolerance. Got it. You guys are right on it.

At times, I’ll read a “zero tolerance” response in a news item and know that the organization in question practices anything but that.

Oh, these places might have zero tolerance splashed all over their employee handbooks, but in reality they don’t take it very seriously. Until they’re caught, of course.

I’m not an empirical researcher, but I’ll hypothesize that the zero-tolerance-on-paper organizations are frequently the same ones who invoke the rhetorical (not legal) “bad apple” defense when wrongful behaviors arise, i.e., we regret that a bad apple might have behaved in such a manner. As I wrote in 2017:

But all too often, when I hear or read of an organizational leader or spokesperson invoking bad apple-speak, I feel like I’m being conned. Bad behaviors are typically enabled, endorsed, and/or empowered by bad organizations. Often it’s clear that the situation suggests a pattern and practice of abuse or wrongdoing. Even in situations where the key abusers are few, many other organizational actors looked the other way or tacitly enabled the mistreatment. And sometimes it’s simply a lie, a cover-up for a whole harvest of bad apples. 

Building and maintaining an organization that embraces human dignity is not easy. It takes good leadership and values that are practiced, rather than simply preached. By contrast, although zero tolerance may be an impressive-sounding phrase, all too often it is invoked in situations suggesting that the hard work of creating a healthy, fair-minded, and inclusive organization remains to be done.

Roundup: On organizational change rhetoric, strategic planning, and consultants

Hello dear readers, over the life of this blog, I’ve sometimes taken aim at certain popular management practices. Here’s a roundup of some of my favorites:

Using the empty rhetoric of change to justify or impose change (2015) (link here) — “With apologies to Bob Dylan, the times are always a-changin’. But if you buy into the rhetoric of certain practitioners of management-speak, then you’d think that the impetus for change occurs at those magic moments when they happen to be in charge.”

“Strategic planning”: All too often, a time-sucking bridge to nowhere (2011) (link here) — “My friends in management consulting may toss me out of the visitor’s lounge for saying this, but two words uttered together send a chill up my spine: Strategic planning. . . . Organizations should engage in smart, inclusive planning and evaluation. But there’s something about mega-processes like strategic planning that often do neither.”

Time wasters from top management (2017) (link here) — “Consultant Eric Garton, writing for the Harvard Business Review, posits that various time killing practices imposed from on high undermine employee morale and productivity…. These ‘practices, procedures, and structures’ include ‘too much process, too many meetings, meaningless goals, and time wasted on work that no one will ever care about.’”

If you work in higher education, beware the C word (2015) (link here) — “If you work in higher education as a professor, staff member, or low-to-mid level administrator, pay attention if you hear some variation of the following coming from the top: We’re bringing in XYZ Consulting to help with strategic planning and to assess what changes we need to make in order to survive/thrive/rightsize/move up in the rankings.”

Consultants and the “outsourcing of leadership” (2014) (link here) — “Take a look around your workplace. Are there consultants buzzing around, addressing practically every major pending concern or decision your organization faces? If the answer is ‘yes,’ then it’s likely that your employer is engaging in what a friend of mine brilliantly calls the ‘outsourcing of leadership.’”

One-way feedback: In-house employee surveys and the illusion of open decision making (2012) (link here) — “But hold on. Frequently these surveys are done with an underlying agenda, usually one that seeks validation for an already favored course of action. (A telltale sign is when obvious choices or answers are not provided as response options, or when the survey is framed to exclude entire points of view.)”

Can Amazon Prime members compel Amazon to treat its workers with greater dignity?

For many years, I boycotted Amazon Prime because of how Amazon treats its warehouse workers. But eventually I returned when I wanted access to Prime video and to be able to send gifts — especially books — with reliable delivery dates. I try to limit my Amazon spending to those categories and to ordering used books through associated vendors. But especially as someone who hasn’t owned a car for over 30 years, sometimes it’s awfully easy to click an order for the sake of convenience.

Nevertheless, Amazon’s labor practices remain disturbing, and yes, I feel guilty when I click that order. You see, it remains that the convenience that we experience as consumers comes at the expense of warehouse workers who have hard, exhausting, unsafe jobs in return for low pay. If you doubt me, then click here, here, here, and here for more details.

Ultimately, widespread unionization of Amazon workers is the key to improving their working conditions and compensation. But Amazon is virulently anti-union (e.g., here, here, and here), and workers who talk up unionization do so at their own risk.

So what is to be done? Well, Jobs With Justice, one of the nation’s best labor advocacy organizations for low-wage workers, is inviting we Amazon consumers to become voices for change, in the form of a new network called Prime Member Voices (link here). Here’s how they describe the network’s objectives:

Amazon Prime Members are a core part of the company’s business. Membership dues help fuel Amazon’s larger ambitions, but unfortunately many of those ambitions are in direct conflict with the issues we care passionately about. From truly horrific conditions inside Amazon Fulfillment Centers, to data collection, and selling technology to Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and police departments.

As Prime Members, we should have a voice and it’s why Jobs With Justice is calling on Prime Members to join together in Prime Member Voices, where we can work together and develop ways where our voice is not only heard, but leads to real systemic change within the company.

It appears that the goals of Prime Member Voices will go beyond labor conditions, and personally I’m good with that. Amazon has been a game-changing entrant into the retail marketplace, and their business practices should be scrutinized closely from the standpoint of the public good.

In terms of concrete actions, this announcement is concededly vague. Regardless, this is a potentially brilliant organizing strategy: Leverage the many Prime members who would like to access Amazon’s convenient ordering and shipping, while knowing that the workers are being treated better and that the company’s business practices are ethical and socially responsible.

I’ve signed up. It’s worth seeing where this goes. At the very least, if I’m going to benefit from Amazon’s delivery systems, then I owe it to the rank-and-file employees to support better working conditions that affirm their dignity and well-being. It can happen only when people join together and call for change.

MTW Newsstand: August 2019

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

Zakiyah Ebrahim, “Office horror stories: Workers tell of trauma at the hands of office psychopaths and bullies,” Health24 (2019) (link here) — “Earlier this month, Health24 ran a story on several types of psychopaths you might find in the workplace, and reached out to victims of workplace bullying. They told us about how the thought of work filled them with dread. They were cornered for every little mistake, and the anguish and pain of being bullied was sometimes so severe that often throwing in the towel often seemed to be the only way out. Here are their stories….”

Bartleby, “Employee happiness and business success are linked,” The Economist (2019) (link here) — “Rather like the judge’s famous dictum about obscenity, a well-run company may be hard to define but we can recognise it when we see it. Workers will be well informed about a company’s plans and consulted about the roles they will play. Staff will feel able to raise problems with managers without fearing for their jobs. Bullying and sexual harassment will not be permitted. Employees may work hard, but they will be allowed sufficient time to recuperate, and enjoy time with their families. In short, staff will be treated as people, not as mere accounting units.”

“How to Curb Workplace Incivility,” Knowledge@Wharton (2019) (link here) — “Companies expect every employee to behave respectfully in the workplace, but that doesn’t always happen. A lack of professionalism can imperil an employee’s future, isolate co-workers, upset customers and infect the wider corporate culture. Workplace incivility in health care can be especially harmful because mistakes made by distressed employees can have grave consequences. The Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania has launched a Campaign for Professionalism to mitigate such conflicts.”

Noah Smith, “America’s Workers Need a Labor Union Comeback,” Bloomberg (2019) (link here) — “Unions are probably a big part of the reason that people look back so fondly on the era of manufacturing. So far, the service-sector jobs that now employ a large majority of the American workforce have failed to unionize like manufacturing workers once did. A recent spate of strikes shows that this vast low-paid service class may finally be awakening to the possibility of collective bargaining….”

Jennifer Moss, “When Passion Leads to Burnout,” Harvard Business Review (2019) (link here) — “At the end of the day, everyone wants to go home to our personal lives feeling inspired and fueled by a day of passionate engagement in purposeful work. This is clearly preferable to monotony and boredom, which can also cause burnout. But we have to be careful: When it feels like your passion for work — or that of your employees —has become all-consuming, it might be time to take — or to offer — a break.”

Chrystle Fiedler, “How Being Kind Makes You Healthier,” Next Avenue (2019) (link here) — “When you are kind to another person, even in a small way, it has a positive effect by helping that person feel valued and supported. If you make such acts of kindness a regular habit, it’s actually good for your health and even slows your body’s aging process, according to research.”

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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